Ever since mankind discovered fire, rule number one of cooking has been “don’t burn your food.” But lately, when it comes to restaurant menus, black really is the new black. More and more chefs are intentionally using burning and charring techniques to add scorched nuances to their dishes, crossing over from well-done, straight into burned territory. The trend started in fine dining when high-end chefs, presumably bored with cooking everything perfectly all of the time, started started literally playing with fire. They blistered and charred vegetables, meats, and even desserts. It was only a matter of time before breakfast and brunch menus started to feel the burn, too.
In notoriously carbphobic Los Angeles, Sqrl made burned toast more in-demand than a reality star’s sex tape. Jessica Koslow’s famed Ricotta Toast—burned brioche smeared with house-made ricotta and seasonal jam—has fans waiting in line for hours for a dish that used to get you kicked out of culinary school. We could just attribute this to LA’s penchant for off-kilter trends (this is the land of crystals and green juice after all), but West Coasters aren’t alone in going to the dark side.
At South Boston's Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, executive chef Nick Dixon's menu focuses on wood-fired cooking and charring. Nearly everything on the menu gets touched by the 800-degree wood fired oven, including the breakfast pizza, topped with eggs, bacon, roasted tomatoes, hash browns, and fontina cheese.
“We decided we wanted to branch out from what we were comfortable with, so we started trying some new techniques,” Dixon says. “We messed around with a few variations, but the idea stuck when we topped it (the pizza) with crispy hash browns. It hasn’t left the menu since.”
The trick, he says, is to slow-cook the breakfast pizza near the mouth of the roaring oven. This allows the potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and dough to get a good char, without incinerating the eggs. And in the age-old crispy v. floppy bacon debate, Dixon is decidedly #TeamCrispy, preferring the bacon to get a little burned.
Another kitchen built around the flame is Cincinnati restaurant Metropole, which helped put burned food on the map with its ridiculously popular burned carrot salad.
“I like to incorporate unexpected charred flavors into all of our dishes,” executive chef Jared Bennett says. “The flavor profile of charred ingredients is vastly different from any other cooking styles.”
For breakfast, he caramelizes cut peaches to bring out their natural sweetness and uses the charred fruit to top his Quinoa Muesli, made with yogurt and Bing cherries. The ingredients come together for a tart, sweet, smoky bite that gives it a complexity far beyond your usual breakfast bowl.
Breakfast drinks are also getting burned, baby, burned. At NYC’s Bedford & Co., lead bartender Tommy Warren took inspiration from the spot’s BBQ-inspired Sunday brunch menu and created a Wood-Roasted Bloody Mary (recipe below) with layers of flavor.
“Charring on the wood grill brings a whole new element to humble ingredients. In this case, the tomato takes on a smoky sweetness that elevates a classic bloody mary. It tastes like you took your cocktail camping,” Warren says.
La Brasa, in Somerville, MA, takes the trend one step further by using ash—yes, ash—in some dishes and drinks. The Caramel and Ash Latte (pictured up top) combines burned sugar and vegetable ash in a surprisingly delicious way to feed your caffeine addiction.
So what does this all mean for home cooks? If you happen to burn the French toast at your next brunch get-together, just let your guests know how on red-hot trend you are right now.
Bedford & Co.’s Wood-Roasted Bloody Mary
Recipe courtesy of lead bartender Tommy Warren
To make the charred tomato purée, blister four whole, ripe beefsteak tomatoes on the wood grill until charred. Then quarter them to increase the exposed surface area, and smoke them above the grill. Then core and purée, keeping all juice, skin and seeds.
Combine all ingredients except for vodka to make charred bloody mary mix.
For each drink, pour 1 1/2 ounces vodka and 3 ounces of charred bloody mary mix into a Collins glass. Fill with ice, then garnish with olives and lemon wedges.