In some of Chicago's buzziest kitchens, chefs are turning off the stove and turning back to cooking with wood.
A spread of dry-rubbed rib-eye with all the trimmings at El Che Bar.
Pull up anywhere within, say, 100 feet of the new Loews Chicago Hotel, where Jose Garces’s Rural Society (455 N. Park Dr., 312-840-6605) is situated, and the aroma grabs you. Mouthwateringly familiar, it’s the smell of wood smoke, meat, and those gorgeous fat drippings that merge the two on your plate. “Amazing, right?” says chef de cuisine Cory Morris, grinning. “There’s a lot of chef envy going on about what we have here.” Pointing to the floor-to-ceiling stacks of hickory and white oak and then to the oven and the three parilla grills that the woods fuel, Morris explains that he has worked with Garces for seven years, “but this is the first time the line is completely fired by wood.”
Smoking hot and fantastically flavorful, wood-fired cooking is moving into more Chicago restaurant kitchens and trending in recent openings like Oak + Char (217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427) and Maple & Ash (8 W. Maple St., 312-944-8888).
“The same reasons the industry got away from wood-fire cooking—it’s messy, it’s primitive, it’s demanding—are the very reasons we’re excited to get back to it,” says chef John Manion, standing in the soon-to-open El Che Bar (845 W. Washington Blvd.), his wood-fired Midwest-meets-South America restaurant. “It’s so naked and such a pure way of cooking, the results need no adornment.”
Cooking purely with wood, “there’s a lot to learn,” says Morris. “And there are more wood-cooking methods, like asador (hanging the meat near the fire for long stretches to slowly cook and smoke), that we have yet to add.”
For fall fixes of wood-grilled flavor, look for dishes like Oak + Char’s applewood-grilled, bone-in rib-eye with charred scallion salsa verde and peanut romesco; El Che Bar’s dry-rubbed rib-eye with chimichurri, charred artichokes, and charred chile aioli; and Rural Society’s starter of burrata with fire-charred cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, aged balsamic, petite arugula, and grilled sardo crackers.