Luxury dining can be many things, but primal is usually not one of them. There is, however, a growing number of top chefs around the world embracing the raw unpredictability of nature by swapping the scientific precision of a standard professional kitchen for a wood-fired live flame. While often retaining the starched tablecloths of fine dining , and losing none of the obsessive attention to detail of their gas-fired colleagues, these chefs are responding to a yearning for days past, of time spent in the open air under big skies. From veteran Argentine chef Francis Mallmann to Sweden’s Niklas Ekstedt and London’s Tomos Parry, fire-speciality chefs are making wood-fired restaurants some of the hottest tables in town. For Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri – the Basque village restaurant about an hour from San Sebastian, Spain, that is third on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – cooking over fire is a return to tradition, a sense of home. “People are now looking for traditional flavours again and cooking over fire is an ancestral way of cooking,” he says. For more complete control of his craft, Arguinzoniz designed his restaurant’s grills himself, complete with pulleys to move them closer or farther from the flames as required. He prepares coals daily from specially selected woods – vine trunks for meat and holm oak for fish, for example. His detailed approach to the process allows him to draw out sublime flavours from seemingly simple, always local, ingredients. “For me, cooking with fire means being in touch with my origins. It connects me directly with my childhood, with my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking in the farmhouse,” he says. Where to eat in Hong Kong in February – expect tastes of Italy and Japan Nostalgia is a sentiment Willem Hiele – who owns his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant on the Belgian coast at Koksijde – also relates to. He grew up fishing with his grandfather, someone he refers to as an “idol”, and has strong memories of his childhood kitchen – the smell of strong cheese, beer, coffee and his grandmother’s soup. “What happens as a kid affects you more than you think,” he explains. “The taste of an oyster today triggers all the memories of my childhood, my grandfather bringing home fish he had caught, and my grandmother cooking it with love.” He serves his grandmother’s North Sea shrimp bisque in his multi-course tasting menu. The shrimps are netted by men on horseback, a traditional method of fishing in these waters, and then served in a teacup. “Food for me is linked with love, sharing and adventure,” says the long-haired, nearly two-metre-tall chef. “I want to create a space for romantic moments, where people talk to each other.” Part of the experience of dining at Willem Hiele is, weather permitting, heading outside to enjoy a dish or two fireside. Hiele built the outdoor fireplace and smoker with his own hands. Not everything on his menu is done on a grill, but cooking over fire is “a big part of what we do, part of our identity”, he says. Hiele is a passionate surfer, and this immersion in nature informs his cooking: “Out there on the water, you are confronted with the power and roughness of nature. It helps put things into perspective. Spending hours on my board, I would get really hungry and dream of the things I wanted to cook.” But using fire is also a reaction against his experiences when training as a chef. “I started cooking professionally more than 20 years ago, working in dark basements, under artificial lighting. I had the urge to immerse myself in nature, walk on the beach,” he says. “In nature, the only way to cook is over fire.” Michelin movers: which Hong Kong restaurants earned their first star? He describes himself as “not a technical chef”, and says that taming live flames means cooking “in the moment – I want A plus B and then an explosion – that’s my way”. His langoustine is so fresh, he poaches the tails in a dashi made from local fish and seaweed for just 45 seconds at a temperature that “when you put your finger in and say, ‘Ouch!’, it’s right”. He briefly sears the langoustine heads on the grill, then, in front of diners, crushes them with his hand and dribbles the juices over the tails. For chef-patron Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends in Singapore, which sits at No 34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, cooking over fire is indeed in the moment. It is also uncontrollable, and that is part of its magic spell. When you realise you can’t control it, that’s when you can start unlocking its secrets Dave Pynt, chef-owner of Burnt Ends “It’s engaging and uncontrollable. It’s something you must work with and not against, and when you realise you can’t control it, that’s when you can start unlocking its secrets,” he says. He points out, however, that there are many challenges with cooking over fire, primarily “that it’s a process that takes time, and if you don’t have time, then it will never work”. Australia-born Pynt trained under Arguinzoniz, along with other culinary luminaries including Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia; Waku Ghin of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore; and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. “There are limitations to cooking with fire but it allows you to dive deep into the possibilities,” he says. “It just depends on how challenging you want it to get.” His most popular dishes include smoked quail egg and caviar, grissini with taramasalata (creamy cured fish roe), beef marmalade (smoked beef brisket slow-cooked with bacon and beef bone marrow), king crab and, as to be expected from a barbecue restaurant, his steaks. While grills are most associated with a heavy char , the best chefs offer a much more varied and refined flavour profile. Like the delicate touch of wok hei – the complex charred aroma and flavour in Cantonese stir fries that comes, in part, from live flames that fleetingly sear ingredients being tossed from a wok – masterful grill cooking is also about subtlety and restraint. Arguinzoniz is renowned for being able to cook almost anything, and for his subtle use of wood and smoke flavours – he even smokes ice cream. How to start a wine collection, according to the experts “In my opinion, almost anything can be cooked over fire with more or less success. It is often a matter of time and perseverance to find the perfect cooking point for each food,” he says. He is now most excited about cooking angulas – elvers, or baby eels, an “incredible product that are now in the best season here in the Basque country” – and caviar. While cooking over fire is the ultimate in tradition, it is ironic that for today’s diners it holds a sense of novelty: “As cooking becomes more artisanal – a craftsperson’s speciality – chefs and restaurateurs are looking at wood fire as a way to provide special flavours and experiences for guests,” says Pynt. Want more stories like this? Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .