A Foolproof Guide to Campfire Cooking with Lennox Hastie
Heading out of town this long weekend? Impress your family, friends and tent-door neighbours with new and improved fire-starting skills, courtesy of pyro-pro and head chef of acclaimed Sydney restaurant, Firedoor.By Sarah Frish
The story of humans harnessing fire stretches back millennia. From the first flame ignited hundreds of thousands of years ago, fire has been a catalyst for human evolution, an intensely ritualistic practice affording us light, safety, a sense of community and greater purpose. For many, cooking with fire is a skill that’s evaded our modern sensibility, aside from the ol’ Webber. We’ve got the basics down pat. Marshmallow. Stick. Flame. With the press of a button, we can ignite a spark, but that’s the extent of our pyro-prowess. So, in the lead-up to a long weekend in the sticks, we pulled Lennox Hastie away from his grill at Firedoor, where we’re lucky enough to regularly shoot dynamic stills and video content, to get his hot take on cooking with fire while you’re out and about.
So you want to build a campfire…
Lennox recommends reading up on the rules first. “There are certain areas you can light fires, some places are even set up for it,” he explains. Choose your camping spot wisely and check you’ve got all the necessary permissions. Lennox recommends somewhere like Killalea State Park, “They’ve got a campfire set-up, a great surfing beach and it’s just two hours or so from Sydney’s CBD.”
Next, check your kit. “Your equipment can be super basic,” he says, “a couple of bricks and a cake rack is all you need to set up a simple grill.” Even better, invest in a grill rack, allowing you to suspend ingredients over the embers, giving you greater control when cooking. Hello perfectly grilled prawns, snapper and steak. Other handy tools include a fire shovel to help move embers, gloves for safety, a spray bottle to use over ingredients whilst grilling, aluminium foil for wrapping food and a pair of good-quality tongs.
“All wood is not created equal,” says Lennox. “You need it to be dry and seasoned, not too green or with too much moisture or you’ll get bad smoke,” which can be too thick and doesn’t taste great. Look for wood that is notably lighter in weight, its colour paler. A wood that’s seasoned and dry can split readily, “Think of the way a branch cracks underfoot,” he suggests. If you struggle to cut through it and need a saw, it’s not ready.
Gathering wood from your surrounds - while exciting in theory - is not always a viable option. Lennox suggests sourcing premium hardwood from a recognised supplier before you start. A base hardwood such as oak should be your first step, accompanied by kindling (smaller pieces of wood, like pine-needles). From there, you can build the flavour profile of your fire, using fallen branches from fruit trees or olive groves to add aromatics to what you’re grilling. For a full flavour play-by-play, check out Lennox’s encyclopaedic book on elemental cooking, Finding Fire (shot by Buffet Co-Director, Nikki To).
Burn baby burn.
There are over 10 different ways to build a fire, says Lennox, but the fundamental steps are the same. Fuel. Heat. Oxygen. Without one, the others fail to produce fire. Lennox prefers the ‘log cabin’ method, it holds its structure and retains airflow. The ‘log cabin’ method calls for a stable foundation, made with two logs placed parallel to each other. From there, build your fire, alternating between kindling and logs bridging the gap between each layer so your structure has a square shape, retaining an open, hollow centre. Once you’ve built the foundations, “you can put a pan on top of it and fry something whilst you’re waiting for the fire to develop down below,” says Lennox. Time-efficient and delicious!
More than s'mores…
Patience is the name of the game when it comes to cooking over fire. “If you cook in the flames directly, your food will end up with a sooty, black exterior that’s raw on the inside,” he explains. Instead, Lennox recommends waiting until you have a solid foundation of embers and a consistent source of heat. He’ll even cook ingredients in the ashes themselves. Think whole kohlrabi, pumpkin and even onions, “Leave them in their shell and let them go all soft and caramelised, finish with a fresh goat’s curd and a drizzle of olive oil”.
For rock-hoppers camping by the coast...
If you’re heading seaside this weekend, you’ll be more exposed to the elements like wind chill and changing tides. “The effect of having wind come through can really pull the heat and with wind, comes sand,” says Lennox. Try starting your fire in an area protected from the coastal breeze or crafting a DIY fire pit, hollowing out space under the fire so it’s set slightly below ground. You don’t want to go through the four-day process of purging pippies to find sand back in their shells, after all.
If you’re by the coast, try foraged driftwood as your tinder source. You can even use wet seaweed, suggests Lennox, it’ll create more steam and is great for cooking fish, potatoes and vegetables. Alternatively, if you don’t have aluminium foil handy, you can use seaweed to wrap and cook your whole fish. If you’ve got sturdy sea legs and a knack for knots, try fishing for your mains. Lennox loves blue swimmer crab, whole grilled John Dory or pipis with grilled garlic scapes and fresh karkalla.
And if you’re heading to the country...
Keep an eye out for inland, pine forest plantations. Dry pine needles make great kindling, burning readily when ignited. This time of year, you could even luck out and find pine mushrooms (but don’t pick anything you’re not 100% certain is safe, kids). “It’s a great thing when you can forage and cook your food in the same area”, says Lennox. Safety should be a priority by the bush, always allow your fire to grow gradually and check local fire regulations before you embark on your spark.
Being in the bush is a beautiful excuse to hero earthy, grounded flavours in your cooking. Beef ribs grilled over grapevines are a great place to start, just make sure you’re cooking over embers so the steak is only being licked by flames, rotating it every couple of minutes until the ribs caramelise to rich mahogany. Serve with coal-roasted butternut pumpkin, creamy smoked ricotta and the ember-cooked onions Lennox swears by (recipes available in Finding Fire).
And if it rains? Time for a Plan B…
More like Plan Blizzard if you ask Lennox, who’s cooked in rain, hail and a literal snowstorm. “It’s not the best experience,” he says, but if you’re embracing nature, at some point, you’ve got to accept it’s part and parcel of the gig. Fear not, fire starters, your embers should burn through a light shower (no guarantees during a downpour, though).
So what are you waiting for? Load up the Esky, track down the swag and pull out the camp cutlery, you’re ready to hit the road. Show us your campfire skills this weekend and tag us in any of your creations. Sign up to the Buffet newsletter for more hot tips and tricks 🔥
Fire-friendly recipes for your long weekend:
- Finding Fire
- Fire-Roasted Pumpkin Fondue
- Peach-Blackberry Camp Cake
- Green Eggs with Leftover Smoked Trout
All images sourced from Finding Fire by Lennox Hastie, Hardie Grant Publishing (2017). Copyright photography © Nikki To (2017).