Firebirds: Upscale chain shines with small touches

by Molly Reitter

CHARLOTTE – Executive Chef Steve Sturm holds a beef tenderloin in his gloved hands. It is oblong and cherry red in color. Sturm is explaining how they butcher their own beef in the kitchen, receiving whole loins and doing all of the cutting themselves.

The wicked burger is Firebirds version of an old-fashioned cheeseburger, seared with American cheese and served on a butter-toasted bun with lettuce, tomato and a secret sauce. (Courtesy of Firebirds)

“We can make the call when to stop cutting,” said Sturm. “This way we control the quality and taste of our meat.”

At Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, the little things make a big difference in terms of food and service.

Firebirds began in 2000 with the Stonecrest location in Charlotte by veteran restaurateur Dennis Thompson, who co-founded the Lone Star Steak House and Fox and Hound chains. Sturm moved to the south Charlotte area to work with Thompson on the opening and has been with the restaurant ever since. Sturm has attended the opening of each subsequent Firebirds restaurant; all 23 of them. He does the kitchen design, equipment purchase and training. Then he passes the baton to the head chef of that restaurant. The Firebirds at Northlake Mall is number 11 of the 23 current restaurants.

Firebirds is an upscale chain restaurant but does not operate like the traditional chain.

“We don’t use sauces out of bags or reheat already cut steak in the microwave,” said Sturm.

Each restaurant operates as if it is independently owned. All the sauces and dressings are homemade in-house and emphasis is placed on food having nuances of flavors to entice the pallet. The barbecue sauce, for example, went through 10 different recipes before finding the perfect one. It is a thing of beauty with a tang of vinegar, shot of spice and smooth finish. It is clearly not from a bottle.

Or take the baked potato. At Firebirds, the potatoes are specially ordered, washed, coated with canola oil and salt and then baked. If the spud sits for more than an hour, it is pulled. “This creates the perfect baked potato experience for each guest,” said Sturm. “It’s a lot of work, but it is worth it when you bite into that perfect potato.”

Firebirds employs a wood-burning grill in every restaurant. It gives a cozy feel to the ski chalet vibe with the aroma of hickory and oak. The food also takes on the earthy undertones of that fragrant wood.

“It’s primal really,” said Sturm. “There is just something about cooking meat over fire.”

The sublime chili rubbed Delmonico steak is testament to this line of thought. It is cut and trimmed in the back, patted down with a homemade rub and then seared over that fire. The result is as good, if not better, than any high-end steak house.

Sturm’s position has evolved as more and more restaurants open. He mentors chefs and is deeply involved with research and development. Presently, he is working on Happy Hour food menus, creating the perfect tacos. “I don’t have a test kitchen,” he said. “I do the cooking at actual restaurants so we can make sure it will work.”

Kevin and Veronica Stanley recently moved to Concord. They had come to Firebirds when they were visiting and enjoyed it so much, they came back once they had moved.

“The food is just great,” enthused Kevin Stanley. “Those parmesan mashed potatoes are amazing.”

Sturm smiles. “We want to people to be able to count on us as ‘their‘ place,” he said. “We work hard to deliver that food and service every single day.”

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