Cooking with fire: 4 tips from Andrew Clarke

by Henry Coldstream 23 August 2022

When it’s done right, cooking over live fire can produce pretty remarkable results, but it also has its challenges when compared to cooking on the stove or in an oven. Live Fire expert and Acme Fire Cult co-founder Andrew Clarke gives us his tips on how to become a master of cooking over coals.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

It may be the oldest form of cookery, but the idea of working with live fire is still something that a lot of people find pretty daunting. The modern-day chef, after all, is so used to all the various gadgets and gizmos, which allow for the utmost precision, that the idea of doing away with them in the place of a grill seems terrifying. Yet, it’s this highly instinctive element of live fire cookery that makes it so unique; it’s all about feel, using your eyes and trusting your intuitions.

Live fire cookery isn’t just about the feeling though, it’s just as much about flavour. Even the smallest lick of flame on a grill can elevate ingredients to new levels, while the smokiness imparted by burning wood and charcoal is hard to rival in a standard kitchen. That’s not to forget perhaps the biggest appeal of all about live fire cookery – the fact that it can be done out in the open air!

Lighting up a barbecue and throwing on a few burgers and chipolatas is, of course, an activity that a lot of Brits enjoy and feel comfortable doing, but that really is just the start of things when it comes to cooking over coals. Once you become more confident and gain a deeper understanding of live fire cookery, you’ll realise that the possibilities are endless. Suddenly doing everything from a Sunday roast to a vegan spread on your grill becomes feasible, and your barbecue starts to feel like an extension of your kitchen rather than an alien implement.

In recent years, more and more professional chefs have been pushing the boundaries of live fire cookery and demonstrating why it’s such a special method. One such chef is Andrew Clarke who, along with Daniel Watkins, recently opened Acme Fire Cult – a restaurant where everything on the menu is cooked on a huge charcoal grill located outside. We asked Andrew to give us some tips for those wanting to take their live fire cookery to the next level.

Begin with a good grill and high-quality charcoal

‘Obviously having the right kit is essential, so make sure you get yourself a nice grill or barbecue. Don’t use gas, get rid of that, and use clean lumpwood charcoal. It’s worth going to a good supplier too, particularly to get sustainable, natural charcoal, which isn’t dull of additives and the same goes for firelighters too. People should try and strike up the same relationship they might have with their butcher or fishmonger with a charcoal supplier and then they can recommend what’s best for your grill, and tell you where it’s come from. You can also try using a combination of wood and charcoal, as there’s a really nice meeting point for them both. Think of it as using charcoal for heat, and wood for smoking and flavour.’

Understand the heat source

‘This is probably the biggest tip I’d give people about cooking with fire. Make sure you understand the difference between direct and indirect cooking and it will massively improve your game. You don’t necessarily have to cook directly on the coals. I think it’s a big mistake that a lot of people make when they barbecue at home; they cover the whole thing with coal, put some chicken drumsticks on there. Things like chicken on the bone take a long time to cook but they don’t have anywhere safe to put them, so the fat starts dripping on the coals and you end up getting nasty charring. Try pushing the coals to one side and have a safe space to cook things slowly – that’s the key.’

Don’t feel limited to meat

‘People have a tendency to associate barbecues only with cooking meat but that shouldn’t be the case. At Acme Fire Cult the majority of our menu is plant-based and I’d really encourage people to try cooking a wider range of ingredients on the grill. The important thing is that you start with really great ingredients, whether it’s meat, fish or vegetables. Live fire has been part of human evolution, so it’s in our DNA. This means there are little flavour nuances that we aren’t even aware of; things taste amazing and we don’t why! Even if you just chuck an aubergine on the grill with a bit of olive oil, the smoke is going to impart flavour and it’s just guaranteed to taste good.’

Cook outside right throughout the year

'I personally feel that being outside is very healthy for us and I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it right through the year. It’s a bit of a trigger for me when I see marketing around barbecue season; it’s barbecue season all year around – light up your grill and do your Christmas dinner on it! It can obviously be tricky out in rain and strong winds but I’ve cooked out in the snow on many occasions and it’s a lot of fun. The more you start to use your grill right through the year, the more it will start to feel like an extension of your kitchen, but also the more you’ll be able to cook different seasonal ingredients on it.’