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From pass master to pit master

Raffi Quirke is worth watching on the pitch and over the barbecue as the England international pursues his twin passions of rugby and cooking. RUPERT BATES reports

 Rupert Bates   Spring 2022

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Raffi Quirke is slow, really slow, which may come as a surprise to those who have seen the England and Sale Sharks scrum-half on a rugby pitch.

But this is not sluggish of thought or deed; this is deliberate, this is cooking, for the 20-year-old is a massive fan of low n’ slow BBQ, with food from America’s Southern States a favourite.

It is fair to say Quirke’s stunning try for England against South Africa at Twickenham last November was a highlight of recent months, but not far behind was a seven-hour brisket on his Kamado Joe.

Rugby is Quirke’s absolute focus having burst on the scene, first with his Premiership club Sale Sharks, keeping their South Africa’s World Cup winning scrum-half Faf de Klerk on his toes, and then winning his first England cap against Australia last Autumn, followed by his second against South Africa and that try, with his explosive pace scorching Twickenham.

But food plays a big part in his life and for fun and flavour, not just diet and nutrition. Quirke has an Instagram account called Pitch to Plate, which pretty much sums up his journey home from training.

“I started cooking for myself after school, if my parents were working late, and then for my 15th birthday, I was given Jamie Oliver’s book Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals and went through that ticking off the recipes.”

The jacket cover shouted ‘super-fast’ food which must have appealed to the ultra-rapid Quirke. “If only. Initially they took a lot longer than 15 minutes!”

But his confidence grew as did his love of the process. “Time passes, but it doesn’t feel like it.”

​He was the typical hungry teenager raiding the fridge. “You open it – see nothing. Close it and then open it again, hoping that something has magically appeared.”

But soon he was creating his own magic. It helped that his parents loved cooking and family summers were full of barbecues – chicken wings, pork ribs, asparagus, broccoli, and, a particular family favourite, halloumi, as they created menus of the Mediterranean in Manchester, or, more specifically, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, where they are building a sheltered outdoor cooking area to protect against the Mancunian weather.

“I love food films and social media posts – the likes of Aaron Franklin and Guy Fieri. Watching clips of customers in the States queuing up for briskets and short ribs,” says Quirke. “Outdoor cooking, especially since the arrival of my Kamado Joe, is a huge passion. A seven-hour brisket is my best achievement so far.”

 

 

He bills himself, in terms of ability, as an enthusiast, but just as Quirke strives to be the very best rugby player he can, he definitely has pit master ambitions, to go alongside pass master.

“Several players at Sale already think they are pit masters!” jokes Quirke, referring to the battery of South Africans at the club, not entirely convinced that an Englishman can possibly barbecue – sorry, braai.

The global rugby community is a rich melting pot of cultures and that extends to food. Sale has South Africans such as club captain Jono Ross, the Du Preez brothers, Lood de Jager and Quirke’s scrum half mentor Faf de Klerk.

“I talk rugby with Faf, but not cooking. I’m sure he’d tell me he’s a pro and might have to put that to the test! There is nothing like bonding round the fire, sharing food and stories. I love the social aspect of outdoor cooking. It is made for team sport and let’s face it all rugby players love a good feed.”

Quirke actually has plenty of respect for his teammates’ culinary skills. He remembers two years ago at the training ground when Sale centre Sam Tuitupou, an All Black and proud Tongan, roasted a whole pig, spinning it for hours over the coals, with the spit a tree branch.

“Within five minutes of being ready, the pig was gone, demolished in barms with apple sauce. Manu Tuilagi had just arrived at the club, so that was a great welcome for him.”

England centre Tuilagi has already brought his Samoan food culture to the table for the squad with an umu – an earth oven of hot stones.

And when it comes to team eating, do the front-row forwards conform to stereotype?

“Absolutely. I used to house share with Sale prop James Harper. He is at the front of every food queue and then straight to the back again.”

Quirke names Sale’s South African prop Nick Schonert as the club’s pit master, constantly talking about the meats he smokes and the butchers he sources from. Quirke is quickly understanding the virtues of a good local butcher, with an eye for a BBQ recipe and is a familiar face at WH Frost butchers in Chorlton.

“I remember when Tom Curry (Sale and England forward) came back from the World Cup, he was sent a massive pack of meat, including huge tomahawk steaks. He rang me saying he hadn’t a clue what to do with them, so could I come round. Reverse seared, they were delicious.”

Quirke loves a wood-fired oven too and has enjoyed cooking and catching his own trout. But for his last meal on earth, it would have to be a tomahawk steak.

“And loads of chicken wings and a tray of briskets, ribs and sausages. Mac ‘n’ cheese too please and plenty of sides – corn bread, chargrilled corn on the cob…”

Okay Raffi, we get the picture. He says the “brilliant” Sale chefs put on barbecues when they can. “Diet and nutrition are obviously very important as professional sportsmen and meat is where we get our protein.”

He knows it’s a cliché, but there is no other way he can put it. He is living the dream, playing for his boyhood club and scoring a try at Twickenham for England. Picked in this year’s Six Nations squad, battling with Ben Youngs and Harry Randall for the No 9 jersey, Quirke is eager for more.

That’s the pitch, but there’s the plate too. This is a hugely talented and personable young sportsman with big dreams but grounded and rounded. “People ask me if cooking is a switch off from rugby. I never thought of it like that, but the hours pass without noticing and my mind is free. It’s just brilliant.”

 


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