How cooking over charcoal, wood and flames is having a culinary revival, and the results are smokin’
As anyone who’s prodded a steak over glowing embers, taken a bite of woodfired pizza or toasted marshmallows on a stick – losing them momentarily to the amber flames only to eat them charred and molton anyway – will tell you, fire is a beguiling element. In his book, Cooked, American author Michael Pollan wrote: “When we learned to cook is when we learned to become truly human.”
These days we are more likely to know how to use a microwave than build a fire. But fire was always at the centre of community and sharing. Storytelling, for instance, began around fire, where we revelled in its warmth and sustenance.
In modern times we may have resorted to gas and electricity, but chefs are returning to our elemental roots.
“Fire allowed [us] to unlock the nutrients, sugars, fats and never-beforeseen flavours too,” says chef Lennox Hastie of Sydney’s Firedoor,a restaurant that cooks with no electricity. “What fire does to ingredients can’t be replicated by other cooking techniques.”
Gathering for an Aussie barbecue isn’t far removed from what our earliest ancestors did.“The ritual of cooking over fire is one of the most human things you can do,” Hastie says.
Hastie’s new book, Finding Fire: Cooking
At Its Most Elemental,isn’t a barbecue book, however. He introduces wood, fire and ingredients,giving home cooks the confidence to use this most primitive of elements themselves.“With the rapid pace of our society now, I think there is an innate desire in all of us to feel something real and connect again,” he says.“Fire is an extension of appreciating where our food comes from.”
Cooking with fire is spreading like, well,wildfire the world over.Top chef Massimo Bottura,of Osteria Francescana in Modena,Italy,says: “Lennox Hastie is proof that cooking with fire is so much more than barbecue. It is a primary tool for bringing food culture to the table and making everything, from vegetables to seafood, taste divine.”
Indeed, Hastie’s mantra is about learning how to char an eggplant over embers so that it softens and smokes inside, or gently cooking a whole John Dory over the heat of the embers – not the flames.
In Geelong, chef Aaron Turner from Igni also turned to fire to snub his nose at the direction gastronomy was taking.
“I think it’s partially a blowback from the last few years – the molecular years,” he says. “It seemed for a while there it was all technique-driven food and it was often at the cost of flavour.
“Cooking with fire gives you an element of flavour that no other way can. It’s a whole new world of cooking and demands your full attention.”
And it’s happening all over the country. Sydney’s Argentinian carnival of the flesh, Porteno, roasts whole animals over a fire pit in the restaurant. Also in Sydney,The Bridge Room’s Ross Lusted delicately chars ingredients using Japanese methods with binchotan coals on a robata grill, as does Ryan Squires at Esquire in Brisbane.
There are American-inspired smoked meat madhouses like Sydney’s LP’s Quality Meats and Melbourne’s Fancy Hanks,while in Brisbane,Blackbird’s Jake Nicolson uses ironbark to caramelise his top class steaks.
Mat Lindsay at Ester in Sydney allows flames to kiss almost every ingredient in his woodfire oven. So too does Mike McEnearney at Sydney’s No.1 Bent Street by Mike, Duncan Welgemoed at Adelaide’s Africola and Charlie Carrington at Atlas Dining in Melbourne.
Fire allows cooks to enjoy the natural characteristics of an ingredient, rather than needing to spend days on an intricate recipe.The personal investment comes with the time spent watching it smoke, crackle and pop.
To get started,Turner from Igni suggests investing in the right grill. “The ability to adjust the height of the grill is paramount – this gives you control over the heat source,” he says.
“Find food-grade seasoned hardwood and cut it to the right size to create a constant and even heat source.”
Ryan Squires suggests to start by getting the grill just right. “Start with a super-hot cooking grill or rack before placing meats on, and if you want to avoid flare-ups, don’t use oil.”
He also suggests resisting the urge to fill the grill. “Cook only what can be eaten at once, then cook again.”
Blackbird’s Nicolson believes that knowing when to place the food on the grill is key to success. “There’s a misconception that cooking over fire means over flames,” he says. “Most ingredients should be cooked over the smoldering embers to nurture the ingredients and retain moisture.”
Most of all, preparing a meal using fire should be undertaken for the love of the produce, says Hastie.
“Start with quality ingredients,” he says. “Cooking over fire allows you to let the ingredient shine rather than rely on a clever culinary technique. Go to the market, see what looks good, engage your senses and base your menu on the best produce you find for your budget.”
After that, it’s simply up to you and this most natural of heat sources. So go on, jump into fire.