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Playing with fire: seven chefs harnessing the power of open flames

From London to Australia’s east coast, chefs are using fire to cook — and add flavour to — meat, veg and even fruit. It's all the inspiration you need to take your barbecue to the next level this this summer.

By Aarti Betigeri
Published 29 May 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:24 BST
After honing his craft, Lennox Hastie opened the now-lauded Firedoor in Sydney to celebrate his passion ...

After honing his craft, Lennox Hastie opened the now-lauded Firedoor in Sydney to celebrate his passion for flame-cooking. More and more chefs are embracing fire to add a little extra something to their dishes.

Photograph by Nikki To

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. More and more chefs, not content with simply using smokers and hickory chips to inject flavour, are turning to open flames to add a little extra something to their dishes. Of course, cooking over fire is nothing new, but it’s making a comeback everywhere from Portugal to Australia, with chefs saying it adds a complex smokiness to food. With outdoor entertaining set to be big again this summer, there’s no need to settle for burnt burgers on the barbecue. Why not take the lead from these seven chefs and try taking flame-grilling to the next level?

Cooking over a fire “speaks to my Viking heritage,” says Danish-born chef Bente Gyrsbaek.

Photograph by Bente Gyrsbaek

1. Bente Grysbaek

Australia
Five years ago, Danish-born chef Bente Grysbaek underwent a career crisis and decided to focus on her true passion: cooking over fire. Now, having worked in kitchens for more than 25 years in Europe and Australia, Grysbaek juggles working at Melbourne’s Pope Joan restaurant with private catering, via her company Off Grid Cooking and Events — always over an open flame, usually in a field. She hangs whole fish speared onto sticks and racks of lamb over the flames, and even places entire lettuces directly onto the coals. “It’s so liberating when I go off-grid and construct my kitchen using only bricks, steel wire and star pickets,” she says.
Signature dish: Salmon cooked on a wooden plank over the fire. “It speaks to my Viking heritage,” Grysbaek says.

Chef Alexandre Silva, whose Lisbon restaurant, Loco, earned a Michelin star, insists “fire has personality.”

Photograph by Alexandre Silva

2. Alexandre Silva

Portugal
Winner of the Portuguese television show Top Chef, Alexandre Silva earned a Michelin star at his Lisbon restaurant, Loco — and while that’s still going strong, he also helms Fogo, where flames are used for every item on the menu. “Fire has personality,” says Silva. “The same dish prepared by fire is different every time you do it.”
Signature dish: Silva enjoys cooking large pieces of meat over flames. “I love the taste of lamb cooked on fire; caramelisation of the skin and the soft aroma of smoke make the meat even better.”

Read more: An interview with pioneering chef Alexandre Silva

3. Tomos Parry

UK
Welsh chef Tomos Parry helms Brat in Shoreditch, east London, where he combines British ingredients with grilling techniques from the Basque region, using a blend of sustainable charcoal and wood to build his fire. “Wood behaves in different ways,” he says. “Birch is good for flame and flavour, while oak gives you longer sustained heat and gentle smoke.”
Signature dish: Parry is best known for his whole-roasted turbot (the Old English meaning of the word ‘brat’), but he also loves to cook fruit and vegetables — including peas, leeks and strawberries — over charcoal to create an intense, jammy-sweet yet bitter taste.

At Lennox Hastie's Sydney restaurant, Firedoor, try 200-plus-day dry-aged rib of beef is grilled over grape vines.

Photograph by Nikki To

4. Lennox Hastie

Australia
After honing his craft at the revered Basque grill restaurant Asador Etxebarri, Lennox Hastie opened the now-lauded Firedoor in Sydney to celebrate his passion for flame-cooking. “It’s where cooking began, and embraces so many cuisines and transcends cultures,” says Hastie. “It’s beautifully complex yet simple, and highlights ingredients in their most natural state.”
Signature dish: Firedoor’s menu changes regularly, but “at the moment, it’s pipis from South Australia, or the 200-plus-day dry-aged rib of beef, which is grilled over grape vines,” Hastie says.

5. Nicky Bryden

South Africa
Nicky Bryden spent her early career training in London before working in hotels around the world, but it was when she returned home to South Africa that she discovered a new passion: cooking in the bush. Now based in Kenya as a chef with Elewana Collection hotels, Bryden serves up local fire-cooked specialities, such as a whole fish or traditional Kenyan mishkaki kebabs. She recommends getting the coals to the perfect temperature, so they sear the meat with “just a lick of the flames”.
Signature dish: Aubergine slow-roasted over coals.

Shoreditch restaurant Smokestak is a London institution whose culinary inspiration is drawn, in part, from chef David Carter's childhood in Barbados.

Photograph by Carol Sachs

6. David Carter

UK
Growing up in Barbados, David Carter’s childhood centred around outdoor living and open fire cooking. He launched Smokestak, an American-inspired barbecue food stall, in Dalston, London, in 2013, moving to a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in nearby Shoreditch three years later. Meats are smoked for up to 15 hours in in a hickory wood-fired smoker, before being cooked over flames. “The flavour you get is impossible to replicate, and that comes from the type of wood or charcoal you are using. At home, I use lump charcoal and various kiln-dried woods — oak and birch primarily — which offer great results,” Carter says.
Signature dish: Native-breed dry-aged pork chop. The back fat is grilled first, set over a low heat to gently render it. The chop is then moved closer to the fire and constantly rotated until it’s cooked through and caramelised.

Chef Amninder Sandhu creates rustic dishes using a homemade angeethi (firepit) and a tandoor, as well as other interpretations of traditional Indian stoves and ovens, all fuelled by fire or coal.

Photograph by Amninder Sandhu

7. Amninder Sandhu

India
Based in Mumbai, Sandhu is part of a new wave of Indian chefs bringing fresh eyes to ancient ways of cooking. She creates rustic dishes using equipment she’s designed and built herself, including an angeethi (firepit) and a tandoor, as well as other interpretations of traditional Indian stoves and ovens, all fuelled by fire or coal. “The earliest record of cooked food in history made use of an open fire, which drew me to start cooking on wood or charcoal,” says Sandhu. Having risen to prominence on Netflix’s The Final Table, where she was the only Indian participant, Sandhu currently runs her own catering business, Bliss Food Experiences, and has also appeared on MasterChef India as a guest judge.
Signature dish: Deomali, marinated mutton skewered and slow-cooked inside a bamboo stem. It’s inspired by Sandhu’s childhood visits to her uncle in the remote state of Arunachal Pradesh. “We’d catch fish or hunt and cook game in bamboo on an open fire, like the local tribe,” she says.

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

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