HOUSE ON FIRE
AN UNUSUAL BROMANCE UNDERPINS LENNOX HASTIE’S STORY – ONE THAT KEPT HIM IN A BASQUE VILLAGE FOR FIVE YEARS, SWAPPING TECHNIQUE-DRIVEN COOKING FOR FRESH PRODUCE AND A GRILL, BEFORE HE CREATED HIS OWN SENSATION IN SYDNEY.
Lennox Hastie could smell the wood smoke as soon as he stepped out of his hire car into the village of Axpe deep in the Basque mountains. On a whim, the English-born chef had decided to track down an extraordinary grill restaurant he had overheard two people talking about in nearby San Sebastiàn. He walked across the tiny cobblestoned square, past the church and into Asador Etxebarri and met head chef Victor Arguinzoniz for the first time. It was a meeting that changed both their lives.
“He didn’t look any chef I had ever seen,” Hastie tells WISH in his Sydney restaurant of two years, Firedoor, where he cooks everything over wood, and which was recently singled out and praised by The New York Times’s top food critic Pete Wells. “Victor is very industrial, hard-working and determined. I don’t think he even is human. He has to be the most impressive man I have ever met in my entire life. He became my brother/best friend/father/everything.”
Hastie spent almost every day for five years working alongside Arguinzoniz. On his one day off per week, the pair would go running together in the mountains and have lunch trying out new restaurants. On his holidays he would travel with Arguinzoniz, going to Japan to learn the latest cooking techniques or to Italy to make mozzarella. He even lived in the ruins of Arguinzoniz’s former home and went for dinner with his family. They pushed each other. If one got up early, the other one got up earlier. Hastie helped Arguinzoniz turn his restaurant into one frequented only by locals to being ranked No 6 in the world. Arguinzoniz set Hastie on a different career trajectory after his years of Michelin-starred French technique-focused training.
“I was completely absorbed,” says Hastie of Arguinzoniz and his restaurant as soon as he walked in the door. “I found a man who was alone working the grill. Watching him silently work and just the way in which it expressed such a depth to the ingredients. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of grilling. It really spoke to me and inspired me to do something different.”
Hastie, 38, was introduced to good food as a child by his Scottish grandmother Jess Lennox, after whom he is named. She lived on the Isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, had worked in hotels and had a “very different view on food” than those around her in the 1970s and 80s. She was cooking Asian food and seeking out olive oil when it was only sold at pharmacies. Hastie’s mother (also Scottish) and father (Australian) settled in the southwest of England, so Hastie spent his childhood surrounded by local farmers and producers.
His first stint in a restaurant was at the country house Gravetye Manor when he was 15. He did work experience during his school holidays at the hotel’s French restaurant and was thrown into the deep end. “I still remember my first shift,” he says. “I felt exhausted but exhilarated at the same time.” Hastie was impressed how the chefs did justice to the ingredients and how everything was done from scratch (including plucking the game birds that were brought to the back door). Hastie was hooked and he worked whenever he could. But this did not go down well with his teachers.
“My school advised against it, which was weird,” he says. “Cooking wasn’t an honourable profession and it was for the dropouts. I was keen to finish my education but as soon as I had done that, I wanted to embrace food and cooking. I moved to London and did a chef’s diploma in London, in Westminster.” Hastie did his final year at Le Gavroche, a two-Michelin starred French restaurant run by Michael Roux Jr. The kitchen was run like a military operation. It was quite an experience for the still very young Hastie, and to this day he is not sure how he survived it.
“A lot of abuse happens. It’s a very strange environment for a young person to find themselves in and a lot of people don’t necessarily last that long,” Hastie says. “A lot of people talk about the whole Gordon Ramsay thing, his first documentary series called Boiling Point – it was exactly like that. If you were sent off service, it was a walk of shame. You are just trying to earn your stripes and move up to a better position. I don’t think I can remember a prouder moment than when I made chef de partie, in charge of a meat section, because you suddenly had a position in the kitchen.”
Hastie worked in top restaurants in Britain and France all the while taking jobs as a private chef to pay the bills because “the places I wanted to work in didn’t pay chefs any money”. He then moved to San Sebastiàn because it had such a high concentration of Michelinstarred eateries. But he began to tire of the relentless focus on complicated techniques. The produce got lost. “It didn’t resonate for me when you took these amazing ingredients but the meal doesn’t represent what they are,” he says. “The moment we became too techniquefocused, we took out nature and the human element. And they are the two things I love the most: a form of instinctive cooking and embracing nature.”
Hastie started to question what he wanted to do. He was working in the best restaurants in the world but it wasn’t enough – something was missing: “I kept saying to myself, is this it? Is this what I want to be doing?” So Hastie started working in Spanish pintxo (tapas) bars and rediscovered the joy of using seasonal produce. He
cooked with what came off the fishing boats that morning or what was brought down off the farms. And it was in this bar that he overheard the conversation about Asador Etxebarri and then met Arguinzoniz.
“I worked there free for a month and absolutely loved it,” he says. “And what I loved was the grill. It was like nothing I had ever seen. It spoke to me in a very different way. Victor was someone who came from a very different background, a completely different language, but someone I connected with very early on because we shared a love of ingredients and hard work.”
Hastie had planned to spend 12 months in Spain. To the dismay of his partner, he stayed for five years. As an outsider who did not speak Spanish – and Arguinzoniz did not speak English – it took him a while to be accepted. But Arguinzoniz, who was never formally trained as a chef, did eventually listen to what he had to say. Hastie convinced him to ditch his large menu and gas oven and just focus on grilling and using the best ingredients possible. They constructed fish tanks and waterfalls to hold live fish, shellfish and eels, which they would kill to order. They grew things in the gardens. They even made space for buffalos to graze so they could make mozzarella from scratch.
“Next to what I am doing now, it was the most creative time because it was separate from any distractions. We were cooking for ourselves and the beauty of ingredients,” Hastie says. “And the thing I am most proud of is that the restaurant is still going strong because of the way we changed the demographic. When I arrived it was locals, maybe once a week or every fortnight you would get someone from overseas. But it got to a point where it has an international following and people go there from around the world. It is very much a destination restaurant.”
Then came the time when Hastie wanted to leave. He had sacrificed everything: friends, family and his girlfriend. He wanted to open his own restaurant. But Arguinzoniz did not see his point of view and his departure caused a serious rift between the pair for six years. “For him it [the grill] was a way of life, a way of expression and in me he found someone who understands him and to lose that was a huge blow,” Hastie says, sadly. “I would have been quite happy if he wished me well after working for him for so many years. It ripped my heart out, to be honest.”
Hastie came to Australia in 2011 after his wife Diana, a surgeon, accepted a job here. Hastie then set about opening his own restaurant in partnership with the Fink group (which is behind Peter Gilmore’s award-winning venues Bennelong and Quay). It took four years, thanks to the complications arising from Hastie’s desire to cook everything over fire. “It was possibly the longest gestation period in history for a restaurant,” he says. “I kid you not. It was a painful process. I looked at 120 sites in Sydney, 20 in Melbourne and a few sites out in the middle of nowhere.”
Firedoor finally opened in Surry Hills in 2015 and was met with critical acclaim. Hastie’s menu changes with the seasons as does the wood he cooks with (orange, grapevine and ironbark to name a few). He has become known for his 238-day dry aged beef rib (at $167 it is probably the country’s most extravagant steak, but also quite possibly the most sublime) and live marron from Western Australia that is simply cut in half before being grilled. Even the humble lettuce – a baby gem – gets the charcoal treatment and the result is delicious. “From this primal scene emerged cooking of almost incredible finesse,” wrote Wells in The New York Times, after visiting Firedoor on a recent trip to Australia for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Melbourne.
It was also at these awards that Hastie reconnected with Arguinzoniz for the first time since they had parted ways. But it was a fairly short reunion as his former mentor was only in the country for a few hours – Arguinzoniz could not bear being away from his grill in Spain for too long. “Victor was the only chef on the list that flew in and flew out in one day,” Hastie says. “He only had hand luggage. They gave him a knife [as a gift] but he couldn’t take it on the plane so he gave it to me.”
Hastie, who is also releasing his first cookbook next month, shares Arguinzoniz’s reluctance to step away from his grill despite its challenges. “It is insane, there are so many easier ways of cooking,” he says. “But there is nothing more exhilarating. It is instinctive, it’s immediate, it’s all-encompassing. You are so wired into it, you are part of it. For me, it is my expression.”
“What I loved was the grill. It was like nothing I had ever seen. It spoke to me in a very different way.”
Lennox Hastie mans the grill at his Sydney restaurant Firedoor.