Lennox Hastie is a chef who can enthuse an audience of his peers as well as delight a room full of hungry and expectant customers.
I first heard him electrify the room in September 2016 at the aptly titled Sauce Forum in Tallinn, Estonia. Without prompts, visual aids or even food, Hastie spoke passionately about his love of cooking over wood and the different flavours different woods can impart to different cuts of fish, meat and even vegetables. I immediately decided to book at his restaurant, Firedoor, when my travels brought me to Sydney.
I next saw him in action in the open kitchen in the far corner of his restaurant, wearing rather fewer clothes– the Celsius temperature in Sydney was double that of Tallinn. In a sweltering Sydney summer, Hastie was standing in front of four grills and two wood-burning ovens as well as an Australian AGA – and still looked comfortable. He is an impressive figure, with broad shoulders, a beard, and a wry smile as well as a pair of powerful hands that made me regret shaking hands with him after the meal. But he is absolutely full of confidence about the style of cooking he has made his own.
So much so that when we did chat after the meal, he explained that one of his aims today is to try and get cooking over wood – very different in his mind from barbecuing over any other type of fuel – part of the Australian education system. 'Children should be far more aware of what was the origin of every other style of cooking', he added with his usual enthusiasm, 'in fact what was one of the first stages in distinguishing what was to become Homo sapiens'.
As a result, what distinguishes Firedoor is not so much the menu as what is printed on the back of the A3 sheet of paper that is folded and tucked inside the linen napkin in front of each customer. Under the heading 'today's woods' is a list of those woods that Hastie and his kitchen are making such effective use of. On the night I ate there (Jancis was shivering in New Zealand) the list incorporated apple, cherry, chestnut, grapevines, ironbark, a member of the eucalyptus family found locally, and nectarine. These are often sourced from his wine and produce suppliers, thereby making the kitchen one of the most sustainable. Short, thick logs also grace all the window ledges.
The menu itself is almost as straightforward. It begins with bread from the wood oven, probably the chewiest, crustiest loaf of bread in a city where chefs seem to be in constant competition to produce just this (and here Hastie's just beat the loaf baked by Mike McEnearney at Kitchen By Mike in the city's business district). Then there are two vegetable dishes, lettuce sweetly grilled over apple wood topped with anchovies and grilled beans with an almond cream, followed by five fish dishes and two meat dishes, of which one was truly remarkable.
Having said that, my feeling was that it was in the more delicate fish dishes that the flavour of the different wood, as well as the natural flavours of the ingredients themselves, were revealed. In particular it was the octopus from Tasmania, grilled over apple wood, served on black squid ink with radicchio and what was described simply as potato. It was quite exceptionally sweet, having been cooked slowly in the embers of the fire, broken, and then roasted in the wood oven. Then it was the distinctive aromas of cherry wood that added piquancy to the red claw yabbies (a native fishwater crayfish) from Queensland that had been grilled, split open and a small piece of lime inserted into the head.
We ended on a very Australian note. First up was a bowl of pippies (below), those sweet edible clams that are found on sandy beaches in South Australia and across New Zealand, that had been cooked like mussels over the hot wood and then given extra zing with chilli and garlic shoots. Then came a small piece of 238-day (34-week!) dry-aged rib of beef complete with fat, and finally, as dessert, an iced vovo. Hastie's version of these biscuits, which originated in 1906 and form part of the country's culinary heritage, were as distinct as chalk and cheese from the Arnott's packet variety. Here the biscuit was fresh, as was the topping of raspberry ice cream and appetising raspberries. With a bottle of equally appetising 2015 Jamsheed Cabernet Franc (AU$67), my bill for four came to AU$400.
It would be only too simplistic as well as wholly inaccurate for me to try to explain Hastie's obsession with cooking in this fashion as somehow connected with the Australian obsession with barbecue cooking. In fact, he was born in 1979 in Roehampton, south-west London, to an Australian father and a Scottish mother. Having trained in French kitchens, he ended up in the rather too regimented confines of a three-star Michelin restaurant in France, from which he escaped on the back of a friend's motorbike heading for northern Spain's Basque country. There he settled for five years working alongside Victor Arguinzoniz at the highly acclaimed asador, or grill, Etxebarri.
So Europe did play a big part in what makes this Sydney restaurant so special and, in my opinion, unmissable.
Photos by Nikki To.
Firedoor 23-33 Mary Street, Surry Hills, Sydney; tel +61 (0)2 8204 0800