Yinka Ogunbiyi: biomechanical engineer and chef

Yinka Ogunbiyi is an entrepreneur, engineer and chef with an impressive career to date. She tells us what motivates her work, and how she fell into the world of barbecue by accident.

Pit — Yinka Ogunbiyi: biomechanical engineer and chef

Biomechanical engineer and barbecue fan Yinka Ogunbiyi tells us about her impressive career so far.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into barbecue? 

I’m a biomechanical engineer and chef/recipe developer from a family of Nigerian engineers turned butchers and chefs. 

I didn’t choose the barbecue life, barbecue chose me. A few years ago, I took a required class called “Engineering a Better BBQ”. Our Professor, Kit Parker, was a bio-engineer from the South who basically got a class of engineers to cook him barbecue every week. That’s what we did for a whole semester. Every Friday at 10pm, I trimmed and seasoned two briskets. Then we’d smoke them through the night so that on Saturday at 6pm sharp, we could serve barbecue to Kit who’s a certified judge. I’m a night owl, so I’d go dancing then take the 2am-4am shift. 

We were running an objectively ridiculous barbecue lab. Our test Big Green Egg was riddled with contraptions and cables and gadgets because during each smoke, we collected temperature data, air speed, smoke particulates, anything to help us make better barbecue. 

All those insights went into computer simulations, a new BBQ design, a handmade clay prototype which all got a lot of press. By the next year, we formed a company, got certified as BBQ judges, and I’ve been BBQing ever since.  

It’s so fascinating to hear about your Harvard class inventing the SloRoller, a piece of equipment we use all the time! (Ed: the SloRoller is a device that can be inserted inside the Kamado Joe ceramic barbecue, to help infuse smoke flavour and reduce hot spots when slow cooking).

I’m so glad to hear that! That class was simultaneously the strangest and most rewarding experience of my life so it’s been a dream seeing people use the SloRoller.

What was it like going to Harvard? 

Harvard was a very special and unique experience. Intense. A lot of fun. I didn’t sleep much. At American Universities, you don’t have to choose your ‘major’ or degree for a few years so you can experiment. I loved linguistics and music classes. If the strong hand of Nigerian parents wasn’t upon me I’d have majored in East Asian Studies instead of Engineering. No barbecue.

I also found out American culture and British culture have little in common apart from language and even that’s a stretch. I watched Diners, Dive-Ins, and Drives religiously and thought I understood the USA but after living there for many years I do NOT.

Can you tell us about the invention of the SloRoller? 

So the barbecue class was during Boston’s worst winter in living memory. 100 inches of snow. I have never seen that much snow in my life, it came up to my waist, and every day I smelled like brimstone and fought tundra to get to the lab. I’m a tropical spirit. I was extremely sick of being out in the cold so I created computer simulations to mimic the physics of every element of cooking on a barbecue.

We simulated everything: brisket cooking through the stall; the walls of Kamado grills retaining and emitting heat; the lifecycle of charcoal from glowing flame to dying embers. At one point there were 30 computers ‘smoking’ virtual briskets. Those simulations allowed us to test 1000s of different barbecue designs to find the perfect one: a very specific hyperboloid or hourglass shape.

It heats like a convection oven, incredibly evenly, and creates spirals of smoky aromatic flavour. It turns out it also burns fuel super efficiently which I didn’t see in the computers. We first tried to manufacture a ceramic barbecue grill ourselves which was a terrible idea and then, fortunately, got to partner with Kamado Joe, test another 1000 designs and the best one is called the SloRoller. 

What does a typical day look like for you at the moment? 

I’m at business school doing a joint MBA and Masters in Engineering. Gone are the days of making multi-day sourdoughs, homemade pasta every night, and new recipes every day. I’m at class until 3pm. Then my cooking brain kicks in, so I’ll create/edit/test recipes.

My process involves a lot(!!) of procrastination and heavy browsing. I’m feeling very entrepreneurial recently and it’s cool to have access to a lab, so I try to work on product ideas. If I’m having a good day I’ll practise the bass: it’s my bad pandemic hobby. If I’m having a very good day I’ll go out for dinner: Italian food in Boston is grand.

Which flavours do you gravitate most towards when cooking and why?

Earth taste. Spices like allspice, cardamom, annatto, saffron, cumin, and coriander root. Nigerian food is full of earth taste: brown honey beans, iru (fermented locust beans), stockfish, dried shrimp, pureed aromatic mixes of onion, chilli, and turmeric-heavy curry powders that sizzle and hug the air.

My favourite dishes layer spices like perfumes. Barbecue and smoke are their own unique perfume, with notes of vanilla and whiskey.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable meal you’ve eaten, barbecued or not?

The best meal I ate last year was lunch at Chef Rosalia Chay Chuc’s home in remote Yaxunah near Valladolid, Mexico. Part cooking lesson, part six-course meal, carried out in her garden. 

She showed us the delicious process of cooking cochinita pibil underground for over 12 hours. Her daughters showed us how to make their deft tortillas, whisked straight on the coals to puff up and char. These are stuffed with black beans to make panuchos deep-fried over a BBQ and washed down with fresh sour orange juice. The relleno negro (charred chilli turkey stew) was sublime, prime earth taste.

I was very honoured that she shared her home and the heart of her Mayan culture with us. In Mayan culture, women are the keepers of the food and men are the keepers of the fire. I keep both very close to my heart. 

Which barbecue story do you think needs more attention?

Underground cooking.  I’m obsessed with the Azorean method of using the natural volcanic hot springs to cook meals. One of the most popular is ‘Cozido das Furnas’, mixed meat stew. It’s slightly miserable: a big steaming pot of, among other delights, boiled pork sausage, flabby cabbage, and the lingering aroma of sulfuric rock.  But when underground cooking is done right, like Chef Rosalia’s cochinita pibil, it’s breathtaking. It’s nature’s sous vide oven. 

Growing up in Purley, we’d dig a pit and burn leaves and sticks in it. My mum would bury delicious things like wrapped potatoes, sea bass, and duck in the embers I think because her mum’s mum did the same.

I tried to recreate this method in Virginia but apparently, there’s a big wild coyote problem there so if you bury a pork shoulder, don’t expect to find it the next day.

Is there anything else you’d like to say? Maybe about future plans? Anything you like. 

So many things! For now, I’m going to focus on creating content for my channel @foodfireandsoul. I’ll be making a series of cooking on fire tutorials I’ll share later this year.