Chefs and authors share their best insights for fireside cooking, just in time for camping season.
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Fire. It's as wild as it is fascinating, and it has captivated humans for millennia. In fact, it's part of what allowed our species to evolve and grow. Some even argue that fire is what makes us human. But in a world dominated by gas ranges and electric ovens, this once-vital life-force has become something of a mystery to us.

With summer just around the corner, it's the perfect time to get outside and reconnect with the elements. Read on to get advice and encouragement from some of the top live-fire chefs and authors, and find out why live-fire cooking is worth the effort.

Bao La, Vietnam

"Crack open a beer or pour yourself some wine, and take your time with the whole process," says Bao La. The Australian-born chef made a name for himself in Hong Kong, helming the city's first Vietnamese grill house, Le Garcon Saigon. He's currently in Dalat, Vietnam, finding culinary inspiration through his travels. "Every country has its own type of grills and methods. You just have to find what style of cooking suits you best."

Bao La
Bao La

La mainly advises those new to the fire to be patient, and curious. Slowly cooking food creates more developed and caramelized flavors, but it takes time to master. "Over the years, I've learned from trial and error, and standing in front of a fire pit every day. It takes a lot of work. There's no knob for you to turn, but with the end results you can get, I still think live-fire cooking is worth it."

As tempting as it is to throw a piece of steak on a roaring fire – it's not a good idea. Instead, wait for the wood to turn to coal embers before grilling. You can always use the flames to reheat or warm things up in a sturdy pot. When it comes to what to cook, La favors meat on the bone. "It just gives you so much leeway, it's more juicy and harder to overcook." Watch out for fat drippings, which can ignite and burn as you cook. His go-to campfire meal is a BBQ chicken Banh Mi. You can prep the ingredients the night before and assemble them around the fire for a vibrant campfire meal.

Follow Bao La on Instagram here.

Mona Johnson & Jaret Foster, Oregon

This duo transformed their love of live-fire cooking into a business, with Tournant, a farm-to-fire cooking and events company. "Cooking outside allows us the freedom to make the world our kitchen, as well as connect with our surroundings and the cooking process in new and profound ways," explains Mona. "It keeps us humble. We're at the mercy of the elements, which cannot be controlled, only managed."

Mona Johnson & Jaret Foster
Mona Johnson & Jaret Foster

Their greatest advice for a novice is simply to do. "Chuck it on the coals, play with it, poke it, flip it, pay attention and see what comes from the transformative power of fire!" When it comes to equipment, they keep it simple: in addition to dry, seasoned firewood, most dishes can be prepared by having two good pairs of tongs (one for wood and coals, the other for food), a grill grate, a cast iron pan and a Dutch oven. For safety, have a bucket of water or fire extinguisher on hand along with some protective fire gloves.

"We love grilling oysters with chili garlic butter, whole fish, or doing our version of the French Éclade de Moules, fire-roasting mussels over pine boughs." Cedar planks are a great option for whole fish, delivering an incredibly "woodsy" flavor, and preventing the skin from sticking to the grill. Or, if you're craving simplicity, go for a long-simmering stew. "We take a jar of sauerkraut, potatoes, a bottle of beer, some sausages and we pop it in a Dutch oven, cover it with coals and go fishing."

When it comes to live-fire cooking there is one main rule for this partnership. "Be as curious and patient as you are bold." Experiment and find a freedom in playing with the fire, you might be surprised at what comes from it.

Follow Mona and Jaret on Instagram and check out their website. Their recently-launched Farm to Fire eBook is available now.

Emma Frisch, New York

"Cooking over live fire is ingrained in every cell of my body," says Emma Frisch, author of Feast by Firelight: Simple Recipes for Camping, Cabins and the Great Outdoors and the co-founder of Firelight Camps, a glamping experience. She learned from watching her Italian mother tend the grill, but over the years, Frisch has honed her own style over countless backcountry camping and climbing trips. "It's a primal experience of remembering who we are as humans and tenders of nature. This simple, but largely forgotten, style of cooking awakens our senses unlike any other experience."

Emma Frisch
Emma Frisch

Different types of wood create a different grilling experience, and die-hard grill masters often switch up their timber to compliment a specific type of meat. But it really isn't worth stressing about. While Alder chips are generally Frisch's favorite, she goes with what's available. "I always use wood that is sourced from within 10 miles of where I'm cooking, which gives a bit of local flavor and avoids the risk of bringing in invasive pests."

Frisch cooks by three principals: prep your food (mise en place), keep your equipment close at hand, and grab a drink and relax. "Enjoy the art of paying attention to something without multitasking. The worst that can happen is that your food gets a little burned, but some char is tasty!"

When it comes to equipment, she keeps it simple and believes you can cook pretty much anything with just a grill grate, a cast-iron pan, some tongs and welding gloves. A meat thermometer is also handy, but not necessary. And for meals, Frisch keeps things paired down, sticking to accessible, crowd-pleasing recipes. That means local produce, grass-fed steak, fatty fish or local sausages. She seasons with just olive oil and salt – to enhance the natural, smoky flavors – and then finishes her meals up with bright, acidic sauces and seasonings. For dessert, she recommends a fruit crisp done in a Dutch oven, and she makes hers with polenta for a surprisingly chewy ("and addictive!") crisp. You can find all of her recipes in Feast by Firelight.

Follow Emma Frisch on Instagram or check out her blog here.

Scott Roberts, Texas

"Wood fire has more character in its taste, there are so many flavor profiles to savor in each bite," says Scott Roberts, owner of The Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas. "I love the smell of the meats cooking, the redness of the coals, and the taste of the finished product."

Scott Roberts
Scott Roberts

Roberts' father opened the now-iconic spot in 1967. It was just a pit back then, but the barbeque was so good customers would happily eat off the hoods of their cars. Today, the bustling venue can seat over 800 guests at a time, all clamoring for a bite of their famous barbeque. The recipes here can be traced to 1867, and they still use the original limestone barbeque pit – quarried from the very land the restaurant sits on.

In a normal year, Roberts and his crew can cook up to 750,000 pounds of brisket – so when he offers advice on live-fire cooking, it's worth a listen. "The biggest challenges are controlling the temperature, and not overcooking the food." Meats are especially prone to drying out and losing their flavor, and not even the best of barbeque sauces can save a shoe-leather steak.

It's also important to keep an eye on flare-ups, which are bursts of flames that happen when oils or fats drip into the coals. At the restaurant, they use water-soaked pecan hulls to calm them, but you can simply move your food to a different part on the grill.

On an open fire, Roberts likes to cook steak and ribs, and for something sweet, a peach cobbler in a Dutch oven, "you won't believe the flavor it adds to the crust."

Follow The Salt Lick BBQ on Instagram here.

Linda Ly, Oregon

Author and blogger Linda Ly (also known as Garden Betty) became fascinated with live-fire cooking on a camping trip over 15 years ago. Since then, she's penned two campfire cookbooks, The Backyard Fire Cookbook and The New Camp Cookbook. "I love the camaraderie that only happens when you're grilling, because let's face it – no one ever stands around with a beer chit-chatting and laughing with you as you're tending the oven!"

Linda Ly
Linda Ly

The simplicity is another allure – salt, pepper and a flame create incredible flavors without elaborate marinades or piles of dishes. She describes live-fire cooking as dynamic, and alludes to a certain amount of mystery, "Every time you grill, your food comes out tasting a little bit different, but I feel that only adds to the appeal, the 'chef's secret' if you will."

"The beauty of cooking with live fire is that you don't need much at all, not even pots or pans." With just a cooking grate and tongs, you can cook a wealth of meals over fire. If there is a secret, it's two-pronged: be brave and resilient. "Once you get used to being near the heat source, you'll find it's quite easy to control by rearranging the coals." And when it comes to burning your food, accept that it's part of the process and lean into the experience. "It just means you need to get outside and cook more, and that's not such a bad thing. Invite me over, okay? I'll bring snacks!"

For easy fire-side dinners, Ly relies on foil packet meals, like Tin Foil Seafood Boil"It cooks quickly and it's a nice change from the smoky steaks that usually happen in camp!" If you are craving something more carnivorous, she has a recipe for Korean flank steak with Sriracha-pickled cucumbers that she makes every trip. You can find both recipes in The New Camp Cookbook. And of course, don't forget the carbs! Ly has a recipe for an easy pizza dough that chars beautifully over a fire. That one is in The Backyard Fire Cookbook, alongside some creative variations, like Thai Chicken Pizza with Sweet Chili Sauce.

Read Linda Ly's blog here or follow her on Instagram here.


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