From little coal burners to giant gas spaceships, barbecues have come a long way. Suzanne McFadden looks at the evolution of outdoor cooking and why women are stepping up to the hotplate

The portrait of Kiwi summer bliss around the barbecue has always been painted as a babble of blokes standing around the grill with a beer and tongs, while women toil in the kitchen, tossing salads and peeling spuds.

But the barbecue scene as we know it is being skewed. Men are shopping for the meat; snarlers and sirloin are being pushed aside by spare ribs and spicy chorizo. Cooking styles are changing and so are the cooks: women are stepping up to the hotplate.

Take Leigh Baddeley, an Auckland property manager and mother of three, who's not afraid to share the grilling duties with husband Grant.

"I'm totally comfortable with it," she says. "Grant likes doing the barbecue, but he knows there's no point being precious about it. If he doesn't feel like doing it, then I will."


But there is a line drawn in the coals. "When we have a group of friends round including a lot of blokes, I don't think he'd be so comfortable relinquishing the barbecue duties to me," Baddeley says.

A survey of 1,000 New Zealand backyard chefs by international barbecue maker BeefEater found two thirds of Kiwis think women are as good as men at getting the best out of the barbie. Only a third of the men questioned thought they were better at the task than their partners.

As one who does not barbecue - for fear of the gas bottle (the memory of the infamous New Zealand House barbecue explosion at last year's Olympics is still fresh) - I carried out a straw poll of female friends.

"The last time I did it, I singed my eyebrows," said one. "I could if necessary, but along with changing car tyres and putting out the rubbish, I try to maintain my distance," answered another. Then there are those who gladly take over the tongs - even some who favour their barbecue over an oven.

In the Baddeleys' Westmere backyard, Leigh is the more adventurous cook. This summer she "took a risk" with a large eye fillet. "When I explained to Grant I wanted to just sear it, he was really dubious about it." So she took it to the grill and served the bloody-centred meat with wasabi cream. The undisputed verdict: "divine".

Her father would have been mortified: "I've never seen my mum cook on a barbecue, and my dad burns everything until it's black all over. He swears you have to do that to get it cooked in the middle. It's a generational thing."

That's part of the reason Hawkes Bay restaurateur Raymond van Rijk travels the country, running courses in the art of barbecuing.

"I have taught more than 5,000 people in Hawkes Bay, where there may be only one woman in every class of 24. But my best student, after all these years, is still a woman," says van Rijk, who recently closed the doors of his Peak House Restaurant in Havelock North to concentrate on the barbecue business.


"A barbecue shouldn't been seen as just a men's thing. There are a lot of guys who want to take over the grill and they make a lot of stuff-ups. I tell them unless they do something other than meat, I wouldn't call them a barbecuer."

More women are braving the barbie ("the ratio on my courses in the cities is 60-40 men to women"), but it's still the guys who need help, van Rijk says.

"A lot of men have never cooked in their lives. They get married to someone who's very good in the kitchen, but when the barbecue comes out, they think they know it all. Fathers have probably taught their sons badly," he says. "They have no idea about temperature - pork and chicken should never be cooked on high heat - or different cooking times. They put everything on to cook at once.

"I'm totally anti-plate - I cook everything on the grill. But some guys want to cook everything on the hotplate. That's not barbecuing is it? You might as well stay in the kitchen."

The kitchen, though, is being taken outdoors. Infrared burners - dubbed the "microwave" of outdoor cooking - produce superheat and are becoming the norm on gas barbecues.

And more people are cooking under a hood; like the old kettle grills, they work better if the lid is down, letting the smoke circulate around the meat. And there's a definite move back to fuelling with charcoal.

"Charcoal is more romantic; it gives real flavour. Some of the gas companies will tell you that you can't taste the difference, but you can," van Rijk says. "Yes, it's harder to do, but it's a matter of experience."

Backyard chefs are also venturing beyond steak and sausages. At Grey Lynn Butchers, Eddie Rodrigues prepared for a rush on beef short ribs and pork spare ribs this summer.

"People are getting more adventurous with meat. They also want lamb racks and butterflied whole chickens for the barbecue," the award-winning butcher says.

But sausages are still his biggest seller. Not those pre-cooked imposters, but homemade varieties like pork and chardonnay, or spicy chorizo.

Rodrigues, originally from the Indian state of Goa with its own tradition of barbecuing, has noticed a lot more men coming in to buy the meat. "Especially in Grey Lynn, there are plenty of young men doing the shopping," he says.

"We're also seeing a lot of new cultures coming in and buying different meat. The Brazilians buy picanha, the cap of the rump, which they rub with rock salt and cook over charcoal. And Argentinians love their ribs."

While barbecuers get more creative, it comes at a cost - the price of a Kiwi barbecue dinner is rising with the smoke. Based on the November 2012 food price index, a barbecue meal for a family of four (including steak, chicken, salad, pavlova and nibbles) costs, on average, $64.74.

Over the past decade, the cost has increased by $1 a year. The biggest price leap since 2002 - when a family barbecue cost $53 - has been in meat and sparkling wine. Strawberries and capsicums, though, have come down in price.

Thank goodness for small mercies.