The great Aussie bar­bie trans­formed

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FRONT PAGE - STORY AN­THONY HUCK­STEP

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.Syd­neyBar­be­cueFes­ti­ TheYaks.Mel­bourneBar­be­cue­Fes­ti­


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

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