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How Grill Master Tom Ellis Uses Open Fire Cooking and a ‘Little Hell’ to Make a Feast

The chef prepares massive meals with local ingredients over an open flame

Swell Party grill master Tom Ellis considers himself an event planner first and a chef second. Using his skills as a trained actor and caterer, he thinks of his open fire kitchen as a stage, directing his locally sourced meat, vegetables, and fruits to roast over open fire grills for guests of large, elegant events.

When Ellis was a caterer in New York City, he learned how to prepare parts of dishes in a kitchen and then assemble on site via hot boxes, which is the standard type of catering in the city. He was then asked by a high-end event planner to work with a company that was doing fire cooking for events. “I was just blown away by the idea of cooking fresh on site,” says Ellis. “That was the real shock, like, we’re going to bring the raw ingredients, and we’re going to cook this meal for 250 people banquet-style, on site the day of the event. I mean that blew my mind, the notion of it.”

For his events, Ellis uses a set of grills called “infernillos,” which are made up of a simple set of freestanding table-like pans that slide in and out over lit fires. Here he can adjust the heat by putting a pan low to the ground, higher up in the middle, or even by putting hot coals on the top pan to create a top-down heating effect. In the infernillo, he crisps the sides of pork shoulders which then head to a dutch oven to roast for six hours in a braising liquid of beef and chicken stock, roasted tomatillos, apple and orange juice, and confit garlic, along with fresh apples. He and his team also set up hay-smoked black sea bass stuffed with lemon and garlic scapes, a number of roasted vegetables, and even make a dutch oven apple drop dumplings dessert.

“Fire is primal, it’s essential, and it’s truthful. It’s what we had for thousands of years. It’s the history of man and it’s cooking with wood,” says Ellis. “It’s in us, it’s in our DNA. It speaks to us in a very very honest way.”

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