There is a unique bond between the Zen of fire and the character of a cook. We have had a fascination with controlling fire both literally and conceptually ever since the first human rubbed two sticks together. Some archeologists claim that humans were able to make fire for cooking as much as 1.8 million years ago while others state with confidence that this has only occurred during the past 12,000 years or so. Whether it was just early fascination with fire caused by a lightning strike or volcanic eruption or the ingenuity of man with a piece of flint or two sticks, the connection to fire and its control is one of the most significant factors in the evolution of the human race.
“For those who see cooking as morally, culturally, and socially superior to not cooking, it is scientific validation of a worldview: proof that cooking is literally what makes us human.”
Except: Who Mastered Fire?
By: L.V. Anderson
Cooked food is easier to digest, thus the evolution of human form did not require such large teeth. As a result of cooking, mankind no longer required as much energy to digest raw foods, thus more of that energy could be diverted to brain development and the ability to think, plan, and reason. In any case, you catch my drift – fire is important and as we became able to control it, so too did we evolve as a species.
Cooks spend a good portion of their lives mastering fire. It is this process that allows us to understand how to reach a certain pinnacle of preparation that highlights flavor, texture, and aroma – the keys to a memorable meal. Too much fire will burn, too little will lack the ability to caramelize a food product, and bring out the essence of umami.
The intense heat and flame of a char-broiler will sear meat, poultry or fish, creating that crisp, full flavored exterior while capturing the moisture and mouth feel of the product within. A super hot sauté pan with do the same thing through the Maillard reaction – caramelizing a meat or vegetable, converting starch and proteins into that sweet flavor that only heat can bring out. The crackle of a wood-fired pizza oven, blazing at 700-1,000 degrees Fahrenheit yields that thin, crunchy and chewy crust that defines the essence of this most popular American entrée. Dropping a flame to just the right level allows a cook to prepare those perfect eggs over easy without toughening the eggs or browning them in the process.
It is all about control, yet it is also about the endurance of the cook. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This has always been a badge of honor for cooks. As much as we want to be in control, this reality of the kitchen defines how much the fire is in control of us. It is a fine line of dominance – do we control the heat or does it control us? Those who endure the line every day or night understand this balancing act. We sweat like no other, constantly working to consume enough water to create hydration equilibrium. The temperature on a line will always be well in excess of 100 degrees and when face-to-face with that char-grill full of steaks or the sauté station attempting to meet the demand of a never-ending onslaught of tickets, that temperature can certainly rise to 130 degrees and much hotter as flames leap from the grill or those 600 degree ovens, cranked to max, are opened to receive another order for finishing.
We refer to great cooks as those who have “fire in their belly”, in other words they have a passion for the trade, a desire to push the envelope, and a commitment to excellence that drives their every motion. It is this hyperbole that is the unwritten criteria for any cook who may be destined for greatness. This is the type of fire that some are born with and others acquire through the school of hard knocks.
Why is it that cooks long to stand behind the range and sweat out a pound of water every day? What draws these warriors to the heat of battle waiting for the point of sale to click out the demands of a shift? Why do we consider the battle scars associated with spattered clarified butter, grabbing the handle of a hot sauté pan by mistake, or bumping an 800-degree oven rack with your forearm, something to be proud of? What is a cook’s total fascination with fire all about?
In kitchens across the globe, one of the most profound debates lies with the question: “Do cooks prefer to cook with gas or open fires or do they favor electric?” From a truly unscientific perspective, I can safely state that I do not know a single professional cook who would answer – “electric”. We like the open flame, the ability to control it with a high level of accuracy, the instant response that the flame provides, and yes, even the unexplainable difference in flavor that comes from open flame heat vs. electric. Both have their place, but on the line, it’s all about the fire.
Cooks love the heat, love the flame, love the borderline danger, and learn to respect the balance of joy and pain that fire can bring. We inherently know that without this marvel of science, cooking would not exist. The fire is our friend, our provider, the bridge between great cooking and sub-par cooking, and the greatest tool that we have in our kit. Learning to control this tool is what cooking is all about.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
**Credits: Flame photo – Curtiss Hemm – Pink Ribbon Cooking
** Master Chef – Anton Flory