Gourmet Traveller (Australia)
ALEXANDRA CARLTON explores how the old-school Aussie gas barbecue has fallen from favour as cooking with fire becomes our new national obsession.
Alexandra Carlton explores the rising popularity of charcoal and wood-fired barbecuing.
Take a walk around any urban neighbourhood today and you’ll almost certainly smell it. The charry tang of wood-fire smoke. There’s almost an umami taste to it as it snakes its way from your nostrils to your palate. You can virtually hear the crack of pork skin crisping or the hiss of dripping lamb fat as it flares into the charcoal below. In the last few years, what the world knows as the traditional Aussie barbecue – basically snags burnt over a gas barbie – has slowly given way to a taste for wood-fired cooking: a richer, more authentic way to create food outdoors.
Of course in reality, this isn’t anything new. First Nations Australians were the original wood-fire, earth oven and hot-rock cooks. Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, Croatian, Malay, Indonesian, Turkish, South American and Japanese Australians – and many others – have been firing up their Cypress and konro and satay grills, their parrillas and their woodfired ovens, since they landed on these shores.
But all of a sudden, it would seem, the rest of Australia is taking notice.
Nick and Vicky Angelucci have been running their specialist charcoal barbecue store BBQ Aroma, in Sydney’s inner west, since 2010, giving them a bird’s eye view into the evolution of the Australian barbecue. Previously, the couple had been selling hugely popular chargrilled, marinated meat at a local market stall, so they knew people had a taste for charcoal cooking. What they were less sure of is whether people wanted to cook it themselves. “The Greeks and Croatians were doing their Easter lambs but a lot of Australians still thought barbecue was the snags at the entrance
First Nations Australians were the original wood-fire, earth oven and hot-rock cooks.
of Bunnings,” Vicky explains. Slowly, she says, as people travelled more, they began understanding new tastes. “They’d come back from Texas and freak out about smoked meats and pulled pork,” she says. “Or they’d come back from Thailand and want to cook moo ping skewers. I think all people have a primal attachment to charcoal flavour deep down. It might be a DNA thing, or a memory. It captures you. You get a craving for it and you come back for it.”
The rolling Covid lockdowns of 2020 seemed to light a fire under the movement. When we weren’t buggering up our sourdough starters, many of us began experimenting with cooking outside, perhaps because we craved creating something elemental and honest, or simply had more time on our hands, or both. The Angeluccis noticed an uptick in people wanting to cook outdoors. Suddenly everyone was looking into buying a backyard parrilla or smoker. Hibachi sales in Australia increased 1600 per cent, according to homewares superstore Kogan.com. And the trend was echoed worldwide. The global charcoal barbecue market, valued at $2.3 billion in 2019, is growing at a forecasted rate of 8 per cent every year, driven largely by millennials who are demanding more flavour and a shared sense of community from the food they cook at home.
One person who found his backyard cooking game reached new heights during lockdown was Michael Kapetas, a project manager from Marrickville, in Sydney. He had already begun building an epic outdoor kitchen in the backyard of the family home he shares with his wife, jewellery designer Marina Antoniou, and their two-year-old daughter. Coming from a Greek family, cooking had always been part of his life but Covid gave him the time to play around with different techniques in ways he hadn’t before.
“My cooking escalated,” he says.
His outdoor kit includes an almost untouched gas barbecue (“My dad convinced me to get that because he said I’d love the ease of gas. I’ve used it about five times in three and a half years”), a wood-fired oven that he built from a kit with a friend, a Primo smoker that he mostly uses as an open grill, and a hibachi. When he has time
The rolling Covid lockdowns of 2020 seemed to light a fire under the movement. When we weren’t buggering up our sourdough starters, many of us began experimenting.
on his hands he’ll do a pizza or chicken in the oven, or a lamb shoulder that he’ll leave to slow-cook overnight. If he and Marina have had long days at work, they’ll throw a bit of meat or fish and veggies on the smoker grill or hibachi.
Kapetas says one of the things he likes most about outdoor cooking is how it has put him in touch with other people who are as passionate as he is. He’s part of a text group with work colleagues where they swap cooking tips and food pics. “Instagram has also been great,” he says of the photos he shares under the handle @yaricooking, adding that it’s helped make him part of a growing charcoal and smoking community, both amateur and professional. But most of all he loves the sense of camaraderie and connection that cooking outside brings to his actual backyard.
“Social engagement at home has increased a lot,” he says. “People are always like, when are we coming round? When can we try some food?
It’s always such a good vibe, standing around the fire, talking about the methods and the food itself.”
If DIY charcoal cooking isn’t an option, there are plenty of restaurants all over Australia that have been cooking over fire and flame for a long time. There’s Sydney’s Firedoor of course, led by the Australian king of fire cooking Lennox Hastie, whose Chef’s Table: BBQ episode fanned the flames of backyard charcoal cooking when it launched on Netflix in September 2020. Also in Sydney, Argentinian-style Porteño is still as packed with diners eating fire-kissed steak and porchetta from its asado grill as it was the day it opened; and it’s elbow room only at Sh–obo–sho in Adelaide, where diners at the bar can watch the kitchen team cook snake beans or lamb ribs over a stainless steel parrilla. More restaurants with a wood-fired cooking focus pop up every day; like Woodcut at Crown Sydney and Van Bone in Tasmania.
Not to mention newcomer Charcoal Fish, by fish whisperers Josh and Julie Niland, which will bring rotisseried Aquna Murray cod to Sydney’s Rose Bay.
Then there’s Eschalot in Berrima in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, where owners Cass Wallace and Matty Roberts used the Covid shutdowns to transform what Wallace calls the “very French” restaurant they bought in 2018 into a fire-cooking extravaganza. “When Covid hit we thought it was all over,” Wallace explains. “We thought, we’re going to lose our business so let’s go out with Matty cooking the food he wants to cook.” Once restrictions loosened, Eschalot started a monthly asado barbecue day, cooking whole pigs or lambs from local suppliers over traditional South American-style a la cruz crosses. It was an instant hit, exactly what Wallace thinks locals were looking for after months of isolation. “People arrive and they’re feasting, they’re swapping tables, they’re talking to each other, they’re listening to local musos,” she says. “It’s this feeling of coming back to your tribe, like we’re getting back to our roots. There’s a primal drive to eat like this. Everyone is drawn to that natural element of fire.”
Does the charcoal and wood trend spell the end of the backyard gas barbecue altogether? Stay tuned. One thing’s certain, though. It’ll be a cold day in hell before Australians ever turn their back on the Bunnings snag.