The two enormous steel-walled J&R rotisserie rigs (the centerpiece of a large open kitchen) burn wood only, no gas. They don’t even have thermometers. Cooking with wood is notoriously unpredictable, owing to variables including the amount of moisture in the wood and the confounding behavior of fire.
“Yesterday, the fire was way too hot,” George Pagonis says. “It’s a challenge. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants, but none of us have done anything like this. We got all this camping equipment, shovels and stuff, things I never needed as a chef before.”
They fixed the fire problem by spacing out the wood to create better air flow and by adding wood to the back of the smoker to dry it out, which, when added to the embers, will burn more predictably. Yet, inevitably, other problems arise.
When Pagonis finally finishes tightening the lamb to the spit, for instance, a process that takes more than half an hour, and places it on the rotisserie, the fire glows and a gentle waft of smoke swaddles the lamb, all perfect until. . . .
“See?” Pagonis exclaims. “See that?”
On its rotation, part of the lamb catches on the pit’s overhang. A welder arrives later that morning. He will cut off four inches along the length of the top of the pit’s opening so the animals can rotate without catching. Not only will the fix allow the animals to cook with less oversight, it also will permit the use of larger beasts.
The restaurant is part of a nose-to-tail cooking trend. From New York’s Sauce and Philadelphia’s Russet to Los Angeles’s Animal, chefs are experimenting with the style. Kapnos goes back in time in two very different places, combining a traditional Southern barbecue wood (hickory) with Mediterranean flavors to create what might be called Greekacue.
For George and Nick Pagonis, the wood-smoking of a whole beast reminds them of childhood visits to Skoura, when to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary their uncle would slow-roast a whole goat over a live fire.
“Times have changed,” George says. “I got a lot of inspiration from the younger chefs and the way they refined the older generation’s dishes. That’s what we’re doing now. At the same time, the animal cooking on the spits, you can’t get more old school than that.”
Kapnos is at 2201 14th St NW, 202-234-5000, www.kapnosdc.com.
Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.