It's been nearly a century since Henry Ford and E.G. Kingsford first popularized charcoal briquettes, the mashed and compressed mix of factory leftovers and sawdust that's since been fired up in billions of backyards. Now, as chefs look to make their food ever more personalized and heritage-focused, it should come as no surprise that a handful of chefs — hewing closely to locavore edicts — are now doing some flame-based soul-searching beyond the basic briquettes and hardwood. And while boutique methane will probably never be a tangible concept, it looks like custom charcoal, of all things, is on the verge of having its very own carbonized moment.
At Iron Chef Jose Garces's just-opened Distrito in Scottsdale, Arizona, Graces Group culinary director Michael Fiorello says the charcoal the restaurant uses in its grills and pit is a custom blend: 60 percent is briquettes, 40 percent is Ono, an additive-free traditional Hawaiian charcoal made from Kiawe wood that's long been used for luaus. The advantage: "It burns much hotter," Fiorello explains. Ono registers around 800° once it gets going, or, in Fiorello's words, "It really puts the pedal to the metal."
In Minnesota, Gary Feblowitz — a filmmaker and cameraman who has worked with Andrew Zimmern and Tyler Florence — became so enamored with some Jamaican jerk he sampled while on location that he negotiated multiple trade laws to eventually become the lone U.S. importer of sustainable pimento wood. His company is the result of a cooperative system with Jamaican farmers — charcoal is derived from dying or storm-damaged wood culled from Jamaican Allspice groves. Now he supplies the Stillwater, Minnesota, restaurant Smalley's Caribbean Barbecue, owned by chefs Shawn Smalley and James Beard Award winner Tim McKee.
Aamanns, the upcoming smørrebrød restaurant in New York, will put its haute charcoal right on the tables: The restaurant will filter its tap water in glass bottles designed by the Copenhagen-based group Sort of Coal. The bottles will consist of one piece of kishu binchotan charcoal — a rapidly cooled charcoal variety that known to absorb chlorine — placed in the water. (Sort of Coal also sells cubes of something called Kuro powder, which is a form of activated pine charcoal that can be pulverized into batters and pasta doughs.)
But as is often the case with ecofocused food initiatives, the charcoal craze probably got its start with Dan Barber, who makes his own charcoal from animal products. Blue Hill at Stone Barns happened upon its "charcoal program" a few years ago. The farm was already producing soil-enriching biochar from trees, a decidedly low-tech process: A steel barrel of organic material is inserted into a larger steel barrel. The space between the two is packed with kindling, and sticks, then lit. Flame does not touch the contents of the inner barrel, so water vapor and gas are removed from the superheated material over the next few until it turns into a black substance that can be pulverized and mixed with soil. One day, Gregg Twehues, director of nutrient management for Stone Barns, proposed the idea of creating a new product for the kitchen by turning animal bones into a fuel source.
Interestingly, unlike other initiatives that return chefs to the land, there's no real historical precedent for the burning of animal bones for the sake of cooking. In North America, the Aleut and Tlingit tribes both used bones and tallow for heating when wood was scarce; New York City's earliest days saw oyster shells being burnt to produce lime; and in the 1830s, the U.S. adopted a French technique of using crushed, pyrolyzed animal skeletons to refine sugar, which became the industry standard. But apparently, nobody had the notion to, say, grill pork over its own carbonized bones.
But now Blue Hill at Stone Barns is making charcoal with all kinds things, including mussel shells, lamb bones, lobster shells, corn cobs, pig femurs, and venison skulls. In some way, the idea of grilling a square of fatty belly over a blackened-shank-bone fire even fulfills some ineffable kind of food logic. More important, it allegedly adds flavor: "You get a sort of pig times two," Barber told a group at Dartmouth earlier this year.
Not all chefs agree with that. North End Grill's Floyd Cardoz was quoted by the Times last August telling Danny Meyer — who had eaten shrimp grilled over pork bones at Barber's restaurant the night before — that it was a "gimmick kind of thing — it's not going to flavor the food."
But Barber says he's conducted blind taste tests, grilling mushrooms, potatoes, and pork over three types of charcoal — one regular wood, one over fully carbonized pig bones, and ones over pig bones that were only partially carbonized (and still had some meat). His panel preferred the bone charcoal: "The food grilled over the pig bone charcoal was meatier, smokier, fattier,” he says. “It was amazing how pronounced it was."
Barber's not alone in making his own charcoal: At New York's Mas (la grillade), which opened in October, chef and owner Galen Zamarra powers his fire with locally sourced hardwood, but discovered he was inadvertently producing his own charcoal in small batches. "We have a large, heavy-gauge steel drum where we empty our ashes after service," Zamarra says. "We sift through that before disposal and remove the large pieces of what is, by then, charcoal. It takes about a day or two to do. Basically, the charcoal forms because the ash covering the pieces limits the oxygen and the heat carries over for a whole day." Zamarra says he uses the "house" charcoal to prolong the burn life of his hardwood-based fires.
Earlier this year, another esteemed chef, South Carolina's Sean Brock, was making carbonized pig bone to supply both McCrady's and Husk, his crazy popular Charleston restaurants (some of the stuff made it to this year's Meatopia, too), but when he decided the carbon footprint of the animal process was too high, he began using sustainable hardwoods for his in-house charcoal production.
Brock may have also hit upon one major problem facing restaurants that want to play up their charcoal credentials: They can't really sell customers on the idea that housemade charcoal is ecofriendly, because recent studies conclude charcoal grilling does more damage to the environment than gas grilling. (Needless to say, the math gets screwy and it immediately becomes more difficult to take into consideration the environmental effects of charcoal that's been made in a matter of hours from the bones from animals raised on site, which had already been simmered in stocks and sauces and would otherwise be thrown out.)
Meanwhile, the next step for Barber, who remains committed to the cause, is to do more tasting experiments and publish the results in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, which was founded by Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz (of Mugaritz in Spain). “I know this sounds highfalutin,” Barber says. “But it gets me thinking about how we use energy in the kitchen. Are there are other ways to cook that are flavorful and ecological?”