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Burlington Entrepreneur’s French Roots Inform WoodFyred Outdoor Ovens

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Published July 26, 2022 at 3:20 p.m.
Updated July 27, 2022 at 10:10 a.m.


Richard Gliech holding a tarte flambée in front of a WoodFyred oven - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Richard Gliech holding a tarte flambée in front of a WoodFyred oven

The star of a recent Burlington al fresco dinner was the wood-fired pizza oven built by cohost Richard Gliech from a recycled steel drum. But this was not your standard pizza party.

Guests sipped refreshing glasses of pilsner mixed with Picon, a bitter orange spirit. The aperitif, like the oven and its crisp-crusted product, traces its roots not to Italy but to Alsace, Gliech's native region in northeastern France.

With the expert assistance of his 24-year-old son, Bastien, Gliech prepared to roll, top and bake a type of flatbread called tarte flambée in French or Flammkuchen in Alsatian, a German dialect.

The savory specialty hails from the part of France bordering Germany. Gliech, 55, grew up in the small town of Wissembourg, where tarte flambée is said to date back to the same era as the medieval churches. Historically, it was a way to use extra bread dough and residual oven heat, he said.

At their simplest, tartes flambées are made from yeasted dough rolled thin; spread with creamy, lightly tangy dairy; and topped with paper-thin onion slices and nuggets of bacon. After a few minutes in a very hot oven, they emerge crisp and fire-blistered — or "flamed," as their name indicates.

Tarte flambée with mushrooms - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Tarte flambée with mushrooms

These Alsatian flatbreads were the inspiration for Gliech's new business, WoodFyred, which officially launched in June.

So far, the entrepreneur, who works full time as a French translator for technology and engineering companies, has sold eight of his portable, wood-fired ovens. He crafts them from repurposed 20- and 30-gallon steel drums and sells them for $300 to $400, depending on size and features.

Each oven comes with a custom-designed wood-and-metal stand, steel baking tray, baking stone, fire grate, and flue pipe. All the components fit inside the drum for easy transport and storage, and the whole thing can be assembled "in seconds without tools," Gliech said, proving his claim with a quick demonstration.

By contrast, the seed of the business incubated for a long time.

During Gliech's youth in Alsace, tarte flambée was "a very, very local traditional dish," he said. "It didn't really exist beyond a 15-mile radius of Wissembourg."

In his hometown, local farmhouses served the dish on weekend evenings. Tables were covered with a paper cloth, Gliech detailed. "There'd be a wooden board, a knife and a stack of paper napkins, and they'd just keep bringing [tartes flambées] until you said, 'Stop.'"

For each flatbread eaten, a server would make a mark on the corner of the tablecloth. When a diner was ready to pay, they'd tear off the corner and add up the bill.

Richard (left) and Bastien Gliech preparing tartes flambées - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Richard (left) and Bastien Gliech preparing tartes flambées

People also cooked tarte flambée at home. Gliech, who moved to the U.S. in 1991, made his first backyard wood-fired oven out of a recycled 55-gallon steel drum about 15 years ago. He was inspired by family members and friends in France who had outdoor ovens; one, he recalled, was made out of a similar drum.

"I had seen this in Alsace," Gliech said, gesturing to his oven, "but there, it was not a pizza oven; it was a tarte flambée oven."

Of course, what was good for tarte flambée also turned out to be good for thin-crusted pizza, a more familiar and popular food in the U.S. The circular shape of the drum, Gliech explained, provides even heat through convection, which also helps the oven heat faster.

At the recent dinner party, the open front of the oven provided a mesmerizing view of orange flames licking up the interior and curving over the baking stone.

"People like fire," Gliech said with a smile.

"Everyone is drawn to it," Bastien said as he smoothly maneuvered tartes flambées in and out of the oven on a pizza peel.

"It's been my job for years," the young man said. "It's not my first rodeo."

Hanging out by the hot oven on a summer night has a fringe benefit, Bastien noted: "The mosquitoes won't go near it."

Since Gliech made his first oven, the family has hosted countless gatherings, baking both tartes flambées and pizzas. "We love cooking. We enjoy entertaining," Gliech said. "It's definitely in the family culture."

Tarte flambée baking in a WoodFyred oven - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Tarte flambée baking in a WoodFyred oven

Over the years, "Friends always said, 'I love that. I'd buy one,'" Gliech said of his homemade oven.

During the pandemic, when outdoor entertaining hit a new high, Gliech decided to try scaling his oven down to a more manageable size. The original 55-gallon drum "was way more than you need in your backyard." To use it efficiently, "You need a really good team to roll the dough and a big crowd of really hungry people," Gliech said.

He wanted his new oven model to burn wood, store easily during the winter, be affordable and make good pizza.

With the couple's offspring fledged, Gliech said, he had room in his life "financially, mentally, time-wise" for something fresh. "I needed a new project."

Given that his daily work involves sending electronic files back and forth, he was also attracted to "the notion of doing something with my hands, having a physical product to show for my work," Gliech said.

In late 2020, he and his wife, Sandra Silla, signed up for metalworking classes at the nonprofit Generator makerspace just a few blocks from their South End home.

"I'd always had my eye on the Generator," Gliech said. "I like tinkering."

After a month of learning how to use welding and high-tech plasma cutting tools, Gliech became a Generator member, which gave him access to workshop space and equipment, plus discounted trainings and classes.

Silla, an architect, designed the wood-and-metal stand that holds the oven. Gliech built his own giant vise to secure the drums while working on them. The first, smaller prototypes went to each of their three kids.

But Gliech soon realized that building a successful prototype was only a small part of launching a business.

He spent a lot of time sourcing materials, including 20-gallon food-grade drums. A treasure trove of drums painted mustard yellow, cherry red and bright blue finally turned up in Connecticut, "just sitting there," Gliech said. When shipping costs proved prohibitive, he rented a U-Haul to fetch 30 and then took a second trip for another 35.

Next, he had to figure out how to market and sell the ovens. Gliech credits Generator with crucial help in that arena, too. Without the makerspace, WoodFyred "would not be possible," Gliech said decisively.

WoodFyred oven - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • WoodFyred oven

In the spring of 2022, Gliech participated in the free, 10-week JumpStart business development program that Generator runs in partnership with the regional nonprofit Center for Women & Enterprise. Along with seven other aspiring entrepreneurs, he spent one afternoon weekly building a viable business plan, including doing competitor research, investigating sales avenues and learning about legal considerations.

The entrepreneurial boot camp was "a kind of catalyst," Gliech said, "to bring [the oven] to the next step, turn it into a business."

Burlington-based small business coach Emily Eley led the program. During the final presentations, she said, "Richard did a great pitch, including stats and market research showing that his product is not just a cool idea but [that] it's needed, that there's a market niche."

Beyond the hard facts, Eley said, Gliech's enthusiasm and wit won everyone over. "He had all the data on how many slices of pizza Americans eat," she said. (Forty-six per person annually, according to Gliech.) "He had the whole crowd laughing."

Generator also provided Gliech with a new support network and community, he said.

It took very little nudging, said Elliott Katz, Generator's operations and facilities director, to convince Gliech to fire up his oven to bake tartes flambées and pizzas for Generator's Green Up Day event.

"He's always willing to share whatever resources he has," Katz said of Gliech, whom he described as "glowing with positivity."

If Gliech were an inanimate object, in fact, he might be his own oven: radiating warmth, producing delicious food for friends and family, and, most importantly, in his own words, "mak[ing] it possible for others to do it, too — to have fun cooking, to have fun gathering around food."

Among WoodFyred's first customers was Bill Harvey of Burlington, whose son is close friends with Bastien. Harvey said he was intrigued when he first saw the original large oven in action at a gathering in the family's backyard.

A graphic designer, Harvey was particularly impressed by "the simplicity of it," he said. "It was just beautiful — so few parts to do what was essential." He quickly signed up to buy a cherry red, 20-gallon model.

The oven, Harvey said, has proved easy to pack up and take places, such as his sister's camp in the Green Mountains. On top of the oven's ease of transport and use, "it's something to be social with. Everyone can be a part of the process," Harvey said. "It's just a party waiting to happen."

In Gliech and Silla's backyard, the party was happening. A steady flow of tartes flambées emerged from the oven to be immediately inhaled by guests, along with two traditional Alsatian salads of shredded celery root in a creamy dressing and grated carrots in a red wine vinaigrette.

The first several tartes flambées were purist, with ingredient tweaks necessitated by availability. In France, the topping base would be fromage frais, a fresh, soft cheese. In Vermont, Gliech has settled on equal parts sour cream and heavy cream.

About halfway through the meal, he started adding a little shredded Swiss cheese and mushrooms to a few tartes. For the grand finale, father and son collaborated to set a ladleful of mirabelle plum liqueur on fire and pour it over the baked tarte flambée – double-flaming it, in effect.

The guests oohed and aahed and made room for one more slice of the delicious Alsatian specialty. No one said, "Stop."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Alsatian Inspiration"