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Braai hard

When it comes to the world of wood-fired ovens, there are few more knowledgeable and passionate than Jay Emery. RUPERT BATES meets the South African behind the Bushman

 Rupert Bates   Spring 2021

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Jay Emery lives and breathes fire. He eats it too, but more of that later.

Emery is the warrior king of wood-fired ovens – Bushman is his brand, his signature, his passion.

While he loves to make and sell his ovens, where Emery stands out in the market is in the expert advice he offers; not as a marketing pitch, but in his evangelical desire to teach people how to use and care for an oven properly and what would work best for them.

“I will give honest feedback and expert advice if you want to embark on a wood-fired oven journey – and it is a journey. It is not just about what you can afford, but what cooking lifestyle you are choosing,” says Emery.

“I have seen people make huge and expensive blunders, being misled by information and claims on the internet and simply not understanding regulations. Get it wrong and you could end up with a big fine and costly demolition work.”

“Whilst a cob clay oven may seem a lovely idea as a summer project with the kids for the occasional party and family feast, if you leave it unused in and uncovered in the wet English winter you need to think about the damage the moisture is potentially causing, if you don’t use it regularly you could lose it.”

“On the other hand, you could build a commercial fire brick monster of an oven

in your back garden, with great heat retention, but prepare to fell a rainforest of wood to heat it” warns Emery.

“You will also need to be aware of the smoke control regulations and whether your oven needs to be DEFRA approved, or the neighbours could have every right to complain. They’re not necessarily just killjoys.”

Portable ovens could help you get round the smoke control regulations. However, when it comes to constant and stable temperatures associated with cooking dishes like low and slow beef brisket or baking bread, Emery naturally advocates a well-made certified wood-fired oven.

It is not just ovens for gardens at home Emery makes, he also supplies leading restaurants, including the two Michelin Star Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham.

 

 

“I have known Jay Emery since 2009. In his field he is just as inventive and demanding as I am,” says chef-proprietor Sat Bains.

“Our first exercise was to build a small wood burning oven that would sit in our kitchen garden next to our development kitchen and allow our guests to savour the amazing flavour of wood-fired aubergines, baked apples and luscious slow-cooked meat dishes. This brought a whole new aspect to flavour and taught us just how flexible wood-fired cooking could be.”

A larger wood-fired Bushman oven, with the thermal mass of a Springboks front row, followed in the main kitchen and Bains says the two ovens allow him to offer guests that combination of modern and ancient cooking techniques, “where we can maximise flavours in a highly innovative and very efficient manner”.Another string to the Bushman bow is helping to set up mobile wood-fired oven businesses, mentoring many companies and getting pizza vans and trailers on the road.

“I’ve been there myself. To survive the 2008 recession I put one of my ovens on a trailer and built the first mobile pizzeria in the UK, taking it to weddings, festivals and street trading events.”

His fire journey started at home in South Africa, where a braai is a way of life. Emery was raised on a smallholding near Johannesburg, milking the cows before school and immersed in his farming environment. Outdoor cooking in the blood; he even made his first ovens out of termite mounds.

“Fire has always held a fascination and as an irresponsible 10-year-old, I quickly learned how fast it could get out of control. I loved shooting matches from the box into the dry African bush grass. I’d let it burn a bit and stomp it out, but on the last occasion the stomping couldn’t keep pace with the fires. Neighbours rallied as they do in Africa, but the ensuing full blown bush fire burnt the walls of our thatched roof house black. The property was saved, and a harsh lesson learnt.”

Skiing brought Emery to Europe, working as a ski instructor in Austria in winter and as an entertainer in England during the summer – close-up magic and card tricks, even making balloon sculptures. “And yes, I was a fire-eater too.”

Emery built his first Bushman Burner in 1999; friends loved it and ordered for themselves and before long he was on the road selling and exhibiting.

But builder’s hands and close-up magic did not mix, and it was the magic, not

the ovens, that disappeared from his professional life. The wood-fired guru was up and running and, over 20 year,s has now personally made more than 4,000 ovens and burners, which have been distributed worldwide.

Emery still hand-makes every oven from his base in Worcestershire, trading as Dingley Dell Enterprises and also builds the new, segmented, self-assembly Santorini model, designed to suit most family garden spaces.

While a proud South African for whom a braai is a sacred rite, Emery is delighted to see what is taken for granted in his homeland taking hold in the UK, where an outdoor cooking culture is now firmly established.

“I see massive growth in the outdoor kitchen market and al fresco dining and entertaining in the next five years here.”

His ovens are key cooking appliances at the Manna from Devon Cooking School and Artisan Bakehouse and his ovens have also been installed at the SEASON Exclusive Cookery School at Lainston House hotel, near Winchester in Hampshire.

Emery’s expertise and guru status extends to books, having written From a Spark to a Flame about how to build a mobile pizza business and the wood-fired oven guide Burning Issues and Hot Toppings.

It is not just the food created and consumed, but the ambience. “Family gather outside, children are away from devices and they actually talk to each other, measuring out their lives and their memories from those times spent outside around the fire,” says Emery.

“I am passionate about helping people change their lives, as well as educating them about what they are buying. Once you’ve invested in a Bushman (which

starts from around £3,000), it is a product for life.”

Emery is very sociable and can talk the hind legs off a rhino, but his twin talents can be a curse when it comes to parties.

“I’ve been to friends’ parties and then been asked to twist balloons for the kids. Or, if the barbecue is lit, it’s ‘Jay, shall we leave the cooking to you?’ I don’t mind if, like a South African braai, there are lots of quality steaks, chops, boerewors and lamb sosaties, rather than just English bangers and burgers.”

You can take the Bushman out of Africa…

 


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