Playing with fire

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Luke Mackay on why he intends to spend this Father’s Day burning his dinner—on purpose

This time last year I was trying unsuccessfully to eat goat offal in Turkey while simultaneously trying to file an article for Borough Market by the pool under a tangle of small children. This year I have increased that tangle by 50 per cent, still haven’t had my goat offal and am right up to the limit of my deadline for this. I’m just in London, not Turkey and it’s raining.

Luckily though it’s Father’s Day soon and I now have a third child, so by the laws of science my special day will be 50 per cent more relaxing, 50 per cent more peaceful and 50 per cent more all about me. I think that’s how it works: more children = more Father’s Day fun. You can’t argue with science. I’ll probably watch the cricket and read the paper then pop to the pub before coming back to a home-cooked lunch while my kids sit quietly, only breaking the silence to ask politely if I’ve lost weight and if they can get me another negroni. I can’t wait. Not being called a “big stupid poohead” for a whole day will be dreamy.

Just in case all that doesn’t happen, this year for Father’s Day I wanted to talk about burning stuff, which is what I’ll actually end up doing. Don’t be fooled though! This isn’t a lazy, stereotypical piece about hapless dads firing up the rusty old barbecue to cremate poison burgers and salmonella sausages. No, I shall burn things on purpose for the complexity of it, the wonderful character it adds to a multitude of foods and the memories and thoughts that it can conjure.

Fire as an artform
One of my food heroes is Francis Mallmann, the great Argentinian chef who has turned cooking with fire into an artform. His book Seven Fires is the seminal work on the subject and my then girlfriend brought me back a signed copy of it from a solo South American holiday, just after we met. I obviously married her shortly after.

Mallmann is by his own admission (you can watch his Chef’s Table episode on Netflix) an ‘unconventional’ father. He says unconventional—you can make up your own mind. His fierce determination not to let anything at all alter the life that he wanted has enriched his professional experiences, but I’m not sure if his children would thank him for it. Cooking outside, on fire is without doubt my favourite thing to do; to do it with my son and daughters as they grow less inclined to be a danger to themselves and others would be a joy.

Why anyone would cook with that most insipid of kitchen gadgets, the water bath, when fire is available is beyond me. I don’t want perfect evenness in cooking. As Mallmann says: “I adore dissonance in food—two tastes fighting each other. Charring or burning adds an extra dimension… the right amount of burning or charring can be delicious… I believe that many chefs and cookbooks make entirely too much of harmony.”

Stark and fascinating
I taught a barbecue class last night where we literally threw some goose skirt steak directly onto hot coals—2-3 minutes per side and this fibrous but flavoursome cut is charred black and well done in places, rare in others and medium in parts too. It was SO much more interesting, more challenging and yes, more delicious than a poor piece of water-bathed fillet at four times the price. Try burning tomatoes—sliced in half and in a hot pan—leave them to blacken, bordering on bitter, and the contrast with the soft, sweet flesh within is stark and fascinating.

This Father’s Day I urge you to burn some coals or some wood and cook something hard, as once our ancestors did. Just for one day, forget about harmony and balance—and burn, baby, burn.