Cooking over coals

Chef fights fire with fire to create unique dining experience

IMAGINE watching your award-winning restaurant go up in smoke. That was the nightmare facing staff at Spicers Hidden Vale, when flames engulfed the retreat’s historic homestead at the group’s Grandchester getaway in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, in April 2018.

The blaze that tore through the One Chef Hat awarded eatery could have meant disappointing hundreds of diners. But instead of cracking under the pressure, Homage head chef Ash Martin was inspired – to fight fire with fire.  

Homage’s transformation is one which honours the restaurant’s philosophy of being sustainable and as locally-focused as possible. Three months post-inferno, the eatery was back operating from a charmingly kitted-out onsite barn, the kitchen literally cooking with fire.  

“I remember talking to the owners (Jude and Graham Turner) after the fire about bringing in demountable kitchens and stuff – then we just said, ‘why don’t we harness what we have?’,” says Ash, referring to their outdoor brick wood-fired oven. “It’s a hundred-year-old homestead and that’s how they would have cooked back then.”

Now, between 90 and 95 per cent of Homage’s menu is cooked using fire, either in the wood-fired oven, or alongside it in coal pits, using one of three basic Hestan outdoor grills. An onsite smokehouse is also operated daily. It’s used for anything from adding woodsmoke to country-style bacon and hams for guest’s breakfasts, through to smoking butter to serve with warm oven baked sourdough, or even experimenting with couverture chocolate to feature in artful desserts.

Cooking over coals may be of the oldest culinary techniques but it’s flared into one of the restaurant industry’s hottest trends. It’s a method Ash has been passionate about since well before the blaze.  “For me, fire makes a massive difference – the flavour is incredible,” he says.

Cooking over coals at Homage

Before the homestead fire, Ash regularly sparked up campfires for functions. The wood-fired oven also got a workout with about 15 per cent of the pre-fire menu emerging from its heat.  The primal nature of the cooking method appeals, injecting drama into the dining experience.

“Guests love it – sometimes we have trouble getting them into the restaurant because they’re sitting outside with a cocktail watching,” laughs Ash. “The theatre of fire is a huge thing – you can go and eat food anywhere but being able to watch, feel and smell everything, that just adds an extra dimension.”

Homage’s oven and grills are fueled by ironbark timber harvested from the next-door property. It’s a practice in tune with how things work generally at Homage, which has an extensive kitchen garden on its 12,000 acres of grounds, as well as beehives, orchards, a free-range farm and more.   

“We use the ironbark because it’s local,” says Ash. “It’s the job of the chefs to start or stoke the fires as it needs to be going for 90 minutes before you can cook off it.”

Food at Homage

Early in the transition to cooking over fire, he says there were a few speedbumps. “The biggest challenge was taking chefs away from the dials and numbers of a kitchen, and out to a coal pit. Cooking over coals takes more time. It’s not just a question of using a temperature probe and setting an oven. With fire you need to watch and look and feel it.”

Using flame has also changed how the menu is built. “I’m conscious when writing a menu that we don’t over-smoke things – when we first started using the smokehouse, we probably overdid it because you get a fair bit of smoke from it. But with the coal pit it’s just a tinge – and cooking in the wood oven hardly adds any smoke at all, so there’s balance.”

Fire can be surprisingly versatile, too – and it’s not all about keeping carnivores purring.  

“Vegetables are one of the most underrated things to cook over fire. It’s so easy to get flavour,” he says. “All our potatoes are done in the fire – old-school baked potatoes with scallions and butter. We also do a lot of salt-baking of beetroot. Anything can be cooked in the wood oven. Brassicas are delicious.”  

Cooking corn over coals at Homage

A sirloin dish cooked in milk and honey is one of Ash’s personal favourites. The Grandchester grain-fed beef is encased in salt to keep the meat tender and juicy and this imparts a sweet, earthy flavour.

But even fruits can benefit. Mulberries, for example, are roasted to bring out sweetness and served with wood-fired slapjack, a crisp crepe-like pancake. Pears covered in a salty meringue coating are hung over the fire for four to five hours, emerging afterwards with a new salty-sweet flavour.   

“Homage is no longer just a restaurant. It’s an experience – which starts as soon as you drive through the gate,” says Ash. “You don’t ever stand in one spot for very long when you’re cooking over fire. It amplifies everything.”

The barn at Homage Restaurant

LICENCED TO GRILL – HOMAGE head chef Ash Martin’s tips for home cooks

  •         Start your fire early so it has time to get to the required temperature
  •         Be prepared – and don’t get distracted. Things can go downhill fast cooking with flames.
  •         Brining is your friend, particularly for delicate fleshed fish and poultry.  Use a mixture of salt and sugar in water to keep results juicy.
  •         Marinades impart flavour and help caramelisation. Try a mix of spring onions, malt vinegar, crushed garlic and muscovado sugar. This should work with any cut of meat.
  •         Use all five senses. “Cooking with fire is all about touch and feel and smell.”

Chefs cooking over coals at Homage

Words by Fiona Donnelly