Historically, women have been in charge of food preparation, and until sometime in the 20th century, all cooking was done over an open flame, whether outdoors or inside over a wood-fired stove or hearth. In the middle of the last century, however, live-fire cooking began to be viewed as a “man’s pastime,” an idea bolstered by grill and charcoal manufacturers, and cookbook publishers, and now food television and social media.

Recently, though, women cooks have begun to burn down these old stereotypes. A new crop of female voices has been reclaiming outdoor, live-fire cooking with exciting new books like The Campout Cookbook by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson, The Camp & Cabin Cookbook by Laura Bashar, Feast by Firelight by Emma Frisch, Wild: Adventure Cookbook by Sarah Glover, and The New Camp Cookbook by Linda Ly, to just name a few.

Sara Glover sets up to roast rabbits. Photo: Luisa Brimble, from WILD: Adventure Cookbook.

The message: Not only do women enjoy—and excel at—live-fire cooking, they’re also refusing to concede that it is strictly a man’s territory. Websites like Girls at the Grill and Girls Can Grill were created to push back against this kind of machismo. And chefs like Christina Lecki of Reynard, Missy Robbins of Lilia (also in Brooklyn), and Ashley Christensen of Death & Taxes in Raleigh, North Carolina, are at the helm some of the best live-fire restaurant food in the country.

Despite the proliferation of women taking back the hearth, so to speak, “There is still a shroud about it being very male driven, and all the general stereotypes still hold,” says Lecki, “We’re at [this] point where we’re trying to shed more light on diversity, and the story still tends to default to male chefs…”

Many of the standout dishes at Missy Robbins' Lilia, in Brooklyn, come off the wood-fired grill. Photo: Noah Fecks

Marnie Hanel, co-author of The Campout Cookbook (Artisan, 2018) is noticing the gender lines of who is doing what starting to blur more and more, though she is still is seeing outdoor cooking (and all the gear that goes with it) still being marketed primarily to men. “I’m definitely noticing more women getting involved, but target audience [for selling] is still men… Cooking outside is freeing and exciting—there is no expectation of perfection,” she says. And since a fire has a life of its own, expect that “there will be hot spots and some parts will get burned—and that’s ok… You have to trust your instincts so much more than cooking indoors: use your nose to smell for doneness, touch the meat to see how tender it is.”

Laura Bashar, author of The Camp and Cabin Cookbook (Countryman Press, 2018), also highlights how cooking outdoors has empowered her much more to rely on her senses. “There’s no high medium, or low heat,” she shares, “but you hear the sizzle and smell the food, and those are your cues.” Cooking outside has forced Bashar to slow down, appreciate her environment more, as well as adjust to situations such as blowing wind. “You’re making your dinner, and there’s a strong gust, and you’re covering your food, because there’s ash flying everywhere. You pay more attention, because you have less control.” She sees a future where women continue to assert an even bigger role in live-fire cooking, “We can already see it happening in restaurants, blogs, and cookbooks. Just as you see more women deferring the household cooking to their male counterparts, women are branching out and trying new things, breaking away from stereotypical roles. I don’t cook for my family because I’m a woman—I cook for my family because I enjoy it, and I do a better job at it than my husband! I started cooking outdoors, because I found what we ate on camping trips limiting, tasteless, and boring. Once I got over the intimidation factor and unpredictability of cooking over fire, I became very comfortable... The same thing will happen to other women. They just need to see more women doing it, and they will get hooked, too.”

Emma Frisch's Feast by Firelight focuses on campfire cooking techniques, and recipes that can be executed outdoors. Photo: Christina Holmes

And despite the intense focus live-fire cooking commands, mastering it is both meditative and relaxing.

“Working with an open flame,” says chef Elise Kornack, formerly of the celebrated (now shuttered) Brooklyn restaurant Take Root, “requires your attention every single second. You cannot control it—only manage it. The whole process is immensely intense, yet also incredibly calming.”

Lecki agrees, “It’s a very focused type of cooking, because you have to actually tend to your feeding source. It’s not like you turn on a gas grill or burner, and just put your pan down. There are a lot of nuances that go with it: the actual fire itself, the way you can build flavor, smoke, different types of wood, adding herbs or pine branches to your fire. For me, [the nuances] make open-fire cooking so much more fun to do, so much more interesting. It’s definitely harder, hotter, and slower, but, ultimately, I find it to be rewarding. Every day the wood is a little different, the conditions are a little different, and you’re constantly problem-solving. No dish comes out exactly the same.”

Kornack also observes “I find the use of fire for cooking to be both inherently primal and distinctly human, and more appropriately, maternal. Women (mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers alike) have notoriously been the stewards of the hearth and the keepers of the flame. The fire was/is center of the home, where both substance and warmth emanate. However, since the popularization of backyard grilling, and more recently the surge towards men ‘finding themselves back in the home kitchen’, fire has instead been marketed as a way of reinforcing masculinity.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Some women not only cook over fire regularly, but also build their own set-up for cooking outdoors.

Working with an open flame, requires your attention every single second. You cannot control it—only manage it. The whole process is immensely intense, yet also incredibly calming.

Elise Kornack Chef, Take Root; Brooklyn, NY

Gabrielle Eitienne, a cook and writer dedicated to preserving the stories of her elders and reclaiming land in and around her community, moved from New York City to her native town of Apex, North Carolina to immerse herself in African American Southern cooking.

She recalls growing up and watching the men in her family cook outdoors. They’d roast a whole hog, for instance, and she’d always be nearby observing, intrigued and fascinated by the fire. For her birthday, Eitienne recently built her own makeshift pit with cinder blocks and heavy wire, and roasted a banana leaf-wrapped pork shoulder—something she was proud of and empowered by. To Eitienne, live-fire cooking is a way of reconnecting to her history, her people, and her land. “I want to spend every day of my life outside,” she contemplates, “in the yard growing things and building a fire. It just feels right.”

Olga Massov is a food writer and editor. She's a recent transplant to Arlington, Virginia and a homesick Brooklynite. Her upcoming collaboration with James Beard award-winning chef Michael Schwartz, Genuine Pizza: Better Pizza at Home (Abrams), is due out Spring 2019.

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