KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — It’s 800-plus degrees in Jill Strauss’ backyard. Yet the apron-clad owner of Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School keeps her cool helping students magically turn balls of just-made pizza dough into canvases for crusty, fragile Neapolitan pies.
Thrusting caramelized onion and chorizo-topped pizzas into a blazing wood-fired oven and pulling out spectacular gourmet discs every 90 seconds is part of the show.
“Neapolitan pizza requires great heat. Wood is the perfect method,” said Strauss, a restaurant veteran who spent weeks in Naples, Italy, learning to make these thin-crust-in-the-center but puffy-on the-edges pies invented centuries ago in the old country. An intensive class with a fourth-generation pizzaiolo who was “yelling at me in Italian for two weeks” was her baptism by fire.
As people across the country turn to slow cooking, ancient methods like wood-fired cooking have become increasingly more attractive. “There is a longing that people have to slow down,” said Strauss.
“I think we have a very busy society. Everyone is unbelievably stressed and hurried. It’s not just a cooking school but an opportunity to meet new people who share your passions.”
Scores of people sign up for Strauss’ classes and workshops, taught in her Kennebunkport backyard anchored by a stunning mortar oven surrounded in field stone and granite. Their motivation is multi-pronged. “It’s an experience to cook with wood. You are doing something that’s very old fashioned and gratifying,” said Strauss. “Being able to tame that fire and produce something so delicious with live fire … it’s almost like a sport.”
In Lyman, wood-fired bread-making classes at Turtle Stone Baking and Cooking School have soared in popularity in the last few years. Owner Michael Jubinsky, who worked for King Arthur Flour Company, opened the school nine years ago to fill a void. He’s not surprised the ancient ways are returning.
“With the invention of cast-iron stoves, people forgot 3,000 years of cooking history,” said Jubinsky, who models his business on the community ovens of Europe and the Middle East, where people gathered to make bread and socialize.
The rise of food TV showcasing dining as theater has helped fan the flames.
New places like Blaze in Bangor and stalwarts such as Cafe Miranda in Rockland and Fore Street in Portland, where wood-fired ovens rule the kitchen, underscore the trend’s staying power. Now all things wood-fired — from mobile food carts to workshops at the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan to businesses like Maine Wood Heat — are red hot.
“It’s just skyrocketed. There were a handful of oven makers a few years ago. Now there are literally dozens across the country,” said Jubinsky. “As people enter the empty-nester phase, they are putting wood-fired ovens in kitchens, you are seeing moderate-sized wood-fired ovens in houses.”
Practitioners like Jubinsky advise both home and restaurant chefs on the ins and outs of this rustic style of cooking, which requires more than culinary skill. Strauss stresses the importance of “babying your wood” and having a helper to assure the oven is at the right temperature to pull off your recipes. A wood splitter helps, too.
“The whole idea is to get back to the basics” said Jubinsky, whose artisan bread making classes
start “from an empty bowl.” After a six-hour session on a Saturday, a novice can return home with two crusty loaves and tales from the fire pit.
In a similar vein in Kennebunkport, Strauss is adding more classes to meet demand. Starting in July, she’ll teach a new wood-fired workshop for people who have a burning interest. The Johnson and Wales University grad will demonstrate how to make a Mediterranean supper, including casseroles and roasts. “It’s designed for people who are obsessed with cooking outside,” she said, an especially attractive option for people in Maine.
“I’ve only done wood-fired grilling,” said Dan Smith, a student from Gardiner in Strauss’ signature pizza class. “I would love to have something like that in my backyard. But it’s not in the cards.”
In the end, is this style of cooking superior to others? Does it produce meals head and shoulders above traditional grilling? “It’s just that it’s fun,” admits Strauss, who loves cooking under fire.