“Is that part of the counter supposed to be on fire?” I asked the bartender, and pointed at the open kitchen of Firedoor, in Sydney, Australia. There is so much open flame on display at this restaurant, it was a little hard to tell if the small, bright flicker on one of the stainless steel counters was intentional or not.
It was not, and was quickly extinguished, but it’s hard to think of another restaurant where fire is so integral to the operation that a misplaced mini-inferno would go completely unnoticed. This is the brave new world of Australian barbecue.
“Australian barbecue” is not, however, what Lennox Hastie, the chef at Firedoor, would use to describe his own cooking. Nor is it a term that’s been used much by anyone to describe any type of cooking. Here, the word “barbecue” is generally synonymous with the American term “cookout,” and, much like the cookout, it remains an integral part of Australia’s national identity.
In recent years, American-style barbecue has become an omnipresent trend in Australia, with mixed results. I admit that I identify as an incorrigible barbecue snob, having lived for many years in North Carolina. I never really liked or understood Texas barbecue until I made the pilgrimage to eat it in Texas, an experience that convinced me that some foods simply do not translate well to other locations.
And apart from some truly unforgivable barbecue faux pas (oceans of mayonnaise, lashings of sugary sauce), Australian barbecue purveyors tend to fall victim to the same misstep that plagues many American vendors outside the South: aiming to make all of the styles with all of the meats from all of the regions. The best barbecue restaurants in America tend to specialize in one style of cooking and a few types of meat, rather than trying to cram ribs and brisket and chicken and pulled pork and seven kinds of sauce onto one menu.
But what if there was a style of Australian barbecue that was its very own thing? Influenced, perhaps, by Southern American barbecue, but more heavily by the Basque region of Spain? I believe that such a style is beginning to emerge, and that it’s far more exciting than the glut of American-themed barbecue in Sydney, Melbourne and beyond.
Firedoor, which opened in 2015, is a prime example. The kitchen is powered entirely by wood — there are no electric or gas ovens, burners or microwaves. Mr. Hastie came to this style after working five years at Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country, where the chef Victor Arguinzoniz cooks local ingredients over fire using multiple types of wood. Mr. Hastie takes a similar approach, but with pointedly Australian ingredients.
One of the restaurant’s most thrilling dishes is a whole marron — a large freshwater crayfish native to Western Australia. The marron is grilled, split open and smothered in sea blite, a coastal plant related to samphire, and sunrise lime, a hybrid citrus created by crossing the native Australian finger lime with a calamondin (itself a cross between a mandarin and a kumquat). There are plenty of smoky, charred meats on the menu as well: pork chops, duck hearts and Wagyu all get their turn on one of the many grills.
Mr. Hastie is not the only Australian chef who spent time at Etxebarri and then translated that experience in his own way, using Australian ingredients. In fact, one of the best examples of new Australian barbecue is, surprisingly, in Singapore.
The chef Dave Pynt, originally from Perth, opened his restaurant Burnt Ends in Singapore in 2013. It is centered on a large wood oven that Mr. Pynt built himself, inspired by his time at Etxebarri. As at Firedoor, all of the cooking here is done using some kind of open flame, and the kitchen, which stretches along the restaurant behind a long wavy counter where most customers sit, holds an impressive number of fire-spitting cooking contraptions.
Though Burnt Ends’ own marketing used to refer to the restaurant as “Australian barbecue,” Mr. Pynt denies that he ever thought of his food that way, and said that he never applied the term to himself. “We’re more of a modern barbecue restaurant,” Mr. Pynt said by phone from Singapore.
Regardless, when I ate at Burnt Ends in May, it felt very Australian — Mr. Pynt uses Australia’s Blackmore beef and Western Plains pork, and there’s a Pavlova on the dessert menu. Smoke is integral to this cooking, permeating everything from the fennel served with orange and burrata to a smoked ice cream served with chocolate fondant.
Much of the food, particularly the charred vegetable dishes, reminded me of food I’d eaten at Ester, which opened in Sydney in 2013. Another adherent to the wood-fired school of cooking, the chef Mat Lindsay puts as much smoky love into cabbage or cauliflower as he does his steaks and whole fish.
What makes these places worthy of the title “barbecue”? What makes them different from the many modern American restaurants that worship at the altar of the open flame? I think the distinction is in the blending of traditions, and the small and large nods to both American barbecue and the Australian tradition of barbecuing in its original backyard grilling context.
Burnt Ends has a smoky pulled-pork “sanga,” referencing both American pork barbecue but using the colloquial Australian term for “sandwich.” Ester has a sanga of its own, made with blood sausage — a modern spin on the sausages usually cooked on Australian barbecues. And as much as I hate to bring up the cliché, it’s hard to ignore that Firedoor’s charred juicy marron could be seen as the logical successor of, yes, a shrimp on the barbie. An argument begins to take shape that we should consider these chefs pioneers in a divergent new branch of barbecue, one that is distinctively Australian.
This is the conclusion I came to during a Twitter exchange with the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, Daniel Vaughn, who had requested barbecue recommendations for a research trip to Australia. I (correctly) assumed he was looking for American-style barbecue and was baffled as to why anyone would leave Texas, of all places, and take the grueling flight to Sydney in order to search out brisket and ribs. I said as much, and warned him about all the mayonnaise he was about to encounter.
Go to Firedoor, I told him. Go to Ester. Hell, go to Singapore and cram into the long undulating bar at Burnt Ends. Come away smelling of smoke and meat, and with an excitement about an emerging style of cooking that you cannot find in Texas. Some things are worthy of pilgrimage.
Firedoor 23-33 Mary Street, Surry Hills, New South Wales; 02-8204-0800; firedoor.com.au
Burnt Ends 20 Teck Lim Road, Singapore; 65-6224-3933, burntends.com.sg
Ester 46-52 Meagher Street, Chippendale, New South Wales; 02-8068-8279; ester-restaurant.com.au
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