Features, Food

Why chefs are taking up smoking

Barcelona restaurant Rooftop Smokehouse and London’s Smokestak are part of a global trend to smoke foods over different types of wood. Sophie Davies reports

In a former toy factory in a little-known corner of Barcelona, Rooftop Smokehouse is breathing new life into age-old smoking techniques. Founded four years ago in the city by an Anglo-Spanish couple, Buster Turner and Carla Rodamilans, the restaurant smokes locally sourced products like pastrami, bacon, duck and mackerel using a tall red brick smokestack that was once the factory’s chimney.

Smoking, which has traditionally been used to preserve meat, is having a renaissance as chefs around the world rediscover the rich, deep flavours it can produce. Though a wide variety of smoking techniques exist, meat is generally cooked on a low heat for several hours, with different types of wood adding different qualities to the meat.

Carla and Buster, who met in London, started experimenting with smoking meat and fish after moving to Barcelona, where Buster was studying at the Hofmann culinary school. They were hosting pop-up dinners on their terrace in Barcelona and looking for something “authentic” to serve, Carla explains. “We always loved and missed British gastro pubs so we tried to reproduce that type of ambience here.”   

Smoked produce went down well with  their supperclub guests, so the couple eventually decided to open formally as Rooftop Smokehouse in the Eixample district. Run by a small team, it now pickles, cures and ferments, hosting several dinners a week. There is a separate pastrami bar and Carla and Bruno run frequent cookery courses.

Such is the demand that the restaurant also recently started letting people use their facilities to try smoking their own produce. Be it rice, olive oil, butter, flour, ice cream, mussels, crayfish, salt…. “Anything can be smoked,” says Carla.

Buster brings out last night’s experiment – a large, smoked black pudding. As long as something has fat content, it will probably be good to smoke, Carla explains, as it’s the fat that absorbs the flavour. Hence butter works well, but fruit and vegetables are less successful.

Patience is also key. In the dark, cavernous smoker, three or four trout are midway through a session. They typically take around 30 hours. Bacon takes several days to smoke because it needs to be taken out to rest and put back in again.

Smoking is a relatively unfamiliar idea in Spain, says Michele Granziera, head chef at Soho House Barcelona, who explains that traditionally there would have been no need here for smoking because fresh fish is readily available. However, he is considering adding some smoked sardines or mackerel from the market next to the House as the “powerful” flavours are a good fit for his menu.

Soho House chefs in the UK are also taking up smoking after a Cookhouse training session with David Carter, the founder and head chef of London restaurant-of-the-moment Smokestak. “A lot of our guys had been down to Smokestak, just down the road from to Shoreditch House, and were saying how amazing it was,” says people and development manager Clemency Keeler, who organised the event. Soho Farmhouse already uses some smoking techniques but the two-hour interactive session was also aimed at inspiring chefs who had never tried it before.

Smokestak itself is inspired by traditional barbecue joints in the US, where smokehouses such as Fette Sau, John Brown Smokehouse and BrisketTown in New York tend to focus on what we normally think of as southern USA, BBQ-style food like ribs and sausages. Carter prefers a more rounded approach, however, trying out different techniques to find what works best for each dish. “I grew up in Barbados, where outdoor living and open fire cooking is a way of life,” he explains. “The caramelisation of meats cooked over live charcoal and aromas of smoke naturally drew me into food and cooking.”

As the popularity of smoked food grows, there’s a new trend for people to build their own smokehouses at home. If the experiments at Rooftop Smokehouse are anything to go by, it’s a whole lot of fun.

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