A new spin on the caveman kitchen

In cooking with wood, the oldest form of cookery, a chef finds sublime new flavours
Jacob Richler
A caveman kitchen with finesse
Photograph by Cole Garside

Park a giant trailer-mounted wood-burning pizza oven in a driveway on a sub-zero January afternoon, fire it up to raging so that it billows sweet wood smoke into the frigid breeze, and you are bound to attract attention from the passersby—even in Stratford, Ont., at the dead-quiet corner of Albert and Nile. And as this scene unfolded a few weeks ago, those who stopped for a closer look found it even stranger than at first glance.

For starters, the man in charge was not cooking pizza, but wood, and so opened the brick oven only to add more logs to his fire and to transfer some of the smouldering coals and embers to a neighbouring set of open, stainless steel grills. He also spoke with an Australian accent, and while the Canadians gathered around were all bundled in winter coats, hats and gloves, he saw fit to carry on in nothing more than jeans and a T-shirt.

The man impervious to the cold was Lennox Hastie, an English-born chef who, after successive stints working for some of the best in Europe (the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Marc Veyrat, et al.) found his calling at the smoky side of the legendary Victor Arguinzoniz at his restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, in a small town in the Spanish hills above Bilbao. Together they developed a unique cuisine that seems self-contradictory—for it is simultaneously entirely new, and the oldest form of cookery there is. They cooked by fire—but not over a flame. They used the heat of smouldering embers of white oak and local fruitwood, carefully selected for the subtly different purpose at hand. And they applied its pure heat with previously unattained finesse to raw products that no one had ever cooked that way.

They were, and remain, fascinated by wood because of what it is: the original way of doing things. “Every culture has a different culture of grilling,” said Hastie. “Everyone has something different to contribute. It’s an art that shouldn’t be lost.” A meal at Asador Etxebarri might feature grilled beluga caviar (smoke-infused and barely heated through, on a protective bed of kelp). Arguinzoniz built a special basket in which to grill live baby eels. He grilled risotto, and when he grilled fish, it bore no grill marks. “It was absolutely incredible,” reported chef David Lee, co-owner of Nota Bene in Toronto, who returned from a meal there so impressed that he took to sketching elaborate custom grills he hoped to one day build in his backyard.

Last year, Asador Etxebarri jumped an astonishing 19 places in the S. Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants, to land at number 31. It was also the year Hastie decided to move on and return to his father’s native Australia with a view to opening a place of his own. “I had planned to spend a year in Spain—and I spent five years of my life in that remote community,” he said. The timing was right to go home to Australia.

More recently, in Stratford, it was time for dinner. For while Hastie had been enticed from Sydney to Stratford for the primary purpose of giving some courses at the Stratford Chefs School, he was also putting on a four-course dinner at its affiliated restaurant, the Old Prune. A first plate featured grilled king oysters and shiitake mushrooms heaped on a mound of charred, peeled eggplant as tender as mousse. Then there was a little grilled fillet of sablefish and pork belly slow-cooked in the residual morning-after heat of his pizza oven. Then a showstopper ice cream made from wood-smoked milk—plucked straight from the Etxebarri repertoire, albeit with a purée of Canadian sea buckthorn standing in for the berries.

And with that, he was off to Australia to look for that perfect location in Sydney, or Melbourne, or even the countryside, Etxebarri-style. Wherever he ends up, Hastie is sure of one thing: “No cooking with electricity or gas—only wood. It will be the first in Australia.” And in most of the First World, so far as I know.