Chef Lennox Hastie has a career that spans just over two decades cooking in Michelin starred kitchens (Le Manoir and Le Gavroche, England) and 50 Best heavy hitters (Etxebarri, Spain.) He currently runs Sydney's Firedoor, a two-hat restaurant that specialises in cooking with fire.
Lennox Hastie is a walking international incident. He has been held at gunpoint on the back of a truck. And he once narrowly escaped being bombed. That one made world news.
He was 25, working at Le Manoir, and had been sent on a trip to Seville with a group of London chefs. A stopover in Madrid meant coming down from the platform to wait for one of their party to go and buy a packet of cigarettes. It was then that a bomb went off on the incoming train they were meant to be on. The explosion killed hundreds and injured thousands. "It's the only time," he says, "I've ever loved cigarettes."
Some years later, he made the move from England to work with Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri in the Basque Country, where he arrived without a word of Basque and a letter of introduction in conversational Spanish written by a Mexican friend.
He was greeted at the door of the restaurant by a man wearing a white T-shirt covered in blood, who turned out to be Arguinzoniz. It took him at least a year to pick up the language. "It was particularly difficult because I couldn't practise with Victor – he doesn't speak a lot anyway." The pair of them would ultimately develop a strong relationship communicating through looks, food and movement. Much like a pair of grizzled ballet dancers.
It was working here that he ran into trouble once again, this time with the Civil Guard, while buying shellfish on the side of the road (at the time, the hills surrounding the next town along from Axpe, where Etxebarri is located, were the centre for bomb making in the politically torn area).
'I was face down with a gun on the back of my head as they were searching the van.'
Each Thursday, Hastie would drive the restaurant's van to meet the trucks filled with live tanks destined for the market along the highway, where he would jump on board and select what he liked.
"I remember picking up the seafood one night and five minutes later [the Civil Guard] came swooping in yelling 'get down on the ground!' I was face down with a gun on the back of my head as they were searching the van. And there I am in very bad Spanish trying to explain to them that I work in a restaurant and I'm a chef and that all I have in the car is lobsters."
It was here, too, that he learned to deal in angulas – the rare and exotic baby eels so highly prized in Spain that they were sold at the restaurant for €100 per 10 grams – more than double the Australian street value of most class A drugs. "The elvers were so special. [To get them], it would literally be a full moon, super cold and frosty, at the end of November and only if the conditions were correct. We found it was best to keep them at the bottom of the mountain in a kind of man-made waterfall. The eels had to be measured with just the right amount of salt. The drop of oil that had been infused with just the right amount of local chilli and garlic. And straight onto the fire with the pan, then out they'd go."
It's hard to say what's more adventurous: his past or his present, which is running a two-hat restaurant with a kitchen that has no gas or electricity. Not too long ago, someone accidentally sent Hastie a gas bill, much to his outrage. "All I could think was 'what the f---! I already spend enough on wood'."
Even boiling a pot of water requires a kitchen member to light the fire. This is the first job of the morning and if, for some reason – they're late, the wood's slightly wet, or any number of other things that are beyond human control when it comes to working with a medium this unpredictable – the fire doesn't play ball, it's a kitchen nightmare.
To work in such a punishing environment, one that's highly charged and fuelled by a hearth that's hot enough to make glass ("our next project – Firedoor glassware – it'd be horribly ugly") takes a certain type of person. They tend to be your classic "push on" chefs. "You just have to go back the next day and start again," Hastie says. "You have to start the fire. That's how much from-scratch it is."
There's definitely a certain flash of realisation that passes across the faces of the young chefs during their first few shifts at Firedoor once they get an idea of the reality of the work here. "Kitchens are s--- anyway. Pressurised environments, long hours – I mean that's brutal. And the physicality of it is laborious – literally moving coals and shovelling wood. But here, people drop like flies."
Those who stick it out learn to love it as much as Hastie does. "The connection with the fire is hugely rewarding. Because you're so immersed in the moment, your senses are heightened."
The challenge of working with such an uncontrollable element is also the joy for Hastie. "It's so addictive, the closeness to the ingredient. I can get a whole batch of fish in and it all looks amazing but as soon as you put the fish on the grill it's the way it reacts – the way the meat caramelises is completely different to what the meat will do in the pan."
Letting go of the idea of controlling consistency – the kind you would find on a traditional degustation where the chef is weighed down by having to hit those constant points on the menu, day in and day out – is something Hastie learned to let go of a long time ago.
"I come from a background where everyone is trying for that third Michelin star. Obviously quality is important, but it's mainly consistency. From a learning perspective, I had some amazing experiences, and learned some incredible techniques but it gets to a point where it's a little like painting by numbers."
Cooking with fire, though, never fails to excite and inspire the chef. "It continues to school me. I've been cooking for 23 years, and with fire for 12 years and I probably know about [pinches thumb and forefinger] that much. It's ridiculous how much there is to learn."
Five burning questions
Music to cook to: I'm a Police man
After-midnight snack: Fried rice
Kitchen weapon at work: I have this really small fork. I won it in a competition when I was 21, and I still use it all the time.
Formative food writing: The Art of Eating, by Edward Behr
Non-cooking ninja skill: I used to demonstrate Scottish dancing. I can do a highland fling if pushed, but I'd probably tear something.
Firedoor by Lennox Hastie; Hardie Grant RRP $60