Wood-Fired Ovens Still Hot, Flavor Science Be Damned

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Considering the persistent popularity of wood-fired cooking, which Nation’s Restaurant News back in 2010 declared a trend, eaters might assume food cooked in ovens fueled by tinder tastes better. Not so, says a spokesperson for one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of wood-fired ovens.

“We’ve done taste tests, and we would say the flavor is the same,” says Tamra Nelson of Wood Stone, which also produces gas-powered ovens. “But it does connect visually with the customer.”

There aren’t any surveys showing exactly how many local restaurants have gone the wood-fired route, but Nelson says there are seven restaurants in and around Charleston using Wood Stone equipment, including Southend Brewery and Monza. According to Nelson, customers’ perceptions of wood-fired ovens’ superiority can overwhelm the reality that quality doesn’t vary with fuel source.

“It almost validates the authenticity of food,” Nelson says of a showpiece oven. Additionally, “it creates an atmosphere and it’s beautiful.”

The newest area restaurant to tout its wood-fired credentials is The Obstinate Daughter, Wild Olive Restaurant Group’s new Sullivan’s Island project. Underscoring the current prevalence of wood-fired cooking, an opening announcement specifically categorizes chef Jacques Larson’s pizza, pasta and small plates spot as “a wood-fired oven restaurant.” (The Obstinate Daughter, named for a character in a British political cartoon published after the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, purchased its oven from Wood Stone.)

Cooking with wood is slightly more complicated than cooking with gas, since it requires sourcing the right wood and cleaning up a heap of ashes at night’s end.  Yet while Nelson suspects coal-fired cooking could soon steal some of the concept’s heat, and the New York Times earlier this year forecast a rosy future for open wood-fired grills, wood-fired ovens are likely to remain fixtures in many restaurants.

“They’re trying to set themselves apart,” Nelson says. “They’re going back to their roots.”

The Obstinate Daughter is scheduled to open at 2063 Middle Street in January.

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