More than just typical barbecue, restaurants in Singapore are taking the traditional method of wood-fire cooking to the next level. Annabel Tan discovers the sophisticated, innovative techniques chefs are exploring to create flavour with fire.
Around the world, every culture has a tradition of cooking with fire. Early humans discovered it more than a million years ago and anthropologists say the controlled use of fire to cook food was extremely important in biological and social evolution. Cooking meat makes it easier to chew and digest, allowing the body to use less energy processing food and more energy in the brain instead.
In modern societies, the primal method of cooking with wood fire has endured but is often limited to occasional casual cookouts in the backyard as technological advances have made everyday cooking more efficient.
Recently, however, wood-fired grills and ovens have taken centre stage at several new restaurants in Singapore, as chefs rediscover the roots of a near-forgotten craft and breathe new life into it. They are experimenting with a multitude of ways to manipulate the fire and showcase cuisines from Australian to Italian, Indian and more.
One of the pioneers of spotlighting elevated wood-fire cooking in the Singapore restaurant scene was chef-owner Dave Pynt at his restaurant, Burnt Ends. He first opened the modern Australian barbecue concept on Teck Lim Road in 2013, and recently relocated to a much larger space in the Dempsey Road enclave.
Born in Perth, Western Australia, Pynt grew up with wood-fired barbecues at home in his backyard but it was his time working at one- Michelin-starred Asador Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque Country that proved most impactful in his prowess as a chef and cooking with fire. “The owner and chef Victor Arguinzoniz first showed the world that wood-fire cooking was a philosophy that could underpin a world-class restaurant,” says Pynt. “I was able to learn some of his techniques and methods that he had developed in his time.”
With a one Michelin star of its own, Burnt Ends is undoubtedly world class. The experience is akin to theatre, and diners at the open kitchen counter have front row seats. Pynt and his team work deftly, transferring hot wood from the custom-built, dual-cavity wood-burning oven to the grill, tending to the flames, moving meats on and off the grill around different heat spots and finally turning it all into flame-kissed masterpieces on the plate.
The wood-fired set-up is used for everything from hot grilling to slow roasting, braising, baking, cold smoking, hot smoking and more. “Cooking with wood gives the food and drinks we create a little magic that you can’t get from anywhere else,” he adds.
What Pynt proved was possible with Burnt Ends seems to have paved the way for more modern wood-fired restaurants here. At least four new unique concepts have sprung up in the last year – all presenting exquisite dishes crafted with wood fire.
At the five-month-old Revolver on Tras Street, executive chef Saurabh Udinia and his team are harnessing wood fire to reinvent Indian cuisine in a concept that is the first of its kind here. Bold and fiery in more ways than one, the fare showcases traditional and regional flavours in unexpected ways, with premium produce prepared in the open kitchen on custom-built wood-fired grills and hand-built tandoor.
“To me, wood-fire cooking is the most primitive and traditional form of cooking. Along the way, it has been replaced in kitchens by commercial appliances. As a result, I think many people still think of wood-fire cooking as just barbecued food but there is so much more to it. I want to bring the beauty of this rather lost form of cooking back to diners,” says Udinia.
“In addition to the smokiness and rustic feel that wood-fire cooking adds to a dish, it is amazing in the way that it cooks meats. From seafood and poultry to red meat, the high heat of the fire seals the outer layers of the meat instantly by charring, keeping the flavours intact and locking in the juices of the meat. The final product is smoky, flavourful and doesn’t run the risk of being dry and tough.”
This is much more difficult to achieve by pan-searing or grilling on a stovetop, he adds. “I also love that the true flavours of the marinade are very often 100 per cent retained with wood-fire cooking as the contact points with the wire grill are very low. I find that if I use a pan, skillet or hot plate, the marinade often sticks to the surface and burns.”
All three menus offered at Revolver open with the Stuffed Courgette Flowers, gently grilled with a seasonal filling. During our visit, it was spiced potato mash flavoured with curry leaves and onions, topped with mango pickle. Bright, bold and balanced, this course is a great indicator of Udinia’s food.
“My approach to wood-fire cooking is very simple, and that’s to be very delicate and careful in everything that we do ” he says. “Be it timing or temperature, working with wood fire means that we need to constantly be on our toes, adjusting the cooking processes for different ingredients and produce accordingly.”
Udinia custom-designed the wood-fired grill to allow it to move up and down for various cooking methods. He chooses to fuel it with Australian yarra wood for its versatility, neutral smokiness that does not interfere with other flavours, long burning time and good heat retention.
He enjoys manoeuvring the grill, adjusting the heights according to the fire and the ingredients he is working with. “For example, we throw scallops directly over the fire for a quick sear to retain its sweetness and juiciness, while we move the grill higher above the fire to cook steak at a lower temperature,” he explains. “Wood fire is very unpredictable, but it can be controlled after enough experience and that’s what we do at Revolver.”
Casa Restaurant by Remy Lefebvre
The food at contemporary wood-fired restaurant Casa Restaurant by Remy Lefebvre is a reflection of the chef-partner’s life journey. Inspired by his childhood and formative years as a chef, Lefebvre celebrates the seasons through finely curated produce, highlighting seafood over meat and serving only one land animal a day on a rotational basis.
“I am passionate about gastronomy and incorporate wood-fire cooking as part of my lifestyle as I enjoy the cultural and historical aspects of it,” says Lefebvre, who spent a decade growing up in Africa, where he enjoyed barbecuing lobsters over wood fire every weekend. Even in his time as a chef in Barcelona for about five years from 2004, wood-fired grilling was the primary method of cooking. “However, until the last decade, not many restaurants were using wood fire to cook food,” he points out. “Wood-fire cooking can make produce markedly better or worse. It lends flavour like no other heat source and aligns with my philosophy of creating a cuisine that is focused on produce.”
It comes as no surprise that he has made wood-fire cooking the focus of Casa Restaurant, which opened in Chijmes last June. Partnering with Spanish brand Mibrasa as an official ambassador, Lefebvre uses its line of grill accessories, as well as a custom-built fireplace with a parilla, charcoal oven and an open pit for cooking. There is also a custom-made hanging support for roasting and smoke-drying produce, which are some of his favourite wood-fire cooking methods.
The Pulpo Seco (dried octopus) at Casa Restaurant showcases these slow cooking processes. Brined octopus leg is hung over open fire – just close enough to dry slowly and get smoked – in a process repeated over three days. “We have to be attentive to not go too fast nor too slow,” says Lefebvre. “We finish by grilling the octopus in our Mibrasa charcoal oven until well charred. The octopus is then thinly sliced and seasoned with an Amontillado sherry cask-flavoured olive oil.” The result is tender, briny slivers of slightly smoky octopus that pair well with wine.
Despite his experience and skill in wood-fire cooking, Lefebvre says it can be hard to teach as the artisanal method is complex and requires lots of practice and dedication. “Factors such as humidity, wind and the wood used make it unpredictable,” he says. “I am still learning on the job and enjoy discovering new things about wood fire every day.”
Griglia Open Fire Italian Kitchen
There is no shortage of options when it comes to Italian restaurants in Singapore, but most have not ventured far from the popular pastas and pizzas. About four months old, Griglia on Craig Road is expanding the horizons of diners here with a concept inspired by the Italian summer outdoor grill known as the grigliata.
Born in Milan and raised in Naples, Italy, Griglia’s chef-partner Andrea De Paola discovered wood-fire cooking at a young age, during a family summer barbecue. “As a kid, I loved watching my father and uncles grilling huge steaks over the hot charcoal grill. Seeing the meat engulfed with flames and smoke was one of my best food memories,” he recalls. “The passion of open-fire cooking grew in me. Each time when we had a grigliata, I’d be standing next to the adults, watching them cook over the charcoal grill, instead of playing football with the other kids. They would share their tips on how to cook a steak well.”
On his 18th birthday, when all his classmates and friends were organising parties at discos, he celebrated with a birthday grigliata. “I felt it was the best way to enjoy a good time with the people I love,” he says. “I still feel the same way.”
At Griglia, De Paola approaches wood-fire cooking with the perspective that less is more. Produce is seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil, allowing their natural flavours to shine. “Cooking over open fire requires less fat so it makes dishes lighter, while allowing the natural flavours of the ingredients to come through,” he says. “The char also adds an extra layer of flavour.”
One example showcasing Griglia’s cooking style is the 30-day dry aged Porterhouse Fiorentina. De Paola and his team adopt a thrice-seared method, first caramelising the meat over the open fire and resting it on the warm part of the grill. It is caramelised again to achieve medium rare doneness, then rested a second time. Finally, the meat is heated up to achieve a thick crust on the exterior and rested again before serving. “This is to achieve a balance in Maillard reaction on the outer layer of the meat while keeping the meat moist and tender,” explains De Paola.
“Wood-fire cooking is often misunderstood as being very heavy and masculine, but my approach is multi-dimensional and very delicate,” says Keao, who had previously worked at Burnt Ends. He uses several techniques such as smoking, grilling, slow roasting and burying with embers to create layered dishes with flavours and textures that only a deft mastery of wood-fire cooking can impart. “Everything we do can go amazingly well or terribly wrong in a matter of a few seconds. Constant observation and the use of all our senses are required. I can hear or smell if something is not being cooking properly even before I taste it.”
Located at Raffles Hotel Singapore, Butcher’s Block has a sweeping open kitchen in full view of diners. While the aggressive dancing flames on the Josper grill might suggest otherwise, Keao’s light hand with wood fire comes through in dishes like the smoked sashimi. Premium Hamachi (amberjack) from Japan is cold smoked with American oak, imbuing it with a smooth smoky flavour while still maintaining its nicely chilled temperature and fresh sashimi character.
In fact, the only wood Keao uses for hot and cold smoking as well as for the grill is American oak. “It is not overly smoky and has a sweet taste to it, allowing the produce to shine,” he says, adding that he also uses herbs like dried curry leaves, dill and thyme to smoke certain ingredients for extra layers of flavour.
“Some ingredients are just better grilled versus roasting or searing in a pan,” insists Keao. “There are flavours that no amount of seasoning can create. For instance, I could sear a fish in a pan but I would not be able to get its skin to be as crisp compared to grilling it over the fire. I also believe that the ingredients’ flavours are brought out better when cooking over wood fire compared to other cooking forms. It is also a lot more challenging and a very fun way to cook.”
Main image: Casa restaurant by by Remy Lefebvre
This story first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore