Over the past few years, amateur cooks have equipped themselves with more gadgets – breadmakers, ice-cream makers, Japanese knives – but professional chefs still like to go one better.
Until recently the “chefs’ toy” of choice was the £3,000, Swiss-made Pacojet, which purées food in a frozen state while concentrating the flavour of the raw ingredients. The Pacojet is emblematic of a cooking style that manifests itself in mousses and foams, an approach that is becoming less fashionable. Now, in its place at the top of many chefs’ shopping lists is the Josper oven, despite a price tag of up to £18,000.
Burning top quality charcoal, the Josper is, in layman’s terms, the hottest indoor barbecue available. It has a front door that, when closed, ensures none of the natural moisture or flavour escapes from the food cooked in it. More often than not, a Josper is described as an oven, though its primary role is as a grill.
I encountered my first Josper five years ago in Moscow at Goodman, a steak restaurant serving exceptional meat. One was then installed in its London outpost.
Raphael Duntoye, chef at La Petite Maison in Mayfair, was an early enthusiast. The dishes cooked in it have proved such a hit with customers that his only regret is not having bought two. Every chef who has come to his kitchen to check out the Josper has ended up buying one, he says.
A top-of-the-range Josper can accommodate about 30 pieces of fish or meat simultaneously. The bars of the grill, at a normal setting of 300°C, mark the meat or fish attractively and cook it swiftly.
Despite its recent rise in popularity, the Josper has been around for 40 years. It was created in 1970 by Josep Armangue and Pere Juli (who subsequently gave their names to the company), a year after they had opened their 1,000-seat restaurant Mas Pi in Pineda de Mar, close to the Mediterranean in north-east Spain. What they designed had two adjustable draughts: one at the bottom to draw in air and one at the top to let out smoke and combustion gases. It operates in a similar fashion to the mechanism behind the Aga cooker, once a staple of English country kitchens.
Josper’s UK importer reports brisk business with about 100 ovens installed and orders from several high-profile restaurants. The second branch of Hawksmoor, which specialises in serving British meat, will have one when it opens in Covent Garden in October, as will Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge.
I discovered quite how powerful these ovens are when I visited chef Mark Hansell-Dixon in the open kitchen of the Akeman, a restaurant in the market town of Tring, Hertfordshire.
On the tray by our side were a whole sea bream and a 28-day aged British sirloin steak, seasoned, anointed with olive oil and, in the case of the fish, covered with lemon juice. Opening the Josper’s door released the first blast of heat, a sensation that was to be repeated frequently as each item was turned promptly. The fish was taken to be finished off in a conventional oven for five minutes while the steak was put on the top rack, where the temperature hovers between 60°C to 80°C, until ready to be served.
Hansell-Dixon said it had taken him about a week to adapt to the Josper’s fierce heat when some items got “cremated” if he wasn’t paying attention. But, overall, he was wildly enthusiastic about it. Grilling fresh sardines was a particular favourite while two items, slow-cooked pork belly and roasted tomatoes, had found their way on to his menu after he had experimented with leaving both on the top rack for up to 12 hours. Opening the lower door, Hansell-Dixon showed me the V-shaped tray that holds the charcoal. “This burns about 10kg of charcoal a day. Over a year this comes to about £5,000.”
Peter Borg-Neal, the Akeman’s owner, is installing Jospers at two of his other restaurants – The Old Post Office in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, and The Red Lion in Water End, Hertfordshire. He said: “It allows me to achieve two very different goals. Firstly, to use a cooking technique normally associated with the more expensive West End restaurants and, secondly, to use it to cook such a wide range of food. We even cook the chicken breasts on it for the chicken Caesar salad and they’re the best I’ve ever tasted.”
The Akeman, www.oakmaninns.co.uk
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