Richard Turner is executive chef of London-based steak restaurant group Hawksmoor. He's also a partner in Soho barbecue joint Pitt Cue Co. and one of the founders of Meatopia, London's first barbecue festival. As one of the UK's most respected meat chefs, Turner describes himself as an "ethical carnivore."
No company I'm involved with cooks meat over gas. We only use charcoal and live fire.
It hasn't always been like this. I was trained and worked for years in classic restaurant kitchens kitted out with flat-tops and Salamander Grills. But when I started my first independent venture—the Albion pub in Islington, in 2006—we put a barbecue in the back and it was massively successful. It got me thinking about a live fire British grill restaurant. It turns out that while I was thinking about this, two guys were doing it in a small ex-kebab shop in Spitalfields. Rather than compete, I threw my lot in with them.
So in 2009, I joined Hawksmoor where we cooked (and still cook) steak over English charcoal using the previous incumbent's kebab grill. We didn't do this because we thought it'd be a good gimmick, it was out of necessity. The kitchen was tiny and we couldn't fit the usual sort of equipment in. But in the end, it became one of the reasons why Hawksmoor was successful. No one else was cooking meat over charcoal or live fire in London at that time—apart from the Turkish places, obviously.
Of course, you can get Maillard reactions and caramelisation to occur when cooking steak on a plancha grill or in a pan—these things add taste. But cooking over charcoal or live fire adds an extra dimension: aroma. You get aroma compounds from the smoke. More importantly, for me, when the meat's juices start dripping on to hot coals, the sugars and proteins basically burst and turn into new flavour compounds and their aromas rise up and coat the meat. There's a specific one that you only get from wood and charcoal. It's why when you cook on a proper coal barbecue it tastes so different to that more sanitised, gas barbecue-taste and not just because you're more likely to have burnt the chicken. Really, it's a totally different flavour. You're relying completely on the quality of the meat when cooking on other mediums—which is fine—it's just that live fire adds a different dimension.
People don't come to us ready to cook over charcoal. Regardless of where they've been, we need to train them on the job, to teach them to understand the way we cook. They have to learn to not mess about with the meat – which actually requires skill and experience to do. There's a lot of instinct involved—an instinct that basically involves doing very little. I've worked for some of the best chefs in the world—Marco Pierre White, Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Koffmann, and the Roux brothers—that's my background, and that's where I learned to cook. But since cooking on charcoal and live fire, I've basically had to learn to un-cook, to keep things really simple.
It recently dawned on me that Jay Rayner's 2009 article about Asador Etxebarri is largely what got me into the whole thing. Reading about Arguinzoniz [the chef] cooking everything—"even the caviar and cream"—over wood, that he was untrained so cooked by instinct, and that he used specific woods to season specific ingredients all struck a chord. I've been a few times now. It's quality.
But while the big-name, live fire restaurants are interesting and important, sometimes it's the places—and countries—that have always just been getting on with this style of cooking that stand out.
Cooking over charcoal or live fire adds an extra dimension: aroma. When the meat's juices start dripping on to hot coals, the sugars and proteins basically burst and turn into new flavour compounds and their aromas rise up and coat the meat.
I was in Brazil a few weeks ago at a large barbecue event with Andre Lima de Luca. One guy had created a kind of apparatus that suspends whole turkeys, ducks, chickens, pheasants, guinea fowl, and quail over smouldering orange wood—I was pretty keen on that. And we visited Andre's butcher, just a regular butcher in Sao Paulo, who has a barbecue at the front of his shop. People choose chunks of meat that are then cooked right in front of them, to be taken home for Sunday lunch. No fuss and to them, nothing out of the ordinary.
My business partners at Turner and George and I started Meatopia, a grilling and barbecue event, by accident two years ago. The initial one was a bit of a party. We just tried to run a massive barbecue and invite people we knew to cook a few things they wouldn't usually have the apparatus to cook. About 4,000 people turned up and since then, we've been more professional, more organised. We pick chefs who already cook regularly over charcoal and their dishes are selected to work in that environment.
Cooking like this is here to stay now—I reckon now we've been cooking over fire for a few thousand years it'll probably just about stick, it's more than just a trend.
Maybe the hype will die down, though. Live fire will play a very big part in London's kitchens, but we'll stop labeling every restaurant that has a grill a barbecue restaurant. A bespoke grill or Big Green Egg will just be recognised as an important part of the cooking armoury, rather than something that goes in a press release.
As told to Ed Smith.