Fire is humanity’s superpower.
An elemental contributor for our dominance as a species on Earth is predicated on the discovery and control of combustion.
Combustion is a process that releases heat (allowing us to stay warm), light (allowing us to see in the dark) and, most importantly, gives us the ability to cook food.
Some scholars argue that the Anthropocene should, instead, be called the Pyrocene.
This is due, in part, to our powerful capacity to spark energy, change and literally cook the landscape.
“The thing about fire, for me, is that even though it can be quite vicious, it can also be a really delicate thing to cook with,” says chef Harry Callinan, who works under the moniker Mulga Bill, a chef with 30-odd years’ experience.
The thing about fire, for me, is that even though it can be quite vicious, it can also be a really delicate thing to cook with.Harry Callinan
“I’ve cooked in some diverse places over my career, from fine-dining restaurants to running kitchens in international five star hotels in Asia.
“But nothing gives my heart more of a flutter than when I’m cooking with fire.”
Callinan’s latest cooking adventure sees him playing Prometheus, harnessing the power of fire by using a custom-built American-style offset barbecue pit smoker in conjunction with a series of specially designed fire pits.
The pits allow him to roast whole chickens and slow-cook lambs.
The chickens are suspended by a chain above the fire.
The lamb is butterflied and spread out on an iron cross.
Beneath the hanging meat, a small fire of ironbark timber burns red hot, breaking down into coals and releasing a clean, delicate smoke that gently infuses into the flesh.
Callinan has it down to a fine art.
“I briefly got into the whole (North) American barbecue thing but soon realised that you can do so much more with the equipment than just cooking brisket or ribs for 12 hours,” he explains.
“I figured fire was the thing I could use as the tool for cooking so many different things.
“It’s more asado-style cooking with open flames and swinging chickens and lambs on a cross.”
Asado is a South American tradition of cooking that uses an open fire and smoky, smouldering hot coals to grill or slowly roast meat. In recent years, it’s become popular among perceptive chefs and discerning foodies, courtesy of Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann.
On a season one episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table Mallmann had viewers drooling over his cast-iron food shrines made up of swinging chickens and sweet pineapples, butterflied beasts and fresh veggies roasting in among the hot coals.
It’s such a stunningly visual way to cook food and bring people together.
“I think the reason the whole low-and-slow thing has taken off here is because of the sense of community it brings with it. When you go to a barbecue competition you’ll see the camaraderie there; the collective, the community,” Callinan says.
For better or for worse, primal or primeval, fire has a habit of bringing people together.
“We all have that in-built need for community and family and a good barbecue can facilitate that,” continues Callinan.
“You light a campfire and almost instantly people gather around it and start talking. That’s why they call it the ‘bush television’.”
Callinan uses the fire to infuse his cooks with flavours we’re all innately familiar with: smoke.
“You need to start with the right wood, choosing them based around what flavour it will eventually impart into the food as it burns,” Callinan explains.
“I use two types of ironbark. One is collected from around Wauchope, which sparks and burns quick, and the other one comes from around the Hunter. It’s blood red in colour and very dense with a nice coal that burns hot, slow and long. You can’t mimic the beautiful smoke flavours these timbers impart.”
While most American-style barbecues lather their protein in a series of delicious rubs and sauces throughout the cook, Callinan reckons if you have the right wood, all you need is a little simple seasoning.
“I’m a salt and pepper guy, that’s all you need when you use good quality meat, so you can let the produce and the method of cook speak for itself,” he says.
“In the right hands, charring can be good for certain things too, but you also need to be gentle with that as well, nurturing the meat as it cooks, slowly breaking down muscle until the internal fat starts to melt. It’s really just about understanding what heat does to food.”
Callinan says he can cater just about any event under the Mulga Bills moniker, provided people are open-minded enough to go on a fire and food journey with him. His menu offers much more beyond low-and-slow brisket and pulled pork.
“I’m influenced by fire cooking from around the globe, so I’ll do things like beef and mushroom stew cooked in a Dutch oven in the fire, or salmon fillets cooked on planks of cedar wood. Keeping things as fresh and local as possible is important to me too,” Callinan says.
For one reason or another, we all seem to be captured by the ferocious yet mesmerising qualities of fire. The look, the smell, the warmth and, of course, the taste. There’s something eternal and fundamental about it.
“I want to show people the beauty of fire whenever I cook with it,” says Callinan. “Fire can be so dangerous, but so delicate and so beautiful when it’s used as a medium to cook with. These days, I can’t get satisfaction unless I’m playing with fire.”