Wok on the Wild Side

When I ventured into the kitchen of a back-alley Chinese restaurant one night, I discovered that what makes food great is the same thing that makes relationships great: heat.

The chef there had a flame you could use for smelting, a 19-inch wok on top, and another flame under a cauldron of seasoned, boiling water. It would cost me at least 30 times more than that for a pizza oven, and pizza cooking is not a spectator sport. Wokkery—that’s a spectator sport. Like bonfires, fireworks, and women spraying their hair while smoking.

In addition to a few cooking tools and a side station for parboiling vegetables, I bought a 19-inch steel wok and a 170,000 BTU propane burner. Yep, 170,000 BTU. (A professional-style home stove, by comparison, might have 16,000 BTU burners and a 45,000 BTU oven.) Then I took it all outside, mainlined the beast to some pure Canadian propane, and got a flame that could interfere with local observatories.

To make a meat-and-vegetable stir-fry, the Chinese chef boiled the vegetables, oiled the wok, fried the meat, rescued the vegetables, took out the meat, added the seasonings and vegetables, put the meat back in, and slid the food onto its serving plate. The whole process took less than three minutes.

I started slowly. Because when you’re cooking on the surface of the sun, you barely have time to look for an ingredient, let alone open a bottle. You need a plan for quick and easy delivery of every component. I thought out my motions beforehand; I made sure I could move fluidly and safely around the heat. I started with just one wok, cooking the vegetables and meat one at a time and combining them at the end.

Then I moved on to the full-on wok and cauldron show. Once I became comfortable with high-temp wokking, I could serve massive numbers of guests with delicious, ready-made food. My outdoor parties were simultaneously entertaining and delicious—a performance-art mix of ballet, flame, and hot oil.

Not that you should try this at home—you shouldn’t—but you should know anyway: Smoldering oil will explode into flame if given the chance. If you’re around it, you need an oil-fire fire extinguisher. And because the heat is so intense, beginners should turn the heat down or off between cooking the meat and cooking the vegetables.

Illustration by Bill Younger