Catch of the day
Celebrated ‘whole fish’ chef, Josh Niland, joins Audi as its newest brand ambassador.
Audi Australia welcomes award-winning chef, restaurateur and ‘whole fish cookery’ pioneer, Josh Niland, into the Audi family as the brand’s newest ambassador.
25 June, 2021
Niland's prodigious tally of professional accomplishments, awards and his ‘culinary journey’ to date suggest a man who spends precious little time sitting idle
Long is the list of accolades thrown at award-winning Sydney chef and restaurateur, Josh Niland. Although just 32, his prodigious tally of professional accomplishments, awards and his ‘culinary journey’ to date suggest a man who spends precious little time sitting idle, but rather one who is both driven and passionate and impatient to get on with the next order of business.
Just 16 years ago, Niland, now one of the hottest chefs in the country and a pioneer of ‘whole fish cookery’ was just getting started. Such are his accomplishments since that his apprenticeship in the kitchen of The Brewery restaurant in Newcastle seems a million miles away from where he now finds himself, even if geographically his multi-award-winning Sydney restaurant, Saint Peter, is just 160 kilometres from that first foray into a professional kitchen.
In the 16 years since starting out, Niland has honed his skills and built his culinary knowledge under the tutelage of some of the country’s finest chefs – think names like Peter Doyle, Stephen Hodges and Luke Mangan. Internationally he has worked at Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed The Fat Duck in Berkshire, which may account for some of his current culinary offerings – but more on that later – and he has drawn his inspiration from a wide variety of people and places on the way to becoming the chef he is today.
His 34-seat fish restaurant, Saint Peter in Paddington achieved its two hats right off the bat the year he and wife Julie opened the doors in 2016 and has since picked up a string of best restaurant awards. The waiting list for a dinner booking is currently three months long.
Just up the road from the restaurant is the Fish Butchery which Josh opened in 2018, a unique establishment that will change the way you think about fishmongers or fish markets for good.
Best described as a boutique fishmonger, here the fish is very much the star, the Fish Butchery using the old-fashioned meat butcher as a basis, but with something approaching performance art thrown in as the chefs lovingly carve up the fish and set every part of it out on display in spotless glass cases. There’s not a block of ice to be seen and the presence of a custom made cool room for dry ageing fish speaks to a different philosophy where handling and serving fish and seafood is concerned.
This is at the very heart of what Josh Niland is about, his philosophy of using the whole fish is born both of a desire to truly respect the fish and broaden the horizons of diners as well as a practical consideration for reducing waste and ultimately preserving what is a precious natural resource.
The fish equivalent of ‘nose to tail’ cooking, Niland’s ‘gills to fin’ or ‘whole fish’ approach sees much of what would traditionally be consigned to the bin become dishes in their own right at Saint Peter and the results, although perhaps a little confronting at times, are nothing short of spectacular.
Take for example his ‘fish eye chips’, a crispy morsel resembling a prawn cracker that is in fact created from deep fried fish eyes. Or perhaps a black pudding made using fish blood – his inventiveness shows a willingness to genuinely find ways to appreciate the whole fish and perhaps change perceptions along the way.
“Let’s start bringing reverence to the less desirable cuts of the fish and by doing so then we buy less and we maximise one fish’s value,” says Niland of his approach.
“I need everybody to start looking at a fish with the same reverence from the eyeballs to the bones to the scales.”
The fish equivalent of ‘nose to tail’ cooking, Niland’s ‘gills to fin’ or ‘whole fish’ approach sees much of what would traditionally be consigned to the bin become dishes in their own right
Of course it goes without saying that the provenance of the seafood he serves is as important to Niland as the cooking
Of course the idea of eating every conceivable part of the fish is not new, but the way Josh and his team at Saint Peter and at the Fish Butchery are doing it is certainly new for most western palates.
“The eastern world has celebrated the whole fish for thousands of years,” says Niland, “more so out of necessity than trying to make it over glamorous.”
“You know, you go to Japan and eat Shirako (fish sperm) so how does that contextualise into a desirable western culinary experience?”
“How do I give you a fish sperm soup with a poached eyeball in it and have you go ‘yes delicious’, it isn’t going to happen,” he laughs.
“So you take the eye and turn it into a chip. Take the fish sperm and turn it into mortadella. Start tapping in to recipes that are already there.”
This approach also extends to serving up different species that might not be traditionally popular, again broadening the horizons of diners but with an eye (no pun intended) on protecting fish stocks into the bargain. Or serving species ‘in season’ another concept not often associated with seafood which is so often seen as being available all year round.
“The romance of the season with fish is so special,” says Niland. “To know that King George Whiting in spring is just unbelievable or to eat John Dory in winter with a huge liver inside it is just amazing."
Of course it goes without saying that the provenance of the seafood he serves is as important to Niland as the cooking. He works closely with his trusted suppliers to ensure that the seafood he serves is truly sustainable and the very best available. When we met for this story it was in Lemon Tree Passage north of Newcastle, at the oyster leases of two of his suppliers – Stella Maris and XL Oysters. Josh was visiting along with two of his chefs to give them a first hand look and a greater appreciation of just what is involved in top line oyster farming.
This deep appreciation of the ‘product’ and going direct to the source is integral to what Josh does and was inspired by leading Australian chefs Josh has worked with and admired along the way.
“Like driving to the airport to pick up your own fish. That was never really a thing until Neil [Perry] decided to throw a fish in the boot and take it back to Rockpool to raise the standard of what he was he was purchasing,” Josh enthuses.
“So rather than going through middlemen he was going straight to the source, and that was in an era where he didn’t have a phone [with a camera] so he wasn’t saying ‘check out what’s in the boot, I’ve got great fish on the menu tonight’. He’s just doing it to elevate the standard of fish.”
It’s interesting that for someone so enamoured of the scaly champions of the deep that Josh did not to come from a fishing family, nor did he grown up with the sea lapping at his doorstep. Rather his inspiration first came for cooking and creating for something special for others and then he homed in on fish.
“Every kitchen that I found myself working in throughout my training as an apprenticeship, whether it was Glass Brasserie with Luke Mangan or Est. with Peter Doyle and then on to work with Stephen Hodges at Fish Face, I was fascinated with the adoration for the fish chef,” says Niland.
“I was fascinated that it took someone with such a sharp acumen for maths, for organisation, and that each day there was such a strict routine … and I liked the fact that you needed a calculator on your section to work out how much the fish cost when it came in and how much your yield was once you’d trimmed and portioned it.”
This deep appreciation of the ‘product’ and going direct to the source is integral to what Josh does
“Creatively it’s challenging but this is the role of the chef, this is why we’re here. We’re not here to crack the lids of caviar”
If this planted the seed it was his time working with Stephen Hodges at Fish Face that really set Josh on course for specialising in fish.
“Stephen is one of the most passionate, intense, wild human beings I’ve ever met,” says Niland. “He is such a gifted person when it comes to cooking fish but one of the biggest things I took away from working with him was his ability to run a kitchen and run a business and be loyal to customs and they’d look after you.”
“It was this running a business thing that really got me excited, but it was also during my time there that I noticed how much of the fish was going in the bin … and that was the part that tattooed into my brain the deepest.”
Of course it makes complete sense, but it takes someone with a combination of vision and culinary expertise to make it a viable reality. And that’s exactly what Josh Niland has achieved with Saint Peter and the Fish Butchery, not to mention his best-selling book The Whole Fish: New ways to cook, eat and think, which likewise spreads the word and whole fish ethos.
“It’s a celebration of quality over quantity,” says Niland. “If we’re going to continue to go and strip 50 percent of a fish, sell it and forget about the other 50 percent, then we’re going to find ourselves very quickly with no fish left.”
“Creatively it’s challenging but this is the role of the chef, this is why we’re here. We’re not here to crack the lids of caviar.”
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