Live-fire is the oldest form of cooking there is. Somehow, though, it feels fresh every time it's done. The lick of flame; the char of eggplant or a pork chop; the tending required; the attention paid.

Over the last few years, chefs and cookbook authors across the United States have been paying closer attention to their home fires and the equipment they use to cook over fire. Yes, live-fire cooking is as old as time. But as cooks and the cooking-curious try to draw ever nearer to the source of their food, they have also been pulled toward the flickering allure of an outdoor grill, a wide fire pit, a tiered firebox.

To capture the heart of this live-fire movement, we talked to a variety of food professionals to see what their home-cooking setups are, al fresco. The hope was that the amateur home cook could learn a thing or two from this intrepid, flame-focused crew. We spoke with a longtime chef whose live-fire kitchen at home grew over decades into a sprawling multi-use centerpiece. We talked to a food editor who built a hearth with the help of a local bricklayer. We discussed the primal allure of the Argentine asado with a native son who decamped to the United States and often fashions an outdoor grill from backyard debris.

The live-fire trend is hot. Hotter still is the possibility of upping your own backyard open-fire game—perhaps by building your own.

Carla Lalli Music

Brooklyn, NY

Photo: Gentl and Hyers.

Grow up in a house with an outdoor wood-fired oven and a mother who grills and it is perhaps inevitable that you, too, will find yourself with your own backyard hearth. "My mom is my inspiration," says Carla Lalli Music, video host and cookbook author. "Women can—and do—cook over fire."

Smoke and flame permeated Lalli Music’s childhood and, decades later, life in Brooklyn, New York, with her own family had her lusting after a restaurateur neighbor’s outdoor oven. In 2015, Lalli Music’s husband, Fernando, asked her pointedly when the enormous pine tree in the couple’s backyard died, “What do you think about a wood-fired oven in its place?” The answer was a clarion yes.

Fernando sketched a concept for a hearth that would feature an arch, rather than the classic oven dome. They wanted their hearth to look aged, so Fernando found a retired member of the bricklayers’ union, from whom he sourced old bricks. “I was mostly concerned about the height of the cooking surface. I didn’t want it to break too high because I’m 5-foot-three,” recalls Lalli Music. The hearth’s cooking surface was locked in at 4-feet-by-3-feet. She realized as she researched options that this project could become complicated. “We had a Pinterest board and referenced everything from simple setups, like Sunset magazine would feature, to the insane built-in rotisseries from Grillworks," says Lalli Music. "All I needed was a fire and a place to lift the food above it. I don't need gears. That's extraneous to the dream, which is to have fire and to be able to cook on it."

Photo courtesy Carla Lalli Music.

In the end, simplicity became the guiding force. So much so that at one point Lalli Music considered having no walls on the hearth at all. “Then I remembered we’re not in a huge field in Uruguay. We’re in a backyard surrounded by other houses,” says Lalli Music with a chuckle. “Plus, with walls, I have more temperature zones and the ability to hang something over the fire from the roof.”

Employing a bricklayer who had built pizza ovens before was a boon. He adjusted the plans so that the dome was shorter and wider than the original plans. After years cooking in restaurants and in magazine test kitchens, Lalli Music knew she wanted the hearth’s cooking edge to feature a “piano,” that front-lip section on most industrial stoves that restaurant cooks use as a warming station and storage area during service. In Lalli Music’s hearth, the piano is a raised ledge half a brick height taller than the cooking surface itself.

Other practical additions included leaving the hearth bottom open for wood storage and installing a horizontal rebar across the top section of the oven, ideal for hanging a leg of lamb or a cast-iron Dutch oven by its handle. In the wing-it spirit of the project, Lalli Music remembers the hearth’s first use was a hazy failure: “The learning curve was steep. We thought the smoke would rise to the top of the oven. Wrong. It blew smoke right into my face as I cooked.” They had the builder return and drill a hole into the back of the hearth, installing a two-foot chimney.

Lalli Music's newest cookbook, due out in October 2021, features a section on grilling. At home, she cooks turkey—whole, spatchcocked or broken down into legs and wings—in the hearth. She slow-roasts huge cuts of beef in her indoor oven, then finishes the meat in the hearth to crisp it and imbue it with wood smoke. She even cooks clams in the hearth in a cast iron skillet covered with a sheet tray; she also bakes biscuits in a cast iron dutch oven outdoors. Her keenest advice for people considering expanding their grilling approach: “People who are learning to grill miss the part that if you’re comfortable cooking in a pan, just bring the pan outside!”

Eric Werner

Tulum, Mexico

Photo: Gentl and Hyers.

Eric Werner wrote the book on cooking at home with live fire. Or least he wrote a book on the subject, a superlative one called The Outdoor Kitchen, which centers on Werner's own designs for a custom-made, all-iron grill.

This grill, three-feet long and three-feet high with a pair of detachable shelves flanking each side, is modeled after the same kind of setup he uses at his restaurant, Hartwood, located in Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. "There's not a tremendous difference between how I cook at home or at the restaurant," says Werner. "I wanted to take home with me the same grill I have at Hartwood."

There were new grill iterations fabricated every few years at Hartwood, as Werner tried to zero in on the ideal materials and design for the restaurant's outdoor location. "Due to the constant heat on them and heavy use, the metal would start to wave and bend," recalls Werner. Ultimately, Werner and his crew zeroed in on mild steel, a mix of cast-iron. Once the optimal design was achieved, Werner was able to adapt the grill's specs for use at his home. He then worked with an ironworker in New York State (where Werner and his family live when they're not in Tulum) to create a grill that mirrored the setup at Hartwood. That grill is now the cooking anchor of Werner's home in the Catskills.

Photo: Gentl and Hyers.

There is an open door in the grill's front, for loading hardwood into the fire box. There are holes in the back for proper airflow. The two 18-by-20 grill grates are iron as well, as is an attachable smoker. The all-iron design provides steady, reliable heat. It is a sturdy, versatile setup and one that Werner graciously provides the full specifications for in The Outdoor Kitchen.

As you would imagine, Werner uses live-fire to cook a breadth of foods. Pork and steak and chicken, yes. Also cauliflower and broccoli steaks, grilled crudités and whole fish cooked on a plancha on the grill grates. Open-fire, he notes, is the only kind of cooking he does, and he has been cooking for a long time. "I think I've thrown everything you can cook in North America in the fire."

James Gop

Richmond, Massachusetts

Photo: Dear Edith & Lily.

James Gop, the founder of the live-fire event company Heirloom Fire, outgrew his first catering rig as the company's business profile swelled. Heirloom Fire's expansion was a serendipitous boon for Gop's personal outdoor kitchen because, for years, Gop didn't have a grill at home. "Like the saying goes 'The cobbler's own children never have any good shoes,'" says Gop, chuckling.

That first rig was modeled after a conventional catering grill. But Gop goes big with everything: Heirloom Fire uses custom-made equipment that includes a unit with a 15-inch flywheel with gears, and the Berkshires, Massachusetts, company creates a sweeping old-timey vibe for its catering gigs, complete with staff in button-downs, vests, suspenders and an array of derbys and bowler hats. Gop, of course, also went grand and custom with his starter grill. "What I tried to do with this piece is encapsulate everything I have on-site at an Heirloom Fire event," says Gop. "This unit doesn't break down into pieces. So I figured I'd go completely wild with it." Part of the Heirloom Fire brand is chunky angles, so the rig's legs were replaced with square stock, and couplings were added that can be tightened to hold their grip so the unit remains level on uneven ground.

After endless tweaks and modifications, the rig is now eight-feet tall and two-feet-square in length and width. It features an open firebox at waist level and a three-tiered plate system to one side. The three-tiered stack includes a top-tier for hanging roasts and chickens and a plancha for intense-heat cooking. "I love a good charred carrot from the plancha," says Gop. "You get bitterness and sweetness and toffee qualities."

Too much is never quite enough for Gop, so he also had an oven fabricated that lives under the grill rig. It is built from a bent piece of "steel—"picture a 50-gallon drum barrel shape," says Gop. The fire is built in the back of the oven, and he uses it most often to bake sourdough bread made from a starter culture from the 1800s. A counterweight door was installed to open the oven using a brick and a pulley, rather than maneuver the substantial door by hand.

Photo: Dear Edith & Lily.

The unit was retired from event use in 2017 and kept in storage for two years. "I used to go into my storage area and found myself moving this piece out of the way," recalls Gop. Not any longer. The rig is now a centerpiece of Gop's home outdoor cooking area. When he's cooking at home, that is.

Matthew Raiford

Brunswick, Georgia

Photo: Paprika Southern.

There is an exquisite ingenuity to Matthew Raiford's multi-component open-air kitchen. The chef-farmer, or as Raiford dubs himself, "cheFarmer," lives and works on land that has been in his family since 1874. He is the sixth-generation on this coastal stretch of Brunswick, Georgia, and his children the seventh to "plant, crop and harvest on this land."

On the farm, Raiford grows "hibiscus and Sea Island white and red peas, ginger and turmeric and we raise Kune-Kune hogs, five varietals of chicken and Muscovy ducks." Much of what he raises has a longstanding connection to his people, the Gullah Geechee, descendants of the enslaved Africans who worked the plantations along the southeastern coast of the Atlantic in the United States. This lineage is the gold vein that runs through his new cookbook, Bress 'n' Nyam. Raiford notes that he is "Freshwater Geechee" because, even though his land is only a few miles from the water, any Geechee who is not living on a sea island is a "Freshwater Geechee" rather than a "Saltwater Geechee."

Raiford, being a farmer who cooks, wanted an outdoor live-fire setup that could accomplish a breadth of kitchen tasks. "Imagine being on your farm and thinking, wow, I'd really like that $20,000 fancy setup with all the gears. But then I wondered, how do I make something similar with farm equipment?" says Raiford. To start, he disassembled an 8-foot-round cattle hay ring into two half moons. He then mounted each of the half-moons on a separate set of stacked cinder blocks to create two 7-and-a-half foot tall stations. The fire source is built directly on the ground from "a combination of whatever woods I have: could be oak, cypress, I even use saw palmetto. I get them nice and dry and I'm good to go" says Raiford. A repurposed sidewalk grate is turned into a grill; another sidewalk grate, this one with smaller perforations, becomes a flattop. Resourceful, and inspired.

Photo: Paprika Southern.

For slow-roasting whole hogs, Raiford used a barn-door railing frame and added a gear-box system for turning the animal as it roasted over open fire. "If I want to smoke the hog instead of roast it, I'll put tin in front of each side to create a smoke box." The rotator would sometimes melt from the heat, so Raiford is now working on installing a bolt system and manual crank on the frame.

This is the Georgia Coast, after all, so Raiford cooks his oysters in the old-guard manner. He begins with a 10-ft-by-4-ft tin slab that has 20 holes punched into it. He stacks cinder blocks three-high, in three equally distant sections, then lays the tin slab on them and lights wood underneath. "The way I'm doing it is the way my grandparents and great-parents did it. Put oysters on the hot tin, throw a burlap bag over top and I'm talking in 5 or 10 minutes you've got oysters with all that good liquor in them."

There is also a smoking pit on-site, built from an old metal bed frame with, again, cinder blocks under it. "Like in the past when you didn't have a drum to smoke in, what did you do? You used what was available: an old gate. Here I use a bed frame." And a six-foot-wide rocket oven is in the works, too. It will be employed for slow-cooking a whole hog or for making 30 loaves of bread at once.

Seven generations in and Raiford and his farm are still evolving. "I'm nature-conscious here, that's how my Gullah Geechee-ness shows up," says Raiford. "I'm very into sustainability and this place is ready for generations to come."

Norberto Piattoni

Los Angeles, California

Photo: Pete Lee.

Asados are the fiery backbone of so much of life in Argentina, and for Norberto Piattoni, born in the northern Argentinian province of Entre Ríos, this style of outdoor live-fire cooking provided the steady rhythm of daily life. "Anytime you celebrate with your family, you do an asado," says Piattoni.

His father, grandfather, uncle, and friends all grilled. He saw gauchos grilling cows on makeshift setups on their farms. After abandoning a career in chemical engineering, Piattoni was lured back toward the flame of live-fire cooking. He cooked in parrilladas (live-fire restaurants), then joined Francis Mallman, the legendary elder statesmen of high-end live-fire cooking in South America. These days, Piattoni consults and cooks private events and dinners, all using a battery of live-fire stations.

He employs traditional iron asado crosses, onto which are strapped butterflied whole lambs for cooking near a mound of flaming wood, and hangs a long row of whole chickens from a wood beam to cook them in a similar manner. These are the tools of a professional live-fire chef. But Piattoni is equally adept at jerryrigging an asado from random backyard bits and baubles. He recently quick-fire assembled a parilla from two pairs of cinder blocks stacked lengthwise on each other to form a base. Over them, he laid a ¾-inch-thick slab of carbon steel. To avoid building a fire on the grass below, Piattoni lit hardwood on one side of the carbon-steel plate. Then on the other side of the plate, he put together an impromptu grill zone by adjoining two cinder blocks at a right angle, laying a discarded round grill grate on them, then stabilizing the grate with two hefty stones. As the wood burned down to red-hot coals, Piattoni diverted them under the grill grate. An apt, efficient solution done nearly without thinking. That is how much this style of outdoor cooking is in Piattoni's blood.

Photo: Pete Lee.

If you happen to have an outdoor space that is conducive to on-earth cooking, Piattoni suggests repurposing the embers. His approach is to create a series of ember zones in thin, wide squares and rectangles. He sets whole beets, butternut squash and potatoes, on these scant piles, and the vegetables go smoky and soft during their slow sauna run. Crafty live-fire cooking uses the heat source in multiple ways, at the same time.

"Every Friday growing up, the construction workers would finish their work week with what we called an asado de construcción," recalls Piattoni. To do so, they would assemble a grill from whatever materials were around. It is a keen reminder for the home griller that anyone can grill, pretty much anywhere and with anything.

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant.