Lennox Hastie - The Firestarter
From his already-legendary restaurant Firedoor to his new flame, Gildas Wine Bar, the fire in Lennox Hastie's heart is clear to see... and extraordinary to taste.
The burgeoning roll call of restaurants favouring fire over fossil fuel are some of our finest – Woodcut, Agnes, Arkhé & Matilda 159 Domaine – all choosing the drama of fire over damask. These primal experiences are more punk rock than Puccini, more rap than rhythm and blues. The Puff Daddy of them all is Firedoor’s wünderkind, Lennox Hastie, who has brought the force of fire to the fore in Australia. Lennox works with two things only - ingredients and fire. The wood to make the fire is considered by Lennox as an ingredient in itself so he works with just... ingredients. Sounds simple enough.
Lennox explains his visceral way of cooking. “It’s primitive by its nature. It’s dirty. It’s the equivalent of being a steam train driver shovelling the coal. It’s incredible to use the full force of the heat to create flavour but to also show restraint.” I suggest this seeming contradiction and he offers another. “Cooking with fire is freedom yet you are constrained by the very nature of having only one method,” of applying heat. Lennox clarifies: “Every time the fire burns differently, you have to understand that it’s out of your control. You have to embrace that.” Doesn’t sound so simple after all.
The wood to make the fire is considered by Lennox as an ingredient in itself.
The fire in Lennox Hastie's heart is clear to see... and extraordinary to taste.
Opening the door
Lennox's culinary rebirth came from a disenchantment with Michelin 3-star cooking, its tortuous technique and laboured layers. He felt unfulfilled and sought a new path. He muses, “Three-star chefs may use a barbeque at home but don’t like to work with fire because they can’t control it, they can’t get a consistent result.” His pilgrimage to the Basque country led to a seminal stint at Victor Arguinzoniz’s Asador Etxebarri. These five years in the mountains between Bilbao and San Sebastian were at once emancipation, revelation and inspiration. Firedoor, in Surry Hills, is the culmination of this time, fuelled by the fire and fervour of a chef creating food at the precise point where experience meets instinct. Sounds like it is worth a detour.
Qaulity and provenance of ingredients is paramount to Lennox.
Pipis cooked in a sieve-like 'pan', allowing the fire to imbue delicate flavour.
The flavour of the flame
The molecules of air move differently as you enter Firedoor. There’s a white-hot energy emanating from the colossal furnaces that rage like the darkest depths of Mordor. There is a consummate warmth from the tailored team on the floor, and a bar brigade that exudes cool. The chefs play the heaving hearth like a piano and Lennox himself presides over the three adjustable grills. It is masculine and primeval. The stage is set. We take the option to gild the lily. With each three-month block of reservations selling out in minutes, my counsel is to categorically gild.
Tonight, there were pipis with confit and crisp local garlic and native flora coaxed open in a bespoke sieve-like ‘pan’, allowing the fire to touch and imbue the delicate bivalves. The cooking is masterful. It is at once bold and deft, considered, considerate and free from frippery. Bone marrow from a retired dairy cow is roasted with the full force of the fire, its sweet umami elevated with a generous bump of salt and lemon.
The provenance and detail which anchors Lennox’s food is obsessive. The David Blackmore wagyu, on tonight, has had an additional step added before Lennox deems it ready for the table. The rendered fat from around the kidneys is brushed over the entire piece, dry-aged for 170 days, sometimes longer. It has a dramatic effect on the meat. It is juicy and buttery with a sweet, herbaceous savouriness. The effect of the embers deliver a shuddering moment of culinary apotheosis. It’s a real moment. If it sounds transcendent, it is.
Lennox Hastie embracing the flavour of the flame.
Grilled blueberries and raspberries.
Lennox reflects on opening Firedoor. “I decided to throw convenience out the door, it was all a huge gamble. I didn’t even know what I was going to cook – I had boxes of ingredients coming in, the kitchen hadn’t been fully tested – it was such a steep learning curve.” The chefs at Firedoor start their day differently to most other cooks. The first job is to build the ‘home’ of the fire in two hulking ovens. These kilns create embers from dozens of different types of open-air seasoned wood. Denser woods suit food that needs to cook hotter and longer, and less dense woods suit certain types of fruits, vegetables and seafood. It’s not for all cooks.
“Most people are attracted by fire. We get a lot of people through the doors, but I know early on if it’s for them.” He goes on, “many have worked in restaurants where it's robotic. I want chefs who make mistakes, acknowledge them and learn.” Why not use charcoal, I ask?
“Everything in the kitchen is touched by fire. You have to listen to the ingredients. Listen to what they want. Charcoal doesn’t offer complex characteristics; wood has clarity, it’s natural and brings out the flavour of each ingredient, letting them reveal themselves, exactly.”
Grilling baby cos lettuce over the open fire.
Calcots (grilled leeks) cooking over raw embers.
Power... and purity
The quality and provenance of ingredients is paramount. Lennox is uncompromising. “You have to have really good ingredients to start with; the fire is the ultimate lie detector, it will always show up in the food.”
He speaks with zeal about the process. “To me it’s magic to watch the ingredient over the fire; the fats dripping on to the embers, it’s magic,” he intones. “People want to know the secret; it’s to do it again and again. Even now, I’ll try and adjust to focus that energy and knowledge to a finer point. It’s that onward journey. You only improve by getting your flying miles up. Doing it again and again,” he stresses.
A terminal taste for cookbooks is a condition with which most keen cooks are cursed. Many in our metier accumulate tomes with lengthy recipes earnestly encouraging us to prime our pantry with all manner of gelling agents, emulsifiers and chemicals. Is that still a thing? It interests me that Lennox Hastie devotes four pages in his book, Finding Fire, to a recipe with only two ingredients – steak and salt. This is the transcendent wagyu dish I mentioned before, but it bears coming back to – consider the attention to detail required, the patience. As a process, it's frankly unprecedented.
After all these years, he still accepts there are things out of his control. “You don’t know what you’re going to get when you open the meat up after all those months,” he says. “Every day is a discovery, every day is like Christmas. I still have moments where the hairs stand up on my neck.” Sounds like the epitome of job satisfaction.
Firedoor, in Surry Hills, is where you'll find culinary apotheosis in fire.
Firing up anew
Lennox Hastie’s latest muse is a reflective rebirth of sorts. Gildas Wine Bar, a one-minute stroll from Firedoor, is a Basque-inspired wine bar. “It is very different to the bars of the Basque country,” says Lennox. “It’s not a traditional pintxos bar but it’s my love letter to Spain, based on the flavours I love.”
Is it firing? “Hell yeah! It has an amazing energy.” He's right: even at 10:30 at night, it’s busy with the Surry Hills set sipping sherry and the full menu available. Suena especial.
As a postscript, Lennox concedes, “I probably only know 20 per cent of what I need to know. My mind is being sent in all sorts of directions. Like most things, you go down a rabbit hole and find new things.”
He has a restless temperament. I ask Lennox if he misses certain pieces of kitchen kit – an immersion circulator, a Thermomix, etc. – or would he like the ability to just pop something in a microwave? He fires back, “I’d like you to tell me how a microwave works first!” Sounds like the words of a true chef, one we are very lucky to have.