Chef Josh Niland, of Saint Peter fame, is transforming the way the world catches, cooks and eats seafood.
When Australia’s first family of fish, chef Josh Niland and his wife and business partner, Julie, announced plans to open a shop called Fish Butchery down the road from their successful restaurant Saint Peter in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, some people weren’t happy. “I got all these annoyed emails from random people and even from a few elite food people,” says Niland, a man of quiet passion and unerring politeness – one of the last people you’d expect to be the target of angry rants. “They said I shouldn’t call it a butchery, that it was stupid.” Butchers, he says with a smile, are meant to be synonymous with meat and that’s that.
The haters must be eating their hats because the elegant, narrow store the Nilands opened in April is, without doubt, a butchery for fish.
A seven-metre grey marble bench runs its length. Staff haul sides of yellowfin tuna and ocean trout onto its cold surface to surgically deconstruct the carcasses into fillets or chops on the bone. In a refrigerated glass cabinet at the entrance, chunky fish sausages, swordfish bacon and heavy sides of Bermagui mirror dory and Mooloolaba albacore tuna are suspended from butchers’ hooks.
Another display case bookends the marble bench, housing a single specimen of each type of fish available that day; some whole, others sculpted into fillets. “‘Monger’ literally means ‘dealing in a specific commodity’,” explains Niland. “We do that but we’re also physically labouring over the fish. We’re turning it into sausages and terrines and pies.” Fish, Niland wants the world to understand, is the new meat. And he’ll butcher it if he wants to.
It’s an idea the 29-year-old chef has been considering since he perfected his handling of flathead and flounder at the now-shuttered Fish Face in Double Bay. He wants people to realise that cooking fish doesn’t have to be daunting. Fish Butchery customers are encouraged to ask questions – “How do I cook this?”; “If I like snapper, what other types of fish might I enjoy?” And every specimen can be cut to order for a specific recipe, just like at a regular butcher. “We send people home with a piece of fish and we tell them the best course of action to cook it, ” says Niland. “If they listen and follow that to a tee, they come in and say, ‘That was so good!’ If, as a customer, you find yourself having a good time with fish, I think you’ll come back.”
But Niland has bigger plans than simply helping home cooks overcome their lack of confidence about fish; he wants to see chefs take a more face-to-fin approach to cooking fish, using offal such as the liver and roe for creativity’s sake and to reduce waste. “Fish in the Western world is extremely untapped,” he says. “I’m fascinated that you can do just about anything to a fish that you can do to a [land] animal.”
He’d also like to encourage all of us to eat fewer mainstream species to reduce overfishing. In other words, he has weightier matters to consider than spats about the Fish Butchery’s name. “My intention isn’t just to have a little fish restaurant with a fish shop down the road,” he says. “I want to make an impact globally. We need to be getting into bigger issues.”
Seafood and eat it
If you can’t make it to Fish Butchery, you can still become more adept at cooking fish.
Try Josh Niland’s tips:
Flathead is a great Australian fish. It’s sustainable and brings instant nostalgia – we all grew up eating it. It’s also good for battering and crumbing, which is hard to stuff up because the crumb keeps moisture in. If you get a good golden outer colour, it’ll be cooked well inside.
King George whiting is at its best in the warmer months. This premium fish can have a fairly hefty pricepoint but if you crumb it then pan-fry it in butter until it’s golden, you’ll have one of the most amazing food experiences possible.
Look out for mirror dory – it’s a great alternative to John Dory but the flavour and texture are better because there’s more fat on it. It’s really great pan-fried because the skin gets super-crisp. It’s also beautiful barbecued over charcoal.