Man. Fire. Food. It’s an ancient combination which some say fostered the relatively giant size of the human brain.
In 2012, Chef John Murcko changed dining in Park City when he re-imagined all the restaurants at what was then called Canyons Resort owned by Talisker. With a talented team—Clement Gelas, Briar Handley, Zeke Wray and many others—Murcko brought resort food into the new food world of unstuffy service, farm-to-table ingredients and local sourcing.
Then he was hired by the Earl Holding family to do the same thing at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho.
But Murcko has had a long relationship with Park City—he worked at a number of Bill White’s restaurants—and last week his homecoming restaurant, Firewood on Main, opened on his old Main Street stomping grounds. As usual with Murcko, he’s right on top of a nationwide trend: cooking over fire. The centerpiece of Firewood on Main’s kitchen, causing the galley to be built wider than a traditional layout is a massive wood burning grill by Grillworks, a version of the Infierno built for Chef Tom Colicchio, endorsed by Chef Jose Andres, used by Chef Dan Barber. One of the adjustable-height grills is fueled by oak, one by cherry and apple wood, and as the servers deliver dishes to the diners, they can tell you which wood was used for that particular dish.
It’s not that often that a single piece of equipment dominates a restaurant kitchen and cuisine the way this grill does. It’s a whole different approach to cooking. Each chef is constantly checking the fire as well as the food—poking at piles of coals, adding a piece of the wood stored under the counter, making sure the cooking temperatures are correct and even. “You don’t just turn a dial to a certain setting and forget about it until the cooking time is up,” says one line cook. “It’s easy to get involved in something else, then turn around and find your fire’s gone out.” Despite the extra complication, everyone in the kitchen seems to love what they’re doing. Or maybe they weren’t wearing big grins. Maybe they were grimacing from the heat.
Just because all the food (except desserts) is cooked with fire doesn’t mean everything has a grilled or charred taste. Yes, the demerara sugar cube in the Woodlands cocktail is smoked and so is the sage in the High Desert Martini, but the grilled oyster (above)—a version of Rockefeller with creamed spinach, bacon and beet-pickled shallot—has only the faintest whiff of smoke, and the duck leg confit’s time over over apricot wood mostly served to firm up the outside of the fat-cooked meat. Other dishes, like the (inevitable) pork belly glazed with honey wine apple vinegar
and, of course, the kobe New York strip, declared their cooking process more boldly. Murcko pulls inspiration from all over the country and the globe—the kobe was sauced with black garlic, the fantastic cauliflower salad, with currants, almonds and a spicy vinaigrette, had a whiff of India.
Desserts, thank goodness, are made in another part of the kitchen with a regular stove, and pastry chef (and ordained Episcopal priest) Aimee Altizer emphasizes deep flavored, unfussy creations like a caramelized apple tart (terrine?) with marzipan ice cream or a warm Ritual chocolate cake with coffee-roasted beet gelato. Yes, I forgot to take a picture until I had eaten half of it. Note to customers annoyed by cellphones used while dining—it’s my job. And I would rather not bother with it, either.
This is a new restaurant and soft openings were last week. We ate there last night, one of its first nights of full service. The restaurant, including one of the private spaces, was full and you could see the strain on the slightly confused service staff. Then again, service is a problem all over Utah and, in fact, the country. And we were guests, served small versions of dishes of the chef’s choosing with pairing wines from the mostly two-digit list, a very different experience from ordering full plates off the menu. We’ll be back. But for once, we’ll be eager to go back.
Firewood is a big restaurant—9,000 square feet?—but the dining room, paneled in horizontal weathered planks with a wall of industrial paned windows looking into the working kitchen, feels cozy and the space is divided into a banquet room, a private cookbook-lined dining room called the “Chef’s Library,” a downstairs bar decorated with rusted machinery parts and a big private room dubbed the ‘Sundance Room.”
Asked who designed the place, Murcko answers, “me,” and goes on to tell the story behind the dining tables which he made with his father, where the wood for the cypress table came from (his property in Escalante,) and the function of all those rusty machinery parts.
John Murcko tends to be a cheerful guy—his whole face crinkles when he smiles and he smiles a lot. But he seems especially happy about this new venture, probably because he’s back in the place he likes best. Behind the stove.
You can see it all through those big industrial windows.
Firewood on Main
306 Main St., Park City