Seen from the road, the pile of repurposed shipping containers looks more like something out of a science fiction movie than the home of a progressive, esoteric restaurant. But when the Smoky Park Supper Club opens sometime this summer, it will be the nation’s biggest eatery made out of those recycled containers, says David Cross of SG Blocks, which specializes in this type of construction. Smoky Park, though, will also boast something equally curious: an almost entirely wood-fired kitchen.
The early morning mist is still lifting off the river as Asheville farm-to-table pioneer Mark Rosenstein and Michelle Bailey, the new venture’s executive chef, cart armloads of firewood up the steps and into the building. “We’re a few months away from opening,” says Rosenstein, standing amid a kitchen that’s completely empty save for an incredibly convoluted, built-in wall oven. “So for the next two months, all I’m going to be doing is collecting data on this oven. How long does it take to heat up? How long does it hold heat? How long does it take to lose heat? All of that before there’s ever any cooking going on.”
To the uninitiated — and seeing as there are few of these ovens on the planet, nearly all of us are — the state-of-the-art Le Panyol just looks like an ordinary wood-fired pizza oven. A crescent-shaped hearth and door allow you to peek into a domed core where a small stack of wood is roaring. But unlike a pizza oven, there’ll be no fire burning when the cooking finally starts. Rather, this Ferrari of the kitchen is what’s called a “heat-retaining oven,” which sustains the high temperatures generated by the fire long after its embers have been snuffed and swept away. Left untouched overnight, notes Rosenstein, “It will only lose about 10 to 15 degrees, even when there hasn’t been a fire in there since [the morning].”
“This ‘terre blanche’ is considered to be the best heat-retaining material in the world, and it only comes from one place in France,” he says. But it’s not exactly some new high-tech breakthrough: “These ovens have been built this way since 1840.”
There are four kinds of heat that can be used for cooking, Rosenstein explains: radiation, conduction, convection and sublimation. Radiation relies on ionization and doesn’t require physical contact between the heat source and the food; conduction means there’s actual surface contact; convection entails “a differential in temperature, so you have a temperature current”; and sublimation “is the melting or freezing of ice, or steam.” Most cooking in a conventional oven, he continues, “is convection, and convection affects the molecules differently than the other three forms of heat.”
The Le Panyol, on the other hand, relies on a combination of conduction and radiation.
“Once we build heat into this oven,” says Rosenstein, “the temperature … is always only going down. … But if you set a normal oven to 225, that temperature is going up and down. Say your thermostat has a 15 degree sensitivity, so it goes from 225 to 210 but it wants to get back up to 225. It can take that oven up to 350 to do so, and when that blast of electricity comes on, that air can be 450 degrees. So actually you are taking the food higher than you want it. And if I were to put it in an oven at 225 and walk away, I’ll have scorched it, burned it, dried it out. But that will never happen in this oven.”
New worlds to conquer
For a chef, this opens up a whole new world. In most restaurant kitchens, notes Rosenstein, there’s little difference in the equipment. But with this setup, “You kind of have to relearn everything.”
For Bailey, though, that’s part of the appeal. “To be able to be there from the ground up with Mark, being able to map the temperatures and learn how this thing works, that’s really fun for people like us.”
This is not the pair’s first time working together: Bailey was executive chef at Rosenstein’s celebrated Market Place restaurant from 2006-09, before leaving to help open The Venue in downtown Asheville, followed by a stint as executive chef at the Highland Lake Inn & Resort. “I have no experience with an oven like this, which I’m superexcited about,” she explains. “That’s a bit of the reason why I wanted to come do this.”
For his part, notes Rosenstein, “I’ve been thinking about this since I sold The Market Place. I built an oven like this at my house, so I’ve been working with this stuff for six or eight years. But now we’ll start doing the testing on this one.”
They’re not the only folks in Asheville using a retained-heat oven, however. “There’s probably a dozen people around town that that use retained heat for baking bread,” he explains, “but we’re the only outfit that’s using retained heat for 60 or 70 percent of our menu. The rest will be cooked on a wood-fired grill. The textures that we get out of this are going to be different: It goes back to the way water molecules are affected by convection.”
Proof is in the pudding
“I will prove it to you before we open,” he says. “We’ll have a gas range to boil stocks or whatever, but I’ll take the exact same ingredients, I’ll give it to the same person to cook it, I’ll put it in the same pot, I’ll use the same temperature and cook them simultaneously and let you taste them side by side. They’ll be completely different, and it all relates back to the fact that this is conduction and radiation, not convection.”
From now until the restaurant opens, though, you’ll most likely find both Rosenstein and Bailey here, meticulously recording temperatures on a clipboard as they figure out how to stage their menu.
“This is going to be a whole new culinary journey,” muses Bailey, pointing toward the roaring fire churning smokelessly just beyond the arched door. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”