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Andi Tuck: Firestarter

The Great British Menu chef is blazing a trail for flame-driven flavour in Cornwall
Andi Tuck

Great British Menu chef Andi Tuck is blazing a trail for flame-driven flavour in Cornwall. Selena Young stoked the chef for campfire cooking memories, his role at Harbour House and plans for Rock Oyster Festival

It’s always fascinating to discover the catalyst that caused someone to find their calling early and how they made their dream come true – the successful roaster who first tried “proper” coffee on their travels, the acclaimed artist for whom inspiration struck after a school trip to a gallery. For chef Andi Tuck, his interest in open-fire cooking was first sparked when he was a teenage scout in Somerset.

My earliest food memories are from cooking in Scouts. Being a scout in the 90s was brilliant as there was so little red tape we could do whatever we wanted. I loved it, so it was always me who did the cooking. I even wore a “camp cook” badge!

‘I remember making bread in underground ovens and toasting s’mores over open fires,’ he says. ‘Pretty much everything was cooked over fire and it was really good fun.’

Somerset was home, but it was another South West destination that had the greatest influence on Andi’s cooking career:

‘My parents have family ties with Cornwall and we would holiday there all the time. Every weekend and school holiday we were on the coast in Polzeath,’ he says.

It was during his late teens that Andi first gained experience working in professional kitchens, first at The Wild Fish and then at other pubs and restaurants in Polzeath. Ten years later, in 2011, his interest in open-fire cooking was reignited after he was selected to go to Sweden on the 22nd World Scout Jamboree as a leader for the Somerset and Devon contingent.

‘In Sweden each area has its own flavour of smoke because each family does it a little bit differently using wood from surrounding trees,’ says Andi. ‘I remember these guys smoking fish in the woods. They simply hung the fish, covered in a makeshift bivouac (branches positioned to make a little tent). It was just so different from how I was cooking at the time. That was the eureka moment for me.

Playing with fire

Andi returned to the UK with fire in his belly. He took 18 months out from working in restaurants and joined fire-focused chefs Ben Quinn and Simon Stallard. ‘Ben and Simon are very inspiring and I learnt a lot from them,’ he says. ‘I helped Ben with his Wood Fired Weddings and did a stint at Wilderness Festival with Simon. While working with Ben I started my own seafood business Tan and Mor.’

A return to restaurants saw Andi head up Surfside in Polzeath, but in a way that worked with his now-preferred cooking style. ‘I wanted to take what I had learnt about open-fire cooking and implement it in a restaurant, so I made a big drum barbecue.’

Although it’s now more commonplace to find wood-fired food on menus and catch sight of chefs cooking up a firestorm in restaurant gardens, it was highly unusual when Andi trialled it at Surfside. His signature cooking style developed further at his next job as head chef of St Kew Inn in north Cornwall.

Andi’s proud to have been a pioneer in the movement: ‘It was good to be at the forefront of open-fire cooking five years ago with Simon. We did a lot of events in Cornwall together, but I think I was the first to bring it into a restaurant environment,’ he says.

For Andi, fireside feasts are eternally fascinating.

‘I think it goes back to a primal instinct – you see fire and you just can’t help but gravitate towards it. There’s a lot of spiritual and mesmerising energy around fire and it’s exciting to cook food in that environment. It’s a form of theatre.’

There’s no denying its impact on flavour, either.

‘I haven’t cooked anything in a pan for ten years because it lacks the flavour complexities of fire-cooked food. When you cook meat in a pan you turn it a couple of times, but on the fire we turn it every 10-15 seconds which keeps building layer upon layer of flavour.’

Firestarter fundamentals

Learning the fundamentals of open-fire cooking can be a minefield.

There aren’t really any cookbooks that explicitly tell you how to cook over fire,’ says Andi. ‘When cooking fish, for example, I dry the skin out, salt it, then quickly put it on the fire and keep it moving to build up char, texture and flavour. That’s my secret: ignore the old-school mentality of “don’t touch it and don’t move it”. You can’t cook classically when you’re cooking over fire; you have to follow your instincts.’

Using your intuition isn’t always easily translated into a traditional recipe format, but there are tried-and-tested foods he thinks are next-level when given the fire-licked treatment.

John dory is my go-to, as is pork paired with applewood logs. Veggie-wise, there’s nothing better than celeriac – I burn the hell out of the skin then offset it in the hot smoker for five hours and, oh my god, ember-baked celeriac with smoked butter is insane.’

Taking flames to Flushing

It was in February this year that Andi took over as head chef of Harbour House in Flushing. He’s putting his stamp on the restaurant in smoky style, while utilising the brilliant ingredients at his fingertips.

I like to follow the ethos of metres not miles when it comes to sourcing and we’re lucky to work with incredible local producers, farmers and fishermen. For instance, the mussels and oysters come fresh from the waters right outside the pub.

I also forage, which gives me inspiration, and I love fishing – there’s no better feeling than catching something and cooking it there and then on the barbecue.’

All fired up

Andi’s new role at Harbour House coincided with his second appearance on the BBC’s Great British Menu 2024 – which almost didn’t happen.

I was five weeks into a ten-week recovery from a double hernia, and I’d lost my brother-in-law a couple of weeks beforehand,’ he says. ‘At the time of shooting I wasn’t the head chef at St Kew anymore and hadn’t started at Harbour, so I was in limbo. Doing all of the training from home was challenging, but I don’t like to quit so I persevered and I think I did pretty well.

Things inevitably go wrong but it’s about how you adapt to it; that’s the art of being a good chef. I’ve got unfinished business in the Great British Menu kitchen so I will do it again if they ask me, although it might not be next year.’ he says.

The chef will also be appearing at some of the region’s hottest foodie festivals, including one he’s particularly looking forward to in late July:

‘Rock Oyster is my local festival and one I’ve gone back to every year,’ he says.

This year I’m hosting Fire Feasts on the Friday and Saturday, which is really exciting. It’ll be four courses created by me and my Great British Menu friends – they’ll recreate some of their favourite dishes with a fire twist. On the Sunday, I’ll be working with the Harbour House team to create my Smokey Sunday – a flame-grilled roast lunch with all the trimmings. Think charred veggies, seared rump of beef, crisp potatoes and giant yorkshire puddings.’

What else is Andi looking forward to at the fest? ‘It’s always fun to hang out with Matt Tebbutt and I look forward to seeing Nathan Outlaw – I’ve got a lot of respect for him – and Tom Brown who’s a great chef and Cornish ambassador. I also can’t wait to watch Human League and to hit The Lookout – a secret spot where up-and-coming DJs play till late.’

Also this summer, Andi will host barbecue takeovers at Harbour House’s sister venues Beach House and School House in Devon. What better way to sample the chef’s flamed feasts than while basking in summer rays by the coast?

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