Josper Masterclass, Calella, Spain – Part One

Cooking over fire is fairly primitive, right? We all love to have a go.

Maybe it’s a barbecue in the back garden on that first hot Sunday afternoon of the year? Or perhaps it’s a will-it-ever-catch-light campfire on the shore of a lake while waiting for the fish to bite.

Whatever the scenario, there is certainly something undeniably primeval about the whole process. It gives us the opportunity to channel the Neanderthal within. It transports us back to much simpler times when life was all about surviving from one day to the next, and the quest to score some food was paramount in this daily struggle.

Nowadays our hunter-gatherer instinct may have become a little dulled courtesy of Deliveroo & their ilk, yet all it takes to rekindle that caveman mentality is a sunny evening, a quick trip to the butchers & greengrocers on the way home & a bag of B&Q charcoal briquettes!

But what does cremating sausages whilst stripped to the waist with a cold tinny in hand have to do with Ambiente? Well, on the face of it, not a lot.

At Ambiente we see ourselves as traditionalists. As a matter of principle we have always eschewed cooking with microwaves & sous vide. We view the former as being uninspiring & lazy with a tendency to destroy flavour, texture & quality. And the latter is simply unnecessary.

Area Chef cooking with Flames in Fossgate, York
Area Chef cooking with Flames in Fossgate, York

Pans & flames have always been our culinary weapons of choice – the rate we go through six-burners is testament to this preference – and it is a style of cooking that happens to be perfectly suited to tapas. Heat up your pan, add a dash of oil, introduce the “protein”, season while searing one side, turn, season & sear the other side, plate up ……. & repeat the process until the end of service. It’s a simple procedure but needs practice, skill & concentration to achieve consistency – especially when there might be six different pans with six different dishes at any one time. To work the pan section in any of our kitchens on a busy service is the culinary equivalent of air traffic control – only without so many strikes!

But in 2016 we decided that we wanted to unleash our more primitive urges & start playing with fire. At the time there was a massive proliferation of BBQ joints that had sprung up all over the country. Everywhere you looked there were interpretations of the dirty burgers, pulled pork po’boys & sweet-hickory-smoked sauces inspired by imported US TV shows. If it wasn’t “low & slow” with an obligatory mac & cheese on the side it just wasn’t happening.

Whilst we didn’t fancy jumping on that particular bandwagon, we could see that flashing something over coals wasn’t too far removed from our existing style of cooking in pans, & if anything would compliment it.

Josper Fire-breathing Charcoal Oven in Ambiente Hull
Josper Fire-breathing Charcoal Oven in Ambiente Hull

Our decision to install a Josper oven into the kitchen of our Leeds restaurant, therefore, was an attempt to push our “pans & flames” ethos to the next level.  We liked what it offered which in turn, made it an easy decision to put another in our Hull kitchen when we opened there in 2016.

For some context, the first Josper oven was made in Pineda de Mer (just north of Barcelona) in 1969. It was the result of a conversation between a chef & the local village blacksmith. The chef wanted a piece of equipment that didn’t yet exist and asked the blacksmith if he’d design & build it. This first iteration – unpainted, primitive, even crude in some respects, is still unmistakably a Josper. It is testament to the understanding that these two men had when conceiving the project that their basic design remains unchanged to this day.

Whilst Josper may not be a household name in the most literal sense, it is certainly a revered brand in any progressive commercial kitchen. It is an aspirational bit of kit for many chefs & would surely be far more ubiquitous if it weren’t for its cost & the company’s limited production capacity. The fact that they are all handmade, with no electronics, & no gas or power connections required is also pleasing. If Fred & Barney had spent a few weekends in their cave-man-cave you feel they could have come up with something similar – once they’d invented the welder that is!

Original Josper Oven Prototype
Original Josper Oven Prototype

This year marks the company’s 50th anniversary – fifty years which have seen their low-tech product become the mainstay in some of the world’s most celebrated & hi-tech kitchens.

The prototype Josper referred to above, is one of the first things we saw when we walked into the reception of Josper’s Head office on a crisp Mediterranean morning in January 2019. We had come to Spain to see how they use these iconic cooking machines in their homeland. Six of us were about to undergo a couple of days of intensive prepping, cooking, tasting & learning – with everything being done in one of these versatile ovens.

Apart from the company logo, the side of Josper’s building has the words “passion for grilling” emblazoned across it. This isn’t entirely accurate. When it comes to dedication, the guys we met at Josper are clearly underselling themselves. They are way beyond passion. They are deep into devotion territory! Every aspect of the design & operation of their ovens is subjected to intense ongoing scrutiny. As their international market expands they consider the cultures, traditions & culinary techniques of each new territory in order to make any necessary refinements to the offer.

Josper Head Office
Josper HQ

And it’s not just about meat. Amongst our party was a vegetarian who has avoided meat since 1984 – that’s the year rather than the book! In fact it would be more accurate to say that she is a wannabe vegan who is only defeated in this ambition by the inversely proportional relationship between sobriety & the consumption of good cheese! She thought she was only along for the ride. To rile us as she rubbernecked the meaty carnage across the table, & to sit in disgusted judgement like Morrisey might in Nando’s. Yet, just like the rest of the group she was blown away by the transformation that some charcoal based heat can bestow on any number of vegetables. Lettuce, tomato, aubergine, garlic, leeks, peppers, asparagus and artichokes were all elevated before us from bit-part players to the starring role. Don’t get me wrong – the meat was extraordinarily good, but the potatoes were the stuff of culinary dreams.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The dishes we were fortunate enough to taste will be the subject of the next instalment, coming soon….