PEI

'Where bricks meet fire': How a P.E.I. mason keeps reinventing the wood-fired oven

John Rousseau is trying to enjoy his retirement but he keeps getting requests to build unique wood-fired ovens for eager customers on Prince Edward Island.

'The most fun part of masonry is where bricks meet fire'

John Rousseau and the crew built a wood-fired oven at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. (John Rousseau)

John Rousseau is trying to enjoy his retirement but he keeps getting requests to build unique wood-fired ovens for eager customers on Prince Edward Island. 

He sold his company, Red Clay Construction, last year but is keeping his hand in the game with specialty projects.

That includes his latest: helping to install a nearly 2,300 kilogram (5,000 pound) clay oven on a floating dock in Charlottetown, the only round-dome oven that they've ever built. 

Rousseau, 70,  has been in construction all his life, first as a carpenter and then in the early 80s, as a self-taught mason. 

"The most fun part of masonry is where bricks meet fire," Rousseau said. 

"Wood-fired ovens and fireplaces are where we tried to distinguish ourselves from other masons."

The Mount Allison wood-fired oven has a mosaic of a dragon.

He has attended the annual meeting of the Masonry Heater Association of North America for the last 15 years.

"The smartest bricks and fire guys from around the world meet in North Carolina," Rousseau said.

"I soaked up the knowledge there and brought it home to P.E.I."

'A smile on their face'

He has built more than 30 wood-fired ovens and fireplaces over his career, a mix of private and commercial customers, including the Roma historical site, the Inn at Bay Fortune and Mount Allison University. 

"There's always been an interest. We were the lucky ones to bring it to P.E.I., getting in on the ground floor," Rousseau said. 

"Whenever we start a project, everybody's got a smile on their face because it's not a need, it's a want." 

John Rousseau baking bread at the Roma historical site. (John Rousseau )

Rousseau said there is something primal about the wood-fired oven.

"Cooking food with fire is so basic, it just goes back to the cave people," Rousseau said.

"You want to do it and then you do it and you're the happiest person in the world because it's such a pleasure to use."

Chef Michael Smith has several wood-fired appliances built by Rousseau and Red Clay Construction. (John Rousseau)

Most ambitious oven

His most ambitious oven was built for Glasgow Glen Farm.

"Jeff McCourt has an absolute beast of an oven, basically an oven within an oven," Rousseau said.

"He wanted to build to make 100 pizzas a day and 100 loaves of bread a day and this oven is big enough and capable enough of doing that."

Pizza, says Rousseau, is one of the things where the fire is still going in the side or back of the oven. The heat curls up under the top of the oven and reflects down and cooks the top of the pizza. (Fatta a Mano)

Rousseau said he has lost count of the number of hundred-plus pizza parties he's had at his home in Mount Vernon, P.E.I.

"We're so practiced and it's such a wonderful tactile thing to form the dough and make the pizzas," Rousseau said. 

"You're cooking at between eight and nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit and the pizzas cook in 90 seconds."

Rousseau says his most ambitious oven was this one, built for Glasgow Glen Farm. (John Rousseau )

The pizzas he cooks are specially suited to the wood-fired oven.

"There's no such thing as an all-dressed, inch deep, because the outside will burn before the insides cook," Rousseau said. 

"It's a thin, traditional pizza."

Residual heat

Rousseau said he doesn't call them pizza ovens, because pizzas are just one of the things he and his customers use the wood-fired ovens for.

He's cooked a Christmas turkey, 22 pounds, at 775 F in two hours. 

Red Clay Construction built the wood-fired oven used at the Roma historical site. (John Rousseau)

Pizza, he said, is one of the foods he cooks while the fire is still going in the side or back of the oven.

The heat curls up under the top of the oven and reflects down, cooking the top of the pizza. 

The residual heat, or stored heat on the bottom cooks the crust.

The only round-dome oven that Rousseau and his team have ever built was made for Nimrods'. (John Rousseau)

"Everything else, the fire goes out, you take out the ashes, swab the deck and then you cook with residual heat, retained heat," Rousseau said. 

"That's the secret behind a wood-fired oven, it stores the heat like a battery."

Travelling oven

Alex and Sam Bevan-Baker are proud owners of a travelling wood-fired oven, created by Rousseau for their pizza business, Fatta A Mano.

"It brings you back to your primal roots of cooking, because back then you had no source of electricity or the beauty of propane," Alex Bevan-Baker said.

"It kind of it brings you back down to earth and there's a lot more touch and feel that comes with that type of cooking."

Rousseau has built more than 30 wood-fired ovens and fireplaces over his career, a mix of private and commercial customers. (John Rousseau)

Bevan-Baker said customers are always pretty curious about the unit, which is quite small and covered in stainless steel cladding. 

"We get a lot of people kind of poking their head around to see inside the oven and see the flame, it's like a little hidden gem," Bevan-Baker said.

"Where we lower our pizzas in, it's a beautiful sight, the smoke billowing out seems to attract quite a few people as well."

Alex Bevan-Baker says using a wood-fired oven 'brings you back to your primal roots of cooking.' (Fatta a Mano)

Passing it on

Rousseau is now semi-retired after 37 years in the business, but is still involved with the new owner, transferring his knowledge of wood-fired ovens and fireplaces.

"I want to stay and make sure that this is all passed on to them so that they can carry on," Rousseau said. 

"There's some new employees at Red Clay who haven't had a chance to learn it so I have promised to come out of retirement for any of these projects and work with them."

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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