An antiques dealer who can start a fire and cook a meal sounds like the ideal desert island companion. Salvage old furniture from a shipwreck, chop it up for kindling, before spearing a fish or hunting a pig and nailing it to a cross over the flames for dinner. Lovejoy meets Robinson Crusoe.
Christo McKinnon-Wood is the founder and managing director of Kadai, the firebowl and barbecue. He started as an antiques dealer and still is through his Wilstone business, dealing in architectural pieces, with a range of products for both home and garden.
A naturally inquisitive mind with an expert eye drawn to provenance and authenticity means Christo sees things other don’t. He knows what great design looks like, but functionality too – Kadai is that fusion; social hero of the live-fire party, as well as the workhorse.
He didn’t always like a barbecue; he found them stressful and anti-social. “My guests are chatting and drinking, but I am facing a brick wall on my own, burning stuff, getting my timings wrong. All my friends and family see is smoke and my back – slave to the grill.”
On trips to India he must have subconsciously packed that barbecue frustration in his back pack. Christo’s enduring love affair with India started when he headed out there in the late 80s, covering 10,000 miles on his Enfield motorbike – part sabbatical, past sourcing of Indian antiques, having worked at his mother’s antique shop in London’s King’s Road since the age of 14.
He discovered the Kadai in the villages of Rajasthan; fire bowls that have been used for over 300 years as cooking vessels for curries and rice with the fire under the bowl – in some case huge bowls for weddings or religious festivals.
“I was drawn to the stories behind them and their authenticity and heritage, but the sustainability too – essentially recycled oil drums. Recycling and repurposing, be it metal or wood, is second nature to Indians.”
Bringing Kadai to the UK, the bowl started life at its first Chelsea Flower Show outing in 2004 as a planter and part of a water feature. Christo’s Eureka moment came a year later in Rajasthan. It was a cold night and so, with a friend, he hauled a Kadai onto a roof, chopped some wood and started a fire in the bowl, not under it.
“Back home I put a grill over the bowl and cooked. That was the moment. I was cooking and socialising round the fire, not facing that brick wall alone anymore,” says Christo.
Standing to cook, but sitting for post-prandial conversation and warmth, led to designing both a high and low stand. “Suddenly I could enjoy my own party and guests got to put their own meat on the grill and turn their own food. Then when it gets dark and cold, rather than heading inside leaving the heat and the light source, lower the bowl, take off the grill, throw on some wood and enjoy the warmth of the fire and the unique ambiance and allure of flame. For me it was transformative,” says Christo.
“That’s why a Kadai makes such a brilliant wedding present. But give it to your friends before the wedding, so after the reception guests can gather round the fire outside the marquee, staying warm and keeping the party going.”
You can see why word of mouth, or flicker of flame, works so well, triggering the desire for guests to want one themselves – every barbecue party a seductive sales pitch.
Spiritually and commercially, while based on a farm overlooking the Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills, Christo has never left India. There is no big factory on an industrial estate in Telford or Shrewsbury, churning out cookie-cutter Kadais.
His workforce is a collection of families working from their rural villages in Rajasthan, Northern India – nearly 50 small craft workshops producing different elements of the Kadai and its accessories. Bowls, stands, grills, beads, tongs and brushes, the Kadai is handmade in its country of origin, every piece unique.
“I sell antiques and I want what we make now to last 100 years.”
Christo regularly, pre-pandemic, visits India, touring the workshops, language barriers removed by shared humour, shared passion, shared design and craft expertise, always tweaking and developing new products, but never losing sight of the original. You can bet the business meetings are held around a Kadai with something bubbling in the bowl.
“We don’t manufacture things; we make things. I have Indian colleagues I’ve known for 30 years – my connection to the rural workshops, taking care of the supply, leaving me to design and sell. I don’t consider myself a businessman. I am an antiques dealer with creative ideas.”
His attention to detail is relentless, even recently making a minor alteration to the spout of the Kadai blow poker “so the jet of air comes out that little bit faster.”
Kadai is now in 240 garden centres around the UK and is a regular at shows and festivals be it Chelsea, Pub in the Park, Ludlow or Malvern.
“We learn most from our customers. If they come to us with an issue, we look to solve it. Equally they give us fresh ideas to take back to India as they tell us what and how they cook on their Kadai,” says Christo.
“Simplicity is key, but with good quality materials. A Kadai needs to be balanced on the eye. It must look right and perform right.”
Christo likes to accessorise. In 2011 Kadai won the Chelsea Flower Show Product of the Year for its charcoal maker. That idea was born when he went to a wood coppicing event with his children near Much Wenlock and saw charcoal being made by dropping willow in a small bean tin with holes and putting in the fire. That inquisitive mind again as Christo asked how it worked and the principles of turning wood into charcoal.
“I made a small one and it worked. After cooking your meal, you can then refill the charcoal maker with wood and make fuel in the fire for the next barbecue.”
Kadai now has over 40 accessories, as well as its Kadai Living range of furniture and lighting, making it an endless journey of cooking invention and adventure.
“You can cook almost anything on a Kadai.”
If you want proof, see the meat, fish and vegetables on, over and in the fire bowl at the first Pub in the Park event of the year in May, with Shropshire Lad Adam Purnell showcasing incredible cooking, producing awesome food amid great theatre in The Firepit area, with BBQ magazine a sponsor.
Pork on the Asado cross with insane crackling, salmon nailed to a plank, pineapple suspended in a tripod roaster, it was as if Game of Thrones was filming a live-fire feast in Marlow.
Christo’s last meal on the Kadai, presumably at a Red Wedding, would be a steak with ‘dirty veg’ – peppers and squash cooked in the coals for that char, sweetness and smoky flavour you just can’t replicate in an indoor oven.
Kadai isn’t just a brand, it is branded, with logos burnt into the handles. “Unless it says it’s a Kadai, it’s not a Kadai.”
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