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John Niland. Photo/Rob Palmer/Supplied

The Sydney chef behind a sustainable seafood revolution

Josh Niland has taken seafood into uncharted waters – from dry-aged fillets to fish bacon and fish-eye chips. His new book aims to help us buy, store and cook kaimoana better and use the whole fish, scale to tail. 

When he was barely a teenager, recovering from childhood cancer, Josh Niland started cooking dinner for his parents and sister. Nothing fancy, he says, but he loved how “a couple of hours of peeling and chopping and looking after something on the stove translated into everybody having a great time … It wasn’t like I was going, ‘I want to be a chef.’”

By the age of 15, he’d convinced his parents to let him leave school for an apprenticeship, and another 15 years on, what chef Niland is doing with fish is up there with what Spain’s Ferran Adrià did for foam at El Bulli in the 1990s. At Saint Peter, his restaurant in Sydney’s Paddington, Niland serves up fish-eye chips, dry-aged Murray cod, sea urchin crumpets and tuna steaks frenched to look like a crown roast. A few doors up at his Fish Butchery store, there’s fresh fish and fish charcuterie for sale, alongside such takeaways as garfish sandwiches and charcoal-grilled tuna burgers with swordfish bacon.

His fish fetish is about using every last morsel, down to the eyes and innards. He has written a book on the subject, The Whole Fish Cookbook, and says the “entire way of thinking about how we process fish needs to be overhauled, with far more consideration given to the elements of a fish that would traditionally be considered ‘waste’”. He points out that sausages, terrine and bread and butter pudding all came from a desire to use offcuts of one sort or another.

Read more: Kai Ika: The project that saves fish parts from the waste bin

“To be able to work with the whole fish and put dishes together that feature both offal and fillet on the plate is thrilling for me, as less gets thrown away. But it’s also exciting for customers as they are able to see the luxury that lies within these ingredients.”

After the book came out in September, Niland took his fish knives to the UK and the US, being feted by the likes of Jamie Oliver, offal king Fergus Henderson and New York “philosopher chef” Dan Barber and demonstrating fish butchery at Fortnum & Mason. Back home, he’s “hugely respected in our industry”, says Australian chef and author Christine Manfield. “He’s one of the most exciting talents and very much a chef for our times.”

Niland. Photo/Rob Palmer/Supplied

Fear of fish

Fish is a low-fat, high-quality protein, filled with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins and nutrients that can lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. And the fishing industry is gradually improving its woeful record of harvesting sustainably. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week as part of a healthy diet. But many consumers remain shy of fish – not just because of the comparatively high price of the “fresh” fillets sold in supermarkets and fish shops. Most consumers lack knowledge of fish or an understanding of fish cookery, says Niland, and his book sets out to address the “variables” – such as storage and preparation – that put most people off.

“Buying and cooking only fish fillets is not only creatively limiting but also neglects the majority of the fish.” He says that’s a shame from both an ethical and sustainability point of view. “Using the whole fish shows a great amount of respect for what is a globally depleting commodity.”

Niland acknowledges not everyone has the time, equipment or skills to scale, gut and fillet fish and cook it well. But bad experiences may have less to do with the quality of the fish and more to do with storage, preparation and the cooking method or temperature. His book gives home cooks and experienced chefs pointers on becoming confident with more species and parts of fish, and includes step-by-step instructions on preparation and filleting to make the most of “all the opportunities a fish presents”. Gutting, for instance, is only necessary if you are going to store the fish or if you want to use the offal – which he recommends.

“When you get a piece of fish that’s been correctly handled, it blows your mind because it’s so simple. It’s Spanish mackerel sitting next to some mushrooms, and as a restaurant customer, when it arrives you might say, ‘I can do that, this isn’t that flash!’ And then they eat it, and it’s like, ‘How does this taste so good? How is the skin so crispy?”

Niland, aged 31, met wife Julie, now 29, at a cooking competition when they were both apprentices, and says her input has been instrumental in Saint Peter’s success. “Julie was the one who looked at the layout and said we could get 34 seats in here when the architect had said, no, we could only get 22 – that’s obviously a big business boost.”

After they married, their extended European honeymoon included working at Heston Blumenthal’s UK restaurant The Fat Duck, renowned for innovative British cuisine.

Josh and Julie Niland. Photo/Rob Palmer/Supplied

Childhood cancer

But Niland’s love affair with cooking had begun when he was much younger. “I was eight when I got sick. I had my right kidney taken out for a Wilms’ tumour; chemo followed, and radiotherapy and all that stuff. I found myself at home a bit more, so I would watch daytime TV.” Along with watching Days of Our Lives, he became hooked on food shows. Soon, he was adding items on to the family shopping list and cooking dinners.

By the time he had recovered from his illness, the cooking bug had bitten deep. “I’d try using flatbread for toasted sandwiches, oyster sauce instead of tomato sauce, and I’d get mum to buy really silly, expensive, exotic mushrooms.” By the end of Year 10, he’d already worked in local cafes and had his parents’ blessing to do an apprenticeship.

He started at The Brewery in Newcastle, where a charity lunch for children’s cancer opened a door for him. Peter Doyle, chef at upscale Sydney restaurant est., was there to cook at the fundraiser and apprentice chef Niland was the opening speaker.

Doyle still recalls meeting him. “I was very impressed with the way he projected his life journey in front of such a large crowd at the age of 16,” says Doyle, who retired from est. in 2018. When Niland moved to Sydney, he worked his way up in a number of high-end restaurants, including Doyle’s.

All the while, Niland’s fish fascination was growing. “Big kitchens are set up with stations where people do their thing. I was always watching the fish section. It seemed like the most intelligent, the most creative, the most accurate, the guy with the sharpest knives. It was just this allure.”

Doyle introduced his young chef to Stephen Hodges, who had 34-seat Darlinghurst restaurant Fish Face. After only a few weeks, Niland was made head chef. Over three years, “I had the privilege of cooking just about every species of fish in Australia – it all came through the doors at Fish Face, and Steve told me a method of cookery for every single one of those fish.”

Niland’s focus began to narrow on the potential for the whole fish, and he and Julie were dreaming of their own restaurant. When they took the plunge in 2016, they called it Saint Peter, a nod to the patron saint of fishermen and St Pierre, the alternative name for john dory. Its plates carry the single black spot of that fish.

From Saint Peter’s tiny kitchen, Niland and his team quickly attracted attention. After a New York Times review in January 2018, getting a reservation was like finding a pearl in an oyster.

“I’ve worked with a lot of chefs who can push on, and many who are creative, but never someone who could do both to the standards he holds,” says Alanna Sapwell, who became head chef for Niland at Saint Peter and is now head chef at a Brisbane riverside restaurant. “He looked 14, but he is still to this day one of the most thoughtful, mature people I know.”

In 2019, he was awarded Gourmet Traveller magazine’s chef of the year and named a finalist in the Ethical Thinking category of the inaugural World Restaurant Awards.

Photo/Rob Palmer/Supplied

Fish as meat

Fish-eye chips, which look something like a prawn cracker, and john dory liver pâté on toast got the headlines, but the backbone of Saint Peter’s success has been the personally procured and expertly handled fish, as well as the inventiveness of Niland’s dishes.

“I look at fish more as meat,” he says. “If you think of it only as fish, then you’re very limited to what you can put with it, or how you can cook it. Whereas if you can make something look like meat, or if you can think that maybe the flavour is a little bit similar to lamb, then there’s a base repertoire.

“You can use more savoury, complex ingredients with well-handled fish, especially aged fish. The longer you push out some of these oilier, dense fish, the more savoury they become. Fish have glutamates and with time, good handling and temperature control, the glutamates become active inside the fish. When you eat it, it tastes really savoury and you don’t know why it’s so yummy. It’s like parmesan cheese and tomato sauce and all these things that we really love.”

In April 2018, the couple opened Fish Butchery. “People were telling us the restaurant is so great but they can’t cook fish like that at home, and that’s because they can’t easily buy fish that’s been handled so carefully, bought from a fisherman whose name we know,” says Julie Niland. “So, we started thinking about how we could sell it.”

Staff are primed to offer advice on how to cook fish. “If we’ve got coral trout and someone says, ‘Can I get four pieces?’, we’ll pull the whole fish out and say, ‘Instead of four little blocks, how about you take a block that feeds four, cook it as one piece in the oven, for X amount of time at X temperature, and then, when it comes out, chop it into four.’ We want to make sure that the $40 you’re investing in this slab of coral trout is going to be justified and you have a great experience. If it’s dry and horrible, then that’s a problem for me, even if it’s not my fault.”

Niland has visited New Zealand, where he tried Bluff oysters, “which were extraordinary – I loved them. People like Leigh Fisheries [bought last July by Foodstuffs] and Gravity Fishing, they’re really forward-thinking fishermen, and although I can’t speak intimately about how people cook and eat fish domestically over there, you’re spoilt for diversity and should be eating fish every night of the week.”

THE WHOLE FISH COOKBOOK, by Josh Niland (Hardie Grant Publishing, $60)

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.