There’s a great scene in Julie & Julia when Amy Adams’s character Julie Powell burns a pot of boeuf bourguignon. It’s a comical moment (how do you even burn a stew?), but one that has a subtext as well: good chefs don’t burn food. We’re taught that early on: the best s’mores have golden marshmallows, not charred ones; blackened toast goes straight into the garbage, and there is no greater shame than being The One Who Burned Popcorn In The Office Microwave. Burning food has historically been a sign of failure.
For some time, however, elite chefs have proven otherwise. Argentine superstar chef Francis Mallmann, for one, has turned burnt food into his calling card. On a recent trip to his remote restaurant in the ghost town of Garzón, Uruguay, I started lunch with “bread in the coals”—a salted, buttered flatbread charred to a crisp on one side, served with burnt oranges and dressed arugula on top. Burning the bread added a dimension of texture that complements the aroma and fruitiness of the dressing’s extra virgin olive oil. Burning the oranges caramelized the fruit’s sugars in a way that made it just acidic enough to counterbalance the salad, but sweet enough to take the edge of the burnt bread’s bitterness. Is was mouth-watering.
But you don’t have to fly all the way to Uruguay to get some perfectly-burnt cuisine. In fact, you don’t even have to fly to Miami, where Mallmann has opened Los Fuegos, an Argentinian restaurant at the Faena Hotel in South Beach. More and more, chefs from New York to Los Angeles are experimenting with burnt cuisine on their menus. No longer is charred, blackened food treated like a mistake—oftentimes, it’s the highlight of a dish.
It is not uncommon to find charred elements of a dish in a sauce or other supporting element. That’s the case at Mettā in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, for example, whose chef Negro Piattoni worked for Mallmann in Uruguay for four years and still uses only fire to cook. Piattoni’s emphasis on local sourcing, pickling, brining and fermenting makes Mettā’s menu stand out, with dishes like smoked cabbage with sour corn and horseradish cream, or beef heart carpaccio served with charred chili paste. There, fire is used to bring out the funkiness of preserved flavors, and to develop the intensity of things like chilis in the chili paste. Chef Kate Williams from Lady of the House in Detroit serves a steak tartar with charred leek gremolata. Chef Rich Landau of Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C. incorporates burnt miso into several dishes on his menu.
Certain genres of cuisine, such as Mexican, have always used burnt ingredients for their robust flavors. It came as no surprise when chef Mario Hernandez of the East Village’s Black Ant was using burnt chiles, burnt pineapple, burnt vegetables to make molés, salsas and more. But it was the use of ash throughout his menu that seemed cutting edge: “Ashes can be used to make almost everything. Some of the ashes I use are mixed with chile ash to make our housemade black brioche hamburger bun which has a spicy, smoky flavor, and a deep black color with a beautiful perfume of chiles. And I use corn husk ashes to make a beautiful corn ice cream with a rustic burnt corn husk flavor—it’s phenomenal.”
For vegetables, burning before serving can caramelize the produce’s latent sugars, adding a sweetness and a kind of creaminess. Chef Gabriela Cámara of San Francisco’s Cala and Mexico City’s Contramar serves a whole-roasted sweet potato which is cooked directly on embers and charred. She serves it with bone marrow salsa negra and tortillas, because the texture of the potato becomes so rich and creamy that it can be eaten as the stuffing for a taco. “Burnt food is bitter, and part of our evolution as humans has taught us to be averse to this taste,” Cámara said. “But when not overdone, burning adds complexity and depth, which in turn makes the dish more interesting. At Cala, when guests see our servers carrying the blackened sweet potato through the dining room, it adds an element of drama.”
At Michelin-star chef Josiah Citrin’s Charcoal in Los Angeles, one of the most popular side dishes on order is Cabbage Baked In Embers, which is quite literally what it sounds like—an entire head of cabbage stuffed below embers until the exterior is crispy and charred, and the interior self-steams into tender perfection. But don’t think that ordering burnt vegetables means a crispy chunk of charcoal will show up at your table. Pretty much all the vegetables you can order at Firedoor in Sydney, Australia come elegantly charred. “The art of burning is a fine line that balances the bitter and the sweet,” chef Lennox Hastie tells Vogue. He serves whole fire-roasted eggplants, with interiors that turn into a silky custard after roasting directly on embers. Marco Canora’s East Village restaurant Hearth serves charred carrots with sunflower seed hummus and lemon confit that are positively addictive. At her beloved Asheville, North Carolina tapas restaurant Cúrate, James Beard nominee Katie Button serves “escalivada con anchoas” that you wouldn’t know was burnt just by looking at it—she grills peppers, onions and eggplant until they are completely black before peeling all the char off, then slices them and serves on a crispy baguette.
Incorporating burnt flavors at multiple stages in a single dish can add extraordinary complexity and flavor, as is the case with Dan Kluger’s short ribs offered at his restaurant Loring Place in Greenwich Village. Kluger starts with charred onions, then cooks the ribs with the onions (peeling off really ashy parts, but leaving others). He then purées the onions and makes a paste that coats the cooked short ribs, later roasting the whole thing in the oven for a tertiary char. The results are a customer favorite.
Ultimately, for a technique that seems so counterintuitive, burning food has proven to be an a new attraction for chefs everywhere. “Our relationship with food has evolved significantly due to heat and its applications, and the application of heat must strike a good balance,” chef Cámara says. As with so much of cooking, what it all comes down to is the technique and the ingredient. Foods with tougher skins and lower sugar contents (potatoes, cabbages) can withstand direct contact with embers. Sweeter, more tender foods like pineapple or tomato can go from caramelized to bitter to inedible in a flash. Burning your food might be an art form best left to the experts—luckily, there appear quite a few experts out there right now.