Cooking over fire is as old as the human race itself, but employing this most volatile of mediums to create a fine dining experience was unheard of until Lennox Hastie came along.
11 September, 2020
wood fired grills and ovens generating between 1200 C and 1600 C that have been described as resembling ‘the gates of hell’
There’s something mesmerising about fire. Something at once comforting yet dangerous and unpredictable in the way it almost has a mind of its own. It is perhaps the most important ‘invention’ or at least discovery in human history, providing warmth, light and the heat source to cook food, and yet in the modern age, in fine culinary circles at least – fire in its purist form seems to have been somewhat overlooked. But not by award-winning chef Lennox Hastie, who, in his Surry Hills restaurant Firedoor, uses only fire to create a culinary experience that is quite literally unlike anything else. There are no electric ovens or gas burners at Firedoor, no sous vide machines hidden away out of sight, but rather wood fired grills and ovens generating between 1200 C and 1600 C that have been described as resembling ‘the gates of hell’. To Hastie, the fire itself and the wood that feeds it is as important to the final product as any of the other carefully sourced ingredients.
“Sometimes we have to look backwards to move forwards – there is no form of cooking more natural and human than cooking over fire,” says Hastie.
His artistry using this most unpredictable of cooking methods to produce exquisite dishes is as far removed from the ‘throwing a steak on the bbq’ idea as it is possible to get. And yet the very spectacle of Hastie and his team playing with, or working with the fire forms part of the whole dining experience.
Lennox Hastie and his unique approach to cooking is one of the featured episodes in the superb new Chef’s Table series on Netflix – Chef’s Table BBQ. Produced by the same award-winning team who created Machine, the documentary series, as the name suggests, examines in depth those cooking styles that fall broadly under the umbrella of BBQ, from the old traditions of the wood fired Texas BBQ, to traditional techniques once used by the Mayans to the unique fine-dining creations that this year saw Lennox Hastie announced as the 2020 Citi Chef of the Year at the Good Food Guide Awards.
The Chef’s Table documentary charts Hastie’s journey to Firedoor from his formative years in south-east England, through Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK and then France to ultimately finding his calling in the Basque mountains. Here, the grilling techniques and open fires were the antithesis of the stylised, technique-driven Michelin restaurants he had worked in, but the challenge of using the oldest form of cooking in new ways, no less taxing.
“As a child, I remember the joy of cooking both at home and when we visited my Scottish grandmother,” says Hastie of his early years.
“I was fascinated how ingredients could be transformed into food that brought everyone together around the table.”
That fascination with ingredients and bringing out the very best in them remains at the heart of everything Lennox does with Firedoor. From the 200-day dry-aged rib eye, to the fresh lobster, Tasmanian octopus and indeed the type of wood that is used to cook them.
That fascination with ingredients and bringing out the very best in them remains at the heart of everything Lennox does with Firedoor
Then there is the fire itself, a volatile living thing that cannot be controlled with a dial or a switch
“Recipes were only ever meant to be guides that change in accordance with the ingredients available,” says Hastie.
“The wood is an ingredient in its own right so is dependent on availability and seasonality (as it can take several seasons to cure). It is a constant challenge but I am lucky to work with Michael and Christa McDonald from Blackheath Firewood who source the best seasoned hardwood from all over Australia.”
“Cooking with fire is an instinctive form of cooking – you shouldn’t get too hung up on specific woods; instead treat it as any other ingredient and feel free to experiment. Sometimes I will combine two or even three varieties of wood to produce a certain heat or flavour profile.”
Exclusively cooking with fire adds more than just another dimension to the already hectic process of running a successful restaurant.
"Everything is so much harder; we eschew convenience in favour of doing the very best to celebrate ingredients in their most natural state. We can’t just flick a switch and dial it in – every day we have to light a fire and time our preparations in harmony with the heat. It’s a labour intensive way to cook but it really is the most natural expression of an ingredient.”
Then there is the fire itself, a volatile living thing that cannot be controlled with a dial or switch.
“I never feel in control of the fire,” says Hastie, despite a lifetime of working with it.
“It’s a high-wire act that rides along a ridge of uncertainty that pushes me to my limits and that sparks creativity.”
“The ever-changing variables of both fire and ingredients make it the hardest form of cooking to achieve a consistent result, but the rewards are unparalleled and keep me engaged and challenged to keep coming back each night.
It also creates its own physical demands, making the process of creating in the open-plan Firedoor kitchen both a physical and cerebral process.
“Every kitchen is physically demanding but the heat from the fire really takes it to the next level, with the oven temperature firing between 1200 C and 1600 C. The trick is to constantly be moving so working with fire becomes its own type of workout that keeps me in shape.”
Cooking with fire is an ongoing and evolving process that Hastie says allows him ‘the ultimate freedom and provides an even closer connection to the ingredients’. Given the unique nature of what Hastie has created with Firedoor, predicting what’s next is a pointless exercise – this is clearly a chef who has created his own path rather than follow any well trodden route.
When Lennox travelled into the Basque Mountains to satisfy his curiosity, his plan was to stay a year. Five years later he struck out again on his own, heading halfway across the world to begin a new phase in his life and start what would become Firedoor. An original plan to open and run a restaurant in the city for five years has now well and truly been realised, but the next chapter is yet to be written. “One day I hope to be able to open something in rural Australia but, for now, I’m thrilled to be doing what we do at Firedoor in Surry Hills. We have an incredible team and get to work with amazing producers.”
For Lennox Hastie, the fire burns more fiercely than ever.
Every kitchen is physically demanding but the heat from the fire really takes it to the next level
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