Specialty charcoal for the haute cuisine


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2019)

Charcoal has been a hot commodity ever since top chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver began cooking over open flame. “Live Fire” is the name of a trend that essentially elevates the classic BBQ in the privacy of a garden to the heights of an exclusive culinary experience. The London Log Company is the first to fuel the fire, and its founder Mark Parr built his entire empire on wood. Our London editor Nora Manthey spent a day in the woods with Parr to learn how to extract the black gold from the trees in the county of Kent.

You can find the London Log Company’s headquarters in the southeast of the British capital. The brick walls of the worn warehouse account for the island’s industrial past and once belonged to the railway company. These days, however, firewood is at the root of the business that has settled here, and the wares are piling up inside. Metal shelves carry baskets with bundles of dried vine shoots esteemed for developing a particularly spicy smoke aroma when burned. In one corner of the warehouse are sacks of chips made of apple wood, which is considered an excellent organic grill lighter.In the back linger precisely split logs and dried oak and birch branches in old oil barrels. Sacks full of charcoal, today’s speciality of the London Log Company (LLC), take most of the remaining space. The labels state “for professional kitchens” in silver letters, thus making clear that the content is not of random origin or for a simple BBQ.

On the contrary, the origin decides whether these pieces are hot or not. Some of the charcoals are as big as a lumberjack’s fist. You can still make out the grain of the old tree, only now it is polished to a sheen that speaks of oil and dust at the same time. Both the size and density of the pieces determine the quality of the embers, and haute cuisine demands consistent heat output.

The industry which the LLC is dealing in is comparable to the market for specialty coffee. Instead of “single origin”, however, the “single species” – meaning the type of wood – is all that counts for the London Log Company. Like a coffee roasting business, the LLC seeks to work only with the best growers and last traditional charcoal burners. In addition to the bestselling charcoal made from pure oak, the small company offers the English hardwood mix of oak, birch and sweet chestnut, which promises “deep and rich notes and a grill aroma”. A 15-kilo sack costs the equivalent of 28 euros (in comparison: acceptable standard charcoal for the BBQ costs about half as much), and LLC has a solid customer base of 300 restaurants that together buy four to five tonnes of firewood and charcoal per week.

The clientele has grown in recent years, won over by company founder Mark Parr, who has been cooking exclusively with fire since 2011. He has been a man on a mission ever since – often carrying a bag of charcoal under his arm. In order to convince the head chefs of his wares, he has taken over the rotisserie duty in luxury kitchens more than once and likes to recount how he once served up “540 portions in one shift, with all dishes cooked to perfection”. Grilling at this level is a balancing act without temperature control. Parr likens it to the four seasons and says “the rhythm of fire gives chefs a natural barometer” beyond precise measurement.

This same “rhythm of the seasons”, as Parr calls it, ultimately led him into the woods. Before we leave London for the forest though, it becomes evident that Parr values craftsmanship, quality and tradition in everything he does, and his appearance reflects this. In his black van are Red Wings. The company is known for its handmade work shoes and nowadays regularly repairs Parr’s boots free of charge. He also produces a rain jacket from the trunk and says it was hand waxed at Savile Row, where London’s best men’s tailors reside. Taste aside, once on the way to the forest, Parr comes around to telling the story behind his passion for charcoal. An old charcoal burner, “a crazy alcoholic who eats everything that has legs” was responsible, he explains. It is possibly from this experience that Parr describes the production of charcoal as a “distillation of wood”. Indeed, in order to make charcoal you must burn wood for long enough until only carbon remains, which will burn hotter than wood ever could.

There are only a handful of traditional charcoal burners left who know how to make pure charcoal, i.e. charcoal that consists of only one wood or a specific mix as distributed by the LLC. Parr has procured his best pieces from selected partners since 2006. These include the Viscount Falmouth, whom his employees refer to as “His Lordship”. He is the second biggest landowner in Cornwall, surpassed only by the royal estates that belong to Prince Charles. The Falmouth Estate in Kent, in England’s southeast, has been family-owned since 1334, and Parr was taken with this land from the second he set foot on it. “They have a 500-year plan on this estate”, he says, still seemingly impressed. To him, his work with the charcoal burners working the 1,400 acres of woodland, is only “a small segment in time, we cut trees down that we never planted and plant trees we’ll never cut down”. The founder resumes and adds that an oak can grow for up to 200 years before perhaps being turned into coal. Bearing longevity in mind, the quality of the wood from Kent is high. The soil is hard and acidic so that the trees have to fight for survival, and the saplings that make it still need a long time to grow. This adversity ultimately leaves wood of a denser and harder quality, so that it burns slower and hotter. Only charcoal results in more scorching temperatures and is “so hot it can burn steel”, adds Parr.

But how do you transform wood into charcoal? If you want Parr’s recipe in short, then “you starve the wood of oxygen and cook it at a high temperature”. This process takes longer, of course, and in Kent they pile up the logs by hand, building layer upon layer inside two oversized boilers. It requires tight stacking for the wood to char evenly. A fire burns between the so-called retorts that are almost airtight, and two charcoal burners keep it going for six days a week. The closed system can reach temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius, and it takes twelve hours to discharge all the elements such as tar in a tree before the organic carbon structure that is charcoal finally materialises.

The process doesn’t just sound like alchemy, it almost is. Parr says there is a “spirit inside the charcoal, energy at an atomic level that wants to burn”. It is true. There have been cases of spontaneous combustion where charcoal was exposed to air during the first week. In Kent, the black logs are therefore left to cool down in closed steel containers for eight days – to be on the safe side. What remains is charcoal that will glow evenly in the grill rather than shooting up in flames. Chefs expect controlled smoke development from the goods of the London Log Company, especially in the closed rooms of an upscale kitchen. On average, coal develops a heat of 250 to 350 degrees Celsius on the grill, but it can also reach over 2,000 degrees Celsius in a furnace, for example.

Mark Parr is not only an experienced live fire cook, but also a trained textile printer who financed his art degree as a tree surgeon. For him, a forest is a “rural economy that is as much about sustainability as it is about sensibility”. The Falmouth Estate in Kent, for example, turns over up to 5,000 tons of wood a year, and Parr says that managing a woodland is about “harvesting light” – the sunlight that a wildly growing forest competes for constantly. The trees are cut down in a way that several young shoots can grow out of the old tree stumps, maximising exposure as they rise. For Parr, multiple trunks such as these serve as a warning to continue to think “in a long-term and sustainable manner”.

Despite liking to think along such vast time spans, success came relatively quickly to the LLC, especially since the founder was able to convince chefs such as Lee Tiernan of the Black Axe Mangal Restaurant to cook with his coal. Meat connoisseurs consider Tiernan’s restaurant in North London to be the Holy Grail of grills. The chef was impressed early on by Parr’s willingness to take risks and his inherent knowledge of cooking with fire. While Parr says he can handle speed due to being a former motorcycle racer, he traces his strategic business sense back to his father, an executive at Hoechst.

Over the last two years, the London Log Company’s turnover has been approaching the two-million mark, and all through charred wood. Clearly, the firm is rising faster than its slowly growing product, but the founder is thinking ahead and already has another piece of land on his list: an old cherry tree orchard that is due to become a mine full of aroma in three years. Until then, the London Log Company plans to continue to fan the flames in Europe’s “culinary
metropolises” as well as in England, of course.

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Mark Parr, who goes by the name of “Lord Logs” in the industry, treads the fine line between appearing as both an enigma and a trusted friend to those who meet him. He built London Log Co from scratch with an axe, a borrowed van and his ebullient charm. If you eat out a lot, especially in London, you’ve probably had something cooked over live flame, and if you have, it’s almost certain to have been done on a grill designed and built by Parr over wood and charcoal he has sourced and delivered.

Picture credit © Horst Friedrichs

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