We Grill – Ben Bartlett
Ben Bartlett is a barbecue champion. As president of the British BBQ Association and first winner of Britain’s Best BBQ’er, Ben represents Britain across the world. A demonstrative al-fresco chef and Master Craftsman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, Ben has written the ultimate BBQ book – The BBQ Manual – which is available in 75 countries. His next, Cooking with Wood, is destined to be another chip off the old block. Smokin’!
How did you get in to BBQ cooking?
I was head chef at The Pump House in Bristol when I offered to barbecue for my friend’s wedding. I’d been used to cooking on barbecues, but when the guest list hit 100 and I had to use three grills it was a totally different situation – and I loved it! I won Britain’s Best Barbecuer and my prize was to visit Kansas City and learn from Slaughterhouse Five, a chain of barbecue restaurants. That was in 2002 and I’ve been hooked ever since!
What’s your favourite product to bbq?
Seafish, because you can char-grill, steam in foil, wrap in vine leaves or cook on wood (planking) – the options are endless! In May and June mackerel and sardines work really well. All you need are fresh herbs, oil and flavours and the end taste is fantastic.
What’s your career history?
My mother is a phenomenal cook and I learnt about meat, fish and game from a young age. Even now she won’t let me in her kitchen! When I left school at 16 I knew I wanted to be a chef and got my first job at Forte’s Restaurant in Bournemouth as a commis chef. The kitchen worked with an old fashioned brigade system so you moved around doing everything from peeling to washing! It was great training. From there I went to The Bouffage in Rangeworthy as a chef de partie and after working in Italy I returned to the UK and became head chef at The Pump House.
Essential bbq equipment and tips?
There are lots of gadgets but you can’t do without a barbecue kettle, Gloven oven gloves and a Thermapen digital thermometer. Use ordinary, unsweetened apple juice. Put it into a garden hand sprayer and spray it onto any meat – beef, lamb, chicken or pork – while it’s cooking. It keeps the meat moist and gives it a lovely caramelisation. Finally, keep turning the food – you have to stay with it.
Dishes that go down a treat?
I have my top ten and and they include pork – pulled pork and pork ribs, chicken trio – thigh, breast and wings, king prawns and scallops, and beef brisket. You can’t beat a sirloin steak! With meat, it’s easy to overcook beef and chicken can be quite dull. Pork is great and very forgiving on the barbecue. A fish kebab works well and so do fruit or vegetable ones. Jacket potatoes work well too. Cook them, scoop out the inside and mix with cheese, peppers, onions, and chopped bacon. Restuff the skins and pop them back on the grill.
Most common mistakes when barbecuing?
There are three; cooking food from frozen, cooking on a too high temperature – low to medium is best and cooking food for that bit longer than you normally would; and applying a cold sauce to the meat – you wouldn’t serve a steak Diane in a restaurant with cold sauce would you?
Any unsung barbecue heroes?
Sweetcorn is good to use as well as aubergines and courgettes. Octopus is great and literally takes just two minutes to cook. All it needs is a marinade of tomato sauce, a few chillies, a bit of brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce. Don’t forget desserts. Bananas, peaches and pineapple are fabulous on the barbecue. Wrap a banana in foil and place on the grill. When it’s soft to the touch, slice it open and pour in a generous measure of Irish cream. Simple, but delicious.
Hobbies outside the kitchen?
I love singing and actually trained in Italy as an opera singer! I’m treasurer for the children’s charity Eleanor Children’s Charitable Trust that supports children in Bristol and orphanages in Romania.
What’s it like being head judge at the World Barbecue Championships?
This year, it’s in Gothenburg, Sweden in June and the best teams from 80 countries are competing. Last year, I was a judge at the one in Morocco and it was amazing and fascinating to witness the different styles of barbecuing from around the world. The Moroccan competitors wore their traditional dress and sat on stools hand-turning the goat they were barbecuing for three hours. The team from Argentina cooked their meat on a huge metal cross and threw charcoal on the floor below it. They too hand-turned the meat – and danced while it was cooking!