To the untrained eye, firefighting and professional cooking might not seem to have anything in common as careers: One involves potentially running into a burning building, the other involves running perfectly plated dishes to eager diners. But for esteemed chef and longtime volunteer firefighter Nathan Richard, there are plenty of similarities between the two.
“My cooking career started about the same time as my firefighting career, 20 years ago. I joined the volunteer fire department in Thibodaux at the age of 18, and then started cooking when I was around 20,” says Richard, who has shown off his fine cooking skills in kitchens across the Southeast, from Fig and Husk in Charleston to Commander’s Palace and Cochon in New Orleans. “It’s one of those things where people don’t realize it, but they kind of go hand-in-hand because of the fire element, especially when you’re cooking outdoors. People can cook on electric stoves, people can cook on gas stoves, and people can cook over live fire, which is more of a technique than anything. It’s pretty cool to be at home and you have a fire pit cooking, or you’re out camping in the middle woods with your kids, and you have that opportunity to eat a gourmet meal in the middle of nowhere. Knowing how to use fire outside to cook is a great advantage.”
Of course, with that great knowledge comes great responsibility — and understanding of limitations. Richard, who is now the Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department captain, shares key tips to stay safe while cooking outdoors, whether you’re flipping sausages on charcoal in the backyard or grilling fish over a wood fire underneath the stars.
Using green wood for an open fire? That’s a (dangerous) rookie mistake.
“A sure way to spot a rookie campfire is excessive smoke billowing from it, and that’s the result of using green and fresh wood,” says Richard. “In order to create a nice fire to grill on, you have to use dry, seasoned wood. I like using pecan, white oak and hickory.”
There’s also a common misconception that when cooking over an open flame, the food should be placed directly over the fire itself. Unless you want to eat a charred dinner, that’s not good technique. “We’re not roasting a hot dog or marshmallow directly over an open fire like we show our kids. Unfortunately, placing food directly over the open flame is a great way to get a burnt and crisp meal. Build a fire on one side of your grill and use the other side primarily to move hot coals and cook your food.”
And, as with all good things, have a little patience. “Just because you see flames doesn’t mean that your fire is ready for cooking. A good fire can take 30 to 45 minutes to burn down to the right conditions. You have to be sure you have a bed of glowing coals for roasting, and continue to feed your fire.”
Having the proper tools is critical.
“Always have the right tools for the job, whether it’s a pair of tongs, spatula, basting brush or grill brush—and be sure to keep your tools ready,” says Richard. “As a chef, I try to keep my mouth shut and just enjoy the atmosphere, but there’s a lot of times at barbecues when people are using tongs to try and pick up a piece of fish instead of using a spatula like they should, and the filet of fish is breaking apart. It’s like, ‘You had a nice, beautiful piece of fish, but now it’s in three pieces!’”
And no matter how low-key your outdoor cooking setup might be, Richard stresses that having a fire extinguisher nearby is a must.
And don’t forget your meat thermometer!
“Make sure you cook your protein to the right internal temperature. For a home cook, get a digital meat thermometer. It’s going to be accurate, and it’s going to tell you more than what your finger pressing the meat can do to see if it’s done. There are a lot of meat thermometers out there, and I just keep one in my pocket. It’s simple: I put it in the meat, and I pull it out, and it tells me the internal temperature.”
Monitoring your fats will keep flare-ups down.
When it comes to avoiding grill flare-ups (and potentially singeing off your eyebrows), keep a close watch on how much oil or fat you’re using: low and slow is the name of the game. “When people marinate their meat, they sometimes think the fattier, the better. But that’s going to cause a big flame up, and the flame up is going to ignite.”
Richard also says that many of the “shortcuts” home cooks try to use while grilling outside can result in disaster. “Some people try to use non-stick spray on their grill, but they don’t realize how flammable it is. If you do decide to use it, turn the flame off or spray your pan away from the fire. And for heaven’s sake, keep the spray can away from the heat. It will blow up and scare the you-know-what out of you.”
Understand the technology you’re using.
It might sound simple, but reading the owner’s manual for your grill is a necessary first step for grasping the nuances of the cooking fire-source you’re operating — not just making assumptions. “People get in their confidence zone and forget that safety is a key priority. Things change, technology is always evolving — and so are new barbecue pits. You might’ve had this old classic barbecue pit, but now you have an electrical barbecue pit, or you go from electric to gas…it’s not going to cook the same. A lot of times, people might not tighten the gas lines up enough, or they might forget to put some piece of tape on there or something, and it starts a gas leak, then the gas could ignite. Really, every pit is different.”
Never cook too close to your house.
One of the most common runs that Richard makes as a volunteer firefighter is to homes where people have been grilling too near their house or underneath an overhang, like a carport roof. “The reason apartment complexes don’t allow people to barbecue on their second story is because there’s no room to pull that pit out. Many times, people are putting their grill against a back wall. It might not flame up, but guess what? That heat is going to transfer — whether it’s to siding, vinyl or whatever it is, and sooner or later it’s going to start melting. Once it starts melting, now it’s going to start smoking and going to set fire. It happens a lot of times more than what people think.”
Always make sure your fire is completely out.
One of the most important, and potentially life-saving, rules of outdoor cooking is to always make sure your fire is completely out. It’s not safe when it just looks like it has burned out, or in the absence of a flame, but when it’s so completely cool you could stick your hand in the coals. “People have campfires and walk away from that camp thinking the fire’s out, but the wind picks up and rekindles that fire and nobody is there. They didn’t properly extinguish the fire, whether with a fire extinguisher or pouring water. Now you have a big wildfire.”
This doesn’t happen only with outdoor cooking in the woods, though.
“We see it a lot during Mardi Gras, too. People barbecue and have a good time. They get drunk, they finish cooking, they need to get rid of these coals, they throw them away in the dumpster. Guess what? It catches the trash can on fire. People don’t let the fire, or the coals, die out. There’s still heat generating in there and all a fire needs to rekindle is oxygen or wind. They need to be cool to the touch. You ought to be able to put your hand in there and not burn yourself. I always tell people, ‘If you have a couple of extra bottles of water, dump it. Dump it on the fire.’ It’s a constant thing where common sense ain‘t common anymore.”