COOKING ON AN OPEN FLAME
If you think cooking over open flame is just for immolating sausages on the garden barbecue, then think again. The most basic and primeval of cooking techniques is seeing a global resurgence, cropping up increasingly in fine dining restaurants and Michelin-starred kitchens around the world. The ancient cooking method of playing with fire allows for unique and deep flavors.
It’s also the great leveler, as chef’s gadgets and technology are taken out of the equation in a back-to-basics approach where the top-quality produce and the flame are all that’s needed.
Niklas Ekstedt is a chef driven by fire like few others. His one-star Michelin restaurant Ekstedt in Stockholm has become a must-visit for gastronomes, as absolutely everything is cooked over open flame, be it in cast-iron stoves, over open fire pits or in wood-burning ovens. He has even designed what he calls a ‘Stone Age microwave,’ a glass box with a pipe running into it where the levels of heat can be regulated.
Cooking with fire appeals to chefs for its directness and its primeval feel of getting back to basics. The results are almost without fail sensational, as wood burning, smoke and char take dishes from the everyday to the memorable.
It’s not just about steaks and ribs, however. In the same tradition as the char-grilled veggies of Mediterranean cuisine, gourmet barbecue joints and restaurants have embraced vegetables on the grill, with kale and artichoke two of the most popular and successful ways to take on the aroma of smoke.
On flame cooked beef:
MATTHEW WOOLFORD, DIRECTOR OF CULINARY, THE ST. REGIS BANGKOK
‘The nine cuts of beef in our restaurant Viu are all cooked over an open flame. It renders the marbling of fat, so it can be absorbed into the muscle and gives true melt-in-the-mouth character to the meat. We like to finish off larger cuts in a wood-burning stone oven. We just had Australians Nick and Vicky Sher over to showcase the Sher Wagyu beef they produce. The breed of cattle and the feed they’ve been raised on plays a huge part when guests are selecting from our menu. We cook over open flames to keep things simple, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.’
SPECIALTY BEEF – A CUT ABOVE
Interest in specialty breeds of beef such as Wagyu (pronounced ‘wahg-you’)—a breed that’s native and unique in its genetics to Japan—has grown exponentially in the past five years. So has concern about the way beef cattle are reared. Diners care about everything in the process, from animal welfare to sustainability, even the way the meat is kept and stored.
Cue the rise of 16-year-old ‘vintage’ beef. Alexandre Polmard is a young French farmer from Aquitaine, a breeder of cattle, and also a sixth-generation butcher who has worked in the eponymous family business founded in 1846. In the 1990s, his father worked on a meat treatment called ‘hibernation’ where cold air is blown over meat at speeds of 120 km per hour in a minus-43C environment. It allows meat to be kept for any length of time—and, according to Polmard, with absolutely no loss of quality. The result, years later, is that you can order vintage beef: ‘Would sir prefer the 2000 or 2003?’ The taste is otherworldly, with unexpected notes of sweetness and the slightest acidity, but at $3,200 for the 2000 rib steak, you’d certainly hope it would be memorable.
Fermentation is hardly new. In fact, it’s arguably one of the oldest cooking techniques around, having been used for millennia to prolong the life of seasonal ingredients and impart the mysterious fifth flavor or ‘umami’ to foods. Fish sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, cheese and yogurt are just some of the countless uses, but recently restaurants have seen a boom in the use of fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Part of the reason for its growth is that it’s a very healthy way to eat, due to the probiotics and good bacteria, while fermentation also allows chefs to add new dimensions to traditional foods. The sourness and ‘funk’ are certainly bold, often an acquired taste, but they have illuminated dishes on menus from Michelin-starred fine dining to hip neighborhood gastropubs.
On house-made kimchi:
GEOFF CARKNER, FORMER EXECUTIVE CHEF, ALLEGRO, THE WESTIN MELBOURNE
‘We make kimchi from locally grown cabbage and chili powder from Korea, and just had a five-spiced duck breast with house-made kimchi on the menu. I like kimchi hot, with lots of chili. Use it as a garnish, or perhaps julienne and add to salads. If you find it too strong, julienne some cucumber and mix it with the kimchi to take the edge off. Like anything, you can get creative with it: dehydrate it for kimchi chips, puree it for smooth plate decor, or whatever else you can think of.’
On house-made pickles:
MATTHEW MCCOOL, FORMER CHEF DE CUISINE, STARFISH BLOO, W RETREAT & SPA BALI – SEMINYAK
‘I pickle all kinds of vegetables—baby onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, corn, chili, lime, radish. They add acidity to a dish, similar to using lemon, although using a slice of organic, pickled baby-radish is far more appealing.
‘At Starfish Bloo, we made our own kimchi, and one of our most popular dishes on the lunch menu is our Korean-spiced, fried-chicken buns, called Korean-fried Bao. I really enjoy finding the right balance between the soft milk buns of a bao, the fried chicken with shichimi spice, some house-made kimchi and shaved cucumber for color.
‘We also pickle kelp in a sugar, vinegar and spiced brine and serve it with a slow-braised Wagyu short rib with ponzu-cured egg yolk.
‘Pickling is a smart technique, and I like the fact that we are thinking backwards as well as forwards in food trends. At Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant Faviken in Sweden, he preserves his summer harvest in a wooden hut—he buries the vegetables in soil for winter. Amazing!’
Which of these food trends is your personal favorite? Have you recently tried an on-trend dish? Snap a shot and upload to Instagram with #momentumtravel.
Photos: Getty and Alamy.