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Master chef giving taste of great outdoors; Warwickshire wizard Rob Hartwell has been crowned Pub Chef of the Year. He reveals his passion for barbecuing to Richard McComb.

Byline: Richard McComb

ob Hartwell is a chef who likes to play with fire.

RCulinary heaven for this 29-year-old globe-hopping chef is a fire pit of glowing coals, a grill and a large piece of meat, preferably one that has been marinaded for 24 hours. Good things come to those who wait and if that means slow-smoking a piece of brisket, a big joint of pork or some juicy ribs for up to a day, then so be it. The longer, the better.

Rob, head chef at the Rose & Crown in Warwick, was named Pub Restaurant Chef of the Year at the 2012 Craft Guild of Chefs Awards. His varied repertoire includes modern pub favourites and vegetarian dishes, but his overriding passion is barbecue food.

One of the top selling dishes on The Rose & Crown's menu is Curly Rob's smokehouse sharing board featuring pulled pork, BBQ brisket and Tennessee ribs, coleslaw and salt baked new potatoes. It is an epic meal. I manage just one of the potatoes and break out in a mild case of the meat sweats. This is big boys' grub. "It is quite a macho food," concedes Rob.

Rob's bosses at Peach Pubs are happy to indulge their star chef's Deep South food fantasies and there is talk of a collaborative restaurant in the style of a barbecue smokehouse.

Both Birmingham and London are being scouted for possible venues.

Rob says barbecuing combines his two great loves: food and the big outdoors. His love of cooking in the open air was fired as a child when Christmas lunch was prepared over firepits. Yes, the turkey was traditionally barbecued.

The Rose "It took about seven hours to cook," recalls Rob.

"We used to get up about six o'clock in the morning.

The idea stemmed from my father, who was a bit barmy and liked putting on his shorts in the winter."

Rob accompanied dad Graham on shooting and fishing trips. He says: "If we caught something, we would cook it in the field. If we caught a bird, we would pluck it, or eat a pike. There was no fear."

Rob started barbecuing as a commercial chef when he decided to come up with an alternative concept to steak nights. "Smoking just came into my head," he says.

"These days, his pride and joy is a stainless steel smoker oven. It is smoking some beautifully blackened brisket over hickory chips when I have a peek inside. The smell is awesome. You just want to get your mitts on the meat and rip into it. It's the caveman instinct.

The cooking method is a kind of anorak city for the die-hard smoker. Just take the fuel. Which wood do you burn? Do you use apple wood, hickory, mesquite, cherry, or oak? Rob is about to experiment using wood from rose bushes. He thinks it might give his smoked salmon a new taste dimension.

"There are no set rules on smoking. A lot of it is about getting physically into it. When you start, you may have a little unintended fire, but you soon learn," says Rob.

& Crown Has he had any fires? The former BBC Masterchef contestant just smiles and asks for the next question.

As in all cooking, it is crucial to start with a great product and smoking is no different. Rob uses 28-day dry aged Aberdeenshire beef and takes a whole brisket, weighing about 7kg, which he marinades for 24 hours before smoking for the same amount of time. "It's a tough bit of meat if you don't cook it right," he says. The fat marbling helps. He is looking for something "spicy, a bit firey, tender with texture... You don't want sloppy brisket."

Rob does not like over-complicated marinades and uses a combination of smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, chilli flakes, garlic, onion powder and brown sugar. The meat, he says, is the important thing. "If you have a high quality butcher, you don't need to mask the flavour," he adds.

Rob uses a similar marinade, with the addition of English mustard powder, for his knock-out ribs. The meat should fall off the bone when you sink your teeth into. If it is already off the bone when served, it suggests overcooking.

Creamy pulled pork, from the shoulder, shreds with a fork and is mixed with cider vinegar and chilli flakes for a sweet, tangy taste.

All this hard work deserves a luscious condiment and Curly Rob's BBQ sauce brings home the smoked bacon. It contains 28 ingredients and it should be good. It has taken Rob five years to perfect the recipe. What's in the special sauce? "It's a basic tomato ketchup with spices and smoked paprika, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, coriander, chilli..."

Several minutes later, Rob continues: "Texturewise it should give a nice coating to the food and be glossy. It should not be too stodgy. It should be a little thicker than a Heinz tomato ketchup. You are looking for a nice hit of sweetness, a hit of acid - and finish on a heat note that warms your throat."

It wasn't always marinades, smoking and great hunks of meat. Rob, who gave up a job as a roofer to become a cook, has been working in professional kitchens for less than a decade but he has had spells under glittering industry giants.

His CV includes stints working under Michelinstar masters Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, Marcus Wareing, then at Petrus, and John Campbell when he was at The Vineyard.

Rob says: "John Campbell got me thinking about how things work in the kitchen. I have taken those things and applied them to smoking and ended up with a product that people like coming back to try."

It is Caines' advice that drives him forward and informs the chef's uncompromising attitude to work: "He said if you can't do something the way you want to do it, don't do it.

"No compromise brings success," says Rob.

Rob is head chef at the Rose & Crown, which can be found at 30 Market Place, Warwick, CV34 4SH. Tel: 01926 411117.

It is about getting physically into it. When you start, you may have a little unintended fire, but you soon learn


The Rose & Crown

Chef Rob Hartwell with some of his award-winning food.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 15, 2012
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