The Weber Grill Academy

If you thought that barbecuing was for a few sunny days over the summer, a special occasion or for charring the outer casing of otherwise raw sausages then this one-day course at the Weber Grill Academy will change your view of cooking on a grill completely.

Ali at the Weber AcademyOur barbecue menu for the day, to be cooked by us, sounded better than a the specials board my local fine dining pub. A starter of hot-smoked salmon with red pepper pesto, followed by a main of Spatchcock poussin, morrocan style lamb kebabs, goats cheese and spinach filo tarts with honey glazed onions and a chocolate fondue pudding to finish. Not a sausage in sight.

Smoked salmon starterIt was clear from arrival that this is no spit and sawdust affair. The exterior of the attractive red brick property set in the heart of a pretty Oxfordshire village, housed a stylish glass, chrome and stainless steel interior that made the Masterchef kitchen look a bit lame. With separate dining area, corner bar, entertaining deck and outdoor cooking area flanked by an exciting array of enormous Weber barbecues – I was impressed before I had even started.

Our day was led by two trained Weber Chefs, Jamie Foy and Dan Cooper. Jamie demonstrated the culinary techniques in the kitchen while Dan covered the practical barbecuing skills. We could choose to focus on either gas or charcoal if we wanted, or experience both styles of cooking.

The day flowed enjoyably between guided ‘prep’ in the kitchen, instruction in barbecuing outside and sitting down to enjoy our various courses in the dining area – all served with a choice of wine or soft drinks. All the food and drink is included in the price.

As I spend much of my working life cooking on barbecues I was keen to absorb some fresh ideas and techniques from the course. I am also a firm believer that you can never stop learning, so I was pleased to pick up some interesting new tips – in particular the inspiration to use my barbecue to bake things like the filo tarts and puddings.

I was one of only two women on the course. A quick straw poll revealed that many of the men there had been bought the course as a gift from their wives or girlfriends – which made me chuckle. My husband doesn’t cook at home but light the barbecue and he’s there. By some miraculous law of male science, it would seem that cooking over a grill outside transforms him into a self-styled culinary god. Forget moth to a flame, I think ‘man to a grill’ pretty much sums it up.

Our first lesson was in how to light the charcoal barbecue – probably the one element that puts the majority of people off cooking over charcoal. Firelighters, lighter fuel, bunched up newspaper.... it’s a faff-too-far for many. And, if I’m honest, it’s the waiting to get it up to heat that means I reach for my gas barbecue more frequently these days. However, there is depth of flavour that comes from cooking on genuine charcoal that you can’t achieve on gas alone, and there’s an undeniable authenticity too.

Dan showed us a simple, fail-proof technique using a purpose built chimney starter. And yes, while it is obvious that this is also going to be an opportunity for Weber to sell its products, I have to admit there are certain things that they do fantastically and the chimney starter is one of them. For those of you that haven’t used one a chimney starter is a tall metal cylinder, with a heatproof handle down one side, and an inverted conical grate in the bottom. Fill your chimney up with briquettes or charcoal, place two firelighters directly on your barbecue grate, and pop the chimney over the top. Leave it for 30 minutes and all of your coals will be ready to cook on – simply pour them out on to the grate and you are ready to cook.

The groups are small enough to be able to ask questions and get one-to-one advice as you are working. Dan certainly knows his stuff and was dishing out advice and tips in a steady stream.
Aside from lighting the barbecue we had a session on smoking food, direct heat (the food is directly over the heat source used for things like kebabs) and indirect cooking (where the barbecue is used more as an oven with a lid. The meat, such as a roast, is away from the main heat source, getting a more even cooking method).

Back in the kitchen, I felt a bit like Delia. All our equipment was set out in an orderly fashion waiting for us, our ingredients in little bowls. All used dishes were whisked away afterwards – there was no washing up to do. In fact it was about as far away from my usual campsite cooking experience as it could be. There was certainly no opportunity to balance my chopping board on my knee here. Many of my fellow cooks on the course use their barbecues exclusively at home, so I was particularly keen to see how much of what I was learning would be suitable for recreating on a campsite – without electric.

Charring the red pepperWhen I'm devising a recipe I give a lot of thought about the practicality of how many ingredients I'm using, the cooking ‘kit’ that I will need (nothing that needs plugging in!) and also how long I need to cook something for – not many of us want to run our gas for two hours at a time on a campsite to make a stew.

And, while the course is definitely aimed more at the domestic barbecue cook, pretty much everything was transferable to campsite cooking – as it is all cooked on either gas or charcoal. In terms of recipes, all but the chocolate pudding would have easily been recreated on a campsite – and if you were prepared to do some serious hand whisking – even that would be do-able.

The food we cooked was utterly and totally delicious. I would have been very happy if I’ve been given it in a restaurant. The hot smoked salmon with red pepper pesto was particularly good – and easy to make. We charred the red pepper by holding it on a long handled fork directly on the coals until it went black, popped it in a plastic freezer bag until it cooled then ‘squidged’ the skin off. This was then mushed in a pestle and mortar with garlic, basil, and a handful of pine nuts that we’d lightly toasted in an aluminium tray on the grill. This was piled onto the top of a salmon fillet, laid on a grill-friendly baking tray and smoke roasted, using indirect heat for 15 minutes.

Chocolate puddingWe compared the taste of salmon smoked over charcoal and hickory wood chips with that of salmon smoked using a gas grill and a smoke box containing wood chips. I preferred the later as the smoky flavour was more subtle. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll be using again. The chocolate fondue pudding was, without doubt, the best chocolate pudding I’ve ever tasted.

This course can be enjoyed on so many levels – not least the fantastic meal you get to eat throughout the day. It’s packed with information, ideas and inspiration for any level of cook as well as great showcase for proving how versatile a barbecue can be. I’ve heard that there are still a few places left on the Festive Barbecue course. Christmas Dinner on the coals? Now that is versatile.

Find out more about the Weber Grill Academy. The course costs £120 for the day, including all your food and drink and a goody bag with some Weber accessories.