MAN FIRE FOOD
Roger Mooking’s primal connections
Celebrity chef, restaurateur, television host, cookbook author and Juno (Canadian Grammy) award-winning recording artist Roger Mooking helms ‘Man Fire Food’ on Food Network South Africa (DStv channel 175).
Daily Maverick: Man Fire Food has been running for eight seasons, and you’ve covered so many places/fires/food – can you pick out some highlights for us?
Roger Mooking: It’s funny how the most memorable episodes are connected to trips to Hawaii, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Food and music are open and immediate gateways to a culture, and I’m perpetually curious. So whenever there is a work trip that allows me to explore new places and experiences, then those will always stand out.
In the locations I mentioned, it is the first time we used wood as the grill itself (Jamaica), where we smoked with Guava wood (Hawaii), and had roadside grilled chicken with ground provisions (Puerto Rico). Diving into the markets, the accents and the history makes the food more compelling; I hope to explore more cities throughout the world.
DM: Has anything gone badly wrong? Can you tell us about that?
RM: There is a song on my album called Live From The Barbecue, it outlines several of those situations in intimate visual detail. This song comes from my experiences as a person of colour travelling to places that historically and currently do not have equal availability of opportunity; as well as safety for people of colour. As the song says “…it’s not a movie, but if I paint the picture vividly, you’ll see what I do so…”.
- The album Eat Your Words, from which this song comes, integrates sounds of authentic and old school hip hop, rock, and funk elements, and is available on all mainstream platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal.
DM: Do you ever manage to revisit any of those places you’ve enjoyed?
RM: For sure. Whenever I’m in Charleston, I always stop by Rodney Scotts. If I ever find myself in LA, I always make a pit stop to Bludso’s. In Seattle, I will always stop by one of Renee Erickson’s restaurants. San Antonio has a local chef legend named Johnny Hernandez, who is an amazing human who I love. In Houston, you will always see me at Burns BBQ or at their Burger Shack. The people always draw me back, some people you just connect with and they instantly feel like family or old friends. Plus, all these folks make great food so that’s a bonus.
DM: The show requires a lot of travel – how do you balance that with your home and family life?
RM: Balance is a false narrative. To do anything exceptionally, one needs to dive so deeply into it that it consumes them entirely. Personally, I’ve turned all of my “hobbies” into aspects of my career as a maker of things. So while I’m making things, the making of that thing consumes me for those moments.
But if you find me at home cooking for my family or taking my kids out for ice cream then that is all that I’m doing in that moment. If I’m not totally consumed in whatever I’m doing then I’m either doing nothing at all or I really just don’t want to be there, and I ghost. My kids are now old enough to understand that I make things for a living and they also like making things, so they have become my crew and assistants on some projects from time to time. My kids are learning the arts by osmosis.
DM: With a family background in food, do you think there was ever any other way for you to go?
RM: Of course. My siblings have nothing to do with the food industry and we grew up in the same household. My family also has photographers, filmmakers and crafts people, as well as food people; but the strengths of the previous generation doesn’t ensure the same strengths in their offspring. Individuality is inherent from birth. My kids all grew up eating the same meals, with the same household rules, and going to the same schools, but they all are wildly different people; they each have their own path. I found my path in the mix of all of the madness from a very early age and I’m grateful for that.
DM: What have you learned while making the show that you recreate at home?
RM: Wow, there are so many bits and pieces of things. I can’t walk through the ravine near my home without eyeballing some dry fallen trees and picturing what kinda fire I could build and cook with it. My kids look at me and say, “No Daddy, leave it alone,” it’s become a running joke. The beauty is there are trade secrets that the guests won’t reveal on camera, that they tell me once we are no longer rolling, so I’m always playing with and tweaking those little tidbits into my own home cooking. There are little tricks about finishing smoking with fruit woods, or using dried edible flowers in some spice rubs that always sneak their way into my experiments.
DM: Why do you think we are so attracted to cooking food over fire? Apart from the primal urge. Why is BBQ so awesomely delicious?
RM: I agree, it is primal. A fire is a hearth, it is warmth, it helps keep you dry, and it can cook your meal; so it satisfies so many human needs with a simple spark. Cooking with live fire also slows down your cooking process and there is a lot of downtime to hang out, drink, catch up with your friends, and socialise. It has been proven that there is a physiological connection between the experience and the enjoyment of a meal, and this is one of the reasons why sushi in Japan tastes better than in North America if you don’t live in Japan.
DM: Why do you think Canadians are such nice people?
RM: Canada was developed with a mindset of global inclusiveness and diversity through immigration policy. There are now a couple generations of Canadians who stand at the bus stop and hear five different languages being spoken in a culture that embraces one another. The strength of our adaptability and kindness is born of a compassion and intimate understanding that we all essentially have the same struggles and joys regardless of culture, race, or other considerations.
We are in rooms where the conversations show a variety of cultural nuance and perspectives and this allows us to have a uniquely broad perspective and exposure to all kinds of things. Our kindness comes from being immersed in diversity and the compassion that comes from understanding those things from the ground up.
For instance, my kids’ social circle includes peers from every corner of the globe and they don’t know anything different; that is a magnificent thing. In school they learn about, and celebrate, Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year, First Nations traditions, etc. It starts from the ground up. Nothing is perfect, but it’s the best alternative by far in my opinion.
DM: Any plans to visit South Africa?
RM: I have almost been to South Africa three times in the last few years but it just hasn’t worked out, for a variety of reasons. I would love to visit South Africa. Everyone I know who has been there has so many interesting stories, insights and life-changing moments for a myriad reasons and perspectives. Yes, I do want to try a braai and I love some biltong (medium dry with the fat please), but there is so much to explore there that draws my curiosity beyond just the food. DM
See Roger Mooking’s recipe for Wavy Skirt Skewers here