Cooking Over Fire – Tips and Techniques
Cooking over fire has recently exploded in the UK. We spent the day with the unstoppable Ross Anderson, founder of Roam Catering in Salisbury. Ross shared some of his vast knowledge on the subject and cooked some unbelievable food.
Tell us a little about your fascination with cooking over fire and why you think it’s taken off in such a way.
My fascination with fire stems all the way back to my early childhood with family feasts over fire – then after that, my time spent with the forces deploying to countries all over the world. I engaged with local cuisines and methods of cookery from Afghanistan, Morocco, Canada, the Balkans and many many more. The way different cultures embrace outdoor cookery has really inspired me throughout my career.
Cooking over fire is the rawest form of cookery. It’s almost ‘primeval’ in the sense that the fire not only offers a heat source to cook over, it also acts as an ingredient – with the ability to create flavour that elevates ingredients to amazing levels. It has a hypnotic effect and it has the ability to draw people to it and to bring them together.
The UK was previously trailing the rest of the world with its understanding of alfresco-style cooking. The stereotype of a British barbeque was just a Summertime event with a few sausages, burgers, the odd undercooked chicken drumstick and a selection of salads, all mixed with shop-bought mayonnaise.
In the last 8 years the British barbeque scene has stepped it up massively, with amazing chefs empowering the movement, festivals like Meatopia, Ludlow and Big Feastival. Stand-alone restaurants are using fire more and more to elevate dishes.
Now people are experiencing something very different with Covid and are investing in home renovations. They are investing in their kitchens and cooking equipment and spending time learning new skills.
You have now set up Roam Catering – what are you offering and how are you different?
Roam has been a dream for many years, bringing together two passions in my life; cooking over fire and teaching people. We offer:
1. Private, high end dining experiences – we bring the restaurant directly to your home with exceptional cooking – indoor or outdoor.
2. Bespoke private cookery classes / experiences in the comfort of peoples own homes. Whether cooking over fire or inside with bakery, cake decorating or butchery, we cover a vast range of lessons designed to fit each individual need.
3. Consultancy – Never, as an industry, have we needed the correct support and advice to help us survive so much. We offer support to hospitality businesses with health and safety systems, budgeting and menu design, business strategy and adjustments to meet the changing demographic of our industry.
The main thing that makes Roam stand out is our attention to creating a truly bespoke experience every time, which is personal to every individual. This was my vision for Roam, to ensure every person’s experience creates a memory and feeling of happiness.
For those who haven’t managed to progress from burnt & raw sausages and burgers, what are the basic principles of successfully cooking over fire?
Cooking ‘Alfresco’ does not have to be difficult. This is the main rule – take the principles of food inside in a kitchen and apply the same practices outside. The key to great cooking over fire is firstly the fuel itself. Treat it as an ingredient. Different woods flavour food differently and with different outcomes; the same is true with charcoal. Hard wood is always best as it burns slower and has more control over the heat. Whether kiln dried or naturally dried wood, this will aid the fire and prevent too much smoke. Fire craft is essential in all areas and the balance of HEAT/ FUEL/ OXYGEN is essential to create a good foundation for cooking over. Also the utilisation of all areas of your source fire are there to aid you in presenting the perfect feast whether cooking on a surface, in a pan or even directly on the coals. They all have their advantages. Don’t be afraid to try something new. From sausages to soufflé, nothing is impossible!
How has your previous experience influenced your current work?
Working in the forces on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and on exercise in the United Kingdom helped me to understand and become adaptable to different scenarios when presented as a young chef. My passion for food began as a young child growing up in the West Country. My family taught me the importance of quality produce, respect for the ingredients and of sourcing locally. I have been honoured and privileged to work alongside some of the greatest chefs in our industry but mostly my culinary hero, Albert Roux and learning the importance of less is more and quality in perfection, whatever the dish. After that I taught at South Thames College, hoping to inspire the next generation of chefs coming into the industry. All these experiences have helped drive my ambition to create roam.
For those who always cook the same things on the BBQ, can you provide some inspiration for some dishes and how to cook them? Any resources you recommend?
There are so many great books out there and some which I have helped to produce in collaboration with other chefs. Currently I love the Hunter Gather cook book by Nick Weston, Food from the Fire by Niklas Ekstedt and Black Axe Mangal by Lee Tiernan (if you want something different) – although I love to go back to some of the classics and try to reinvent classic dishes for the fire.
With regards to dishes I always try to take family favourites outside. Something simple like a ragu or cottage pie cooked over fire becomes better with the addition of smoke and transforms a dish to another level. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. I love a Sunday roast over fire with my favourite being a porchetta, cooked slowly and then finished over a higher heat which makes the crackling pop like you’ve never experienced.
Slowing everything down when cooking on an open fire pit like Asado or Kadai fire bowl is essential, its not about a roaring fire more so it’s about the embers and controlling them. We hung a leg of Hogget over the Asado at Tog HQ and cooked it slowly for around 5 hours and the flavours were amazing, truly magical with the addition of smoke which complimented the cut perfectly.
Food from fire shouldn’t be complicated, slow it all down and take your time. Keep flavours and ingredients simple (less is more!). The quality of ingredients outweigh the need for lots of overpowering, masking flavours.
How do you cook a lobster outdoors?
Same as indoors, Lol. I like to half the lobster then cook directly over wood or lump wood charcoal then baste with a herbed better continuously until just ready.
Any specific tips for food prep or using knives when it comes to Alfresco cooking? Why is a good knife important?
A knife is the most important tool a chef uses and without investment in the right tools the product isn’t going to turn out as well. The foundations for any Alfresco feast begin in the preparation. As important as the base fire is when cooking, your Mise En Place (Prep) needs to be fast and refined.
As well as this carving and finishing your dishes are equally important. Tog Knives make some of the best knives I have ever had the privilege to use. My favourite 3 knives to use outside are:
Petty – This is an exceptional small paring knife which is versatile enough for all small jobs and quick and handy to use.
Nakiri – I am totally in love with this knife!!! Perfectly balanced and makes light work of all chopping outside. The flat end helps when lifting items to place on the grill.
Sujihiki – The perfect carving knife, slicing through anything with ease and holds the perfect edge. It also looks amazing when carving in front of guests and clients.
These are my 3 must-have knives but all of the range are amazing and I love using them every day.
I do have one other favourite which i carry everywhere I go – the Higonokami Mini, This is perfect when out walking and if you find a surprise bunch of wood sorel or come across some cepes when out walking the dog, I never leave home without it.
What are the different types of BBQ and how can somebody choose between them?
It depends on what kind of person you are and what your needs are.
1. Ceramic Kamado – I love a kamado and it does pretty much everything whether pizza, low and slow, baking or classic british style BBQ. They also allow you to slow down and not worry. I use a Big Green Egg, the original and in my opinion, the best!
2. Asado style BBQ, Kadai, Fire Pit or OFYR – A classic Argentinian style fire pit which takes careful management and makes for addictive cookery. It keeps you on your toes though and takes a bit of practice. However it has amazing theatre and is a true crowd pleaser.
3. Gas – Quick, simple and easy, although lacks flavour at times and not my cup of tea!
4. Kettle-style BBQ – Simplicity and easy to use, still uses real fuel so imparts great flavour. Just remember they are still very diverse and you can do so much with them.
The most important thing to remember is your fuel and where it comes from. We use organic Lumpwood Birch for our Kamados and on our asado. Selecting the right wood depends on what we are cooking. I am very fortunate to work with a Tree surgeon who sources us single species wood which is perfectly seasoned and we get some really cool stuff to work with.
What opportunities do you think the pandemic has created for the catering / hospitality industry?
I think the industry has been hit very hard and we are far from out of danger yet! There have been some great restaurants go under. It is a real shame and I think there are more to come. I think the future is private dining and taking the amazing experiences into the home or mobile to venues. People want more than just a meal now. I think that an experience-led event has a lot to deliver in the current climate if properly organised and delivered.
What are your plans for the future?
We have some exciting times on the horizon and plans for a television show and book in the not too far future. I also want to expand Roam, bringing some new blood into the company to help us grow and achieve our future plans and goals.
Ross, thank you so much. We had such a great day with you. 🙂