BORN TO BURN

Chef John Murcko heats up Park City’s dining scene at Firewood.

 

1-1One bite and I’m instantly transported back more than a dozen years ago to the rocky southwest coast of Ireland and an eye-widening spoonful of luscious and smoky fish chowder served in a heavy bowl in the fishing village of Dingle. When I’d asked our server which fish gave it such a paradoxically delicate and complex flavor, she replied with a grin and the region’s distinctive cadence, “I’ve no idea, m’dear. It’s from our perpetual stove top,” apparently replenished daily with whatever came in fresh and kept endlessly simmering in a massive Dutch oven on the wood stove in the tidy kitchen. That depth of acute flavor development echoes beautifully in a halibut dish at Firewood in Park City, delicately applewood-fired and plated by Chef John Murcko over a melting layer of smoke-tinged potatoes, cream, leeks and herbs. Elegant, elevated and handsomely proportioned, it nonetheless resonates with the visceral comfort of top-notch ingredients prepared with exactitude. “That’s it!” Murcko says, when I relate to him that revived memory of fireside Irish chowder summoned by his superlative dish. “That’s what I’m ultimately aiming for at Firewood: bringing the memory and joy of food made with care … That seems to happen especially well with the sensory connections we make when cooking with fire.”

Since opening in December 2016, Firewood—located in the spot formerly occupied by Cicero’s on historic Main Street in Park City—has been deluged with a stream of customers who come in curious and leave captivated. Murcko is a bit of a legend in the Utah restaurant scene. From a young start he helmed some of the state’s top restaurants, starting with projects he developed years ago with Bill White and later at Talisker. “I’ve opened over 20 restaurants and always loved that challenge,” says Murcko, who has worked in one way or another in the restaurant business since he stared out at age 14 in a resort kitchen on Michigan’s famously car-free Mackinac Island. Recently returned to Utah after overseeing 19 dining outlets in Sun Valley, he says that planning for his own stand-alone restaurant was a project well over a year-and-a-half in the making. With his wife, Kelli, and their two children, he was thrilled to make the Utah homecoming happen, family-style. “Kelli helps run the front of the house,” Murcko says, “and the kids are here all the time. It’s great for us to all be together.” It’s even a multi-generational project; his artist father helped design the space, sourced the photographs and industrial artifacts adapted to the soaring ceilings of the historic building, and the father-son team built the dining tables from reclaimed wood.
1-2As gorgeous as the dining area is, however, the entire space is designed to showcase the glass-enclosed kitchen. The star of the show? A custom (aka expensive) Grillworks Infierno 154 four-station grill. That’d be a fourteen-foot-long bank of cook stations, all fired—literally—by wood. Cooks take turns at a chopping block by the service counter, each splitting off chunks of the various woods they anticipate using during the course of the night. Neatly stacked bundles of hickory, apple, cherry and oak are stored under each cook’s station, ready to be added to the flames as needed. The entire process takes hours of preparation before each service, as the grill needs a significant amount of time to heat up to optimal cooking temperatures. “Our cooks all split their own wood, changing it up depending on what’s on the menu,” Murcko says. “Apricot is a good delicate touch for fish and chicken. Applewood burns at a nice low heat. Cherry is fantastic with red meat.”
Unlike a traditional French kitchen line (with one person making sauces, another person on fish, another plating vegetables, etc.), each line cook controls almost the entire dish from start to finish at his or her station. “They control the temperature they’ll need by adding wood or spreading out the fire source, and by raising and lowering racks,” spaced along the entire rear wall of the massive grill. And it’s hot, even when I’m there on a blustery winter afternoon well before the kitchen was in full swing. “You get used to it,” Murcko says, as the line cook standing behind him gives me a wry smile and “what can ya’ do?” raised eyebrow. “It’s a steep learning curve. It takes about 10 days, plus or minus, for a cook to really get how to operate each station,” Murcko says.
The creativity and unique properties of cooking almost entirely over wood have drawn experienced cooks from all over the nation who specifically came to work with Murcko at Firewood. “I was really surprised that so many people came to me on this project. They wanted to learn about cooking with wood,” he continues. “It’s an extremely creative process, learning how to build a cooking environment with wood fire. How to balance flavor and smoke without it being an overwhelming element.” Every Firewood offering—from cocktails made with charred citrus to desserts leaps and bounds beyond your typical campfire s’more—gets a touch of flame. But the kitchen is not run exclusively by fire. There’s a sous vide station and a couple of convection burners for sauces and other finishing elements, but there isn’t a single gas line piped into the space.
And the meticulousness of pastry making requires the use of commercial ovens, which were integrated into the pantry station on the opposite side of the kitchen from the grill. “Especially with pastry, we want the wood smoke to be an element of the dish, not the entirety of the experience,” says pastry chef Aimee Altizer—who worked with Murcko “back in the day” at Talisker outlets. Her favorite wood-fired dessert ingredients? Gently smoked housemade ricotta and stone fruits seared directly on the grill. “It’s a very collaborative environment working with John,” Altizer says. “He’s always saying, ‘What can we do to bring our next best thing to the table? How can we make it even better for the diner?’” 1-3
Murcko says when he was trying to figure out what he wanted to focus on for opening his own personal venture, he and his wife “spent a lot of time talking about ‘what represents John Murcko.’ What does that look and taste like?” Many of these discussions took place at Murcko’s place in remote Escalante, cooking over wood fires every day. “It finally hit me: This is what I’ve always loved to do, either at my place in Escalante or in a restaurant kitchen: Cook with fire,” he recalls. “We just needed to figure out how to make it work with the scale needed for fine dining.” Further complicating his concept, Murcko was committed to keeping ingredient sources as local as possible. Even for the firewood itself, which is almost entirely sourced from a fruit grower in Logan, who sells the restaurant his annual orchard trimmings, and another supplier of thinned native Gambel oak scrub from central Utah. And one of the things Murcko enjoys most about the Grillworks Infierno 154 system is that it has built-in ventilation and ash-cleaning mechanisms, which limit particulate exhaust. “It’s a crucial part of the machinery,” he says. “Each night the system cleans automatically. It’d be too hot for a person to do it safely after a long service” with the resulting crazy-high heat retention of the grill.
Developing the concept of Firewood, Murcko was most excited to build a place that in his words is, “not about turning tables, but about creating an experience of a place” that will linger in memory for diners. “As a chef, I was most excited about running my own space and creating [for guests] more than a meal,” he continues. “Of course the food has got to be good, but there’s so much more to it than that.” For guests lucky enough to book out well in advance, the concept of the chef’s table has been taken to the next level at Firewood to the “chef’s library,” a dedicated cozy room with pass-through service directly from the restaurant kitchen through wide swinging windows. Murcko had been mulling over the concept since he worked with Chef Charlie Trotter in the 1990s (author’s note: No, I didn’t ask Murcko what that drama was like, but I hope he’ll share those stories some day). Like many chefs of the era, Trotter “had a four-top right in the kitchen, and served guests there. I wanted to create the best of both worlds: customers have the experience of being part of the kitchen,” with a specifically chef-curated meal, “but with their own dining space in the library.” The personal touches are everywhere in the snug and gracious room: Walls are lined with Murcko’s collection of hundreds of cookbooks, and guests are greeted with a cheese course served on Murcko’s own well-worn butcher block, which he’s used for over 20 years.
The timing couldn’t be better for Murcko and Firewood to flourish. “Park City’s growing number of chef-owners are great for the community. It changes the culinary scene,” he says. With Utah’s restaurant scene booming, and increasingly sophisticated diners in the state looking for culinary diversity, Park City chefs have a growing groundswell of local support, crucial to keeping things going beyond the ski holiday/Sundance crush. “When you invest your heart and name in a place, it’s good for the town,” he says. “It shows your will to push and evolve with a commitment to that place.” We’re pretty fired up to see what Murcko will bring to the plate next.

Firewood
306 Main, Park City
435-252-9900
firewoodonmain.com

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