Go for the burn: Top chefs cook with flames

Jill Dupleix
Chef Bittor (Victor) Arguinzoniz has raised the grill to an art form at his Asador Etxebarri restaurant in Spain.
Chef Bittor (Victor) Arguinzoniz has raised the grill to an art form at his Asador Etxebarri restaurant in Spain. Photo: Supplied

It's a natural progression for chefs to turn to something as raw, clean, elemental and fundamental as fire, as they move further down the garden path towards a more natural form of cooking, rejecting the technology-inspired, chem-set cuisine of the recent past, writes Jill Dupleix.

Snap, crackle, pop. It was once the sound of breakfast as you crunched through cereal. Now it's the sound of dinner, as the sap sizzles out of flinty grey ironbark in the newly installed wood-fired ovens, grills and fire-pits across the country.

Australia's top chefs are going for the burn, from Dan Hunter at the award-winning Brae in Victoria's Birregurra to David Moyle at the wood-fired Franklin in Hobart. "It absolutely dictates our menu," says Moyle, of his adapted Scotch oven. "We offer whole fish, animals and vegetables, and basically, if food doesn't come from the oven, it is served raw."

In Adelaide, Duncan Welgemoed has installed a South African-inspired fire pit at Africola, while the breezy, waterside Salt House in Cairns, grills rib eye on the bone over local West Queensland ironwood.

"We haven't invented a better way to cook for millennia," says Neil Perry of Rockpool Bar & Grill, the wood-fuelled corporate hotspots in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. "I love the extra dimension of char and smokiness the fire gives."

It's a natural progression for chefs to turn to something as raw, clean, elemental and fundamental as fire, as they move further down the garden path towards a more natural form of cooking, rejecting the technology-inspired, chem-set cuisine of the recent past.

None of this, of course, is new. Mankind has been cooking with fire for 400,000 years, and the grill itself is one of the most direct forms of cooking in existence; incontrovertibly primal, basic and straightforward. Or is it?

Basque chef Bittor (Victor) Arguinzoniz has raised the grill to an art form at his Asador Etxebarri, nestled in a lovely stone village an hour out of Bilbao. Obsessed with fire, Arguinzoniz has invented carefully regulated, adjustable grilling racks, enabling him to vary the intensity of heat, smoke and flavour. His genius is in using different types of wood for different foods, and experimenting with the grilling of things previously left ungrilled – anchovies, rice, truffles, caviar. Even the ice-cream at Etxebarri is flavoured with smoky, grilled, wild mushrooms.

Now we're heading for that next level in Australia, as the chef who worked most closely with Arguinzoniz for five years opens a 100 per cent fire-powered restaurant, Firedoor, in Sydney's Surry Hills. Lennox Hastie is determined to change our Aussie, Aussie, Aussie perceptions of the burnt chop and the barbie.

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"People think of wood fire as being barbecue and red meat," says Hastie. "But cooking an ingredient over an open fire is simply the greatest expression of that ingredient in its purest form."

Hastie talks about woods in the same way a wine-maker talks about grapes.

"I think of wood as an ingredient," he says. "I worked with holm oak in Spain, which produces the purest form of charcoal. Here, I have ironbark and mallee root, and fruit trees such as apple, peach, plum, nectarine and olive. Each one burns with a different intensity and gives a different flavour profile, depending on the age of the tree and the dryness of the wood."

Just don't expect those lovely, strong grill marks so beloved of food stylists in gourmet magazines. "Grill marks are the sign of the great Australian barbecue," he says. "Our cooking is different, it's quite delicate."

On the east coast at least, the wood-fired movement would be a damp squib had Neil Perry not introduced Lennox Hastie to wood suppliers Michael and Christa McDonald of Blackheath Firewood Company. The former full-time train driver and the K-Mart employee with a sideline in Blue Mountains firewood delivery, are now firewood suppliers to many of the 500 restaurants on Australia's Top Restaurants list.

It's their wood that helps give character and a smoky nuance to the Cape Grim dry-aged, 36-month-old, grass-fed sirloin on the bone at Rockpool Bar & Grill, and to the celebrated "cordero a la cruz" eight-hour, wood-fired lamb and pork at the Argentinean-inspired Porteno. Owing to the growth of wood-fired restaurants, the McDonalds are opening a depot to supply to Melbourne as well.

It's not a convenient form of cooking, says Hastie, but it is a celebratory one. "You constantly feed your fire, rotate your coals, and add your woods as you need them," he says, standing by his new and alarmingly hot (800C to 1200C) copper-hued, wood-fired ovens, built of very high refractory concrete. "You can't just come in, flick a switch, stick a timer on and turn your back on it."

Here, he burns six different fruit timbers; one oven used for cooking while the other is busy creating coals. There is no temperature gauge, as the act of cooking is reduced to nothing more than instinct, and experience.

"There is nowhere to hide" he says. "It's just food, and fire."

Jill Dupleix is co-director of Australia's Top Restaurants, presented by Qantas and Vittoria Coffee australiastoprestaurants.com  

Seven wood-powered dishes to grill for

Coal-roasted king salmon tail with parsley, lemon, garlic, for two. Esq at Esquire, 145 Eagle Street, Brisbane. 07 32202123

Wood-fired grilled White Rocks veal cutlet. Rockpool Bar & Grill, Crown Perth, Burswood. 08 6252 1900

12-hour ½ lb pit-smoked grain-fed Riverina angus beef. Le Bon Ton, 51 Gipps Street, Collingwood. 03 9416 4341 

Grilled corn with lime, butter and manchego cheese. Porteno, 358 Cleveland Street Surry Hills 02 8399 1440

Wood-fired half head of cauliflower with almonds and mint. Ester, 46-52 Meagher Street, Chippendale 02 8068 8279

Wood-oven sardines with poached plum and mieliebread salad. Africola, 4 East Terrace, Adelaide 08 8223 3885

Grilled marron over nectarine wood. Firedoor, 23-33 Mary Street, Surry Hills, Sydney 02 8204 0800. (Opens 29 April)