My electricity bill went up by an additional 146% this week. While trying to digest budgeting for this suddenly enormous new amount, I considered how lucky we are to pay a fixed amount for power, and that we’re simply two people in a residential dwelling. Not so much for restaurants and bars, for whom these increases have begun to prove crippling. Tom Kerridge shared at the end of last year that his energy bill was about to face a staggering jump, from £60,000 annually to a whopping £420,000. It is unfathomable money; the kind that would cripple even the most financially liquid of businesses, let alone independent restaurants that have barely scraped through the pandemic.
Perhaps that is why the number of restaurants cooking over fire seems to have exploded in recent months. It’s hardly a new trend – Brat had everyone wetting their trousers with its Basque-style live-fire cooking when it first opened. Mangal II has been cooking epic dishes over the oçakbasi grill for yonks, and Smokestak has garnered a diligent cult following for its BBQ’d meats. But it seems that every third press release I’ve received recently is advertising a restaurant where the food is delicately coaxed by the flame.
Take, for example, the recently opened Humo. The kitchen is entirely electricity- and gas-free, with everything cooked over a four-foot-long wood grill that stretches the length of the kitchen. Opened by chef Miller Prada, protégé of Endo Kazutoshi, the restaurant unsurprisingly pulls on Japanese influence with hints of Colombian flavours in a nod to Prada’s home country. The menu travels the process of lighting a fire, from the ignite section which focuses on raw dishes like the yellowtail in a citrus and coffee sauce made with grounds from Prada’s family farm in Colombia, to the subtle smoked selection of vegetables, the seafood given a healthy lick of the flame and larger plates where the power of the fire is properly concentrated.
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If there’s an absence of electricity here, you certainly wouldn’t miss it. It’s quite something to take such a bolshy style of cooking – essentially, a barbecue, which isn’t exactly the most subtle of culinary mechanisms – and make it suitable for the delicate sensibilities that tend to abound in Mayfair. Add in a captivating wine list curated by Merlin Ramos, formerly of Pollen Street Social and Ikoyi, and you have what is easily one of the city’s most interesting new openings.
Then you’ve got Acme Fire Cult, where chefs Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins eschew any kind of electricity or gas in favour of a surprisingly compact outdoor fire set up where everything is given the barbeque treatment. But, rather than the stereotypical meat-centric approach that comes from this style of cooking, the restaurant instead centres vegetables at the core of the menu, with one of the most beguiling dishes without a doubt being the charred leeks set atop a robust pile of pistachio romesco.
Elsewhere in London there is Scandi chef Niklas Ekstedt’s first London outpost Ekstedt at the Yard, which expands on the over-fire concept at his Michelin-starred Stockholm restaurant. There’s Firebird, which opened in Soho in 2022, with the grill taking centre stage in its Mediterranean-accented menu. In Kentish Town, former Brat chef Ben Allen has taken over The Parakeet pub, bringing influence from his alma mater to the custom-made grill, with a focus on seasonal dishes cooked by the flame.
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It seems everywhere you look in the city there’s another restaurant turning its back on electricity or gas in favour of the wood-fired grill. It would be easy to blame this on rising prices – like the ones I’ve suddenly been slapped with – and the cost of living crisis, but it seems to be a bit more than that. To take Humo as an example, this is a restaurant that seems almost entirely at odds with the elegant refinement of Mayfair, where everything and everyone is extremely well-coiffed. And yet, the inferno taking place along the length of the restaurant never distracts from the fact that this is a high-end dining experience, with impeccable plates of food, thoughtful service and esoteric wines. It’s almost as if they clocked that, even in this most gilded of corners, people want a little more from their food.
The meals that have been the most exciting this year have, without a doubt, been those that have felt like they surprised or delighted, offering up something new in the eternally over-subscribed restaurant scene in London. You only need to look at the list of Michelin-starred restaurants to see that this is a city still wallowing in an abundance of beige, neutral restaurants with meticulously thought-out plates of food that look miles better than they taste, and don’t so much as dance on the palate but lie down and play dead. Cooking over fire gives chefs a leg up in terms of producing bold, powerful flavours and plates of food that arrive with a yell rather than a whimper, something London could do with more of. That this style of cooking lowers the stratospheric energy prices seems to simply be a happy coincidence.