In Vietnam, no one has hulking gas grills or state-of-the-art rotisseries or smokers but cooking outdoors over live fire is common. When I was growing up, our family had a cook who prepared all of our meals over an open fire: meats were grilled on a grate over the fire, clay pots containing braises were set directly on the coals. The hearth was a multipurpose cooking space. The enticing smell of grilled meats fills the streets of Vietnam, where charcoal braziers are set up in restaurants and on street corners, with fans (either electric or hand) keeping small fires burning hot while sending the delicious aromas into the air.
In America, grills have gotten quite sophisticated, but our understanding of the basic principles of live-fire cooking has not. I understand the convenience of cooking on a gas grill, but I believe that grilling is something that is best done over a bed of hardwood coals, which imbues the food with an irresistible smoky flavor. Isn’t that the whole point of grilling? Building a fire for cooking is no different than building a campfire, and once you learn the basic technique, it’s pretty foolproof. I like to use kindling and hardwood charcoal, eliminating the need for chemical-soaked briquettes. The key to cooking over hardwood charcoal is that you have to start the fire a good thirty minutes before you plan to cook on it. This allows the larger chunks of charcoal to break down into a thick bed of coals—you want to grill over coals, not over fire.
Successful grilling is all about controlling the fire: a deep bed of coals allows you to create a mix of temperature zones, with hotter and cooler areas so you can customize the grilling depending on whether you’re cooking delicate fish or a thick pork chop. When building the fire, I often like to create a two-zone fire, banking two-thirds of the hot coals in a thick layer on one side of my grill to create a hot zone, and raking the balance of the coals to the opposite side to create a cooler zone. Then, you can use the grill grate just as you would a pan on the stove top: adjust the heat from hot to cool just by moving the food around the grate. This isn’t necessary for all grilled dishes, since some of them, like the Pork-Stuffed Squid with Spicy Tomato Sauce, benefit from direct, hot heat. But it’s a great method if you’re grilling meats that have a sweet marinade (like the Grilled Pork Chops with Sweet Lemongrass Marinade) or preparing something that needs to be started over high heat and then finished over cooler heat (Rice Clay Pot with Chicken and Chinese Sausage).
Just like our old family cook, I like to think of the grill as a multipurpose cooking surface. Of course, you can cook vegetables and meats directly on the grate. But if you maximize the grill surface, thinking of it in the same way you think of your stove top, you can prepare an entire meal, start to finish, outdoors. For example, as friends gather and have a cocktail, use a cast-iron frying pan on the grill grate to make Clams with Crispy Pork Belly and grill skewers of Chicken Satay alongside. Or, cook a Chinese-style rice clay pot on the grate as the main event and accompany it with a Grilled Whole Fish cooked on a cast-iron griddle placed on the grate, a technique that allows the fish to pick up some smoky flavor without any chance of it sticking to the metal bars. Understanding the possibilities of live-fire cooking, which extend far beyond burgers, will change the way you cook.