If your idea of barbecued food is your ‘cliched pile of burnt offerings and a token salad’, says chef and barbecuing expert, Richard Holden, it’s time to think again.
After spending much of his early career as an in-house training chef for Weber Barbecues, the Lancashire-born aficionado of alfresco dining experiences soon discovered there was so much more to lighting the grill and plating up a well-done burger or sausage.
In his role at Weber, Richard says he’d cook ‘all sorts of things’, from beautiful roasts to pastry dishes such as Beef Wellington, and even BBQ accented dishes like lavender-smoked crème brulee. Yes, really.
Sophisticated Barbecuing for Adventurous Caterers
Richard, who believes in ‘sophisticated barbecuing’, goes on to say there’s a growing appetite for the adventurous cook to transfer their skills in the kitchen to the barbecue and recreate some of their favourite dishes. In doing so, they can also understand the additional flavour profiles that can be created in this way.
“In the UK, we still have a very defined view of what barbecue food is, yet what we expect from our food in terms of traceability and sustainability has never been so important.” says Richard. “It’s really very rewarding to work with like-minded people who are as excited and enthusiastic about food and cooking new dishes as I am.”
So, how did Richard find himself lighting up the world of barbecuing? We’ll rewind to 2011, when he made the decision to move back to the UK from Canada, after seven years of ‘chasing the corporate dream’.
“I had a great time but wanted a new direction that would ultimately allow me to work for myself. Achieving my Level 4 Diploma in Culinary Fine Arts from the Tante Marie Culinary Academy in the Spring of 2012, I worked in industry for a few years before starting Richard Holden Barbecue on May 1, 2015.”
Living the Culinary Dream
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Richard is thrilled to be living a dream of a different kind: cooking up a storm year-round on the barbecue, hosting workshops (both commercially and in people’s homes), presenting live cooking demos at food festivals, and branching out into event catering.
He’s keen to encourage other caterers to get on board with the idea of year-round barbecuing, as a means of pulling in customers and offering something different. He also advises chefs to step away from the notion that barbecues are reserved for meat and meat only.
“A barbecue, in its simplest form, is a heat source, so by understanding that you can harness that heat in different ways to create pretty much any food you can think of is quite cool. Somebody once said I couldn’t make ice cream using the barbecue, which is true because I would need a freezer for that, but I could infuse component ingredients using the barbecue, such as the sugar or the dairy, and therefore create an ice cream flavour that’s enhanced by the barbecue.”
No Limits to Barbecue Cooking
He goes on to say that our relationship with outdoor cooking in the UK doesn’t have the same roots, as say, America, South Africa or Brazil – and that, sometimes, this can limit or ideas about what we think we can use a barbecue to cook.
“Mainstream media perpetuates this all the time, telling us what we cook and when we cook it, up to and including weather presenters saying if it’s going to be a barbecue weekend or not! This national psyche, combined with a lack of live fire training in culinary institutes, time and time again limits what caterers and people working in the industry know about barbecue cooking and the menus they create for events.”
Tried and Tested Route
Food needn’t be cooked inside, before it’s taken outside to ‘finish off’ on the barbecue, says Richard. “Barbecue food should be smoky – and you’ll never get the same result if you do three quarters of the cooking in an oven that has no smoke in it. I don’t think it’s because we’re lazy; I think it’s just a lack of understanding and people having no option but to take the easier, tried and tested route of ovens and hobs.”
Richard says everyone should try hosting a barbecued theme night in their venue – and they don’t need to let the weather compromise their plans. Providing they have outdoor heating and/or a covered area to serve food, they can create the perfect atmosphere, whatever the season.
So, what’s one recipe everyone can try on the barbecue? “That’s such a big question, but I also say people should learn the concept of indirect heat and start out by roasting a chicken. Understanding the straight-forward concept of moving heat slightly away from the direct heat source to create a roasting environment will totally revolutionise how you think about a barbecue and open up so many possibilities”.
Branching out into barbecuing isn’t a case ‘of all or nothing or turning your back on what you’ve always done’, admits Richard.
“So many places have cooked over charcoal in kitchens, but have kept to the same items, such as steak and maybe ribs. Think of it as another style of cooking, just as you might use a pressure cooker or slow cooker for certain dishes, and hobs and ovens for more mainstream dishes. “
He offers some more top tips for caterers who want to try a barbecued theme night:
Do your Homework – Expand your mind by starting out with the fundamentals and get hands-on with some equipment. Swat up on well-sourced charcoal, too.
Think Seasonally – I change my barbecue style year-round, says Richard, and as much as I say barbecue is year-round, I don’t always want to be stood outside on a wet chilly evening, so I change what I cook. “As the evenings draw in, I start to roast more on my barbecue and start using it more to cook those braised, slower cooked wintery dishes that are just so comforting, but with a smoky, barbecue twist. “
Have Fun – Experiment, play and open your mind to what other cultures have known about live fire cooking for years, but we’re slowly but surely catching up with!
“I think it’s all too easy to think this trend for barbecue cooking is at saturation point.” continues Richard, “There haven’t been as many ‘smokehouses’ either on the high street, or tucked away somewhere in a discrete rural location, but one thing I’ve noticed and been disappointed by too many times to remember is the sheer lack of quality on offer.”
Richard will always try to find a local barbecue restaurant when he’s on the road, in the hope of a great meal and ‘somewhere to shout about’. “All too often, the flavour profile is so dumbed down and overpowered with sweet barbecue sauce that it’s just unpleasant.”
Open Your Mind and Expand Your Menu
For caterers looking to add alfresco cooking to their repertoire, Richard offers some more advice.
“Apply the same principles we’ve heard so many top chefs and foodies espouse for years; start with the best ingredients, keep it simple, and cook them to the best of your ability! The Holy Trinity of BBQ – Brisket, Pulled Pork and Ribs – are an absolute ‘foodgasm’ when cooked properly, but so are coal roasted beets to complement that menu special; show stopping plank cooked salmon, mouth-watering pizzas cooked in an authentic wood fired oven, steaks cooked to perfection over single species charcoal, or a reverse seared cote de boeuf, smoked with a little whisky wood chip”
Open your mind, says Richard. “Allow yourself to experiment with a heat source that’s been used for centuries and gain a reputation for doing something totally special as opposed to the mundane”
For anyone who wants to get started, Richard has a 64-page barbecue eBook, available as a free download via his website. It’s suitable for caterers who are yet to try outdoor cooking and want to learn more about the technique.