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Q&A with Pete Roobol



“People and place and fire and food come together to create these little magical moments.”





Having first experienced fire cooking as a child, watching his father cooking on a beach, and then years later while wild camping in Scotland, Pete Roobol realised that his love of being outdoors and his pleasure in cooking could be combined.


Pete went on to launch two businesses: FireChef, specialising in the cookware associated with fire cooking, and Embered, where Pete cooks for events, from wilderness cookouts to festivals, and for individual clients, including the Corr Cabins team who recently experienced an open air meal cooked in the courtyard adjoining our studio in Leith.






There’s something primal about cooking over an open fire, and it isn’t only about the cooking. As Pete says:


“Think people first, then the food. There’s no rush, it’s not about getting dinner ready, it’s about taking time.”

 

We caught up with Pete to chat about his background, and the simple joy of cooking outdoors with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.





What led you to fire cooking?

 

This really started in my early years, spending a lot of time outdoors as a family. We’d be on the beach and my father would spear a fish and clean and cook it, and I’d join him at the fire as he was cooking. It was those moments; it was always about being outdoors.

 

Years later, I did a scholarship in Marine Resource Development and Protection and the first half-year was based in Stromness on Orkney, which was amazing. I then worked on the west coast of Scotland as a commercial scallop diver for a few seasons, living in and around Mallaig, and I got into walking, fishing on the lochs and swimming. After a few seasons, I made the leap into computing, working in Edinburgh for about 17 years.

 

Over those years, every weekend I’d be away camping or exploring Scotland - camping on a lochside, finding a beach to explore, climbing hills. It was a complete contrast to my work. And it was while camping with friends and cooking together that I learned about foraging.


Above: Scallop foraging

 

What led you to launch FireChef and your own cookware range?

 

I really liked reading about food history and the evolution of cookware, and after those years in computing I decided it was time to try something totally different. While I’d seen a big movement in barbecues, fire cooking was still niche at the time. I bought custom cast Dutch ovens and started selling those, which was how I started FireChef, and then increased the range from there. I had the idea for a grill that could be positioned anywhere round the fire, so you could sear or slow roast, and eventually I came up with the FireChef Grill (below).



 

How did this evolve to start cooking for other people and the launch of Embered?

 

It was word of mouth. The first time I was asked for cook was for a magazine called Proper Adventure who asked me to cook in a bothy. I had to trek to the bothy, which meant walking with a 40kg rucksack full of ingredients and logs. That slow and long walk got me thinking about adventure cooking and cooking in truly off-grid places.

 

That bothy trek also made me realise that there were lighter ways of carrying kit. Now I have a big fire table, which is 2m by 1m, and everything fits in a van. I do adventure cooking events, wilderness cookouts and festivals, but I’m keen to explore the logistics of cooking anywhere.

 

I just love walking into places and cooking. How we can share that experience, and share the flavours of the fire and make them accessible?  It’s about quality ingredients, good provenance, using seasonal ingredients, and taking care in the cooking.



 

Have you found that fire cooking is becoming more popular now?  

 

There’s something quite amazing happening and you can see it with the increase in wild swimming, foraging, yoga, surfing, meditation - there’s a very real need for a natural connection, and the ability to take a pause or have a contrast from the mainstream noise. All these things are about being present, and it’s the same with cooking: you’re captive of the moment, and if you’re not you burn the flatbreads. There’s that focus when you’re cooking on the fire.

 

When my son was a baby, he’d be captivated by the flames, and there’s something inherent in all of us about that connection. Being in the wilderness, walking barefoot on the beach... it’s about being present. When you spend some time in nature, you can only garner awe and respect for it. That’s plays beautifully in contrast with the modern way of living.


 



Is fire cooking healthier? And is it quicker to cook in this way?

 

We are what we eat. As a fuel, the fire kitchen is amazing as it gets things cooking in a variety of ways - make sure the wood you’re using is sustainable. There’s the ritual of building the fire, planning and sourcing it, building it up to a mature cooking heat - it’s definitely not quicker but that process: therein lies the joy. We live in a super-fast civilisation anyway, so it’s about getting outside and doing things with consideration - and nice ingredients.

 

Certain things work better on a fire. It’s about the flavours of the fire. Take a sweet pepper: it’s about dressing it, adding herbs, and having it positioned high above the fire to let it get the flavour and then bringing it down to get the char. Add to toasted sourdough with crème fraîche and some sea salt - you’ll have a beautiful sweet pepper filled with flavour.

 

Slow down on the fire. If you’re sat round a fire for 4 or 5 hours, you take care, and there’s going to be something special when you open the pot.


 



Clearly there’s a strong connection with being outdoors – how important is this aspect for your clients?

 

Fire cooking has an element of theatre. There’s a vast amount of flames and things flambéing, and you get this swirling ambience and the smells; it is an experience. But the real thing is the food. It’s a lovely way of cooking as there are no hard lines. It’s totally subjective. You taste it, it feels right, you move it around.

 

People and place and fire and food come together to create these little magical moments. It’s a joy and a buzz. The hard work is the preparation, when you’re loading up the van, but the cooking is fantastic. Also, depending on the scale of the event, I have some really cool people who come and cook for me, and that’s also organic as you’re bouncing ideas around depending on the needs of the clients. Whether you’re cooking for a few people or a hundred, this way of cooking is beautifully adaptable.


 

If someone was interested in fire cooking, where should they start? What are the dos and don’ts? And what bits of kit should they source?

 

Start with the familiar, maybe a grill or pan. You’ve got direct and indirect heat in a cooking fire. When you have a camp fire, move your hand forwards until you find a comfortable place - that position at the side of the fire is an amazing place to roast things, so think about what you might cook there. You don’t need equipment: go and plunge an onion into the embers, leave it, turn it, then when it’s black and charred and soft and squishy, chop it in half and somewhere between the charred outside and steaming inside is this beautiful caramelised layer ready to be popped out.

 


Or a beetroot: chuck it in the embers and let it char on the outside. After about 50 minutes it will have softened, so roll it out the fire, let it cool a bit, pop it with your fingers and let all the charcoal fall off, and you’ll have this steaming beetroot just waiting to be dressed.

 

In terms of dos and don’ts, think fire safety. Consider the local environment, check for fire warnings, and check how the wind is blowing. You should be able to have a fire without damaging any plant or animal. Ideally take a fire pit if possible. Leave no trace is an easy mantra to remember.

 


How does weather impact on fire cooking?

 

It impacts hugely but in a positive way. I look forward to the winter months. I smoke my best cheese and bacon etc and I think it is because in the colder weather I can have less energy in the system - a smoulder of the wood dust, shorter hydrocarbon chains – and the result is a smoother smoke taste. If it’s very cold it might add an hour to your cook time, but actually using the weather makes it exciting. It’s like seasonable variation and that’s really cool as it’s constantly changing.

 




Have you had a favourite place to cook? And is there a place that you’ve love to cook but haven’t yet?

 

My thing at the moment is to go as deep into a wilderness as possible, so having a long trek and finding a remote beach, and travelling light – maybe just go in with salt and butter, and lean on the foraging. My most recent big memory of a happy place was sitting under a tarp in the pouring rain on a remote beach frying some scallops; just sitting there appreciating that natural environment and indulging yourself in those natural elements.





Learn more about fire cooking at Embered. (https://embered.co.uk)

 

Learn about the tools of fire cooking at FireChef (https://firechef.co.uk) and find Pete’s recipes for inspiration here. (https://firechef.co.uk/fire-cooking-recipes/)

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