Restaurants jump through regulatory hoops to provide charcoal grills
Strict rules on solid-fuel cooking are limiting options for diners, but some restaurants are jumping through hoops to provide it, writes Nan-Hie In
Hongkongers are missing out on a delicious cooking technique due to stringent fire safety regulations, but some restaurants are finding ways to provide their diners with food cooked over wood or charcoal.
Cooking over wood fires is a primal way to prepare food that no advances in technology could recreate. Writing in Cuisine Gourmande (1979), legendary French chef Michel Guerard said: "There are effective modern grills which work by gas, electricity, infra-red rays… but nobody has yet managed to reproduce the wonderful effect of wood smoke on food."
Food cooked over solid fuels such as wood and charcoal remains much-loved worldwide. In Italy, particularly in Naples, Neapolitan pizzas are baked in wood-fired, domed ovens, a centuries-old practice. In Shanghai, similar pizzerias can be found, including D.O.C. Gastronomia Italiana, with its wood-fired ovens.
In Korea, soy sauce marinated beef galbi and bulgogi are cooked over charcoal in table-set grills, the most common cooking medium in the nation's ubiquitous barbecue tradition.
Countless steakhouses from the Americas to Australia continue to grill meat over hickory wood or charcoal.
In Hong Kong, however, such options are rare.
In fact, gas is the fuel of choice in the city, regardless of cuisine. Most restaurant kitchens are powered by gas or electricity, even the Neapolitan pizzerias. So why is charcoal-fired cookery such a small part of the dining experience?
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department 137-page guide for a restaurant licence application points to the official stance: "Liquid and solid fuels are not recommended due to the associated dark smoke and other air pollution problems."
And extensive regulations make it far more complicated to run a charcoal-fuelled kitchen than a gas one.
Restaurants have three energy options: "conventional liquid fuel" such as kerosene, diesel or oil; "conventional solid fuel" such as charcoal and wood; and gaseous fuels such as piped liquefied petroleum gas and natural gas.
The operator's choice of fuel must comply with rules set by the Fire Services, Environmental Protection, and Electrical and Mechanical Services departments.
If the restaurateur opts for a solid fuel such as coal, additional fire safety requirements will affect the venue's layout that need approval from the Buildings Department.
While there is generally little restriction on the use of electricity and town gas as fuel, the guide sets a 35kg per hour limit for the use of charcoal. And for fire and safety reasons, the equipment must be in an area separate from the dining room or other parts of the venue.
No wonder it's impossible to find a Korean restaurant with charcoal-fuelled table grills here. Restaurant operators must also watch out for fume emissions, and are required to install an independent chimney above roof level if they use solid fuel or diesel.
Chachawan, a Thai restaurant in Sheung Wan serving northeastern Isan fare, which greatly defined by charcoal-fuelled cookery, learned this the hard way. The venue initially installed a charcoal-fired grill at the front as a focal point of the restaurant. That lasted two weeks.
"The fire department came in and said 'You're kidding yourself,'" says executive chef Adam Cliff. Instructed to have a specific room to house the coal-fired grill, Chachawan complied and placed the grill at the back of the venue and built two shutters so if the charcoal scattered any cinders, the doors could be closed to prevent smoke and flames escaping.
It's far easier to install a charcoal grill in Thailand, Cliff says. "Charcoal is used on the street food stalls or in kitchens at home or professionally."
The experience of installing a charcoal grill was easier at Gonpachi in Causeway Bay - but only after parent dining group 1957 & Co, appointed a fire consultant to assess how the venue could fulfil all the city's rules and requirements.
That included a chimney to release the fumes from the grill, among other interior requirements that complied with government regulations.
Paul Kwok, the CEO of 1957 & Co, says it was fortunate Gonpachi is on the fourth level of a five-storey mall which made it easier to install a chimney that went through one floor.
But Kwok says the venue sacrificed seats for the grill, which is why the 6,500 sq ft space only accommodates 120 patrons.
"We needed to spare a large area next to the grill to meet the rules and regulations [for evacuation in case of fire]," he explains.
"The licence required for a charcoal-fired operation is extremely complicated, with a very high investment."
Solid-fuel kitchens are not for everyone, and it's easy to see why restaurateurs routinely opt for gas instead. Gas is safer, cleaner and more manageable; for example, the heat can easily be switched off.
That's not the case with charcoal, which is a more unpredictable fuel. It can reach higher temperatures than gas (up to 1,000 degrees Celsius), and can spray out sparks and cinders, which can be dangerous.
Perhaps this explains the licensing authority's caution. But it doesn't explain why caution is not the norm in equally crowded cities like Seoul.
Market dynamics also come into play - the scarcity and high cost of space in Hong Kong discourage most restaurateurs from using charcoal grills. "Most operators will try to maximise the number of tables to pay off the rent. It may not be worth it to install a charcoal-fired grill and give up seats."
Despite the challenges, charcoal-fired operations have been emerging in recent years as a more fashionable flame. Flavour has plenty to do with it. Cliff says: "The beauty of charcoal is the smokiness it gives you," adding that gas cooking can replicate the char but not the smokiness.
The type of charcoal affects the food, too. Gonpachi imports its white binchotan from Wakayama, Japan, which is considered a cleaner, top grade charcoal that releases less smoke. "It emits plenty of far-infrared rays, which bring out the flavour of broiled foods. It's especially good for serving grilled fish and meat and yakitori," says Kwok.
At Chom Chom in SoHo the charcoal grill ensures the authenticity of dishes such as beef in betel leaf and lemon grass chicken skewers. These are what you'd find on Vietnamese streets. Executive chef Peter Cuong Franklin says: "Similar to Japanese izakaya, coal-fired grilling is extremely important and an integral part of Vietnamese street food and beer drinking culture."
Spain, too, has a long history of charcoal-based cookery. Boqueria's head chef, David Izquierdo, says paella is traditionally prepared outdoors on hot charcoal for the smoky effect. He also uses it for squid, octopus and steaks, which are cooked on the solid-fuel grill to bring "complexity" to the food.
"In Spain, and at Boqueria, we keep it simple with lots of olive oil and garlic - these flavours are all enhanced by the charcoal grill."
Chachawan also likes to keep old traditions alive. Isan cooking essentially revolves around the charcoal grill. So Chachawan was willing to jump through all the city's regulatory hoops. Cliff recalls that, during the conception of the venue, it was decided: "Either we do it with charcoal or we don't do it at all."