GUEST FEATURE - Matt Williams and Matt Burgess, Black Deer Live Fire team

We talked barbecue with two industry greats at Black Deer Festival.

Summer is fully in swing, and here at Dovecote Park that means a range of new products for the outdoor grill (or the indoor pan if the English weather proves a fickle friend). This season has seen us launch a range of brand new seasonal products for the retail consumer, including green harissa beef kebabs and steaks caressed in a New York style dry rub, along with a venison steak matched with tart cherry ketchup and of course a selection of British beef burgers from classic rump steak to peppered to black garlic infused. As a business, we take barbecue very seriously – which is why we found ourselves in our element at Black Deer.

Perhaps the two things best associated with the UK summer are barbecues and music festivals. It was only a matter of time before the two combined, a shining example of which can be seen at Black Deer, the UK’s first country music, Americana…. and barbecue festival. Sure, it’s not exactly billed as a ‘barbecue festival’, but there is no UK music festival in memory where food plays such a central role. Barbecue is a religion in the southern states where country music evolved, and as such no true festival in the genre is complete without a display of grill-mastery.

Live Fire is Black Deer’s bespoke barbecue wing, where chefs from all around the country compete for the title of Grand Champion, whilst experts on all matters of the grill offer demonstrations delving into the finer points of this beloved culinary subgenre, the event compered by Ray ‘Dr Barbecue’ Lampe, the US grill-titan widely considered the leading US voice of barbecue. The air is thick with hickory smoke and the aroma of slow-cooked brisket, whilst the fiddles and banjos muse in the background. It’s a wonderful place.  We sat down with Matt Burgess and Matt Williams - aka ‘the two Matts’ - from the Black Deer demo team to talk British meat, British wood and world cooking…. and to see what we could learn from their expertise.

Matt Williams
, dubbed the ‘King of Charcoal’ by the media is among the worlds leading voices in the unsung charcoal sector, praised for his commitment to British charcoal and sustainability.

‘I’m introduced here as a chef, but that’s really not what I do' states Williams – 'I live in this world and spend my life with these people because I came into it through forestry, through a guiding passion for doing the best things for the woodlands in our country. People aren’t buying wooden furniture anymore, they go to IKEA for that, we need to find markets for it to stop our woodlands dying – and we all know we need them to be resilient and working for us. And, happily for the world of barbecue, the most sensible thing I can do for our ancient woodland which needs to be restored is to make excellent charcoal from our wood.

'Sustainability is a weird word – essentially all it means is, if I take a thing will it come back? If you cut down a hectare of virgin rainforest will it grow back? Yes, it will, but you will have destroyed a huge ecosystem in doing so. The difficulty sometimes with the idea of putting across an ecologically sound way of interacting with our world is that the phrases and soundbites we are used to don’t really cover what we want to talk about. And I love being in the world of barbecue, with these amazing chefs like Matt here, who runs these incredible restaurants where they think carefully about what they do and the impact they have – and that’s what I want to do, think carefully about the things we take from the environment in doing what we do. As they experiment with flavor and cooking techniques, I experiment with charcoal’.

Williams Friday demonstration subverts every preconceived image of a run-of-the-mill grill demo – alongside his accomplice Chops, he shows the crowd how to make a bespoke kiln using a handful of wood and a watering can, before Burgess is brought on stage to cook a slab of beef directly over the spouts open flame. While the charcoal distills, plaited beef fillet is seasoned, grilled and dressed with a beer and grilled-oyster sauce. Having seen their experiment triumph, Williams and Chops break into a southern-style air guitar victory dance. This is a next-level demo, a prime example of how to turn a technical walkthrough and cookery display into a piece of showmanship.

The electric watering can flaming experience of exuberant joy and happiness’ Williams dubs the experiment afterwards. ‘We do it in a silly way – it’s nice to be a bit silly when you have something incredibly serious to say. As mere British people, we look at our cultural food background with a bit of disdain. We’re prone to look down on things that are considered commonplace, the fish-and-chip culture, but there are amazing things going on in the UK'

Matt Burgess
, a New Zealand born chef based in West London has long a hot topic in the city’s gastronomic circles, best known as the executive chef of the revered Caravan chain. His signature style of ‘free cooking’, endless culinary ventures – ‘Five restaurants, a bakery, a coffee roastery and a takeaway,’ he states, counting on his fingers, ‘I keep saying not another one but then…’ and work around the grill has made him a respected authority in this world – returning to judge the Black Deer entrants for a second year.

Speaking on the importance of high quality raw ingredients (both meat and charcoal) Burgess says ‘It makes our job easy. If you’ve got the great product to begin with, the end product will the best. If its been treated well and it tastes delicious, and its seasoned than everything is done. And as we grow as chefs and producers we get to a stage where we’re more focused on the ingredient and serving it simply. And while I do a lot of weird and wonderful things through free cooking, for me its still about the product and the beginning of that product and where it comes from. I have a conscience, and I do not want to use products which don’t make me sleep at night.’

Describing the cooking style which drives him, Burgess says, ‘Free cooking comes from a place of no boundaries. I’m from New Zealand, where our nation is 200 years old, so we don’t have a cuisine as such. So we’ve taken cuisines from all over the world and made them our own. I will take a bit of French, Spanish influence and maybe a bit of Thai flavour to make it a unique, delicious, beautiful dish. Which is why I make sure to use great products like Matts charcoal and the best quality meat – for tomorrow I’ve got some beautiful lamb from the South Downs which I got through Ginger Pig, one of the best butchers.’
‘I’ve developed a tamarind ketchup using the basis of Heinz ketchup – I’ve got some beautiful lamb leg from the South Downs – I’m going to butterfly that open, grill it, and some green papaya, which the Thai use as the base of a som tam salad – with some cucumber and mint. I’ll dress the whole salad with the tamarind ketchup. For me cooking’s got to be accessible and I think people often don’t see that these Asian ingredients – sesame oil, tamarind, soy sauce- are just seasonings which you can use to transform any dish.’ ‘Cooking in the UK has changed fundamentally in the last 20 years. The people around me right here at this festival are spearheading so many great products, cooking implements, equipment. When I first came to the UK, there were 5 Michelin star restaurants in London – now there are 150. I think that showcases all the great work we’re doing in the UK.’

The closing day of the festival sees Burgess take to the stage, where he invites an associate to demonstrate the butterflying of the lamb while he assembles the raw ingredients. Watching butchery done before an intrigued crowd is a refreshing sight rarely seen outside of industry events – at Black Deer punters witness several practical displays of butchery, with a roe deer butchered before the crowd on the first day. Between making time for this most crucial craft and the unorthodox charcoal, Black Deer’s food component displays a commitment to more than just the food on the plate and Burgess is an ideal demo chef – entertaining to watch and with a passion for food which comes across in every word. His finished dish is a true sensory experience – visually engaging, the lamb rich and fork tender with the tamarind ketchup packing a intense, lingering flavour which still remains as the first of the Main Stage headliners tune their instruments in preparation.

It was a pleasure to see British product given such pride of place at a genre music festival, and we hope to return to Black Deer as it continues the excellent work it does in the barbecue arena. Thanks to both the Matts for taking the time to talk to us!