Words by Hannah Tapping
Bringing culinary and design inspiration from travels across the globe to create outdoor kitchens of distinction.
Husband and wife team Zowie and Gareth Rees are gastronomes at heart. Being lucky enough to have travelled widely, they have seen first-hand how outdoor entertaining can differ across countries and cultures and this is something that really excites them. Open cooking offers sensory immersion, filling hearts and bellies with sights, smells and tastes. From the glow of the fire and the heady smell of wood smoke, to that distinct caramelised flavour you get from cooking over flames, you would be forgiven for mistaking this for some kind of culinary alchemy… because it actually is.
What happens when you ‘brown’ food is something called the Maillard reaction; a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinct flavour. Of course, this can be achieved in a traditional oven or on a hob, but what makes wood-fired or barbeque cooking different is the addition of the distinctive aroma that is created. Even this smoked smell has a technical name, ‘syringol’, which when combined with the compound guaiacol (produced when the lignin found in wood is burned), creates the heady experience that is responsible for the deliciousness of food cooked over a live, burning fire.
It’s not just the act of cooking that inspires Zowie and Gareth, it’s the provenance of the food that also comes into play, as Zowie explains: “There is nothing better than visiting a local bakery or market, returning with fresh produce and cooking it in an outdoor environment. Local suppliers are better for the environment, there are less food miles, and you get to know the story behind your produce.”
Zowie’s first job was in the hospitality industry where she prepared and cooked barbeques for a large number of guests each week: “I loved the smell, taste and atmosphere and barbequing became a personal passion – one that I passed on to Gareth. It’s now not uncommon for us to be out in all weathers cooking up something over hot embers. Even on Boxing Day we have had a 12-hour joint smoking on the barbeque. Through trial, and sometimes error, we have sampled and enjoyed many dishes. I’ve done plenty of research and am very proud of my own library of over 200 cookery books.” Outdoor cooking can be as simple or as complex as you like, but as Zowie explains: “It’s all about having fun, just enjoying the al fresco dining experience. Now with a young family, we have learned the art of outdoor cooking together and enjoy teaching our son Soal a set of outdoor culinary life skills that will be with him forever.”
Having built a successful plumbing and heating business over the past 12 years, Zowie and Gareth have combined this expertise with their love of food and cooking to form the luxury outdoor living company, Heart, Smoke and Soal. Taking the barbeque experience a step further, the company works closely with the UK’s leading brands in order to create their clients outdoor living and eating spaces that surpass expectations on every level – whether that be an elegant firepit or standalone grill to a fully designed, bespoke outdoor kitchen and living space.
For larger scale outdoor kitchens, and with so many ways to cook outside these days, it can be hard to navigate the myriad products on offer, which is where Zowie and Gareth come in. “Our team has a huge understanding about how the fusion of both indoors and outdoors has to work together when creating an outdoor kitchen. The brands that we sell have been hand-selected and chosen by us, based on our own outdoor cooking experiences. When investing in any outdoor cooking equipment it’s essential that it’s durable and a pleasure to use and look at. Therefore, the products that we stock are chosen for their premium craftmanship, quality and beautiful appearance.”
It’s not just domestic outdoor kitchens that the team are experienced in as Zowie explains: “The hospitality market is also a huge growing sector for us, with so many businesses looking at al-fresco dining as well as cooking outside. We are finding that more hotels, pubs and restaurants are taking this direction. Never has it been so important to find a safe way to cater; by adding a bespoke, undercover outdoor area, hospitality businesses are also able to increase their capacity.”
“Ensuring that you have all of the equipment and space you need can make a real difference to outdoor living. Among other brands, we work closely with leading outdoor kitchen specialist Life Outdoors whose products meet our exacting requirements. We have also recently started working with Sub Zero and Wolf, for outdoor cooking and refrigeration products. Launched in the UK last year, the versatility and longevity of these products really impressed us – they are designed to last decades, not years.”
So, what of the other manufacturers they work with? For both Zowie and Gareth it’s vital that the brands they supply align with their own ethos of service, quality, form and function. This is no more apparent than in their relationship with Vlaze who create design-led, British-made vitreous enamel modular furniture, that can be moved freely from indoors to out. Designed specifically for the living environment, and at once sustainably made and fully recyclable, the lustrous colours are created by fusing powdered glass to steel at temperatures in excess of 800°C in the same factory that manufactures much of the iconic signage for London Underground and the Paris Metro.
Similarly, Glowbus®, who create handmade fire pits, take functional fire to a new level, with each piece in the collection adding a design dimension to the elemental. With a belief in sustainable and ecologically responsible products, Glowbus® only works with the most durable materials ensuring the products have the ability to create special moments for a lifetime.
Zowie, Gareth and their team of experienced fitters offer an end-to-end service when it comes to design. Once a client has decided on how they want to use their outdoor living space, a site visit is undertaken, which helps to understand the space and visualise which products are best-suited. They will then talk through the whole gamut of options available, from flooring and kitchen units, to cookers, grills and gazebos, before going away and creating initial concept designs. There is also the added benefit of being able to view a wide range of displays in the Heart, Smoke and Soal showroom; these installations are invaluable for inspiration if you’re unsure which products to choose from and enable clients to get up close, compare and contrast and fully appreciate each product’s form and functionality.
The next part of the process, as Zowie explains, is: “Once you have decided on a design and chosen the range of products you would like, all you need to do is sit back and relax and we take care of the rest. Our end-to-end service and little black book of recommended and highly skilled tradesmen mean that we can take care of everything. On completion, we offer a full handover on the use of all of the equipment so that you can be confident and ready to start your outdoor living journey as soon as we have left site.”
“We feel that being huge foodies ourselves, with a real passion for cooking outside, sets us apart from other outdoor dining companies. We regularly use the brands we stock ourselves in our own outdoor kitchen. With that in mind, we run a series of open days throughout the year to fulfil this side of our passion, with equipment fired up outside and guest chefs so that our customers can smell, taste and really live what we are all about.”