Controlled Heat and Cooking in a Charcoal Oven

By Chris Spear

By

Chris Spear
Chef Shola Olunloyo prepares a salt block
Chef Shola Olunloyo prepares a salt block

There are very few chefs in the United States who have worked with charcoal ovens, so when Chefs Shola Olunloyo and Giorgio Rapicavoli broke out the KOPA charcoal oven at this year’s International Chefs Congress, people took notice. 

Unlike most open flame cooking methods, charcoal ovens let you cook in a sealed environment, and your have the option to cook your food on a rack, in a pan, or directly on the coals. “You essentially have an oven that doubles as a grill and is able to cook with both direct and ambient heat, thus speeding up the cooking time of most items,” says Olunloyo. “You get all the traditional aromas of grilling but also the heat retention properties of a modern oven.”

The sealed environment allows for higher temperatures and faster cooking with better moisture retention, according to Olunloyo, making them ideal for steak preparations. In a restaurant kitchen, you would traditionally grill steaks on a charbroiler and then finish them in an over. With the charcoal oven, you get a better end result in less time, and can possibly eliminate a separate charbroiler altogether.  

Another plus: there are no cords or gas lines to mess with (though you should check with local fire regulations and ventilation requirements before purchasing one). KOPA ovens run on traditional hardwood charcoal that provide a consistent burn and even temperature control. The oven warms up in 30 to 45 minutes and is able to reach temperatures of up to 750ºF—though you probably won’t need to run it that hot. 

Olunloyo estimates that the oven uses one and a half bags of charcoal per meal period, and you can capitalize on the heat during downtime. A great technique is to slow roast items like potatoes or whole onions during the down time between meal periods, using only the residual heat. The oven will hold a temperature close to 300ºF, allowing you to cook without burning excess charcoal.

 Over the course of the three days at the congress, Olunloyo and Rapicavoli cooked a number of dishes showcasing how to best use the oven. From juicy steaks with a smoky undertone, to their version of the French potato dish tartiflette, everything they cooked was delicious. The oven comes in three sizes, so whether your operation has 40 seats or 150, there’s an oven that’s the right size for your kitchen. It would seem that charcoal ovens are an improvement over virtually any open-flame charcoal fired cooking technique.

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