Cocktails, mussels, and even eggs: Chefs push the boundaries of smoking food

By Vicki Young
Photography by Josiah Nevell

Featured in Capital #83
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We sent Vicki, an experienced pastry chef, to explore the smoking life. She delved into the mysteries of smoked food with passionate home experts and experienced chefs, and even talked to smoking hot cocktail mixologists. We produce her field notes so you can enjoy the adventure.

Meet Will

Will Thompson is an engineer by day, barbecue and smoked food enthusiast, home brewer, and foodie by night. By night, I mean he wakes up in the middle of it and tells partner Sophie about his food epiphanies. “The next food experiment,” he exclaims. He tells me his curiosity about food developed early, as he grew up with parents who were creative cooks. We laugh as he shows me a picture from his childhood, a blond toddler fearlessly wielding a huge chef’s knife, surrounded by button mushrooms.

He greets me at home, tongs in hand, wearing a cargo apron and a big smile as we spend the afternoon charring peppers on the grill. The peppers are a nod to his Dad’s cooking. The char draws out the natural sweetness in the capsicum, and the smoke is just enough to give it a touch of savoury flair.

According to Will, a dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil is “all you’ll ever need,” and as I slurp down a few glistening strips of red and yellow, still deliciously warm from the fire, my tastebuds agree. There’s something so primal and comforting about cooking with fire, honouring the vegetables’ natural sweetness and the savoury quality that smoke imparts.

It wasn’t just vegetables. Will conducted other smokey experiments. As he lifted the lid on the barbecue, I felt like a kid at a friend’s house playing with all the cool toys I wished I had.

We tasted little aluminium foil boats of Whittaker’s Blondie chocolate, freshly ground coffee, herbaceous baby potatoes, pickled mussels and eggs (yes, you can smoke an egg!). I was so excited for our BBQ play date, I even brought along my smoke gun and some lacto-fermented stone fruit, as well as some freshly made caramel (spot the over-eager pastry chef!).

We swapped childhood food memories, compared notes on the way the smoke transformed each item, and bonded over Brad Leone (correction: fan-girled – really, do look him up), while we plated a wee grazing platter to share in the garden by the grill. We finished with a cuppa joe, freshly brewed with the smoked coffee, the pecan wood imparting a subtle bacon quality that was a perfect accompaniment to the smoked caramel and stonefruit dessert. A feast for the senses, all inspired by smoke and fire.

After so much fun experimenting, I left feeling as if I had spent the afternoon at an old friend’s house. That’s what I love about cooking: not only does it bring people together, but also the craziest food combinations. Will talked about how he loved giving every food experiment a go (at least once). That’s the beautiful thing about cooking – there are no rules.

Cinderella and the embers

The name Cinderella comes from the Italian cenere meaning ash, or cinder, and the Cinderella bar and bistro in Willis St is very much a reflection of the folk tale. I found moody dark walls reminiscent of ash, dancing flames in the courtyard fireplace, and food cooked over embers.

General Manager Patrick Ferrier greeted me, and as he tended to the fire, the smell and crackle of burning firewood filled the courtyard. In the kitchen I could see coals smoking away for the evening service ahead.

The kitchen was full of the lovely smell of fresh bread. Chefs Frank, Tom, Zac, and Revo welcomed me with smoked fish frames for a delicious base as they made up their signature Catalan-style dish – clams cooked over embers, swimming in a flavoursome stew with layers of manuka smoke and the flavour of the sea. The chefs cook in front of me, carefully placing pops of fish, octopus, and gooey fondant potatoes through the dish.

A celebration of chestnut, portobello, and enoki mushroom accompanies the main, their natural sweetness teased out with a refreshing spritz of sherry vinegar, with fresh green herbs to top. Simple ingredients with their natural flavours skilfully coaxed out by the fire.

These chefs are masters of the dance in the kitchen (from their Matterhorn and Bresolin days), cooking by intuition and touch, calm and focused as manuka smoke fills the smoker, and pots of stock and sauces bubble. They produce layers of flavour with added fat, smoke and fire, a spritz of acidity, and a herbaceous garnish of tarragon, dill, chives, and parsley. It’s beautiful to watch the final touches added before the dish gets whisked away to the dining area, leaving lingering smoke and mouth-watering smells.

Freshly baked bread, the crust crackling and blistered from the heat, accompanies the dish, and, if you know how to conclude your meal the right (and only) way, then fare la scarpetta it is, using the bread to mop up the remaining liquid.

But, my focus here was meant to be their smokey cocktail. I heard about Cinderella’s smokey espresso martini when they opened more than a year ago, and I am here for Fisher, the bartender, to teach me how to create the bistro’s signature drink.

As a pastry chef I couldn’t help but see similarities with dessert, where every component has been thoughtfully added, layers of toffee caramel from the dark sugar syrup, coffee liqueur as dark and fragrant as vanilla beans, and a touch of mezcal to enhance the gently shaken cream. The cream is given a coal smoke infusion (20 minutes according to the bar’s experiments, no more no less).

Fisher adds a touch of sugar and salt to lend a sharpness to an otherwise flat creamy note. The result is a symphony of smoky cream and bittersweet coffee. It looked and tasted truly indulgent.

If you prefer something lighter between post-work and dinner, the smoked Negroni with seasonal fruit infusion was another offering I fancied. Fisher infused the gin with smoked, lacto-fermented nectarines. As I lift the icy glass to my nose, the scent is a fleeting memory of late summer. With just a sip, I felt like I was walking through a nectarine orchard laden with fruit ready to fall.

As I sat down with my Negroni and the clam stew (and bread waiting, of course), I thought back to the way I was taught to cook by my grandmother, using intuition and my senses, and how she learnt to cook, over coals and fire.

I’m always amazed at how food can bring such moments of joy and nostalgia. Food trends come and go, but this type of cooking with smoke and fire will always stay.

Smoked and Pickled

You know you’ve found your thing when you spend every waking hour thinking about it. Well, Alice Lafosse did say that Craig Burgess was up all hours of the night watching BBQ videos on Youtube.

Alice is French, and the two of them met at Meow in the heyday of open floor jazz night Wednesdays.

Craig, I discovered, was the chef who produced – a decade ago, way before pests were cool and trendy to eat – the delicious wallaby wontons served there. Back then, Craig was already breaking down and using the entire wallaby (from suppliers down south), making stock from the bones and cooking the meat in its own fat.

Last September, the pair decided to take the plunge and start up Smoked & Pickled, in a ghost kitchen based here in Wellington. With support from friends, they made the 4am smoke-dreams a reality, and have since relocated to the Kāpiti Coast, where they offer pop-ups and collaborate with local breweries such as Tuatara and Duncan’s Brewery.

The Duncan’s pastry stout is on the menu, cooked low and slow into a Smoked and Pickled BBQ sauce which is delicious with their signature ribs.

I spent the afternoon chatting about hospo with them. Their passion for the industry is inspiring and contagious (in the good sense of the word). We spoke about why we do what we love to do, despite the long hours and the stress: and the reactions of the diners and the happy faces. “It makes it worth all the swear words,” says Craig, as we sit out by the wood-fire grill that puffs out wafts of mesquite, pecan, and applewood smoke.

We geeked out a bit on the temperatures and timings that are the makings of a perfect brisket, smoke flavour profiles, and how to add layers of flavour with the specific types of wood pellets used.

It turns out BBQing and pastry are quite similar after all, with the precise application of time and temperature, and incorporating flavour. Craig lifts the lid on the Traeger and shows me the smoked sea salt he’s been working on, dotted with pops of coriander and chilli. “Goes really well with fish,” he tells me, and his eyes light up at the thought of the next project. “So what’s the next thing?” I ask them, and they beam as they share their big plan to expand Smoked & Pickled: more pop-ups, events, and eventually a return to France to start another one in Lyon, Alice’s hometown. She sighs at the lack of BBQ there, and says her chef friends are already eagerly awaiting their arrival, BBQ in tow.

As Craig pulls the ribs from the grill, the wonderful aroma hugs our tastebuds on a chilly Welly afternoon. Alice appears with a jar of their notoriously spicy birds-eye house pickles: large emerald green gems dotted with chillies, dancing around in a big vinegar jar.

We gather around the mouth-watering array of smoked meats and glistening pickles, and I ask them if they ever get tired of this meal. “Never,” Alice grins. “The brisket toastie is my favourite eaten hot or, when I have finished my shift, cold!”


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