The Esquire Guide to Cooking Things on Flames

IMAGE Ben Goldstein/Studio D

You know how in Revolution the lights go out and all electricity disappears from the earth and people are left to fend like cave men and hillbillies? Well, that got me thinking. If we were to lose, in the Philippines, all our electricity, would all the men be able to rise up and turn on their Hunter-Gatherer/Makeshift Chef mode? I doubt it. So we decided to put together a guide of essential skills and basic knowledge that all men should posses about cooking, protein, building fires, and the art of absolute laziness once the power comes back.



So you think you know how to build a fire? Ok, that’s a given, you probably do. But did you know that each fire is different depending on its purpose?

The Quickie

This fire is small enough to cook something on a pan with, grill your marshmallows and boil your water. This is the fire that you’ve seen in countless TV shows and boy scout drawings. Build a teepee-like formation with twigs and larger barks, leave some space in the middle to fill with lots of tinder, and wait for the twigs to fall a little before putting your cooking vessel right on top. The problem with this fire is that you cannot control the heat and that you will have to add twigs to keep it going.

The Cook's Fire

This is the big one. But not big in flames as you might think. Start by building the Quickie much larger than you normally would, now add in some larger cubes of logs to have the same effect as charcoal (or just use charcoal) and once the flames have died a little and everything is glowing nice and red, take two large logs and compress the fire on either side. This will spread the coal vertically and will create a space (between the two logs) where you can place a grill or your pots and pans without having them directly on flame or coal. Monitor the fire carefully so that you can add more wood when needed. What’s great with this technique is that since the fire is narrow and vertical, you can add or discard wood to create different levels of heat on either side.


The Comfort Fire

This is the one most of us know how to make. It’s a basic stack of horizontal logs in a fireplace made to emit a vertical flame and a surrounding heat. Now if you are in the forest or in the wild and you want to replicate the same heat emission you would get at home from a fireplace and not have a dispersed heat like a campfire, make sure you build this one in front of a boulder or a large rock, right at the back of the stack.


There is a general misconception that you need a smoker to smoke meat. Smoking meat is probably one of the best ways to cook a tough cut of meat for a long and steady period of time. If you take an Argentina barbecue for example, they even cook their steaks with this method because they like the intense results.

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Begin with a chimney starter full of a mix of half briquettes and half hardwood charcoal (you know what that is you just never knew what to call it before—it’s the hollow cylinder with holes in the side). Put that in the grill, cover and let the flames die. Move all of the charcoal to one side of the grill and place your meat on the other side.

Now to create the actual smoke. If you are using wood (oak, mesquite…) make sure to soak it in water for at least an hour to create a more intense smoke distribution and if you are using wood chips, just simply wrap a good amount in foil and poke some holes into it and lay it on the coal.

If you are going to smoke cuts like brisket where the cooking time is close to 15 to20 hours, it's best have an electric standalone smoker handy.



Barbecuing and grilling are skills our parents had perfected as an art and one that unfortunately
younger generations aren’t taking seriously. If you watch movies from the ‘90s you will see the stereotypical suburban American dad in his bermuda shorts and polo shirt, grinning and showing off his new hyper-jet gas barbecue that cooks the best burgers. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy and there are specific things that you need to remember while you sip the iced beer and wipe away the sweat beads forming on your forehead as you try to remain cool and collected in front of your hungry guests. Let’s break it down.

Indirect heat means cooking on the side of the barbecue where there is no heat source right under. This will only work if you put a cover on the grill. This technique is best for long barbecue recipes, for whole cuts of meats, whole chickens, and cuts where you want to recover the fat drips.

Direct heat means cooking on top of the heat source. Now this doesn’t mean you need to cook on flame. Rarely will you ever need to cook on flame, that’s really just to make you look cool. If
you are using gas, use a constant heat. If you are using charcoal, it is only ready when a big majority of it is already ash gray and glowing.

When cooking on charcoal, always cover the grill to get it hot faster, best used in indirect cooking or recipes where you really want an authentic flavor. Always keep a squirt water bottle next to you so you can regulate the heat easily.

Barbecue means whole meats cooked for long. Grilling is the term used when you grill for a short time only.

Always carry a meat thermometer.

Tongs and spatulas are your friends.

The grill is ready if you put your hand on top (not on it, you idiot) and it starts hurting after 3 seconds.

If you didn’t pull out a barbecue/grilling marinade recipe, just remember oil + acid + seasoning + herbs + aromatics (garlic, peppercorns, et cetera...). Always leave the meat in, covered and rubbed for more than two hours.

If you just want to make a quick dry rub. My personal favorite is salt, dried herb, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, pepper, cumin, marsala and packed with fresh stalk herbs (rosemary, thyme).

Worcestershire (go, pronounce it) is also your friend.

Don’t poke and play with your food. Only turn when one side is done.

All your cuts should be one-inch thick when doing any kind of protein steaks.

Take all your favorite vegetables, wrap them in foil with a little butter and salt and throw them on the coals while everything else cooks.

Always make sure your grill is very clean and very well-lubricated if you want perfect results every time.

You can cook some vegetables straight on the coals with no protection needed. Potatoes, sweet
potatoes, corn on the husk, bell peppers, and eggplants. Peel and enjoy.


If you are using charcoal and you want to get the grill hotter, either add some coals and wait it out or if they aren’t completely burnt, just huddle them closer to each other. Alternatively, if
you want to reduce the heat, separate the coals from one another.

Contrary to popular belief, when grilling, use lean meats and salt 30 minutes before to tenderize the piece. When barbecuing, use fatty cuts and a drip pan (oh, that juice).

Always add barbecue sauce. Add during the last 10 minutes only. You don’t want it to burn.

If you are using your marinade as a sauce, always remember to boil it first to kill off any possible bacteria.

Never, ever, press down on a burger while grilling. Put that spatula down and wait.


Everyone has their own technique. Some people like to cook their steaks in the oven, some on a
flat-iron, some in a pan and some on a grill. All of them have their benefits. But if the sun is shining, people are by the pool and you want to be seen handling meat like you know what you’re doing, go for the grill.

  • Grab a big piece of prime-grade, properly marbled; dry aged 1 1/2-inch thick steak.
  • Start your charcoal grill and wait until they are almost all white.
  • Move the charcoals to one side and close the lid for about 5 minutes, until the metal grill becomes
    screaming hot. It’s all about a crisp crust.
  • Let’s say you are using New York Strip Steak cuts, remove them from the fridge and bring them down to room temperature.
  • Mix half a cup of clarified butter with 1/2 cup of olive oil.
  • Dip the steaks on either side and let the extra oil drip off.
  • Coat with some thick salt and pepper on either side.
  • Put the steak on the hottest part of the grill, where the coal is, each time a flame comes up, pick it up and place it on the indirect heat side, until the flame dies and move it back. You will want to cook it for about 3 minutes on each side twice.
  • Let it rest for 5 minutes.
  • Enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the editors.


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Erwan Heussaff
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