A San Francisco Chef on the Meditative Nature of Cooking Over an Open Fire

While grilling oysters in a pit overlooking California’s Tomales Bay, Pim Techamuanvivit is able to slow down and come up with new ideas.

My husband and I live in Potrero Hill in San Francisco, not far from my two restaurants, Nari and Kin Khao, but we have a special place we go whenever we need a breather from the city. It’s a weekend home about an hour north, in a quiet town called Marshall, with wraparound windows overlooking Tomales Bay. The house used to be a store — people would pull their boats up out back to buy coal for their fireplaces and feed for their farm animals.

Today, Tomales is famous for its oyster farms, and the house is three doors down from the Hog Island Oyster Co. When you look out the window early in the morning, you can see the oysterers trekking out to the boat in their coveralls and going off to harvest.

On the side of the house is a square fire pit where we grill the oysters. We’re still in the Bay Area, so even in the summer it’s quite cool and, in the evenings, we like to build a fire. The friend we rent the house from owns a mill that uses reclaimed wood from all over the West Coast, so we always have plenty. During the first year of the pandemic, we didn’t socialize indoors, so the fire pit became a great gathering place.

Cooking with fire is ritualistic. You can’t turn it up and turn it down; there’s a rhythm to it. When you build one, it’s very hot to begin with, and then you have to wait for it to reduce to a certain temperature — or you have to build the pit differently, so you have some parts that are quite hot and others that are cold . As a cook, it makes you more considerate. It slows you down. It’s like any creative pursuit: Parameters and limitations force you to think about how to solve a problem.

Once we build the fire, we shuck the oysters and open some champagne or chablis. We get different types of oysters, including Hog Island’s special Sweetwater ones. Some we eat raw. Others we cook over the flames with a spoonful of chorizo ​​on top — when the juices mix with the oyster, it’s just so delicious. I could eat dozens.

I do some of my best thinking when I’m out by the fire. I don’t usually come up with new ideas or solve problems when I’m trying to do it. But when I’m building a fire and cooking with my hands, my mind becomes more open. That’s when I get ideas. For me, it’s about creating a space where I’m happy and comfortable — and then things that I’ve been mulling over just crystallize.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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