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Dong Zhou's early videos were a cross between PBS cooking show and a children’s science program. (Photo: Dongsheng Zhou/Youtube)

Meet the Creator of the Outdoor Wok with a Six-Month Wait List

Four times more powerful than a traditional indoor stove, the PowerFlamer is perfect for achieving restaurant-style Chinese dishes in your backyard

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In Chinese cooking, achieving the elusive wok hei flavor can be challenging, especially for home cooks. It’s not a seasoning that comes in a bottle, and it can’t be extracted from a spice. Literally translated as “breath of the wok,” wok hei is the intense smoky char you might discern in a plate of fried rice or chow mien.

Turns out there’s a science to it. According to a study published in 2020 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, wok hei is enabled by the Maillard reaction, a series of chemical reactions that take place when proteins and sugar are transformed by heat—really high heat of at least 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit. Until recently, only commercial kitchens were equipped with restaurant-grade stoves capable of delivering such intense firepower, as well as industrial-size exhaust hoods to filter out the grease and fumes it produces.

Food writer and cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt had spent more than a decade trying to discover the elements of a legit wok hei flavor in his home kitchen. Last year, in his article for the website Serious Eats, he declared PowerFlamer 160EI the best outdoor wok burner and the one that “produced the smokiest wok hei.” López-Alt’s review lit a fire under hardcore foodies, who have started to snap up PowerFlamers minutes after they’re made available on the company’s website. (Thanks to the review and pandemic supply-chain issues, there’s currently a six-to-12-month waiting list.)

While PowerFlamer’s popularity might seem like an overnight success, the product’s creators, Dong Zhou and Michael Loth, worked on perfecting an outdoor wok stove for more than 25 years. After Zhou and his wife moved to the U.S. from China in 1991, he was disappointed that he was not able to re-create his favorite stir-fries in their small Oregon apartment. His dishes lacked the wok hei. Plus, whenever he cooked, the smell of smoke would cling to their clothes, curtains, and bedsheets for days. “We went to sleep with the smoke. Those small apartments were not very well ventilated,” he recalls. “When we moved out of that apartment, the filter was actually dripping oil.” The couple relocated to Cleveland before settling down in Wisconsin in 1996.

An avid cook, Zhou continued to refine his stir-fry technique. But without a strong enough stove, his dishes always ended up soggy, overcooked messes. Determined to find a solution, he went to the local hardware store and bought an outdoor deep-fryer stove and a wok set. “The first time I cooked with the outdoor stove, I burned my fingers,” he says. That’s when he turned to a coworker at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, Michael Loth, a fellow electrical engineer who had a machine shop in his basement. “I had never heard of such a thing as an outdoor wok stove before,” Loth says. “But my wife had an indoor electric wok, and I knew how the oil and smoke could get all over the kitchen walls.” Together, Loth and Zhou tested different burners and made modifications. “We experimented with outdoor turkey deep-fryer burners, but they did not work well with a wok,” Zhou says. “The burner guard was a challenge also. We needed something to put the wok on and keep the wind out of the burner at the same time.”

After months of research and experimentation, Loth and Zhou came up with a design that distributed heat evenly and, more important, didn’t burn Zhou’s hands when he tried to cook. To commemorate the occasion, Zhou prepared shrimp and vegetables for the Loths—a memorable meal that Michael’s wife declared was the best food she’s eaten.

In 2000 Zhou’s wife graduated from her PhD program and the couple moved to California. In order to pay for the cost to patent the outdoor stove, Zhou’s friend (and eventual business partner) Alex Zhang suggested that he start selling the product. In May 2008, Zhou launched a YouTube channel to promote his outdoor burners. His first videos were a series of cooking demos, from cabbage stir-fry to sweet-and-sour pork. Lanky, bespectacled, and sporting a buttoned-up polo shirt and jacket, Zhou is more refined engineer than rugged outdoorsman, and his early videos were a cross between PBS cooking show and children’s science program. Despite his efforts, the PowerFlamer wasn’t an immediate hit. An outdoor wok burner was not a common appliance, even in Asian countries.

Zhou and Loth continued to make improvements to the stove, adding a pilot light and making the stove more powerful and suitable for home backyard cooking. The latest version, the PowerFlamer 160EI, released in 2018, boasts 160,000 BTUs, four times more than a regular indoor gas range puts out. There’s a built-in heat guard around the central burner, so your fingers are protected from the flames. The gas-control valve is easily accessible, making heat adjustments convenient. Over the years, PowerFlamer has slowly gained a steady fan base of home cooks.

“My partner had always wanted to cook with a wok after seeing how chefs cook with those jet-engine-like burners in Chinese restaurants,” says Stephanie Gott, a dedicated home cook in New Mexico. “Because you generally need very high heat to cook with a wok, he researched ways you could have an at-home setup similar to the burners they use.” He came across the PowerFlamer at outdoorstirfy.com through a Google search; to get his hands on the in-demand tool, he woke up at 7:30 each morning and hit the refresh on the web page “a bajillion times” before getting lucky. The setup was easy—installing a couple of screws for the legs and hooking it up to a propane tank. But Gott says there was a bigger learning curve when trying to cook in a wok. “High-quality woks are made of thin carbon steel, so the pan heats up and cools down very quickly,” Gott says. “We’ve been mostly cooking on cast iron in the past, which is the complete opposite.” Eventually they mastered the facets of wok cooking—when to add certain ingredients, when to add the sauce, how to move the ingredients around, and the right technique to achieve the wok hei essence—through watching YouTube videos.

Now Gott and her partner prefer using the PowerFlamer over a traditional grill when hosting small outdoor dinner parties. “Cooking with a wok is great because of the variety of things you can cook on it. We’ve made fried dishes like laziji chicken, stewed dishes like chicken adobo, stir-fries like Thai basil chicken, all kinds of fried rice, and even sopapillas with it once,” she says. “My favorite so far is probably any of the stir-fries or fried ones because of how fast you can make them.”

Zhou’s hope is that one day there’ll be a PowerFlamer next to a Weber Grill in everyone’s backyard. “Our vision is to bring commercial-grade appliances to the household, just like how Steve Jobs adapted commercial mainframe computers into personal ones,” Zhou says. “Having a powerful set of stir-frying equipment outdoors enriches people’s lives. All great dishes available from great Asian restaurants can now be re-created by regular homeowners like you and us.”

Lead Photo: Dongsheng Zhou/Youtube

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