Chef Ben Williamson showed plenty of spark during the six years he led the kitchen at Brisbane's Gerard's Bistro. But we can expect him to get even more fired up when he opens his new restaurant in August.
At 22 Agnes, housed in a characterful brick building on Agnes Street, Fortitude Valley, he's ditching electric and gas in the kitchen and will rely entirely on the smoke, embers and flame of wood-fire to do his bidding.
Williamson says the desire to cook exclusively over flame is a natural progression from the skills he honed at Gerard's. Since the 2013 opening of the mod-Middle Eastern restaurant, he introduced one of the restaurant's signature dishes – the coal-roasted octopus – and gradually replaced parts of the kitchen with coal grills.
"It's a natural method of cooking that really appeals to me, and it delivers great flavour," says Williamson. "We wanted to just keep it pure and natural." (Coincidentally, "agnes", is derived from the Greek word for pure.)
Menu-wise, it's early days for the yet-to-be-opened restaurant, but Williamson is experimenting with different woods, hays and other natural things that burn; assessing how they affect the dish's flavour. Offerings could include aged heirloom cylindrical beets smoked over coffee wood with coffee vinegar and sourdough cream, and ash-baked Murray cod with salted quince and roasted grapefruit, or Hervey Bay scallops flamed in fat over hay with smoked lemon and verbena.
Williamson's aiming for zero waste with the restaurant's meat produce. Beasts will be ordered whole and broken down at the restaurant, with all parts of the animal to be used in the kitchen. He's excited about getting his hands on some Darling Downs beef, and cooking the rib-eyes over banksia cones."[Banksia cones] are super-dense like hard wood and give off an incredible aroma when burning," he says.
And dinner comes with a sense of theatre, too. The restaurant blueprint includes an open kitchen with four-metre-wide hearth, a wood-fire oven and an asado grill, alongside a dedicated butchery station and dry-ageing fridges.
Plus, there's much to imbibe. Onsite will be a wine bar and a gin distillery, with plans to produce whiskey down the track. "We'll open the restaurant with the still [distilling machinery] on display, but we'll need to wait for the licenses," explains Williamson. "Stage two will include a small rooftop bar with around 40 seats overlooking the Valley."
The venture is a partnership with hospitality veterans Tyron Simon and Frank Li (Honto, Longtime). Construction of 22 Agnes is slated to begin this month, and Williamson is excited to have everything underway. "There's still much to experiment with."
He's not the only one fired up about this anticipated addition to Brisbane's dining scene.
22 Agnes is slated to open in August at 22 Agnest St, Fortitude Valley, Qld