The MasterChef effect: hibachi sales surge for barbies in the park

BBQAroma owner Nick Angelucci cooking on his portable Ferraboli picnic grill in Leichhardt Park.
BBQAroma owner Nick Angelucci cooking on his portable Ferraboli picnic grill in Leichhardt Park.  Photo: Peter Rae

The great Aussie barbie is undergoing a transformation. Those hefty, hooded, gas-burning behemoths are being pushed aside by a new wave of charcoal-fuelled grills, mostly portable, some of which can fold up and fit in a handbag. 

Already popular with the chef community, when hibachi grills appeared on Ten's MasterChef Australia in April, sales of the Japanese barbecue surged 1600 per cent, according to retailers. Stores across Australia are still struggling to keep up with demand. 

"People are buying charcoal grills at a massive rate," says Melbourne chef and Temples of BBQ author Lance Rosen. "They love the flavour. They love the theatre, and they love that they can take them camping or to the park." 

Chef Matt Dawson from Republica cooking on a portable hibachi grill.
Chef Matt Dawson from Republica cooking on a portable hibachi grill. Photo: Justin McManus

The owner of Sydney's BBQAroma store, Nick Angelucci, says "have a look at Brighton-Le-Sands," referring to the south-west Sydney beachside suburb. 

"People are cooking on hibachis all along the beach. Go to the park and British expats are cooking sausages over charcoal. People in apartments, people in small houses in the inner west, they are all moving to small charcoal grills." 

Hibachi is a Japanese word that refers to a small, simple charcoal grill. "The flavour you get from them is subtle and clean," says Matt Dawson, executive chef at Republica on St Kilda beach.

Lamb cutlets on the portable Ferraboli picnic grill.
Lamb cutlets on the portable Ferraboli picnic grill. Photo: Peter Rae

Dawson started using a rectangular konro-style hibachi at home and was so impressed by its abilities, an industrial version was built for his seaside restaurant, Captain Baxter. He also has a larger Everdure-brand grill. 

The range of charcoal grills starts around the $6 mark for a disposable grill from Barbeques Galore and extends to more than $1000 for the space age-inspired American PK 360 cooker. 

Then there is the Jumbuck Mini Spit, a charcoal barbecue so popular it has a Facebook fan page with 12,000 followers after just six weeks. Members of the "Bunnings $85 Jumbuck Mini Spit Society" share recipes and funny barbecue stories, and have meaty pseudonyms such as Albert Einswine and Vanessa Amaroastie. 

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Jumbuck society founder Matt "Crackleman" Jackson says: "There is something about smoke, fire and cooking meat that brings people together. Online, we have become a bit of a support group getting people through hard times." 

Charcoal grill shopping guide

Ferraboli Stainless Kebab Grill, $290

Italian-made from stainless steel, this shiny box on legs solves smoky kebab problems as firebox holes allow airflow to help ignite dripping fat. The large cooking area is good for feeding a family. 

Peppers and prawns on Matt Dawson's hibachi.
Peppers and prawns on Matt Dawson's hibachi. Photo: Justin McManus

Konro Hibachi, $269

A beautiful piece of rustic Japanese design, this small hibachi is made of heat-retaining bricks. It is durable, popular and expensive, and weathers gracefully. Perfect for yakitori, chops and prawns.

Everdure by Heston Blumenthal Cube, $199

In a range of four colours, this celebrity chef-designed charcoal barbecue is made from lightweight steel and features a built-in storage tray and bamboo chopping board.

Tornado Rosso Portable Charcoal BBQ, $149

Collapsible and compact with a 1300-square-centimetre grill, the Tornado also has an ash drawer and racks at three levels, allowing for more control over how close food is to the charcoal's heat. 

Jumbuck Mini Spit Rondo Roaster, $84.95

It looks like a half a small drum on legs and comes with its own electric rotisserie. Not as portable as the others, but it does have its own knockabout online community. With more than 3000 square centimetres of cooking area, the Jumbuck will feed a crowd.

Grillz Portable Charcoal Grill, $50.95

It's small, it's black and it folds flat into something about the size of a shopping bag. It also has a decent grill size at 1350 square centimetres and is relatively cheap.

Cooking with charcoal

Charcoal is wood that has been heated to drive off moisture and compounds that would adversely flavour food. It does not have its own smell when burned. The light, smoky aromas that characterise food cooked over charcoal come from cooking juices and dripping fat. When meat juices hit charcoal, they vaporise and ignite and smoke flows around the food.

"Don't overload the grill," says Nick Angelucci from BBQAroma in Leichhardt, Sydney. "You do not want lots of white smoke coming off the charcoal. This is unburned vaporised fat that will form a bitter, sooty layer on your food. You want to burn the charcoal with a slightly blue, faint smoke." 

When it comes to which charcoal to buy, Angelucci suggests mallee wood for Victoria and gidgee for NSW as a starting point. He points to Japanese binchotan, a hard, white charcoal that is considered "pure, and suited for more delicate dishes. Binchotan can be hard to light, but Angelucci says, "patience". He suggests you use wooden wax firelighters (other types can impart a chemical aroma to food), then simply wait. Many chefs will light their charcoal over gas and transfer it to an ovenproof dish before taking it outside to grill.

Fresh seafood, sliced vegetables, small pieces of chicken, lamb cutlets and small steaks work best on a small grill. Angelucci says you should make sure there is not a total fire ban in place when you want to barbecue, check local council laws around grilling in parks or on the beach, and only ever cook over charcoal outdoors.