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'Why take two fish out of the water when you only have to take one?'
Gems in this
Famously known as the Fish Butcher, Sydney–based chef Josh Niland is changing the way we cook and eat seafood globally. He opened sustainable seafood restaurant Saint Peter, then the Fish Butchery, has written two best-selling cookbooks, and is about to reinvent the everyday fish and chip shop with a concept called Charcoal Fish.
Grounding for this lauded and impressive career was built with time in kitchens around the globe, including the Fat Duck in Berkshire, just out of London. After his time in the kitchen with Heston Blumenthal, Josh traveled to France and Spain and returned to Australia, fuelled by inspiration. We spoke with Josh from his new Sydney restaurant about how different cultures shaped his creative perspective, re-imagining how we eat fish and his favorite places in London and Sydney.
On where your creativity has taken you
I was 20 when I met Julie, my wife. We got married and then went to work at The Fat Duck in the UK. I had the privilege and opportunity to work directly with the development team there that worked on all of Heston's projects, The Hind’s Head, The Crown, The Fat Duck and Dinner by Heston. I also worked on Heston at Home, the cookbook. So getting over there and being told that you were working on a domesticated cookbook was kind of disappointing, until I actually started doing the work. It ended up being some of the best work I've ever done, and the most applicable thing that I could bring back to the Australian market.
On following food around Europe
We had our proper honeymoon in Paris whilst I worked at Hôtel Balzac, which is a three Michelin star restaurant. I just needed to work in a three Michelin star Parisian restaurant in Paris, because such mythical things you just don't know until you're in there. To be a part of that for a very short moment within a week was amazing. The fact that they made about 30 different breads as well…I mean, just to see the level of talent in one room was extraordinary. After that we went to Spain where I didn't work, but we've had some incredible meals. We got to eat at Asador Etxebarri and Mugaritz, and we got to eat all through the old towns and all the beautiful tapas and pinchos.
On what you have learned from working and eating around the world
I think the biggest thing to crystallize for Julie and I is that we worked out why we loved to eat, and what we loved about a restaurant. The biggest thing was that we didn't want to do a tasting menu. We didn't want to do exhaustive degustation, long experiential stuff, because that wasn't where our personal joys were. We experienced amazing meals that were done like that, but it was not something that we wanted to replicate ourselves. We were very adamant that we loved an à la carte experience.
On leaving school and starting work
I decided to leave school in year 10 when I was 15. I went straight into a cooking apprenticeship in a restaurant in Newcastle. It was great in the sense that I learned very good basic skills. It gave me really sound acumen when it came to all the basic one-on-one etiquette of how to work in a kitchen: from cleaning, to the way you presented yourself, to making mayonnaise, and how to season food. I feel sometimes now in the new generation, those sorts of things aren't deemed as being as relevant or sexy, but they are so necessary.
'Getting to the UK and being told that you were working on a domesticated cookbook was disappointing until I actually started doing the work. It ended up being some of the best work I've ever done, and the most applicable thing I could bring back to the Australian market.'
On working at some of the best restaurants in Sydney
I moved to Sydney when I was 17 and worked at Glass Brasserie, which was a brand new brasserie opened by Luke Mangan at the Hilton Hotel. I learned a lot about myself and how impatient I was at that time. From there I went to work at Quay, which is one of the best restaurants that we've ever had in Australia. At Quay everything was so accurate, precise, exacting, and compartmentalised in terms of the work. Back then, if you were on a dish, you were on that one dish and you didn't look at any other dishes. While super efficient, it did not gel with how I had been trained as a cook. I didn't have enough freedom or ability to change, and I suppose for me, there was a little bit less romance to it. So I went to work with Peter Doyle at Est. From there I did pastry and then fish.
On where your fascination for fish began
Fish stations in a high achieving kitchen like Est are extremely detailed focussed. I became fascinated with the detail involved with fish and the fragility of the protein. It was so interesting that you only had such a finite amount of time to work with it. Then I had a meal with Dad at Fish Face in Darlinghurst and it was amazing. I hadn't eaten fish like that before in my life. The way [chef] Stephen Hodges operated was just so different than everybody else. It was a 30-seat restaurant, he was loud, he was aggressive, he was so manic and crazy, the whole experience was wild. The turning over of tables was so fast. There'd be people that would come in at 6.00 pm, and leave by 6.30 or 6.45 pm, and the restaurant was already onto their next sitting. I started eating meals at Fish Face every now and again. I’d go over there and see what was on the menu and what was in season, because they were writing new menus most days. It would change based on what fish was coming in. I thought of it as an educational tool to eat there because when you work in big kitchens, you only get to experience a certain amount of species. So, I went and worked at Fish Face.
On being dynamic as a chef
Just working somewhere as dynamic and adaptable as that was just more desirable for me at that time. Est offered so much decorum and etiquette, professionalism, structure and diverse learning in terms of techniques. But at that time I felt like the world was starting to evolve and change the way that it was eating and what the expectations were around a restaurant. I think the biggest thing that I took away from the whole experience at Fish Face was the fact that Stephen allowed me to fail, every day I was allowed to try things and to make mistakes.
'The biggest thing that I took away from the whole experience at Fish Face was the fact that Stephen allowed me to fail, every day I was allowed to try things and to make mistakes.'
On your latest eatery Charcoal Fish
There's something so unique about the chicken shop model in Australia, where you can just take the family and get the chicken and some nice salads or vegetables. It’s not perceived as junk food, nor is it perceived as healthy food. It's just a wonderful, nice nourishing meal that because it's chicken comes in at a great price point. So why can't we do a charcoal chicken shop, replacing the chicken with fish?
On the concept of the Fish Butcher
The word ‘mongering’ needs to be completely thrown out the window, because mongering refers to dealing and trading in a commodity. And if we continue to talk about fish as a commodity, then we won't have it in the ocean too long. There's a number of things that we've developed at Fish Butchery over a very short period of time, and that's been born more out of logic than any kind of creative genius. That is, hanging fish by a hook as a method of storage, dry aging fish or using fish for charcuterie or eating the offal from a fish in a western manner in terrines and pâtés.
We purchase all that fish direct from fishermen. We don't specify exactly what we want. We just give them the freedom to send what they think is great and what's in season. And that's a wonderful way to work. It kind of informs our staff better so that we can sell it better. And we can say, ‘Rock flathead is in season and you should be eating it right now, and here's three ways to cook it. And if you want us to butterfly, if you want us to crumb it, if you want us to take the head off, if you want us to do anything then tell us’. That is the role of the fish butcher.
On what sustainability means
For me, sustainability comes in the form of doubling the output of one single fish and being more aware of wastage. Why take two fish out of the water when you only have to take one? That's one of the biggest things and that's what I've tried to joyfully project in this new book, Take One Fish.
'My favorite restaurant in Sydney, hands down, is Sean's Panorama in Bondi. The hospitality and generosity that Sean's managed to show over decades is just unrivalled.'
On the parts of the fish we should be using
All those heavy chain and muscular kind of parts around the sides of the tuna that aren't that middle round circular red loin that everybody's likes. Then all the more muscular parts that sit around the edges of the loin, to be able to mince all of that and then make a cheeseburger or make a kofta or make Mapo tofu or spaghetti bolognese and meatballs, that's exciting.
On the best places to eat in Sydney
My favorite restaurant in Sydney, hands down, is Sean's panorama in Bondi. The hospitality and generosity that Sean's managed to show over decades is just unrivalled. For a restaurant as modern and as unique as Ester, for eight years to maintain such a high level of consistency is a credit to Mat Lindsay and the team there. And a shout out to Chargrill Charlie's [chicken shop] for inspiring Charcoal Fish.
On where you like to eat in London
St John, where Fergus Henderson has managed to bring desirability to the whole pig. He's managed to commercialize just about every single part of a pig into a format where a beef cheek or a brisket or a tail is fetching a greater price than the sirloin or the fillet now. Barrafina, which at the time was extraordinary. Markets to explore the different produce available; all the mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus, the leaves that come from Italy and the vibrancy of everything is just the most exciting thing. The Borough Market is extraordinary to walk around for hours on end. The Wright Brothers oyster bar is there as well, where you can go and have oysters while you're shopping. It’s amazing because you can have oysters, 16 or 18 species, from all over Europe, on one plate. That for me, being an oyster nerd, was just a joy. And James Lowe, who owns Lyle's restaurant, opened Flor in the bar market. Flor is essentially a very casual nearly-café-meets-bakery kind of offering, which was just so delicious.
'The Borough Market is extraordinary to walk around for hours on end. The Wright Brothers oyster bar there is amazing because you can have oysters, 16 or 18 species, from all over Europe, on one plate. That for me, being an oyster nerd, was just a joy.'
On an aisle or a window seat
On Sydney in one word