Our kitchen uses no gas or electricity; we have two wood-fired ovens, three grills and a wood-burning hearth.
I felt compelled to open the restaurant as a means of expression, more for the ingredients and the fire than for myself. I hadn’t cooked for four years and I didn’t even have a menu – just a fire, some ingredients and a burning desire to showcase their beautiful relationship.
But there were many hurdles along the way. Opening and operating any restaurant in Sydney has its challenges, but my desire to use fire – and only fire – was hampered by planning restrictions, finding the right site and a lack of finance. I also had to overcome a general misunderstanding of what a grill restaurant is and, more importantly, what it can be. To this day, when I tell people that I have a wood-fired restaurant, they will invariably ask what type of pizzas I serve.
As it was, the length of time it took for me to open the restaurant was crucial, as the success of the restaurant relies on both the knowledge I have gained and the strong relationships I have developed.
When we built Firedoor, I had to design kitchen equipment around the demands of the space and our unique style of cooking. I couldn’t just buy ‘off the shelf’. Our kitchen uses no gas or electricity; we have two wood-fired ovens, three grills and a wood-burning hearth. All of the equipment was prototype, meaning the restaurant would be the testing ground.
The ovens were the first parts to be built, as they are the essential foundation of the kitchen and, in many senses, the ‘home’ of the fire. We operate two domed ovens that sit side by side, dormant until the fire is ignited. We rotate how we use the ovens every day: one is for making embers and the other, with its residual heat, is for baking bread and slow roasting vegetables, fish and whole animals. When we cook, we have to time our preparations to be in complete harmony with the heat.
A fire is lit in one oven and slowly builds throughout the day, growing from a small bed of smouldering embers to a raging inferno. By the time the kitchen is at the height of service, the oven is literally a furnace, reaching temperatures up to 1600°C (2900°F), which is hot enough to fabricate glass. The high heat of the oven produces a chain reaction, igniting volatile gases that in turn produce intense embers.
We constantly feed the fire during service, replenishing it with different woods in accordance with what we are cooking, and how many people we are cooking for. We generally have about seven different woods on hand and every day select four or five, depending entirely on the ingredients we are using.
Our adjustable grills were designed to improve on the system that we used in Spain. We designed two pulleys instead of one, for strength and stability; a higher ratio drive system for quicker, more minute adjustments; and a completely removable grill frame, making it easier to clean. This ensures there is no build-up of unwanted flavours. Having separate grills allows us to cook the wide range of dishes we feature on the menu at the same time, and still retain the intrinsic character of each ingredient.
We compose the menu daily, based on the best produce available. This approach gives me ultimate freedom; if something isn’t available or doesn’t make the quality grade, it doesn’t go on the menu. Our menu lists dishes according to their flavour profile – from those featuring light ingredients through to heavier ones – and this provides the diner with a progressive eating experience, which they can tailor any way they wish. We often have limited amounts of certain ingredients and these are verbally offered to customers at the table or incorporated into a tailored chef’s menu.
We work with many farmers, producers and suppliers, and I challenge them to bring me the best and most interesting quality ingredients they have. I invite them to the restaurant so they can better understand what we do and I always emphasise the important role they play. I often ask them to bring me what they would choose to eat and I cook with that; every ingredient I choose has to be special in some way.
We kill shellfish to order, work with live fish, partner with farmers to grow bespoke vegetables, and age meat such as lamb, pork, chicken and beef. Everything we serve is touched by fire in some way – we even grill salad and smoke ice cream.
Firedoor is an unusual restaurant that is hard to categorise, but I’m fine with that. We don’t offer fine dining and we are not entirely casual either, choosing to strike a balance somewhere between the two. We focus on quality ingredients grilled to order, combined with friendly, informative service. The space is open-plan, allowing guests a clear view of the action that unfolds in the kitchen. It is my first open kitchen, and grilling would be easier without the distraction – but I’ve never taken the easy path. I wanted to invite people into my world and show them how simple it could be, and how good ingredients can become great ingredients when grilled over a wood fire.
I am proud of what my team and I have achieved, but, as most chefs know, the daily challenge never ends. I continue to work with fire because it pushes my limits, and that sparks creativity. The ever-changing variables of both fire and ingredients make this the hardest form of cuisine to execute, in terms of achieving consistent results. But every day the fire reminds me to listen to the ingredient. And the ingredient reminds me why I love what I do.
This is an edited extract from Finding Fire by Lennox Hastie published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $60 and is available in stores nationally.
Image credit: Nikki To