Meet the Irish cook who's Jamie Oliver's pitmaster reveals the tricks to a perfect BBQ
Ahead of Dublin's big grill festival, our reporter meets Mark O'Brien - the Irish cook who's Jamie Oliver's pitmaster
Working as a key player in one of Jamie Oliver's busiest London kitchens might be great for career development and learning new skills, but it's not so great for taking holidays during peak periods. Which is why Irish chef and food blogger Mark O'Brien was taking no chances this year. As far back as January, he booked time off from his post as pitmaster in Barbecoa restaurant to come home to next weekend's Big Grill festival.
Now in it's third year, this year's Big Grill is predicted to attract 20,000 visitors, having doubled in size year on year since 2014. The family-friendly food festival celebrates what festival organiser Andy Noonan describes as "the age-old art of cooking with smoke and fire". They go about this serious business with the help of spandex-clad DJs, chilli-eating competitions, craft beer pairings and lots of live fire cooking. There's even bug hunts and bushcraft workshops promised for a special kids' zone.
This year, the bill includes international BBQ experts from as far afield as Brazil alongside some of the top talent in Britain and Ireland. But it's not just the chance to catch the likes of Andre Lima de Luca (Brazil), Neil Rankin (Smokehouse Restaurant, London) and Richard Turner (Hawksmoor/Pit Cue, London) that made this year's festival a must for Mark, who will himself be demonstrating how to get great results for seafood with the use of smoke and fire. For Mark, the return to Dublin's Herbert Park is hugely personal.
"I couldn't get the time off work last year so instead I watched it all on Instagram," he says, adding that it was a killer "to see all of my friends hanging out without me". But he had been at the festival the previous year, for what was to prove a life-changing weekend that led to him landing his dream job. "The pitmaster," Mark explains of his role in Barbecoa, "is the main smoking chef in charge of all the smoked meats, dealing with the meat from the minute it comes in, from butchery and seasoning to smoking and serving."
It took a bit of meandering for Mark to find his path. An initial degree in science wasn't to be.
"I was politely asked to leave after 18 months," he admits with little regret: having spent most of that time in the college's drama society he had realised for himself that he "needed something more active and less academic".
While considering alternative careers in event management, theatre and set design, he worked front-of-house at was supposed to be an interim job in a high-octane casual eatery. He found himself falling in love with Dublin's rapidly evolving restaurant and food scene.
Cooking had always been a hobby but Mark began to consider it as a career.
"Helping my parents out in the kitchen when I was young gave me a good base knowledge. Then as a teen I realised the benefits not just of eating well but also of cooking for others," he says. "As a shyer teen it was a nice way to connect with people."
When he began to write his own food blog, he was invited by Cooks Academy to attend its three-month course and to blog about his experiences. As well as loving the course, he says "it gave me a really solid spring board to go into back of house". That training lead to a job in Dublin's buzzy Coppinger Row ("I really connected with the chef and the food") and then to a game-changing nixer.
"I was asked to work at The Big Grill as an assistant to John Relihan," he explains, referring to the Cork-born chef who was heading up the Barbecoa kitchen at the time. "We really hit it off." Throughout the weekend, Mark was regaled with tales of the extraordinary equipment in the London kitchen. "Being a Jamie Oliver restaurant means it's very well stocked," with its charcoal Tandoor ovens, Argentinian grills, wood-fired ovens, Texas pit smokers and Japanese robata making it a dream playground for an aspiring pitmaster.
An invite to visit the kitchen turned into a joke that he mightn't ever be let leave, which the resourceful Mark quickly secured as a serious job offer. "I told him to give me six months, and moved over in February 2015." Another six months later, he was promoted to pitmaster. He hasn't looked back since.
It's easy to see why next weekend's festival appearance will be an extra special one for Mark. With the help of his co-worker Sander Van Der Werf, he will head up his own demo, sharing the skills he's been accumulating since his last weekend in Herbert Park. "It's great to be giving back to the festival that started me on this life path."
They'll be focusing on seafood to demonstrate that there's more to barbecues than massive meat fests. "We're going to be doing Irish fish like mackerel and salmon and Dublin Bay prawns," he says, "both smoking and grilling, to show the different approaches, so we might grill mackerel and hot-smoke some salmon."
As someone who has blogged about his newly acquired kitchen skills from the get-go and whose work in an open kitchen regularly involves explaining the process to the public, doing a live cooking demo is a natural progression for Mark. And as someone who has always valued food as a way of connecting with other people, the evolving international barbecue scene is the perfect place for him to be.
"Food is having such a cultural moment," he says, "but a lot of people are trying to out-do themselves with new combinations and over-complicated cooking. I love that barbecuing is so simple and basic and 'clean' in terms of the ingredients used. It's tasty, social food." And it's a great leveller, he says.
"Nobody can put on pretences when covered in sauce and smoke."
On the other hand, this is a style of cooking that allows for continuous experimentation and learning. "It's still so new in Ireland and England. It's still finding its footing." He loves being part of an emerging culture that is experimenting with various approaches to find what might work here, from the open-style Argentinian barbecues and the ambient heat and smoke effect of Texas block pits to the direct heat of Japanese robata grills. "You can't write your own book on barbecue without reading the others."
Mark recommends that home cooks and pros alike identify and study particular skills before trying to master them all - a lesson he thinks we Irish need to learn. "We only get a handful of barbecue days a year here and then we try and cook all these different things at once on a kettle grill. I'm a restaurant chef and I can't do 18 things at once."
Keeping things simple will yield better results. "Decide to do burgers, for example, and do them as best as you can: maybe smoke the onions, make your own ketchup and get every element right."
Think about the type of wood you use too. "It's a bit like pairing a wine. If you're cooking a dark meat, you're best to use a dark wood like oak or mesquite, whereas fish would like something lighter like apple, cherry or willow.
"Learn one skill at a time and then the rest will come. So for example, you could decide to master the offset cooking method, where you're using two different types of heat on the one grill.
"It's about building up a repertoire and a skill set." And having a whole lot of fun while you're at it.
The Big Grill Festival takes place in Herbert Park, Dublin 4, from August 11-14.
Tickets from €15 at biggrillfestival.com, children under 12 go free.
Mark blogs at oaksmokeandbbqsauce.com
Mark's Piri Piri Wings
Piri Piri is an incredible combination of flavours that has roots in both South Africa and Portugal. The name is derived from the Piri Piri chilli, or birds eye chilli. When smothered on anything from chicken to fish to pork to roasted vegetables, its fragrant and potent blend will lift the dish to new heights.
12 chicken wings
2 Piri Piri (birds eye) chillies
2 cloves of garlic
The stalks from a small bunch of coriander
2 tbsp brown sugar
Zest and juice of two limes
1 small bunch of thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Firstly, prep your wings by removing the wing tips (the boney pointy bits at the end). Then cut through the skin attaching the two limbs and extend the wings out fully.
Next finely dice the chillies as small as you possibly can. Leave the seeds in for a bit of a kick. Place them into a mixing bowl.
Finely chop the garlic and coriander stalks and add to the bowl along with the sugar, lime juice and lime zest.
Strip the leaves from the thyme stalks and add to the mix.
Finish with 2 tbsp olive oil, then season liberally with salt and pepper.
Now that you have your sauce made, you just need to marinate the wings. You can cook the wings straight away but leaving them overnight will seriously help things along.
When you are ready to get going, get your grill seriously hot by placing all of your coals on one side, allowing you direct heat and indirect heat.
Fill the direct heat side of the grill with wings and allow to crisp up nicely. Turn them over and repeat.
Make sure you have good colour on the wings before transferring them over to the indirect side. Close the lid of your BBQ and allow to cook for about 25 minutes. This will give you incredibly deep flavour, perfect skin and fall-off-the-bone meat.
Finally, enjoy in whatever way you see fit.