The great Aussie barbie transformed
John Cleese gets it. In his 2013 spiel on global reactions to the threat from Syria, the English had raised their security level from “miffed” to “peeved”. And the Aussies? “Two more escalation levels remain: ‘ Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!’ and ‘ The barbie is cancelled’,” the comedian quipped.
“So far, no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.”
Yes, well, our summer barbies are rather nation-defining. They’re also not quite what they used to be. For a start, the advent of the outdoor kitchen has extended their season well beyond summer; more significantly, the very term “barbecue” is undergoing a recalibration.
My father built his from busted bricks, a bent cast iron slab and a six-pack of Reschs. Every summer, metre-high flames would put his bushy brows on notice as he incinerated the bangers that filled our sangas. Summer was a tale of sunburn, snags and sauce stains.
In the past few years barbecue has come to mean something completely different down under. A new breed of chef, fuelled by a generation infatuated with US pop culture, has sent the smoke signals of American barbecue through our culinary landscape.
Hickory. Mesquite. Smoked, wobbly brisket and pulled pork with a side of mac ’n’ cheese, if you please. It’s so prevalent it’s almost odd if it’s not on a pub menu these days.
But there’s one chef bridging the gap between our own weekend ritual and the smoking American guns to help trigger a new day for Australian barbecue. So it was that in the interests of exploring the virtues of the modern Aussie barbecue, I spent a day in the kitchen with Luke Powell, owner and chef of LP’s Quality Meats in Sydney.
This hybrid hot smoker is an anomaly. It’s a hat-tilt to contemporary Australian. A bow to eastern European technique. A curtsy to the craft of fine dining and a slap on the back of barbecue Ameri- cana. And Powell is the Pied Piper of inner-city Chippendale: the wafts of slow-cooked meats lure crowds to his flesh festival from two blocks away.
When I arrive at midday, the chefs are already busy prepping for the evening service. Powell is boning out a duck for his smoked duck galantine when I join him in the kitchen.
“When we first started, all the American manuals said 110C for smoking things like brisket and ribs. That’s quite hot,” says Powell. “When I was doing fine dining at Tetsuya’s we were using sous vide — cooking at a much lower temperature, like 60C, for a much longer period of time. The results were astonishing.”
Even though the theory of American barbecue is low and slow, Powell felt it needed to go even lower and slower for the best results. “Generally for the ribs we cook them about 85C for about 12 hours, then six hours at 77C,” he says.
There’s no dry rub. No marinade. It’s about using
Powell was eager to avoid the American cliches
the best beef — in this instance Greenstone Creek’s two-year-old grass-fed steer short ribs from Taranaki, New Zealand. Powell simply seasons with salt and pepper. The ribs are one thing, but Powell soon discovered each protein needed to be handled differently in the smoker — an issue he grappled with for months when they opened in late 2014.
“We started putting everything else in at that temperature (85C) but it’s way too hot,” he says.
“Sausages split at that temperature — you can see the oil gathering underneath the casing. Now we cook them at 77C for an hour and finish them on the grill to order.”
Powell was eager to avoid the American cliches flooding the market. “I just felt American barbecue, which is fantastic, is also all very limiting,” he says.
He started reading books about sausage making and was drawn to the craft of eastern European sausages. He also didn’t want standard sides. “I didn’t want to be making baked beans and mac ’n’ cheese either — I wanted to explore Australian ingredients, Australian woods and utilise the smoking process to showcase them at their best.”
At LP’s, the sides are more seasonal and lighter — like we’d see at a great home barbie. Think peas, beans and ricotta; asparagus, hazelnut and yoghurt; or kale, chickpea and anchovy caramel.
The former Tetsuya’s head chef couldn’t be further removed from the fine dining he cut his teeth on, but the rigours of his training have not been wasted. Take LP’s smoked Thirlmere chickens: an example of complexities at work behind the simplicity of great flavour.
“When hot smoking, at every degree that you burn wood, completely different chemicals are released,” says Powell. “At a certain temperature it comes out as nitric oxide, which appears as a gas. When it condenses on the moist surface of the meat it converts it to nitric acid, which is nitrate — the pink ring you see on brisket.”
The smoked ring on brisket is seen as a mark of a pit master’s prowess. Whiter meats such as pork, sausages and chicken get a strong pink hue throughout the meat from the same conversion.
“When people come in for the first time, some of them freak out,” Powell says. “They think the chicken isn’t cooked because it’s pink, and they think they’re going to die. Unfortunately some guests don’t believe me and they send it back and ask for it to be recooked!”
The chicken is dry-rubbed with an adaptation of a Montreal steak spice including cayenne pepper, dill seeds and paprika. Once smoked, the chefs fry the chickens to cook the skin and mellow the spices. In the US chickens are smoked at higher temperatures and the skin is fine, but the internal flesh is much tougher than Powell’s slow-cooked chook.
And that’s the point: they do things differently there and Powell’s aim is to take Australian barbecue to a new level.
Where American barbecue, for instance, is all about pulled pork, Powell’s is a porchetta. “We’ve tried cooking suckling pigs and porchetta the whole way in the smoker, but because of the low temperature the crackling goes more like bacon rind when you roast it afterwards — it hurts your teeth.”
Instead a whole pork belly is rolled and placed in the combi oven to slow-cook overnight at 70C. Next they throw it in the smoker for a few hours, then back in the combi again to crisp up the crackling for service. It only gets a kiss of smoke, but has the addictive wobble and swoon-worthy crackle.
And it’s not just hot smoking at LP’s: Powell is grilling octopus, corn and sardines as well as cold-smoking trout, salmon and mackerel. He’s preparing mackerel for the night’s service when he pauses to show off the small cold smoker.
“This relies on the actual smoke, not a combination of heat and smoke,” he says. He guts and fillets the fish and salts it for an hour in a brine. “If you are brining anything — sides of bacon, fish — pat it dry, then let it sit overnight on a cake rack to dry out and get tacky on the outside,” he explains. If a product is too wet the smoke will condense into the water rather than the flesh.
And the wood used is just as important as the process. “We use the same two all the time. Iron bark is the hard one — that’s your burning wood; the apple wood or any fruit tree is for sweetness, flavour, fragrance, and it helps regulate that heat.”
His hot smoker is a monster Southern Pride wood-burning, gas-assisted smoker shipped from the Alamo, Tennessee. Gas regulates the heat and the smoke flavours the meat. It’s a beast, and the engine of this 80-seater carnival of the flesh.
During service the smoker merely rests the meat as it awaits a call to arms. It sits at 60C, and although there can be some residual smoke, the low temps mean the meats don’t dry out during service.
All the hard work happens in the slow build-up to service — in some instances overnight. It means that as the hordes of barbecue fiends file down Chippen Lane come sunset, Powell and his team are confident in taking Australia down a brave new barbecue path. One we can rightly call our own.
The Yak Ales BBQ Festival is on today at The Domain, Sydney, and on February 6 at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne. TheYaks.SydneyBarbecueFestival.com.au TheYaks.MelbourneBarbecueFestival.com.au
A platter from the chef’s selection at LP’s Quality Meats
Luke Powell in the kitchen at LP’s Quality Meats in Chippendale, Sydney
The writer with chef Shannon Debreceny making sausages at LP’s