Food Safari Fire presenter Maeve O’Meara.Maeve O’Meara gets so close to her subjects in her new series Food Safari Fire that she actually singed off a handful of hair.
“We were filming a wood-fired oven in Adelaide on a really cold day,” she says. “I just needed to stand right up against that oven to get as warm as I could, and I didn’t realise but I reached up [to her head] and thought, ‘Oh my god’.
“It wasn’t the flame, it was the hot air coming up outside that oven and it very neatly gave me a very different hairstyle.”
Fortunately that was the only hazardous incident on O’Meara’s six-month journey across Australia for the 10-part series that focuses on the most primal of cooking techniques.
It’s not merely snags on the barbie – the show uses fire to link together cuisines from all over the world, from Japanese to Chinese, Mexican and beyond. Episodes are themed around topics such as street food, grilling, spit-roasting and smoking, with some of the nation’s most famous culinary faces sharing their fiery wisdom.
What is it about cooking with fire that makes it such an enticing, compelling process?
“It’s beautiful, it’s sensual and it’s challenging,” says O’Meara. “Even top chefs talk about how each time it’s different and, in a cooking sense, that’s fantastic. I also think cooking outside, you don’t feel as rule-bound as say cooking in a kitchen and being really strict on technique.
“For everyone that we filmed, men, women of all different ages, there’s some sort of DNA part that relates to fire that is deep within them and is so enjoyable.”
Marinades and cuts of meat make up only a small part of the picture. The intricacies of elements such as charcoal and different types of wood are investigated, for example. Chef Lennox Hastie from Sydney’s Firedoor demonstrates how fruit woods can be used like a spice to flavour. Elsewhere, Movida’s Frank Camorra and his parents, who moved from Spain to Australia, demonstrate the more social side of fire and invite O’Meara to their weekly family get-together in Geelong, cooking traditional Spanish dishes in a perol pan over fire.
Smoking, one of the big trends at the moment, is another subject tackled. “Smoking is really the new black in fire cooking,” says O’Meara. “Everybody is just excited by it because you’re cooking secondary cuts of meat, learning to use different flavour combinations, whether it’s a dry rub or cooking over a particular sort of charcoal, and it’s that low and slow cooking that is just about to boom here.
“The brisket and pulled pork revolution is well and truly on us and I think more and more people will want to have a taste of that and think ‘we could do this ourselves in our backyard’.”
O’Meara says 12-hour brisket is more the “advance class” of cooking, but the show does cover elements that are achievable for everybody. She says it’s possible just to do something as simple as getting a $50 barbecue from a Middle-Eastern store to use for cooking over charcoal.
O’Meara herself bought a tandoor oven from NSW potter Cameron Williams, which she says is a like a “terracotta R2D2”, and is mastering the art of cooking chicken, prawns and lamb cooked in that way.
The new series is the seventh season of Food Safari and is teamed with a book featuring techniques, information and recipes. O’Meara says she’s also going to be live tweeting while the show airs.
She says the new series carries all the hallmarks of what Food Safari fans know and love, plus a power from fire that drives it as well.
“The images are beautiful and I think that when you see drops of juice coming on to charcoal and spurts of smoke coming up, those moments are like, ‘Oh my god, I reallyneed to eat something’.
“It’s meant to be inspirational and practical, but really its strength is the people who cook and create, who are so fabulously disarming and loving what they do. Translating that to the screen is the real strength of Food Safari.”
She says her top dish is possibly Tetsuya Wakuda’s mackerel cooked on a small konro grill with miso and soy, but her favourite experience of the show is the people.
“I love my job and my life and I love going into people’s homes and capturing what brings them together and their culture. It’s like a great, big warm hug. Filming an extended Samoan family cooking an umu, a ground oven feast, was just something I hadn’t seen before.
“This is the suburbs of Sydney, the fact that it is there in the backyard next to you and it’s so different and interesting. It’s probably not something that everybody is going to be able to recreate but what joy to have that as part of our culinary mix in the backyards of Australia.”
WHAT Food Safari Fire
WHEN SBS, Thursday (January 7), 8pm.
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