How to Cook a Whole Calf Over an Open Flame, with Mike Easton of Il Corvo in Seattle

[Photographs: Hilary Dahl]

For those familiar with Mike Easton in his normal habitat — rolling out hundreds of servings of pasta each day in the kitchen at Seattle's Il Corvo—it might be a little jarring to see him roasting a whole calf on a steel frame over an open flame. His dish for this year's Burning Beast event was the polar opposite of the simple but flavorful pastas he turns out daily at his restaurant, but Easton prepared his calf with the same passion and dedication to great taste he applies to all his food. At 1 p.m. on Saturday, with less than 30 hours until a crowd of people descended upon the event, Easton and his crew arrived at Smoke Farm. All that was there to greet them was a flattened area devoid of grass, a stack of cinder blocks, and a sense of excitement in the air.

The cooks quickly went to work, digging the hole that would act as a fire pit for the cooking process.

Burning Beast is an annual event in which about 15 Western Washington chefs and passionate amateur cooks gather in a field and cook whole animals over fire. The animals range from sardines to salmon, from duck to elk. The Il Corvo team had originally been given beef primal cuts, a small deviation from the whole animal policy, but with some legwork, Easton and Tamara Murphy, the event's organizer, were able to find a whole calf, just past the point where it would be considered veal (and thus much cheaper than veal) that Easton could roast in its entirety.

Easton based his recipes and cooking strategies loosely on the guide to Argentine open-flame cooking Seven Fires. To accompany the beast, he and his team made pan de chapa (flatbread) all week at work, stockpiling the hundreds necessary to feed the crowd. The breads would be grilled to order on a smaller fire throughout the service. The meat and the bread were drizzled with chimichurri sauce, also made ahead of time, to form a sort of Argentinean taco.

The setup for where the beast would hang.

Once the pit, about five feet across and one foot deep, was ready, a backsplash of sorts was fashioned out of cinder blocks. The blocks formed a 'U,' and at the open end, Easton sank in a two-inch square, eight-foot long wooden post. Wedging it two feet down into a hole, he stabilized it with broken pieces of cinder block. Just above the ground sat a metal ring which had been screwed onto the post. In the preceding weeks, Easton ordered custom-built steel poles (combined into a frame of two horizontal parallel bars attached to one vertical bar) and sketched out the design of how he and the team would cook the approximately 200-pound calf. The original idea was that the frame, to which the animal is attached, would rotate within the ring, making it easy to flip during the cooking process.

Easton's original sketch of how the calf roasting system would work.

"Corners!" Easton exclaimed as the whole thing was put together in a test assembly. Sure enough, the steel beam fit into the ring, as per his calculations, but would not rotate because of the corners. He was well prepared for this snag, though, and distributed heatproof welding gloves to his team to flip the contraption manually during the cooking process.

The cooks getting the pulley system ready.

It wasn't long before a second snag was hit, quite literally: the system, which had two pulleys at the top of the stationary wooden pole and two at the top of the steel beam for easy raising and lowering of the calf depending on heat needs, would not run smoothly with the wire cord purchased for that purpose. None of the other cords the team had on site could withstand the heat of hours over the fire, so a cook was dispatched to drive half an hour to the nearest outdoor supply store and buy a new cord. Once he returned, the whole system was tested, with a human guinea pig standing in for the weight of the calf.

The team checks out the animal after it is dropped off.

Not long after, the calf arrived. After quickly calculating of the speed with which a nearly frozen whole animal would warm up on a Northwest summer evening (lows around 52ºF), Easton decided it was better to take the calf that night and get it prepped, rather than leaving it on the refrigerated truck overnight and breaking it down in the dark.

As it turned out, the team had to work in the dark anyway. By the time the animal was dropped off, the crew was building a fire for the evening, and then it was time for an all-team-and-volunteer group dinner. By the time Easton's crew straggled down from the dinner, the sun had long since set over the hills that loom large over Smoke Farm.

Headlamps were donned and the beast breakdown began around 10:30 in the evening. The animal came split down its front, so there was just a little trimming to do—pop the tenderloins off for a little midnight snack —before it was splayed out like a spatchcocked chicken. Using metal wire, the spine was fixed to the vertical steel post, and each of the legs to the horizontal posts. Two lengths of rebar were woven through at the top and bottom of the rib cage to keep it flat. Then the whole carcass was hoisted up, neck-side up (heads on cattle are illegal in Washington state, so the thing ended in a bloody stump), and assembled on to the post. The team and spectators held their breath for a moment until the animal held steady. Everyone gave a sigh of relief before they headed off to bed.

A cook gets the fire going in the early morning.

The next morning at five, Easton decided face down was better, so he and his early-rising crewmember flipped the calf before lighting the fire. The fire burned hot on the far side of the pit, fueled with a variety of woods like oak and mesquite. Too hot, in fact, as the heat was reaching the calf, which had been pulled taut to try to avoid that very issue. The idea was to burn the fire to make coals, and then move the coals to cook the meat over, not to let the flames lick up at the cow directly. So they switched tactics, the animal dangling high above the fire for a few hours, in an effort to keep it from overcooking.

Flipping the beast by hand every few hours kept it cooking evenly.

At around 8 a.m. the team executed the first flip: four men, one at each corner, lifted by the steel horizontal beams, while a fifth used a mallet to hammer the rings off the bottom and then the top of the vertical ones. The fifth person then switched to monitoring the rope and making sure it didn't tangle, while the others rotated the animal 180 degrees horizontally. The process was repeated three more times throughout the day, and each time a team member mopped the meat's surface with a red wine and black pepper sauce.

At this point there wasn't much to do except watch a calf cook, an exceedingly slow process (it took about seven hours). Around 3 p.m., the beast was declared finished and removed from the pole just as the influx of some six hundred attendees to the event began to arrive.

The team puts their handiwork on the table.

As the animal rested, no longer attached to the metal frame, on a table, gawkers came, cameras out, to preview their dinner. A crowd gathered at 5 p.m. as Easton and a fellow chef began digging their knives in, filling huge pans with meat, some neatly sliced, others more messily shredded. Another cook manned the mini-grill, cooking up the flatbreads, while two others readied themselves to serve the crowd that was already lined up twenty deep by the time the dinner bell rang at a quarter past six.

And then, in a flurry of bread, beast, and chimichurri, the lines slowed down, two short hours later. The cooks started to relax, despite being exhausted from a day and a half of cooking. They sat down, ate a few bites of their own dish, and cracked the beers. Someone from another station brought by a piece of sheep pizza. Festival-goers, full to bursting with meat of all kinds, stopped by to thank them and compliment the chef. Thirty-six hours after the group arrived at the field, they were done. Nothing left to do but pack up a van and head home—there were only fifteen more hours until the restaurant had to open again.

Chef Mike Easton of Il Corvo and his team—with the calf roasting in the background.