A deep purple, almost brown marron crawls slowly across a blue chopping board, momentarily free, before it’s swiftly sliced through the middle by Lennox Hastie. “With any shellfish, it’s better to get them live. As soon as it’s dead, it’s depreciating,” says the chef. “There is something beautiful about seeing and acknowledging what you’re eating. The more you know about each thing, the better.”
Hastie shows me a container of live prawns before putting them, still alive, on the grill in a metal sieve where they turn from purple to salmon. With a careful sprinkle of salt so they end up with a crust, he serves them as is. It’s been less than 10 minutes from alive in the tank to cooked on a plate.
Welcome to Firedoor, one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the past five years. Hastie has been with The Fink Group (Quay, Otto) since 2011, when he moved to Australia. Ever since, food critics have been impatiently waiting. Articles drumming up excitement about the restaurant were popping up four years before opening night. The city’s food writers knew that whatever Hastie did, it would be groundbreaking. Having made a name for himself by revolutionising the way one can cook over fire in Spain, Hastie chose Sydney for his first restaurant.
Hastie’s CV is a list of Europe’s must-visit, Michelin-starred restaurants. He never stayed long at any; the technique-driven style he encountered left him restless. After overhearing a conversation at a pub in Spain about an asadostyle restaurant (grilling meat over coals), Hastie went searching. He started working the next day at Asador Etxebarri, in a village in the Basque region of Spain. There, he became chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s right-hand man on the grill, cemented his love for fire and put Etxebarri on the map (and in the Michelin Guide). Perhaps the single most interesting thing about Hastie is the emphasis he puts on the fuel for his fire. Wood is as important to him as the produce that it cooks. “Most people who grill view it primarily as a heat source, which it is,” he says. “But it goes beyond that – it provides heat and flavour.” Hastie lights up on this topic, holding my gaze unflinchingly as he talks about the structural difference between soft and hard wood. “It’s not just the type of wood, but also where the tree was grown; how old the tree was; how long ago it was cut; how long it was dried for; the humidity in the wood. There are so many different variables you have to take into account.” He pauses, sighing. “There is no definitive recipe.”
Firedoor has two tanks of live crustaceans and molluscs, and also has an AGA; a castiron oven invented in 1922 that uses the mass of the iron to retain heat from a slowburning source, such as coal. While sighted occasionally in homes around the country, you’re very unlikely to find one in any other commercial kitchen.
As well as the AGA, at any one time in the Firedoor kitchen there is an oven and a “fire chamber” working in tandem. The fire chamber burns embers at 1200 degrees in the middle, 800–900 degrees on the outer edge. On alternate days it will cool down to around 300 degrees, a temperature suitable for cooking bread, lamb shoulder and pastry.
There are no dials on this oven to manage settings, and it’s too hot even for a laser thermometer. Using it is completely intuitive, and Hastie has total mastery of it. To cook everything else, the chef shovels embers from the fire chamber and artfully heaps them below his grill, which can be winched closer to or further from the heat.
So what is Hastie doing in Mary Street, Surry Hills, when he could open a restaurant anywhere in the world? Family, for one – his father is Australian. There’s an energy that attracts him, too. “There’s a lot here. Excitement and young up-and-coming chefs. At the moment, Australia screams opportunity,” he says. “There’s a thirst for something innovative, out of the ordinary.”
With Michelin-starred Jason Atherton’s first Australian venue, Kensington Street Social, opening in July, and Rene Redzepi of Noma’s covert visit this year sparking rumours, along with numerous other exciting openings by young Australian chefs, Sydney is being recognised as a key player on the world food map.
To eat Hastie’s food is to honour the quality of the ingredient and where and how it was grown. But not everything works on the grill. Hastie experimented with cooking a type of oyster, which turned out to be disgusting. “That’s the thing about the fire – it intensifies flavour. If the flavour is good, it’s incredible. But if it’s bad, it’s even more pronounced.” His ingredients have no rich sauces to hide behind, and there is no sous vide to cook each ingredient perfectly in the exact same way each time it’s made. If you like something at Firedoor, don’t expect to come back and have it.
“There is a harmony between the ingredient and fire you can only understand when you taste it,” Hastie says. Working with fire in this way – using different types of wood and very specifically manipulating the temperature of the embers – is not exactly controlling, but rather working with it. The fire can become delicate.
“It’s where the true flavour of an ingredient lies for me; it’s in its purest form,” he says. “There’s not a style of cooking that’s more honest, that has more integrity. At the end of the day that’s all you’ve got: the ingredient and the fire and nothing else.”
At Firedoor, wood is everywhere: stacks of logs line the window sills, the front of the bar is made from one thick, grainy piece and chairs are smooth but unstained.
The room is compact but feels spacious. There’s a completely open kitchen in one corner with a bar from which you can see the chefs rake coals and spray oil on the embers to make flames burst forth. “Even though it makes it more difficult for me – you need maximum concentration when grilling – I wanted it to be as transparent as possible, to show there’s no smoke and mirrors,” Hastie says. That’s not quite true – there is smoke, and virtually only smoke. At Etxebarri he used an induction cooktop to finish dishes off, but Firedoor has no modern cooking appliances. It is certainly the first place in Australia to do this, perhaps even the world, in a modern restaurant.
For the past couple of years, Hastie has been getting to know wood. “Most barbeque in Australia tends to be done with gas or briquette, so I went further back, to Aboriginal history for inspiration. They understand the land and fire is crucial to their survival. I’m using mallee root, gidgee, iron bark.” He says all types of citrus trees work well as do stone fruits and apple trees. One of his favourites is grapevines. “We produce so much wine, but no one uses the grapevine for anything. Gnarly grapevines burn with very aromatic qualities.”
The philosophy of Firedoor echoes the Japanese aesthetic, wabi-sabi. It’s the appreciation of impermanence, imperfection and simplicity.
When I mention this to Hastie, he acknowledges the simpatico. “I want to work in Japan at some point,” he says. “They will take something like one piece of tempura or sashimi, which they will prepare in a certain manner, you eat that piece and you savour that moment. When a piece of food comes off the grill – in another restaurant it might sit at a waiting station for a while, then be taken to a table. Here, there is an immediacy and energy that is in the food.”
On the Firedoor menu, there are no starters or mains, no “smaller bites” or “larger dishes to share”. It reads as a list of ingredients, from light to heavy, some sold by weight. It’s tailored to each table, to the style of food and the dishes they are interested in trying. “When you have a very good ingredient and treat it with respect, it has a very powerful flavour and a small amount goes a long way,” says Hastie.
Hastie doesn’t curate the menu, his suppliers do. He explains to his staff at a training two weeks before opening that “Chefs are so used to saying, ‘This is the menu and this is what I need’, and buying ingredients at a certain volume and price. It takes a lot more time, more communication, to do it this way – to ask the suppliers what they think is the best ingredients of the day, and go from there.”
There will be one cut of beef for the whole night, carved to order on a lovingly restored butcher’s block. “The prices are a reflection of their market value,” Hastie says, “which is something difficult for Australians to understand – what a product is actually worth.” There will be a whole fish option; vegetable dishes such as a medley of mushrooms with eggplant and pippies cooked live with lemon oil, served simply in their own juices.
It’s not grilling as we know it. There are no perfect criss-cross bar marks, no blackened outer layer. There is something about Hastie’s food that makes you stand to attention when you put it in your mouth. The flavour is intense, like suddenly listening to music through high quality speakers when you’re used to the tinny sound from your computer. You taste more, and notice how the flavour profile changes with each bite. If it’s cooked over apple wood and it doesn’t taste like apple, of course, but there is a sweetness – without the smokiness of most fire-cooked food I’ve tasted. There’s an earthiness, a natural quality. The food tastes of exactly what it is and nothing else.
“Cooking with fire is the oldest method there is. It’s imbued with different connotations for different cultures, celebrating, bringing the family together,” Hastie says. “My method is more refined. It realises the potential of different woods burning at different temperatures and how you can adapt it to cook an entire menu. I don’t see why it can’t be part of the everyday.”
23-33 Mary Street Surry Hills
(02) 8204 0800