Top BBQ Tips with Derry Clarke…
“Everybody thinks a barbecue is just a barbecue,” says Derry Clarke, whipping the dome off a spanking new, blacker-than-black Weber grill. “It’s not.”
Clarke, the Michelin Star chef at l’Ecrivain, has laid out the ingredients for an al fresco feast on the balcony of his Dublin restaurant. Inside the barbecue, his coals are carefully arranged around a silver foil tray, creating a well of space away from direct heat.
“I’m going to smoke a salmon on this,” he proclaims.
Given the recent splash of summer weather, Ireland’s annual barbecue bandwagon has been well and truly jumped upon. For all of our enthusiasm, however, the end results don’t often match the smells wafting around our forest parks and housing estates.
“It’s about tossing on a few sausages, burgers and chicken, and hoping for the best,” he says. “Let’s face it, the majority of Irish guys don’t cook during the year, but the minute the sun comes out, they’re out with the tongs and the lighter fluid.”
Clarke will be sharing tips at his BBQ Masterclass with Kevin Dundon at this year’s Taste of Dublin festival, but the basics are simple enough, he says – beginning with the charcoal.
Ideally, coals should be arranged to create three different heat zones on the grill – high, medium, and low. That way, if something starts to burn, you can pull it to a cooler area. Charcoal may take 30 minutes to set, but the flavour is worth the wait, he says.
“Gas is a lazy man’s barbecue. It’s much easier to cook with, because the heat is regulated, and it’s quicker to set. But it doesn’t taste like barbecued food. Charcoal gives that smoky flavour, especially if you throw wood chips onto it. With gas, you might as well cook the food under the grill in the kitchen and bring it outside. It’s the same thing.”
First onto the grate is spatchcock chicken, marinated for two hours in a blend of herbs and spices, and butterflied by cutting through the backbone. There’s an immediate, satisfying sizzle as the flesh hits the hot bars, and a mouth-watering scent infuses the air.
Clarke isn’t just going through the motions. He loves barbecuing at parties, and one of his favourite outdoor meals was cobbled-together off his boat in West Cork last summer.
“Andrew, my young fella, caught some mackerel. There were some guys around with mussels. We just bought a disposable BBQ for a few Euro, gutted the fish and threw it on. We ate it with a few beers on the pontoon at Sherkin Island. Lovely.”
Next up is a pink hunk of organic salmon, from Murphy’s Seafood in Bantry. Boned and de-scaled, this gets the barest sprinkle of salt and pepper before being placed on a strip of tin foil (so it doesn’t stick to the grill) on medium heat in the centre of the barbecue.
With the chicken and salmon sizzling away, the barbecue buzz takes over. Clarke is a seasoned, straight-talking chef, and milling around in his chef whites and clogs, pausing to strike up the occasional Marlboro Light, it’s fascinating to hear him chat about the industry.
He talks about the British TV chefs he admires (Nigel Slater, Rick Stein), restaurants he returns to (Seapoint in Dun Laoghaire, Toddies in Kinsale), and the time Jamie Oliver, who will officially open this year’s Taste of Dublin, cooked lunch at l’Ecrivain.
“He’s one of the most easygoing guys you’ll meet. The people he was most interested in were the two girls washing-up. He made them coffee and everything.”
Irish restaurants are in “a race to the bottom”, he believes, with prices as low as they can possibly go. In boom times, l’Ecrivain employed 18 chefs. Today, that figure has dropped to eight, and Clarke is peeling spuds as well as signing off on Michelin Star dishes.
“Food is me, really,” he says. “But I like space too. I like being out on the boat, getting away from things. Working in a recession, you need space. We’re all working harder for a lot less.”
As we chat, he prowls around the barbecue, basting and turning the meat, keeping it moist. Dry food is a big problem with barbecuing – he suggests filling a spray bottle with beer, rice vinegar, or garlic and chilli oil to moisten the food as it cooks.
Irish men may not be as talented at the grill as their American or Australian peers, but this is one tip you can imagine being taken on board. “Beer is great for food – it makes a great marinade. It tenderises the meat at the same time as flavouring it.”
“Don’t do too many meats,” is another. “Keep it simple. Flame is bad in a barbecue. If drippings from the meat or marinade flare up, move it. And don’t flip the meat straight away. Let it make a connection. Leave it for two minutes. You’ll get those lovely grill lines.”
By now, the smell of hickory-smoked salmon and spatchcock chicken is wafting out over the balcony, seducing the whole of Baggot Street. Young chefs are trickling from his kitchen, adding bits of mackerel, fish and chicken to the coals for their lunch.
“The whole thing about a barbecue is to take time,” Clarke says, moving on to dessert. Slicing several bananas down the centre, he mashes the fruit, squeezes in several chunks of Cadbury Crunchie, and sits them onto the grill until the chocolate melts.
It’s time to tuck in. The salmon falls apart in wet, succulent strips. The chicken skin, crusty with charred marinade, gives way to moist, white flesh. Everything is eaten with the fingers, and the fingers are licked clean. Summer has arrived.
Taste of Dublin runs from June 16-20 (tasteofdublin.ie). This article originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.
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