Photographed by Andrew Wellman
This article appeared in the Winter 2013-14 edition of Vermont Life magazine. It will be available online for a limited time. To subscribe and have full access to Vermont Life, click here.
After a flirtation with high-tech culinary tools that facilitated precise trompe l’oeil creations and guaranteed evenly cooked food with the touch of a button, chefs have come home to the oldest technique there is: the direct interplay between fire and food. Around the country and here in Vermont, an increasing number of restaurants are using indoor wood-fired grills and ovens to put out smoke-kissed food with that inimitable lick of flame. Cooking with wood delivers food with an honest simplicity, the chefs say, although it requires more skill to manage than one might expect. It’s a little bit wild and exciting, but also fosters a warm and welcoming restaurant ambiance. Vermont chefs relish the challenge — and the flavors. As Eric Warnstedt, chef-owner of the new wood-fire-focused Hen of the Wood in Burlington, says, “It just feels like the right way to cook here in Vermont.”
At Hen of the Wood’s second location, which opened this fall in downtown Burlington at Hotel Vermont, chef-owner Eric Warnstedt and his team designed the whole menu and restaurant around the wood-fired oven and grill that anchor one side of the dining room. “Almost everything will be touched by fire,” Warnstedt says. “You’ll walk in the door and you’ll smell the wood and you’ll smell the food. I’ve wanted to do this forever.” They slow-roast the restaurant’s namesake mushrooms with house-cured bacon in the oven and dangle legs of lamb over the grill to drip their aromatic fat into pots of beans, while whole onions melt into lush softness tucked into the embers. “Smoke is an ingredient,” says chef de cuisine Jordan Ware, noting how even carrots simply roasted in a cast-iron pan over coals absorb the soft edge of smoke and require little other seasoning. Whole wild calamari are grilled directly on the grates, while tender, young chickens, known as poussins, are herb-brined before they head into the masonry oven; even wood-roasted apples star in desserts drizzled with brown-butter caramel and crème fraîche. “I think it’s the best way to showcase our food and to showcase what we like about Vermont food,” Warnstedt concludes.