Features

Fire - the hottest of restaurant trends

Cooking over fire may not be a new technique but a growing number of restaurants around the UK are fanning the flames of this culinary trend.

Just how cooking on naked fire can be deemed a trend is perhaps a question worth asking. Has fire not be a ‘thing’ for millennia, at least since Prometheus stole a lick or two from the gods on Mount Olympus and gave it, spitting, crackling, warming, hypnotic and beautiful, to us mortals? Fast forward through centuries of ever more high-tech kitchen wizardry – and we’re back where we started.

This fire ‘thing’ in 2017 is about letting great ingredients sing for themselves with minimum fuss; it’s about applauding an ingredient for its inherent flavour, not for a technique that’s been applied; it’s about returning to a very natural way of cooking.

In the tiny Pea Porridge restaurant in the Suffolk market town of Bury St Edmunds, Justin Sharp tends to Bertha’s flames daily. His cast-iron charcoal oven – he’ll often use wood as well – smoulders pretty much round the clock. Sometimes she is tenderly warm, just right to slow-cook rice pudding or a piece of pork belly; at others she roars at a stoked-up 400°C, hot enough to render the fat on a côte de boeuf to syrupy-sweetness in moments, leaving its flesh packed with juicy flavour.

On a high heat Justin will quickly cook scallops, skewers of duck hearts or simply-seasoned lobster; leeks, inauspiciously blackened on the outside after a few hours snuggled in Bertha’s gently glowing embers, peel back to reveal soft green, delicious layers of intense leek-ness.

The Gunton Arms, Norfolk

It’s happening all over the country of course. High profile restaurants in London such as Neil Rankin’s Temper (it builds on the success of Pitt Cue, widely seen as the founding father of the indoor barbecue trend), Kiln and Kitty Fisher’s all pay homage to our apparently insatiable love of a good barbecue.

Honey & Smoke, the Middle Eastern grill restaurant from Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, is wowing critics. Celeriac, cooked slowly over the embers till its flesh is meltingly soft and sweet, is served with a warmly spicy urfa chilli butter; pears are seared on a hot grill then cooked till soft and yielding inside; aubergine, peppers and lamb all get the hot grill treatment. ‘This is how people at home cook,’ Packer says. ‘We’ll use olive wood, maybe some citrus. It’s instinctive and natural to us, and not perfect. Perfect food is boring; the most interesting bits of a steak are always the slightly burnt, caramelised bits on the edge!’

Elsewhere, there’s a more raw approach. ‘For us it’s really about harnessing the heat, getting the char right,’ says Stuart Tattersall at the Gunton Arms in Cromer, north Norfolk, who cooks venison from the Gunton Estate and locally-reared Aberdeen Angus beef theatrically, on a vast inglenook fire.

Dave Wall, Unruly Pig, Suffolk

‘I direct the intense heat to caramelise and render deep layers of fat. We choose fattier cuts, packed with flavour; they work brilliantly on the fire. It’s bold cooking here, there’s nothing subtle about it!’ says Tattersall.

His is an approach that chimes with Dave Wall, head chef at the Unruly Pig near Woodbridge whose Inka charcoal oven is at the heart of a compact kitchen, cooking whole sea bream, featherblade of beef, or chunky pork T-bone.

‘For us it’s about the way you can really crisp the outside of a piece of meat or fish but cook the inside perfectly. You do have to be careful though – cooking on such intense heat requires instinct and understanding rather than memorising and repeating a recipe.’

Where next with fire? That remains in the lap of the gods.

Read more on chefs using these techniques