Sous vide – the culinary technique that sees vacuum-packed items submerged in a water bath at precisely controlled temperatures – helped define the food of the Noughties. Many of the world’s leading chefs, from Heston Blumenthal to Thomas Keller, employed it behind the scenes. Alongside the much-vaunted rise of “molecular gastronomy”, it allowed science to play a more prominent role in high-end cuisine, guaranteeing accuracy, consistency and even perfection.
But it’s not exactly mouth-wateringly sexy, is it? So just as every movement prompts a counter-insurgency, the past few years have witnessed the more populist re-emergence of cooking and smoking over fire and charcoal. From London to Singapore, the Maldives to Mauritius, barbecue is back. What’s more, the dishes emerging from the parillas and kilns of today’s kitchens and outdoor cooking stations feed not only our appetites, but our raw primal instincts.
At his Singapore restaurant Burnt Ends, chef Dave Pynt smokes pretty much everything. “Pineapple, leeks, quail’s eggs, fish – you name it, we can get smoke into it,” he says. Pynt, originally from Perth in Western Australia, opened a pop-up in East London in 2013 under the title Burnt Enz. It proved such a roaring success that the chef was whisked off to Singapore with his four-ton dual-cavity oven to open the fully fledged version (replacing the questionable “z” with a respectable “ds” in the process).
While the restaurant is built around a big beast of an oven, with counter seating and three customized charcoal grills, the sophistication of the cooking and depth of flavor drawn from simple ingredients is astounding. There is superb, succulent meat on offer – harissa lamb, pulled pork, Jacob’s Ladder short rib, even Hida wagyu from Japan – but there are also surprising delights, such as charred fennel imbued with almond-wood smoke and served with orange and burrata.
Such has been the big-bearded Aussie’s success in tuning into the food zeitgeist in restaurant-mad Singapore that Burnt Ends is now ranked in the top ten of the well-respected Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pynt’s inspiration and mentor, however, is a man frequently cited as the current king of “grill cooking”: the hermit-like Spaniard, Victor Arguinzoniz.
Arguinzoniz grew up and still works in the remote countryside south of Spain’s Basque Country. Over the past two decades, his restaurant Asador Etxebarri (asador being Spanish for barbecue) has built its reputation to the point where intrepid diners and international chefs will make the pilgrimage from all corners of the world to experience his food.
What’s so special as to draw such discerning crowds, as well as critical plaudits? Well, every element on the substantial menu is cooked on hand-crafted, adjustable-height grills: juicy Palamós prawns, anchovies on toast, fresh buffalo mozzarella (from the chef’s own herd grazing next door), eel, enormous Tomahawk steaks, even smoked-milk ice cream.
The influence of restaurants such as Etxebarri and Burnt Ends is reflected across the globe. More and more chefs cite Arguinzoniz and the legendary Argentinian chef, author and restaurateur Francis Mallmann as guiding forces. Mallmann wrote the book on the philosophy and craft of cooking over flames and embers – Siete Fuegos: Mi Cocina Argentina (Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way) – following a Damascene conversion after years of preparing haute cuisine in the classic French style. A maverick and raconteur, he has become a cult figure, in part due to his regular appearances on food shows across American TV networks.
In the States, barbecuing traditions run very deep, especially in the South. Danny Meyer is the doyen of the New York restaurant scene, with Union Square Café, The Modern and Gramercy Tavern to his name, but he originally hails from St. Louis. He brought southern barbecue into the city in the form of Blue Smoke in Manhattan’s Flatiron district – a format so successful, it has spawned offshoots at ballparks and even at JFK airport.
Head west to The St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, and you’ll see a whole hog being spit-roasted every Sunday in the summer on The Mountain Terrace. Chef de cuisine Rachel Wiener sources pigs locally, alongside finest American wagyu from Idaho and seasonal vegetables from local farmers, all of which might find their way on to the Traeger Grill.
In the Maldives, St. Regis guests can take things a step further by enjoying a mobile barbecue station with a bespoke menu anywhere from rooftop to the terrace – and even on the beach itself. Expect to feast on rib-eye steaks and the freshest grilled seafood. The Royal Villa at The St. Regis Mauritius offers a similarly luxe take on this al fresco classic.
Our appetite for this natural form of cooking shows little sign of abating, with built-in charcoal barbecues, wood-fired ovens, and even smoking sheds de rigueur in the homes of fashionable food lovers. This fire is not ready to be put out, so let’s throw another steak on the grill.
Chicken char-grilled to perfection. The sophistication of today’s grilling methods means almost any food can be thrown on the griddle... even ice cream
(Photo: Gallery stock)