By JrmDecember 14,2016
In today’s media, chefs are constantly in the limelight, the term ‘celebrity chef’ is in everyone’s vocabulary, and often we refer to a restaurant by the chef who owns it or who runs the kitchen, rather than by its name. This is a relatively new concept for the non-industry foodie who just enjoys eating out.
In life, we are shaped by our experiences and influences, maybe even more so in kitchens where the learning element never ends. Chefs will always learn new things, it’s a never-ending journey, this is what attracts many people to the profession in the first place. The way we cook, the way we act, the way we create, is often down to the people we work with. But the beauty is when you take that small step from being the newbie, the apprentice, the trainee, and you find your confidence to beat your own path. You are still very much a student, but you have the confidence to present your inner passion and creativity. Whether its paddock to plate, sustainable, fine dining, casual, vegetarian, or molecular gastronomy, whatever you are into, you will find your path – the thing that gets you excited. It’s not for everyone and not everyone will strive to reach that state. But when/if you do, it’s a magical feeling. That’s passion!
I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with a lot of passionate chefs and consider myself infatuated by food. But something that I hadn’t come across before was a chef as emotionally dedicated to his ingredients as Lennox Hastie. The way Lennox talks about ingredients is almost like he is talking about the love of his life.
It fascinates me, and almost makes me a bit envious. It’s like he is riding this big wave that is so high, I can only watch it from the shore, but still enjoy the endorphins and adrenaline from witnessing it. I can appreciate it, but not quite get my head around it.
Lennox recalls always having special relationships with food. It was his Scottish grandmother who introduced him to cooking when he helped her in the kitchen as a child. When Lennox turned 15 he decided that he wanted to work in a professional kitchen and got a job at a 1 Michelin star country pub near his home in Sussex, England. “It was a great place, with beautifully large gardens, a smokehouse and access to the local game. First and foremost I fell in love with the ingredients, even before I fell in love with cooking. I still remember that first day in the kitchen, and being absolutely exhausted but still having this hunger to go back for more.” This setting of local, seasonal and accessible produce and a creative high-end cooking set the bar for Lennox. And his love for the ingredients was something that would set the standards for the path he would take through his career.
After finishing high school Lennox applied to the Westminster catering college in London, where he spent his formative years studying and working at Le Gavroch in London. Once graduated, he felt the need to get out of the city and landed a job at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saison, Raymond Banc’s 2 Michelin star restaurant in Oxfordshire, UK.
“This is the most idyllic of places and most amazing kitchen, I think until this day. It has the space and the structure of a traditional kitchen, but in a modern environment. It’s a large operation, with separate butchery, separate pastry, everything made in-house. “It was very challenging when I first arrived, it was quite a scary environment, very demanding, very stressful, a lot of pressure, and a lot of brutalities, essential like the military. That’s what it was like back then, not so much now. I was young and even though I had finished my training and worked in some great kitchens, as soon as I hit the kitchen at Le Manoir, I was rock bottom again.
“This was a working kitchen, and back then we didn’t use to have stagier, so you had to work hard to prove yourself. It was such high pressure and you are under so much strain that not a lot of people lasted, and at the end of the day, you go back to your accommodation and cry. You’re exhausted, emotional and you probably haven’t eaten for a week. For people who haven’t done it, it’s hard to understand how you would put up with it. But you’re almost chasing something greater than that. “I think training grounds like that are great because they are not just teaching you how to be a cook, but they are preparing you for how to be a chef of the future and all the challenges that you will face. Not to say that I agree with some of the ways it was done. I don’t think there are many kitchens like that left. It has gone from one extreme to another; I think ideally it’s good to find a balance.”
“Lots of things. There are more people going into the kitchen nowadays but also a lot more kitchens are open. Previously it was all behind closed doors. Chefs are more in the public eye and can’t behave like they used to. But if you look at the early days documented in series like ‘Boiling Point’, that is what it was like.”
After 4 years in Oxfordshire, Lennox left Le Manoir as a Senior Chef de Partie and set sail for France. “I went from a 1 star to 2 stars to 3 stars, because I wanted to keep pushing myself. My training is classically French and that was the language of the kitchen, the way it was sectioned up.” Lennox went to work for Marc Veyrat in Annecy at the Maison de Bois (3 Michelin stars).
“One thing I love about cooking is the travelling, but it’s very hard when you go into a kitchen and you don’t speak their language, I spoke kitchen French but it was fairly limited. It was also difficult coming from a different culture that wasn’t necessarily liked in the new kitchen. They didn’t even call you by your name but by the chef that you worked under so they called me ‘Blanc’. I had about a week to prove myself.”
Lennox stayed for a year at Maison de Bois. He describes his time there as interesting. “Marc was very ahead if his time and worked a lot with molecular cuisine. We would still go foraging in the mountains and use local produce such as fish from the lake, local cheeses, goat, herbs and plants.” And although Lennox enjoyed learning the elaborate techniques and use of the artificial ingredients used in molecular cooking, it made him feel as though he had lost touch with the core ingredients. “I found that it wasn’t the type of food I wanted to cook on a daily basis, it drew me away from the ingredients.”
Lennox, still feeling the hunger to progress, left France and was naturally attracted to Spain, which back then had the most concentrated area of Michelin star restaurants anywhere. Armed with no knowledge of the Spanish language and a bag of knives, Lennox and an another chef friend drove down to San Sebastian and started knocking on kitchen doors.
“I worked briefly in a couple of 2 to 3 Michelin star restaurants and I found it very difficult, it was almost too much technique and over handling, with 6 guys dressing one plate. Some things looked amazing, but did it taste amazing? It got to the point where I thought; isn’t this too much, aren’t we pissing around with the ingredients too much? By making it into something else you might be taking away from what was beautiful about it in the first place.
“I much preferred getting a fresh ingredient, observing it, and then cooking.” However, Lennox fell in love with the Basque countryside and one night at a Pintxos bar in San Sebastian he overheard a couple of guys talking about a grill restaurant in the mountains.
“The next day, I rented a car and went looking for this restaurant which was impossible to find, but when I did I knew I had arrived.” Lennox’s eyes shine when he describes the dramatic mountain backdrop and the damp mountain air filled with the smell of wood smoke. This was Asador Etxebarri
Hearing Lennox talk about his time at Asador Etxebarri, sort of gives you an understanding of where his connection to and understanding of the ingredients comes from. Something that he surely had before he arrived at the humble restaurant in the highlands of the Basque country, but maybe those five fairly isolated years spent there gave him the time and place to dig deeper.
Victor Arguinzoniz, chef-owner of Asador Etxebarri, is a very quiet man and a self-taught chef. He bought the restaurant back in 1989, which was then a half-ruined 200-year-old stone building. He loved grilling and felt that the city needed a restaurant to engage the town, more as a community centre than anything else. Having grown up during Franco in the Basque country, Victor’s youth was shadowed by the fact that the Basque language was banned as well as many other aspects of his culture. When Lennox reached Asador decades later and met Victor, he was introduced to a hard-working, passionate man of few words, but someone he found very interesting. “It was only gradually that I understood that this was him trying to recreate his emotional experience and flavours from his childhood, as he grew up in a home without gas or electricity. For him, it was such a strong emotional experience. As soon as I discovered that, I started pushing him forward. I could see that there were things that he really enjoyed doing and I pushed him to focus on those and not bother with the other stuff. We doubled or tripled the size of the grill. We started to experiment with different kinds of woods and vines; we would source the best ingredients we could, no matter how hard they were to get.” Lennox speaks with such excitement about the ingredients they found in Spain and sometimes had flown into them. “Once you’ve had the best, you can’t go back.”
Victor and Lennox created a partnership that was all about the ingredients. Lennox lived and breathed for Asador. He worked day and night, loved living in nature, and being so close to his produce. “We had a large vegetable garden where I could pick exactly what I needed for that day, the vegetables wouldn’t even touch the fridge, that’s how fresh they were.”
Maybe it was here in the mountains of northern Spain that Lennox reconnected to his deep respect and love for fresh ingredients; it was certainly where he learned how to read the fire and coal. “When it comes to grilling you need to recognise the human element that is involved. It’s the most instinctive form of cuisine. And the ingredient that everyone forgets about – it’s you. I tell my staff here at Firedoor: this is the ingredient, this is the wood and the third ingredient is you yourself, you only get out what you put in.
I can only describe it as a sense of mindfulness, or like the slow motion scenes in a Matrix movie. In a hasty busy kitchen that is hot from the fire burning in the two ovens, and the coals that are spread over the different grills, you can see how the chefs at Firedoor slow down time. They are so focused on their ingredients and the coal, and how they can make the two shine even brighter together. Each prawn, each vegetable, each piece of meat is treated differently. It’s like they hear something we don’t and see something that the untrained eye can’t see.”
When Lennox came to Australia in 2011 he knew what he wanted to do, but wasn’t sure how to get there. Although he would have preferred a restaurant out of the city, he wanted to gain the contacts and connections with the restaurant scene here and soon paired up with the Fink Group. “I was approached by a number of people but I believed in a lot of their [Fink Group’s] principals in terms of quality of staff and quality of ingredients.“ It took them a good couple of years to find the right site for Lennox’s concept and you can imagine the issues with regulations opening a fire-based restaurant with no gas, just the open fire to operate the kitchen!
During these years Lennox was also consulting for Fink Group and had the opportunity to make great connections, one of which was with Anthony Pucharic from Vic’s meat. Together with Anthony’s support and excitement Lennox started to experiment with ageing meat. “The starting product must be great; these breeds that we work with are rough animals with a lot of marbling. When we first began it was a failure, we have had lots of failures, and it’s been hard as it takes a lot of time and money and energy to wait them out.”
Both Anthony and Lennox agreed that they were very interested in the project, and Lennox points out how special it was to work with a supplier that was really willing to see it through, no matter the lengthy process. When they first opened the beef was aged for 150 days and now they are pushing the envelope to 287 days. Since this is the only steak available on the menu at Firedoor you’ll be sure it’s special.
This is the type of relationship that Lennox has managed to create with his suppliers. By inviting them into the restaurant he has given them an understanding of what he does, and they can now approach him with the freshest and best ingredients. They know what he’s looking for.
Because of this, the menu at Firedoor will never look the same from one day to the next. Not even Lennox will know what will be on the menu as he wakes up in the morning. He will let the produce shine on the menu with help of the heat of the fire.
In time for Christmas, you can also give away one of Firedoor’s famous steaks that have been crowned “Best Steak in the World” by Rob Broadfield, West Australian.