“I fucking hate charcoal,” says David Pynt. “It’s a dirty fuel. By the time you get it, all the essential oils have been cooked out. It has no flavour. It doesn’t add anything to the cooking process. What’s the point of it?”
Strong words? Possibly, but when it comes to talking about the finer points of cooking over fire, the Perth-born chef – and former stagier at restaurants such as Noma, Tetsuya’s, St John Food and Wine and Basque barbeque hotspot Etxebarri – knows what he’s talking about. As the chef-patron of Singaporean modern barbeque restaurant Burnt Ends, Pynt has made a career of using fire to coax maximum deliciousness from his ingredients. In the space of just three years, Burnt Ends has carved out a niche on the global dining scene with the restaurant making its debut at number 70 on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Despite his growing international profile, Pynt remains very much connected to his homeland, from the extensive use of Australian ingredients on his menu to the tonne of Fremantle-sourced sustainable jarrah that his restaurant burns through each week. (In Perth, Pynt wholeheartedly endorses Freo Firewood as a source of barbeque fuel).
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He’s also all too aware of the importance of barbequing in Australian culture – especially over summer – and wants us to cook and eat better, whether we’re in our backyard or on the road. Will this advice fast track your career as a World’s 50 Best chef? Probably not. But with a little luck, burnt snags and chops will be a thing of the past.
Here are his top tips:
Start a good fire
Cooking over fire is easier in a contained vessel like a Weber, Komodo or Big Green Egg, but not everyone has access to one of those, so 44-gallon oil drums sawn in half are a good alternative. Otherwise, try to build your fire over a mesh grate so the ash can fall through. You want to ensure you’re cooking over burning embers. Ash doesn’t have any energy and all it does is smother the fire and stop air flow.
Before you start lighting fires, double- and triple-check fire regulations in your area, especially over summer. If you’re away from home, clear the immediate area. It only takes one gust of wind for an entire area to go up. The best fuel source is a sustainable hardwood like jarrah. For a good fire, allow yourself two hours for the wood to burn. Another handy tip is to use a propane torch to light your fire. It’s an effective, efficient and clean way to get things going.
Marinating isn’t always best
Typically when you marinate things, there’s a lot of sugars and herbs in there that will just burn, so you won’t get a nice flavour. It’s usually better to add sauces and glazes after you’ve let the fire do its job.
Brine your meat and fish
Lots of things, poultry in particular, do well on a fire if it’s been brined (a solution of salt and water that helps meat stay juicy during cooking). Salt is also prohibitive to bacteria so if you brine meat and fish at home before you hit the road, it helps protects food.
Cook directly on coals
It might sound counter-intuitive, but cooking things on coals is gentler than grilling them. When you chuck things straight onto coals, the ingredient smothers the fire and lowers the temperature. We do it a lot with meats to begin the cooking process. Starting on coals gives the ingredient a lot of colour and imparts a strong smoky flavour to things. We then finish the cooking on a higher heat. Whole leeks, fennels, eggplants and onions are amazing. Oysters are another great thing you can throw straight onto coals.
Don’t forget the sauce
Whether you buy a sauce from the shops or make your own, bring a saucepan with you to warm it up on the fire.
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