Nathin Bye, chef patron and partner of Ampersand 27, believes food and drink should involve all the senses. Plates should look good, smell good, sometimes sizzle and have a mouthfeel that’s as impressive and unique as the flavours within. And he believes one technique – smoking – can bring all of these elements to the table. These days, smoking is no longer relegated to meats on the barbecue; it’s something that many global chefs are applying to vegetables, sauces and even cocktails.
Several local chefs are also taking note. Woodwork has smoked chicken drumsticks, mushrooms and risotto, while the menu at Three Boars has featured in-house smoked olives.
For centuries, cultures around the world have smoked meat – like salmon, bacon and herring – to extend its shelf life. But the resulting flavours are what make it appealing to international and local chefs nowadays. “Smoking is just a great way to increase the flavour profile of a dish that wouldn’t otherwise be present,” says Bye.
Brisket can be heavily infused with smoke, really drawing out strong flavours, while scallops, with their delicate taste, require just a hint of smoke. Chef Shane Loiselle of Daravara smokes many items in-house. Hot smoking, where the food items are cooked directly over wood smoke, is generally reserved for meat such as Loiselle’s brisket. Meanwhile, more delicate items like tomatoes, olives and tofu are generally cold-smoked, meaning they are exposed to minimal heat but are imbued with smoke from a separate chamber in the smoker. Chefs can even cold-smoke vinaigrettes, sauces and oils to add flavour.
Different types of wood impart different flavours to the dishes. For bacon, Bye recommends burning hickory, while beef brisket or pork cheek can take on something stronger like maple or oak. Loiselle says that, typically, fruit tree woods – like apple, plum or cherry – have lighter flavour profiles, making them better for fish or vegetables. As a result, he generally uses a blend of maple and apple woods so the smoke does not overpower his food items, no matter what dish he’s preparing.
Bye has been smoking since he started his culinary career, and always has a number of items on Ampersand’s menu with a rustic aftertaste thanks to two in-house smokers. The pastrami pork cheek, Bye says, is his pice de rsistance. Between brining, sous vide cooking and smoking, it takes five days to prepare, and then it’s covered with a smoke-filled dome as it’s brought to the table. When the server lifts the dome, the fog escapes, creating a unique sensory experience.
Meanwhile, a cocktail called the Crystal Sidecar is served in a similar manner, with an upside-down glass filled with smoke. Once it’s released, the smoke mixes with the liquid, creating a distinctive flavour that Bye admits is tricky to pair with a meal – the drink stands on its own, and he thinks it’s generally best as an after-dinner tipple.
“It has visual appeal, and it has that scent that wafts through the dining room. You smell the smoke; you smell the barbecue smell. And that’s a really cool thing to experience,” he says.