Fireplace envy fills the hearts of many a Brooklynite each winter. The air fills with that cozy aroma of smoky, flame-licked logs; bodegas move their displays of kindling and Duraflame out front; and we surrender to a specific lineup of bars and restaurants, just to cuddle up next to the hearth and have our jackets smell like smoke for a day or two.
New York City isn’t exactly the best place to harvest, split or store your own firewood, but here in the capital of takeout and delivery, a few entrepreneurs truck it in to fuel the flames in home fireplaces, grills and wood-fired restaurant ovens; only one supplies kiln-dried firewood: the Woodman, run primarily out of Adam Rubin’s Park Slope apartment.
The business began by accident three years ago when Rubin’s college friend Ted Whitehead needed to fell a stand of trees on his property in Stamford, Connecticut. Rubin spent weekends helping split logs and at the end of the summer, they decided to try to sell bundles in the city for residential fireplace use. Two weeks after setting up a Web site and phone number, they were completely sold out.
Recognizing a spectacularly unmet demand, Rubin and Whitehead set out in search of wood sources and came across a barn-size kiln in Pennsylvania offering oak, beech, birch, maple and ash, all dried at 200 degrees for about three days—optimal for quick-start flames and fireplace use. Plus Rubin and Whitehead quickly learned that kiln-dried doesn’t just make the best kindling, but that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulations stipulate that out-of-state wood be kiln-dried to eradicate certain insects such as the Asian Longhorn Beetle and the Emerald Ash Borer. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
Firewood comes with its own lingo. It’s sold in measurements of “face cords,” a stack of wood 8 feet long by 4 feet high. By the Woodman’s standards, 12 bundles is a quarter face cord—the smallest quantity they’ll deliver. Their holdings are kept in a 6,000-square-foot lot in Hunts Point. Whitehead manages the comings and goings of the lot, while Rubin is in charge of sales—as evidenced by the bundles and bundles of logs in his apartment’s entryway.
Upon arrival at the lot, a machine called “the Twister” stacks and bundles the split logs, which are then trucked out for delivery. Rubin and Whitehead cut some into 3-inch chunks for grilling and smokers. Leftover sawdust—the veritable magical pixie dust of the firewood world—gets collected, bagged and sold as wood dust. It’s spectacular in smokers and gives off the same aromas as the larger pieces, but takes up much less space. In addition to the logs from the Keystone State, they trade in cherry, apple and hickory. Caserta Vecchia on Smith Street, known for its brick-oven pizza, was the Woodman’s first restaurant client, buying mixed bundles for its bubbly, charred pies; the business now counts over 100 restaurant clients citywide.
Brooklyn pizzerias are a core clientele. Among them is Dave Sclarow’s Pizza Moto. Following guidelines he researched online, he constructed a transportable wood-fired pizza oven on a small trailer using bricks, concrete and Perlite. Now on his second oven (the first one didn’t hold up very well), Dave has taken his pizza show on the road and was a regular at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene and will return when it reopens in April. Chef de cuisine at Smith Street’s Lunetta, Sclarow uses the restaurant’s equipment to make his dough and sauce, then burns through about eight bundles of wood at each Flea.
“Frank Lloyd Wright said the hearth is the center of the home—I think there’s something to that,” Sclarow says, accounting for the increasing interest in all things wood-fired. “The pendulum swings both ways. There’s been a lot of attention paid to molecular gastronomy, but on the other side is this interest in the old-school—charcuterie and cooking over wood.”
He favors the Woodman’s kindling because of its supreme kilnkissed dryness; it lights immediately and never sizzles. Sclarow’s used his oven for some extra-special s’mores made with enormous graham crackers from One Girl Cookies.
Barbecue spots like Smoke Joint in Fort Greene also keep Woodman accounts. Matt Greco, chef at Char No. 4 on Smith Street, smokes with oak. He says, “New Yorkers like really kitschy things,” recalling a recent visit to a barbecue joint in Manhattan where he noticed the same woodwork, country music and bourbon that he has witnessed at many other new barbecue places in the city. Born and raised in Texas, Greco says serious smoking runs in his family and tells a wild tale of the time his dad’s ex-wife hocked his hand-built smoker. At Char No. 4, Greco cures his own bacon and smokes it with the Woodman’s hickory, apple and oak; he sticks to straight oak to smoke sausage and chicken, explaining that oak has deep flavor and gives food great color. Although he buys 1/4 face cord at a time, Greco only uses one log per energy efficient smoke, as it only takes a few blasts of heat to get the smoker up to 225 degrees.
Some of Brooklyn’s tonier dining establishments are clients, too. River Café chef Brad Steelman buys both olive chunks and olive dust, which the Woodman imports from California, to use in a gorgeous, earthy dish of duck legs cooked rare and then cold smoked, infusing the meat with black olive flavor.
Rubin, still amazed at the success of his little company, is expanding beyond logs. He and Whitehead bring Wicked Good Charcoal down from Maine in summer and have been looking to sell mini hibachi grills and inserts so those lucky few with fireplaces can have the wood-fired experience at home.
“It seems to be doing well,” says Rubin. “Knock on wood.”
Places to pick up a bundle from the Woodman:
Crest Hardware: 558 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg; 718.388.9521
Pintchik Hardware: 478 Bergen Street, Park Slope; 718.783.3333
Megan Krigbaum is the assistant wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. She lives in Cobble Hill and, depending on the day, smells like oak, cherry or hickory.
Where there’s smoke: Char No. 4’s Matt Greco smokes his own bacon with hickory, apple and oak. Smoked sausage gets straight oak for deep flavor and great color.