Food and Fire. Adam Kelinson Is Stoked!

He has made it in a manner that honors the way food was cooked ages ago
Adam Kelinson has funneled his knowledge of food, plants, and international cultures into his open-fire cooking techniques. Christine Sampson

When he talks about the various dishes from around the world that can be made over an open cooking fire and the different effects flame has on food itself, Adam Kelinson exudes enthusiasm and expertise.

From salt-roasted fish to lobsters or vegetables laid out on a wood rack to succotash and chowders and even pizza, he has made it all, and he has made it in a manner that honors the way food was cooked ages ago. He describes what he does as culinary ethnobotany, which he says is a study of the connection between food, plants, and people “as a platform for sustainable health and wellness.”

“It’s about philosophy and psychology of food,” said Mr. Kelinson, a private chef from East Hampton. “It’s about people, time, place, and food. The fire is the element that ties it all together.”

He aims for a combination of the rustic and the elegant, and said his menus are informed by what is in season. “We use what’s locally available — not just food, but historically,” he said. “We might use birch to smoke, or we might use pine needles to infuse a bit of a pine flavor.”

Mr. Kelinson’s love of cooking began as a child while helping his mother in the kitchen. His passion grew as he began traveling, learning more about various cultures, and spending time, he said, as “a wanderer in the wilderness studying plants” in different parts of the world. He earned a degree in sustainable agriculture and ecosystem management from the University of Vermont before taking up ethnobotany. While many in the field have advanced degrees, Mr. Kelinson said “culinary ethnobotany” is a practical term he coined to describe what he does with the added element of food.

His career has taken him down many roads. He has cooked for celebrities including Prince, Hilary Swank, and Mariska Hargitay. He is the author of the book “The Athlete’s Plate: Real Food for High Performance” and the founder of the company Organic Performance, in which he develops nutrition plans, cooks, and runs workshops based on the science of sport and the relationship between food, athletic ability, wellness, and recovery.

Few clients “really knew how to cook, how it could fit into someone’s busy lifestyle, and also how to make it taste good,” Mr. Kelinson said.

His latest effort, an open-fire catering service called Around the Fire, is more than just a way to make a living. It’s a comeback of sorts.

About five years ago, in May 2011, Mr. Kelinson found himself lying face-down in the Montauk surf, having been smacked in the head with his own standup paddleboard during a routine excursion at Ditch Plain. He couldn’t move. In a 2011 interview in The Star, he described feeling “a dull, tingly sensation, a shock wave,” that left him temporarily paralyzed but still conscious. Talk about people, time, and place — several surfers came to his rescue. It was a testament, he said, to the closeness and camaraderie of the Montauk surfing community.

“That story is directly connected to Around the Fire,” Mr. Kelinson said. “It was a pretty major accident. I’m still not fully recovered. Five years ago, I took a really big hit and I’ve been sort of having to rebuild my life. The anniversary was a few days ago and now I’m launching this new project. It’s symbolic for me of a resurrection and a comeback from being pretty laid out.”

He still hasn’t achieved the same level of athleticism he had back then, when he would do triathlons, ski, surf, run mountain trails, and travel back-country regions. The accident “kind of put me in the spotlight for a while, and I receded as I recuperated,” he said. But it’s a little harder to remain inconspicuous these days. Around the Fire features a wood-fired pizza oven on wheels, complete with a chimney that puts it at about nine-and-a-half feet tall and draws curious looks wherever he goes.

Mr. Kelinson’s menus are inspired by his studies at the University of Vermont, by his travels around the world, and by partnerships with local farmers and merchants. He called upon Villa Italian Specialties in East Hampton Village to make a custom mozzarella cheese for his pizzas using curd imported from Italy, and he regularly uses mushrooms from David Falkowski’s OpenMinded Organics, produce from Ian Calder-Piedmonte of Balsam Farms, and others. He also grows some of his own ingredients in a home garden, making pizza toppings such as pickled onions and fermented hot peppers himself.

And the cooking fire is the center of it all.

“Fire is that elemental tie that we can commune around, whether it’s the camp fire or the beach fire,” Mr. Kelinson said. “It’s a community, and when you bring food into that and share that, you have a different level of experience than if you were just served at a place like a restaurant.”

As he continues to recover from his accident in Montauk five years ago, the moment he knew he was heading in the right direction was the time he fired up that mobile oven for the first time in mid-May.

“As soon as I lit the fire and the smoke started to come up out of the chimney, I knew it was just right,” he said. “It was all there.” 

Click for recipe