UK-born chef Lennox Hastie was working in a pintxo bar in San Sebastian when a chance conversation changed the course of his cooking career, and his life. Two patrons were discussing a restaurant in the tiny Basque village of Axpe, about an hour’s drive away, and Lennox was intrigued. So much so that he set out to find it.
“You just do things sometimes in your life,” he says, “and I drove up in the mountains and instantly felt like I was supposed to be there.”
At the time, Lennox describes, “I was looking to set my own standard, to find something unique,” a desire born of a culinary disaffection.
Lennox had started as an apprentice at the Michelin-starred Gravetye Manor in south-east England, followed by time at two- and three-starred restaurants in the UK, France and Spain. While the path he was on was auspicious, Lennox didn’t like where it was leading.
“(Michelin-starred restaurants) focussed more on the chef as a celebrity, fully on the technique,” he says, “and I thought that the ingredient, which I love so much, was being lost.”
The restaurant he found in that Basque village was called Etxebarri, and its owner, self-taught chef Victor Arguinzoniz, has been dubbed, ‘The Grilling Genius of Spain.’ Having built the restaurant from ruins, Victor “set it up as a traditional asador,” Lennox describes, “and like a lot of traditional asadors, it had a component of the menu from the grill.”
“I could instantly tell (the grill) was what Victor loved more than anything because it brought back memories of his childhood, he grew up in a village where everything was cooked over fire, there was no gas or electricity.”
The way Victor worked with fire provided the unique approach Lennox was searching for.
Victor, he says, was “slowly conversing with the fire and finding ways to tease out different flavours and working with different ingredients, especially delicate ones. We’re all used to having meat on the grill, maybe whole fish, prawns, but nothing delicate like oysters or caviar.”
While Lennox had originally intended to stay in Spain for a year, having met Victor, he stayed for five. “It was such a seminal experience,” he explains, “we had such a creative time because we would literally challenge each other and help each other to find different ways of grilling a myriad of different ingredients.”
A first for fire
On leaving Spain, Lennox moved with his partner to Sydney where, after years of planning and ticking regulatory boxes, he achieved an Australian first. In Surry Hills, he opened Firedoor, Australia’s only restaurant where everything is cooked over fire.
But it wasn’t as simple as taking what he’d learnt at Etxebarri and applying it to Firedoor; Australia presented a whole new menu of ingredients, not just over the fire, but in it too. This posed, he says, “a very steep learning curve,” including discovering that “Australian native wood burns 400 degrees hotter than the European wood.”
Then there’s the idea of “a terroir for wood,” he explains. “In a place like the north of Spain, there were only a couple of types of wood and they were all fairly local, from the same environment, but in Australia, there are so many different temperate zones and different ages of the trees. Some places have seen flood, or a lightning storm or a drought and you begin to see huge variations in the wood.”
A subtle difference
Another challenge in opening Firedoor was overcoming people’s assumptions it was a smokehouse or wood-fired pizza restaurant.
“The thing with smokehouses is everything’s smoked over beech or oak wood, and smoked as an entire ingredient; everything has the same profile.”
Whereas at Firedoor, the aim is subtlety. “It’s a much more delicate perfume when you’re using the woods we use,” Lennox explains. “You shouldn’t be tasting more of the wood than the ingredients, it should be the other way around, the wood is supporting and lifting the ingredients.”
In choosing to use only fire, Lennox cannot fall back on the ease of gas or electricity. And if that isn’t enough pressure, the kitchen at Firedoor is open, providing a flame-lit theatrical display.
But while it might not be the simplest way to cook, Lennox says, “Once the fire’s lit, there’s not a better way of cooking, there’s not a more intense, or more delicate way of cooking either. It’s amazing just how diverse it can be. It’s a beautiful thing.”