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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT K POR­TRAIT NICK CUBBIN

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.

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