Cork's Holy Smoke head chef tells us how to spark up and cook the perfect BBQ

Joe McNamee at his home in Blackrock, cooking with Holy Smoke chef John Relihan.

John Relihan, former head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa BBQ restaurant, shows Joe McNamee how to fire up the perfect barbie.

One of the stars at the just-passed Ballymaloe Litfest was Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann whose restaurant, Francis Mallmann 1884, in Mendoza, Argentina, has featured in that elite club, The World’s Top 50 Restaurants.

However, what caught the imagination of so many festivalgoers was the same thing that made an episode of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, featuring Mallmann so especially compelling —he cooks with fire and, before the solid-fuel Aga owners club harrumph their parity, let it be noted we are talking about cooking over naked flame and his book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, has made many waves on a global scale.

In a professional culinary world increasingly surrendering to industrial food technology such as sous vide machines and Thermomix food processors, Mallmann stands out.

The advance of technology is also evident in the domestic kitchen where gas cooking ranges began to replace open fires about 150 years ago; those same ranges will probably meet a similar fate, as 21st century kitchen-cooking devices, touch-sensitive, glass-plated convection hobs and their ilk, come more and more to resemble something dreamed up on the set of Star Wars.

Cork's Holy Smoke head chef tells us how to spark up and cook the perfect BBQ

Though three billion people in the world still cook their meals every day over open fires, safe to say, pretty much none of them live in the first world. 

Even the domestic heating fire is becoming an anachronism as central heating became the standard in every house built for at least the last 30 or 40 years.

However, we have been cooking over naked flame for the bones of two million years according to some anthropologists and you don’t wipe out humankind’s primal attraction to, and relationship with fire in just a couple of hundred years.

For starters, the next time you attend a BBQ, check out how guests (granted, very often more men than women!) are continually drawn to the fire, even if they’re not the ones doing the actual cooking.

At Litfest, Mallmann started his fire at 3am in order to meet his serving time of 4pm that day and he stayed up for pretty much the whole night carefully nurturing those precious flames and he wasn’t short of company and when it came time to taste, not a soul could deny the effort had been worth it.

Among those acolytes, keepers of the flame, so to speak, was John Relihan, himself the head chef of Holy Smoke BBQ Restaurant, in Cork city.

John is the former head chef of Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa BBQ restaurant, in London, and another keen advocate of the merits and pleasures of cooking over fire. 

So, as you do, we decided to have a party.

John fetches up at my house one Friday evening at the tail end of the recent ‘heatwave’ bearing boxes of ingredients and some additional kitchen kit. 

First task is to build our ‘cooker’: three breeze blocks laid end-to-end to form a U-shape, the floor of our ‘cooker’ lined with a few more flat concrete blocks and, perched across the breeze blocks, a simple metal grill.

We have a cheap and cheerful metal ‘bowl’ on legs, also with a metal grill on top. Nothing more than that but we are going to cook up a feast.

John has brought mussels, clams and prawns while I have a whole hake. 

John also has ribeye steak but it is the rack of lamb that catches the attention of a few guests. 

Lamb? No oven?

I’ve also taken a trip into top butcher Eoin O’Mahony, in the English Market, and picked up buffalo sirloin steak, from Macroom, and several goat chops, the latter marinaded for the afternoon in olive oil and herbs from the garden. 

A bowl of chicken drumsticks slathered in a spicy tomato-based marinade, some of John’s own homemade burgers, a variety of fruit and vegetables for grilling along with some salads completes our mighty menu.

John sets to building a fire using his own specially imported mix of English hardwood charcoal and a supplementary bag, his precious Cuban charcoals. 

The coals light quickly and flame for a spell but it’s not flame we’re after but the charcoals to ‘whiten’ all over, a ‘frosting’ of ash indicating they have reached perfect cooking temperature. 

John arranges his coals to create three temperature areas, low, medium and high, and kicks off with the lamb, turning the rack very regularly, all the while basting it in melted butter applied with a ‘brush’ of thyme branches.

It’s not all caveman cooking kit, though: before serving, John tests the temperature of the meat with a digital meat probe. 

The finished lamb is delicious, a glistening brown exterior giving way to pink smokey meat within and rest of our menu follows steadily in the same fashion. 

At one point the evening sunshine suffers interjections from heavy showers.

Not a problem, we erect a canopy and position our chairs around the fire. 

It may be the 21st century but our inner cave men and women are well and truly to the fore, grilling, gassing and guzzling until long after nightfall.

Rack of Lamb

Serves 2

1 lamb rack

300g from your local butcher, not French trimmed

5g flaked sea salt

2g black pepper

Board dressing

30g Marjoram

1/2 lemon

30ml olive oil

2g flaked sea salt

2 g black pepper

Make sure the grill has three heats on it.

Season the lamb rack and place the fat side down first. 

When the lamb is seared off turn over using thongs very carefully, move to the medium heat and slow the cooking process down. 

Baste in the herb brush and butter. 

To add more flavour, you can add some of the leftover lamb fat from your butcher in to the butter that is melted.

To make the board dressing, finely chop the marjoram into a paste or by using a mortar and pestle pound the herbs with the flaked sea salt Add the lemon juice and the olive oil.

When your lamb reaches the temp 52C, remove and let rest, rub in the board dressing, and when ready slice the lamb and dress in the board dressing.

Ribeye on the bone, board dressing and grilled veg

Serves 2

500g ribeye on the bone

15g salt flaked sea salt

5g black pepper cracked

15 ml olive oil

Herb brush 1 bunch rosemary

1 bunch thyme

100g melted butter

Board dressing

40g parsley

20g mint

1/2 garlic clove

5g salt

50ml extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lemon juice

Grilled veg

1 aubergine sliced

1 courgette

1 pepper red

1 pepper yellow

10g mint

10 g flat leaf parsley

4g flaked sea salt

2g black pepper

1/2 lemon grilled


Make sure your grill is hot. 

Divide your grill coals into three sections so you will have a high heat, medium and low heat. 

To make the grill brush, tightly bind the herbs together with string and tie them on to a wooden spoon. Place in the melted butter. 

Season your ribeye and place on the hot side of the grill.

Do not touch until fully seared and the ribeye will not stick to the grill. Turn and do the same with the other side. 

When you turn the ribeye, baste it in a little butter with herb brush. 

This will keep the meat moist and adds lots of flavour. 

Turn the ribeye and move to medium heat.

Finely chop the herbs and add to a mixing bowl. 

Smash the garlic and make a fine purée by using your knife carefully. 

Add to the bowl. Add the olive oil, lemon juice and season. 

When your ribeye is ready remove from the grill and baste with the herb brush and leave for three minutes. 

Spread the board dressing on the ribeye. 

When slicing the meat go against the grain and toss in the board dressing. 

To grill the veg, slice the courgette, aubergine and toss in olive oil and season. 

Place the red and yellow peppers on the charcoals and blacken the skin. 

When the peppers are blackened, place in a bowl and wrap in clingfilm so they are easier to peel. 

Place the courgettes and peppers directly on the grills. 

Once they have nice grill marks and colour and feel softer, remove and place in a mixing bowl with the peppers ripped. 

Tear the herbs in the bowl with the veg and season.

To grill the lemon rub a little olive oil on the cut side and place on the grill. 

Leave for about 5 minutes on medium low heat.

Grilled hake and shellfish

Serves 3

1 large fresh hake from the local market

700g on the bone, gutted and cleaned

10g salt

5g pepper

10 ml of olive oil

Clean shellfish by soaking in cold water and by mixing them around to remove any grit or sand

1 garlic clove sliced

2gm chilli flakes

1/2 lemon (use the zest)

200gm mussels

200gm clams

4 langoustine

150ml white wine

15g fennel fronds

25g samphire

Olive oil 10ml


Make sure the charcoal and the grills are hot.

Clean fish and make sure the fish is fully dry. Season with the salt pepper and rub on the olive oil.

Place on the centre of the grill and once on do not touch until the side of the fish is fully seared. 

Using a spatula you can move the fish over on its other side and let cook.

For the shellfish place a pot or a cast iron pot directly on the charcoal. Wait for the pan to get hot, add the oil and the sliced garlic, chilli flakes and lemon zest. 

Move all the time using a wooden spoon and make sure it doesn’t burn.

If the pan is getting too hot remove from the coals add the mussels and the clams and stir, place the langoustines on top give them a minute in the pan and add the white wine.

Toss the fennel fronds and samphire on top and cover with a little tinfoil, when the wine is reducing all the liquid from the shellfish will release and make a beautiful broth.

Add the lemon juice at the end and taste. 

To serve, place the fish on a large board and using a large spoon place all the shellfish in a bowl and pour over the broth. 

Toss a few fennel fronds on top and serve with a lemon cut in half on the side.

Grilled stone-fruit, bourbon brown-butter sauce and vanilla ice cream

Serves 3

2 nectarines

2 apricots

2 peaches

2 plums

3 shots of honey Jack Daniels or bourbon

3 scoops of vanilla ice cream

(If you cannot find honey Jack Daniels add a tablespoon of honey for every shot)

100g unsalted butter, 100g dark brown sugar, 1.5 shot of honey Jack Daniels, 2 egg yolks

Deseed the stone fruit and line down on a tray and rub a little olive oil on the fruit, this will help the fruit not to stick to the grill when grilling.

Grill flat side down for a few minutes until you get the bar marks and slightly cook the fruit. 

Place all in a mixing bowl and pour the 3 shots of honey Jack Daniel over the fruit, and let sit in a fridge for one hour to marinate. 

To make the sauce heat a small pot of water and place a mixing bowl over the pan and melt the butter and add the dark brown sugar. 

When the sugar is dissolved in the butter add the bourbon and whisk. 

Remove off the heat and whisk in the egg yolks, and whisk.

Place over the heat again and slowly cook the sauce out.

The consistence will be like a thick carmel.


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