All fired up: Lennox Hastie

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Lennox Hastie is the chef and owner of Firedoor in Sydney, Australia’s only fully wood-fuelled restaurant. Lennox spent his early career working at Michelin Star restaurants across the UK, France, and Spain. Having grown captivated by the Basque country, Lennox found himself helping out a local pintxos bar. It was here he overheard a mention of a grill restaurant in the Basque mountains.

After seeking out Etxebarri, a small asador with a strong tradition of wood-fired grilling, Lennox worked with Victor Arguinzoniz, pushing the limits of what could be cooked over an open flame. He was exposed to a form of cooking that was so completely different, beautifully complex, yet simple, one that highlighted ingredients in their most natural state. It was a turning point. What began as one year at Asador Etxebarri soon grew into five.

Locavore spoke to Lennox about the way that fire can tease the best from good ingredients, the recent changes in kitchen attitudes, and about respect for the people and culture surrounding different cuisines.

What is your earliest food memory?

(Laughs). Well, it’s not actually food, but it was putting something in my mouth. Probably my earliest childhood memory, in fact, and probably not the best one, but it was eating a small glass bauble off the Christmas tree. I think I was attracted to the shininess of it, and I must have thought it was something to eat! But it resulted in me being rushed off to hospital, as you can imagine.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I grew up in Suffolk, and food and mealtimes were always very important in our household. I remember fondly going up to the Isle of Arran – we’d go up there once a year – and I remember watching my grandmother cook, and cooking bits and pieces with her. I was always into creative things, but when I was fifteen I decided to go and work in a one Michelin star restaurant near where we lived. That was an instant turning point for me. I found myself so drawn to the energy of the kitchen, to the food, and to cooking for people.

You spent your early career in Michelin restaurants. How did these experiences shape your thinking about food and cooking?

At that stage – we’re talking around eighteen years ago – kitchens were predominantly French, or French-based, and there weren’t all these different types of restaurants that we have now. Michelin was the mark of a great restaurant; that progression of one star, to two stars, to three stars. I always wanted to improve and master new techniques, and each kitchen taught me something different. Like with any chef, that training shapes who you are.

Then I spent four years at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, which is a very impressive training ground, the kind you seldom see in many kitchens. A brigade of tutors, all the different sections, doing everything from scratch. It teaches butchery, it teaches fish preparation, but also about the hierarchy, the discipline, and the importance of hard work. Which is training that I remember to this day.

After all this, how did you find yourself at Asador Etxebarri?

Well, I spent some time working in France, and then went to the Basque country on a road trip with a friend I had worked with at Le Manoir. I started working in a three-star restaurant, and – apart from the great experience of a new restaurant and new techniques – I felt I’d lost touch with the ingredients. They were taking a back seat to the chefs, who were kind of being raised on a pedestal. It was all based largely around technique, with very large brigades, and it was less about the actual ingredients themselves.

I got to the stage where I kind of dropped out a little bit, and started working in a pintxos bar in San Sebastien, which I loved because I was cooking for the day – taking produce from the market, fish that had just come off the boats, and cooking with an immediacy and a freshness, really reflecting the ingredients of the region. Whilst I was working in that bar, I overheard two guys talking about a restaurant in the mountains that grilled ingredients on fire. I didn’t know what it was, but I was looking for something, so the next day I hired a car and went looking for it, and eventually found it.

I had planned to spend a year in Spain, but I fell in love with this grill restaurant. It was a seminal experience, and it transformed what I thought I knew about cooking with fire – not just as a heat source, but the different flavour profiles. And there were great ingredients, it wasn’t just barbecue or a primitive method of cooking. It can be taken to its full potential, the way in which fire showcases the natural qualities of an ingredient.

You now have your own restaurant, Firedoor, in Sydney. Australian cuisine is very much a melting pot. Do you draw inspiration from the many cultures that have made their way to the country over the centuries, or from a more specific influence?

It’s very much an evolving process, now I’m in Australia, in terms of embracing the diversity of cultures from around the world, and also how we all come from the same ‘mother’ and how we’re all linked by fire. It’s a sense of freedom – I’ve never worked in a kitchen that’s so diverse. There’s a girl from India, a girl from China, one from the Phillipines, a guy from Spain, another guy from Korea. Not only having that geographical closeness to Asia, but the sheer diversity of backgrounds and experiences.

So with me, the French and the Spanish cooking is a strong part of my background, but nowadays I can cook with complete freedom. Embracing elements of fermentation from Korea, for example, to weave that into the menu whilst having a European background – it’s a very liberating and very real experience.

How do the landscape and ingredients of Australia inform your cooking, and your menu? Do you use many indigenous ingredients?

We use what we can. It’s difficult for us, to fully understand the ingredients and the cultural significance of them. There are 300 tribes of indigenous peoples in Australia. Some of these ingredients are of symbolic importance, some won’t be eaten, some will. There’s a level of understanding in how these ingredients work – for example some things are poisonous unless you treat them a certain way. So it’s really important to both recognise the indigenous community, and to understand the cultural significance of the way in which ingredient should be used. You have to tread very carefully, so if we want to use an ingredient we seek advice from the indigenous community.

So it’s about cultural sensitivity?

Yeah, completely. And I try and draw that across any ingredient – every ingredient has a story, and unless you fully understand the ingredient you probably shouldn’t cook with it. You should appreciate the story, where it was grown or where it was fished, how it lived and how it died, because that all affects the way in which you cook it, and the flavour profiles. Food is of such importance, and these are the raw bones of what we do every day, so if you can’t treat them with respect you shouldn’t use them at all.

You have an open kitchen, which is becoming more and more common. How do you think this changes the rhythms an routines of a kitchen, particularly during service? And what are the challenges of using fire in this setting, where timings and efficiency are so important?

It’s extremely interesting. Firedoor is my first restaurant, and the first open kitchen I’ve ever worked in. It does change the way I work, and it’s challenging because fire requires a lot of attention. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite people into the kitchen to see what we do. There’s more interest than ever in food and where it comes from, and people love to be immersed in that experience. Cooking with fire you’ve got nothing to hide, but I have limited amounts of control.

I’m trying to time my preparations in harmony with the heat, alongside the fire. I think that’s why it took me so long to open a restaurant, because it’s so difficult to do that; to have an element that’s so raw and untamed. The fire in the oven just continues to increase in heat as you feed it, that’s all it’s going to do. In my restaurant we’re cooking at the limits of the ingredients and of the fire itself. With the Australian native woods we use, which are so dense, the oven can get up to 1600ºc. I’ve had to evolve the kitchen around that as we’ve gone along. It’s never been done before, it’s a prototype.

You do have to exercise a large shift in kitchen culture, which has always been notoriously bad. Chefs are now in the limelight, front and centre. You have to act responsibly, you can’t be screaming and shouting, you must be professional, and look after and nurture your staff. It’s important to embrace that whole world. It’s a difficult shift, I think, for a lot of people, but it’s moving in the right direction.

Fire and smoke have truly entered the fine-dining scene. Do you think this a passing trend, to an extent? Or is it here to stay?

That’s a difficult one. It is something that’s been picked up recently, and I think you have to be wary of trends, but for me the thing about fire is it’s timeless. It depends on how you incorporate it into your kitchen. I’d love to see more and more people exploring cooking with fire. But you have to be aware you’re dealing with a raw element. It requires good knowledge, and practice, and good management, if it’s something that’s going to continue. It’s great to be able to cook with fire, but you need to be very sensible about the way in which you do it.

What is it about cooking on fire that captures the imagination?

That’s a biggie. When I was growing up, it wasn’t really part of the culture; even barbecue wasn’t that common. But if you look at it, we’re all drawn to fire. There’s something comforting but also slightly dangerous about it. And it forces us to focus, to slow down. There are no real controls or ways of measuring things, you have to hone your instincts. It gives you time to stop and appreciate life.

So do you think there’s a sense of abandonment there, somehow? That we have so much control over things with modern technology, there’s an aspect of throwing your cards to the wind with cooking on something that can be so unpredictable?

Completely. I still, to this day, don’t know exactly how things are going to go. Every day it changes depending on so many things. Sometimes there’s a sense of inner peace, being able to let go, take a deep breath, and go backwards somehow. We’re so busy going forwards all the time. And fire brings us all together. What makes us human is that we cook, and that all began with fire – we gather around it, we tell stories around it. The traditional family table doesn’t really exist any more, so taking time to gather round a fire is beautiful thing.

What role does sustainability play in your kitchen? For instance, where does your wood come from?

It’s so important to us. The wood we use in the restaurant is an ingredient in its own right. Without it we couldn’t cook, it has different heat properties, different flavour characteristics. We source our wood from all throughout Australia. We try to use mainly fallen wood which would otherwise still be burned but the energy not used, and so it’s lost. It’s very laborious and very costly. To give it a future, to enable us to move forward, it has to be sustainable. We give ash to local farmers to use on the land, and we also work with a local ceramicist who uses the ash for glazes on our plates. We try to find avenues for all these different aspects.

During your time in kitchens, how have you seen thinking around ethics and sustainability evolve? Has there been meaningful change?

There’s been huge change, it’s changed the game completely now. Back in the day, you were just a chef, you just cooked, and that was it-  you were responsible only for the kitchen. But now, it’s about thinking about the ways that your work affects other people and the world. It’s all about choices. We all have choices – the farmers you choose to support, the ingredients you put on your menu. There’s a social responsibility in what you’re choosing to showcase. Where are those things coming from? Within Australia? Are they farmed sustainably? Is the fish sustainable? You have to be conscious of all this. It relates directly to the environment which we’re so dependent on.

There’s room for heaps of improvement. There’s some great conversations being had, but we need to take more action. Now we have a voice we can do something about it, and make sure that – across the board, in all restaurants – there’s change happening.

 

Your book, Finding Fire, is a guide to cooking on fire as well as how to build and tend that fire. How did the book come about? And what was the experience of writing it like?

I don’t think I’d ever thought about writing a book, but there were lots of people asking me for information about different woods, about fire, people really wanting to get into it. So I thought “okay, lets write this down.” It wasn’t until I started writing it down that I realised there was quite a compelling story around the whole cultural significance of fire, where it comes from, the relevance of it today and how we incorporate it into our daily lives, and skills and techniques that are being lost partly to convenience and partly to our busy lives.

I have a newfound respect for people who write books. As a busy chef it was literally a day a week for two years. It’s a very long process if you want to write something that’s true, that has meaning. And I had to think about ways to explain to people about the significance of fire, about why I love it so much. Almost to create a new language around the different aspects of fire, to see it through my eyes, to understand it more. I found writing my own story strangely cathartic. It was a very strange experience – a laborious but rewarding process. 

What would you like people to take away from your book, and your way of cooking?

Well, I’d like people to embrace cooking with fire, and to appreciate ingredients more. It’s a book about fire, but it’s also a book about ingredients. I’ve found fire is the best way to showcase those ingredients. I’d like to expand the possibilities for people of what fire is and what it can be. Still now, I tell people I have a wood-fired restaurant and they ask what kind of meats I do – even three and half years in, people think it’s all going to be smoky meats and we don’t really do smoky food. Meats only make up about twenty percent of the menu, quite a small proportion. There’s all the possibility with fish, shellfish, vegetables, even desserts. Just give it a go!

What are your plans for the coming year?

I’m in the UK at the moment. I’ve just arrived, so I’m super excited. I’m here for Meatopia, the big barbecue festival, which I’ve been invited to for several years now and always been too busy in the restaurant. It’s difficult leaving everyone else to run things, I’m a very hands on guy. I’m looking forward to meeting chefs from all over the world at the event, all brought together by fire. I’m doing a dinner at Hawksmoor, and hopefully eating in quite a few restaurants. There are a lot of new things in London. There’s been an explosion, recently, of young chefs doing really interesting things, including cooking with fire, so I’m looking forward to seeing some of that.

As for the future, I want to get on with improving, I’m always improving as I’m going along, learning from past mistakes. I want to continue evolving the team, and improving the work-life balance for myself and for the Firedoor family. I want them to continue working by my side, and then going on to do great things. Long-term I’d like to move out of the city and move to the country. I’m at the limits of what I can do within those four walls, and having freedom of space and being closer to the ingredients is where I’d like to be ultimately.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

For me it’s all about the ingredients. Without them there’d be no restaurant. The fire brings me closer to them on a daily basis.

 

Finding Fire by Lennox Hastie (Hardie Grant, £30)

Photography © Nikki To

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