There’s something elemental about cooking a whole animal over fire—it is, after all, how our caveman ancestors fed themselves. It’s also how Beau Fairbairn loves to cook. This former restaurant chef fell into live-fire cookery quite by accident: Needing to feed a lot of people at his wedding reception and wanting to do something splashy, he came up with live fire.
What started as a personal lark ended up becoming a business when Fairbairn started Foundation Fire with a friend, Nick Parker. The two soon found themselves cooking sides of beef and whole pigs, goats and lambs over live fire at local wineries and live-fire festivals. Fairbairn’s Instagram handle is @meatgoon, which tells you all you need to know about him.
Hands-on and time consuming, cooking a whole animal is not for your basic weekend barbecuer. Fairbairn starts at midnight or 1 a.m. the night before, digging a pit, building a bed of white-oak coals and placing the animal on a large rack. For the first few hours, the meat roasts over high heat for a hard sear. Then, it’s a dance between chef and meat as Fairbairn adjusts the temperature by raising and lowering the rack and moving logs around with a big shovel. “You watch the meat, see what the flame’s doing, which way the wind is blowing,” he explains. “You’re looking for that slow breakdown.” The end product: perfectly rendered fat, crispy skin and fall-apart-tender meat that tastes of fire and smoke. The process takes 10 to 12 hours. “You can’t do that in a short amount of time,” he says.
Fairbairn does a scaled-down version of live-fire cooking at home, cooking lamb chops or a small prime rib over a fire pit. When he starts the fire, his 4-year-old daughter looks at him with big, bright eyes and says, “Daddy, are you cooking the meats?” Yes, little girl. Daddy is cooking the meats.
Few people have the time, equipment or know-how to cook an entire pig over live fire. To replicate the flavor without the work, Beau Fairbairn shares this recipe, which calls for pork shoulder (aka Boston butt). It takes 10–12 hours to make, but the result is worth it. Serves 8–10.
2 cups whole black peppercorns
2 cups Diamond Crystal kosher salt
4 cups dark brown sugar
1 bone-in pork shoulder (5–7 pounds)
1 cup unfiltered apple cider
1 cup water
To make a rub for the pork, grind peppercorns to small or medium consistency and place in a bowl with salt. Mix thoroughly, then add brown sugar and mix again. Rub mixture all over the pork.
Prepare smoker or covered grill. Temperature should be between 225–250 degrees. Place pork fat side up in an aluminum plan and place in the smoker or grill to cook.
To make a mop, combine apple cider and water in a spray bottle*. Every 3–4 hours, spray pork with the mop. After 8 hours, wrap pork in aluminum foil or butcher’s paper. Continue cooking at low temperature until pork reaches an internal temperature of 190–203 degrees. Remove from heat and let rest at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours if wrapped in aluminum foil.
*Instead of cider and water, Beau says you can make a mop using equal parts spicy root beer and rye whiskey.