If you are like I was three weeks ago, you probably don’t know what an albacore forequarter rack is. Part of an 18th-century whaling ship? No, sorry, that is incorrect. A medieval torture instrument invented in a place called Albacore? Not even close! A forequarter rack is actually a part of an animal, in this case an albacore tuna, which includes the sparsely fleshed section on the ribs, between the head and the anal fin.
Similarly, if you are like I was until recently, you won’t know what a sweet-and-sour mirror dory liver is, or why you might want to eat it. But I am here to tell you that if you have Josh Niland cook an albacore’s forequarter rack or indeed, a mirror dory’s liver, you will want to eat them, and you will be glad that you did.
Niland is the head chef and co-owner, with his wife, Julie, of Saint Peter, a two-hatted seafood restaurant in Paddington, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and of Fish Butchery, a similarly high-end fish shop just 20 metres down the road. It’s morning when I meet Niland, and the restaurant is closed, so we head to Fish Butchery, a long, narrow space with exposed brick walls and a waist-high slab of white marble running like a backbone down the middle of the room.
The first of its kind in Sydney, the butchery, which opened in 2018, is essentially an artisanal fishmongers, with a custom-made cool room for dry-ageing fish, a hibachi charcoal smoker at the rear, and, at the front, gleaming glass display cases featuring, in the manner of a Caravaggio, artfully stylised items of seafood exotica, including hunks of cured roe wrapped in muslin, coral trout-head terrine and fish-sperm mortadella.
“Part of the idea of the butchery was to add a little luxury and cleanliness to what has always been seen as a wet, cold, smelly area,” says Niland. It also has a performative element, with customers free to wander in and out, stopping to watch Niland and his staff prepare that day’s catch. Right at the moment, Niland, who is wearing a black, knee-length apron and latex gloves, is breaking down a four-kilogram hapuka, freshly arrived from New Zealand, a broad-beamed fish with a long, jutting, thick-lipped jaw and googly, startled eyes.
“None of our fish come into contact with water in the preparation stage,” Niland says. “It’s important to keep them dry, because water rapidly breaks down the protein into ammonia, which is what gives it that fishy smell.” Most people would start by scaling the fish, but this can excoriate the flesh, like rubbing it with a cheese grater. Instead, Niland takes his long, redwood-handled blade and shaves the skin off in long smooth strips, before opening up the belly. Rather than reach in and yank out a handful of innards, he sets about paring, snipping, flensing and plucking, gently unpacking each piece of viscera like items of clothing from a suitcase, and laying them, one by one, on the marble tabletop, starting with those glossy, golf-ball-sized eyes, followed by the collars and liver, the purplish, pillowy little heart, then the spleen, stomach, intestines, the 20-centimetre-long roe sack, and, finally, the head and fillets.
It’s an object lesson in ergonomic economy, with Niland pausing only occasionally to wipe away strands of blood from the gut cavity with a paper towel. What’s left when he’s finished is a neat little tableau of secondary and even what you might describe as tertiary cuts, stuff most chefs have traditionally considered “bin parts”, but which will reappear that night at Saint Peter as dishes in their own right.
“We can make a style of fish foie gras from the liver,” Niland says. “Or a terrine, together with some of the other pieces.” The eyes, meanwhile, will be blended and fried to make a large, aerated chip, much like a prawn cracker. (It’s actually okay.) “All of my work stems from wanting to make the less desirable parts of the fish more desirable,” Niland explains. “Respecting the fish means using as much of it as you can. It’s all about minimising waste and maximising flavour.”
Having been raised on Gordon Ramsay’s pharyngeal hysterics, Nigella Lawson’s midnight eyes and Neil Perry’s ponytail, it is both a disappointment and a relief to meet Josh Niland, who combines next-level cheffery with a breathtaking lack of charisma. From what I can tell, he rarely smiles and almost never jokes, approaching his job like a soldier tasked with a top-secret mission. With the possible exception of his wife and two young children, his main concern in life is fish, and how to make them taste really, really good.
“Josh is a once-in-a-generation unicorn,” says Pat Nourse, creative director of Food + Wine Victoria, and former managing editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine. “He’s a game-changer. He has not just taken his genre down to the nuts and bolts, but he’s considering the nuts and bolts themselves.”
Niland is just 30, but he has already excelled by almost every measure of professional gourmanderie. In 2018, he was named Chef of the Year by both Gourmet Traveller and Time Out; Saint Peter, which has had two hats since it opened in 2016, also scooped last year’s Time Out Restaurant of the Year. He was also named Top Chef at The Australian Financial Review’s Top 100 Restaurants Awards 2018 – the result of a vote by the best chefs in the country.
Respecting the fish means using as much of it as you can. It’s all about minimising waste and maximising flavour.
But what has really won Niland the admiration and envy of industry insiders is his imagination, his willingness to challenge everything we thought we knew about seafood, to fillet the rule book and put it back together in ways that are at once preposterous and deeply, unaccountably pleasing. “Josh is a genius,” Nigella Lawson tells me, “and not the straight-from-central-casting sort, but a quiet genius, who is less concerned with his own brilliance and more absorbed in his subject.” Niland’s Instagram account now has 89,000 followers. More to the point, it once inspired a parody account, called the Fruit Butchery, which recreated his culinary acrobatics, only with … fruit. “You know you’ve arrived,” says Nourse, “when someone makes a satire of your Instagram account.”
Now Niland has released The Whole Fish Cookbook: New Ways to Cook, Eat and Think. Not surprisingly, the book is a premier cru production, illustrated with intimate, almost uncomfortably sensuous close-ups of fish – their glistening innards and baleful little frowns – accompanied by recipes that range from eminently doable to the kitchen equivalent of bungee jumping.
It also pitches Niland as a kind of gastro sensei. In a lengthy section called “The Knowledge”, Niland lays out his thoughts on sourcing and provenance (knowing if a fish has fed on crustaceans or seagrasses can help you pair it with the right garnish); our tendency to conflate freshness with flavour (dry-ageing fish is a great way to enhance its flavour profile), and a suggestion that before cooking a fish you eat a bit of it raw, to help understand the texture and taste of the flesh in its purest form. He also discusses the importance of treating fish as a seasonal ingredient: King George whiting tend to be best at the start of spring, for instance, while mirror dory are tastier in winter, when they grow thicker and fattier, to insulate themselves against the cold. (This explains why European fish are often bulkier than ours.)
The essence of Niland’s philosophy is nose-to-tail cooking. This isn’t new, at least with land animals: British chef Fergus Henderson has been cooking up pigs’ ears and cow tripe since the 1990s. Niland, however, is perhaps the first in Australia to apply the approach to seafood. He sees it as a way of doing justice to the fish – and squid, urchin and crab. The chef in him also appreciates the challenge of turning, say, a fish bladder into something people will pay to eat.
But minimising waste makes good business sense. Seafood chefs have traditionally been taught to regard offal as waste. But offal can make up to 55 per cent of the fish. This would equate to paying $400 for a 17-kilogram line-caught cod – and throwing out $220 of it. Factor in species decline, and a no-waste ethos begins to look like a moral imperative. “Overfishing is a big problem,” he says. “Taking pressure off fish stocks means branching out and trying different types of fish.”
Niland is known for championing less glamorous, underutilised species, such as red mullet, sardines and the notoriously plentiful Australian salmon. (You won’t find Atlantic salmon at Saint Peter: “It’s a lazy [option] that people eat out of habit,” says Niland. Plus, he doesn’t like the taste.)
Sustainability also means knowing how your fish was caught. “What you don’t want to do is take any fish off the market floor that might have been trawled and ripped out of the ocean floor.”
Is it realistic for the home chef to keep all this in mind? Putting aside concerns over ocean ecology and shrinking fish stocks, seafood is notoriously hard to cook. “It’s fragile, expensive, and quick to spoil,” says long-time seafood industry insider John Susman. Consequently, it goes in and out of fashion. “What’s great about Josh’s high-art cuisine and his Instagram presence is that it’s raising awareness of fish again, which is good for the industry as a whole.”
Niland grew up in Maitland, near Newcastle, two hours’ drive north of Sydney. His dad, Stephen, was an accountant; his mum, Marea, helped him with the clerical work. The family didn’t live by the water, but occasionally Marea would take Josh and his older sister, Liz, fishing. “I liked it, but I wasn’t particularly keen,” Josh says. As a boy, he was more interested in sports, especially soccer and cricket. Family lore held that the Nilands were distantly related to Don Bradman, who Josh wrote to at one stage, and was thrilled to get a response.
At the age of eight, however, Josh contracted glandular fever. “He vomited a lot,” says Marea. “But the vomiting kept going even after he’d gotten over the glandular fever.” The family thought perhaps it was something Josh was eating, or that the virus had returned, and so Marea made an appointment with the GP. “In the morning, as we were getting ready to go, I helped Josh pull his T-shirt over his head, and noticed a lump, the size of a small orange, protruding from his ribcage.”
The lump turned out to be a stage two Wilms tumour, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. By the time Marea took Josh down to Sydney for treatment, three weeks later, the tumour, which was attached to his right kidney, had grown to the size of a baby’s head. “The only association I had with cancer at that time was death,” Josh says. “So the first thing I asked after getting told was, ‘Am I going to die?’ ”
Surgeons operated, removed the kidney, and Josh began two years of chemo- and radiotherapy. “The treatment affected his taste,” says Marea, “and he wasn’t interested in food. So I would offer him whatever I knew how to prepare, like custards, which went down his throat smoothly, because he had mouth ulcers. I also gave him chicken pies. Comfort food, really.”
During his recovery Niland spent a lot of time off school, at home by himself. “Eating brought me a lot of comfort,” he says. In time he developed a deeper appreciation of food, and of what he describes as “the care and responsibility it took to prepare a meal and give it to your family”. He found himself reading copies of Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining & Travel and Delicious magazine. “I began to think in terms of being a chef.”
Once he recovered – his treatment ended when he was 10, and he was given the all-clear at 13 – he began cooking meals, such as grilled cheese on toast, and tortillas with chicken and mushroom, for himself and his sister after school. By the age of 12, he was accompanying Marea on her grocery shopping trips, so he could buy the ingredients he wanted to use that night. “Presentation was always important to Josh,” Marea says. “He’d offer his father a lamb cutlet with a decorative sauce and these beautiful bits of colour on a white plate.”
By 14, Niland was working part-time at a local cafe called Cinos, running food, washing dishes, and making coffee. After year 10, when he was 16, he left school to do a year’s apprenticeship at the Brewery Restaurant in Newcastle. One day, in 2005, during a cancer charity event in Newcastle at which Niland and other survivors spoke, he met renowned fish chef Peter Doyle, who was then running Est., a fine dining restaurant in Sydney. Doyle was impressed with Niland, and invited him to come and try Est.’s menu. “The very next day,” says Niland, “I caught the train by myself to [Sydney’s] Central Station, and walked to Est., where I sat down in my best clothes, had a four-hour lunch and tasted all of Peter’s dishes.” After the meal, Doyle suggested Niland move to Sydney and work for him.
But Marea and Stephen had other ideas. “They said I was too young,” Niland says. “So I stayed in Newcastle. Six months later, though, I was still desperate to go, so they agreed.” Only trouble was that Est. had by that time won Restaurant of the Year, and every hot young chef in the country wanted to work there. Meaning that there was no job left for Niland.
He moved to Sydney anyway.
Niland had always set his sights on fine dining. Bangers and mash never interested him. His mother intimated to me that this may have had something to do with all the comfort food he ate during his illness. “After he recovered, he kept eating [that sort of food], and put on a lot of weight, which he didn’t like at all.” (Niland slimmed down and is now the picture of health.) Having missing out on Est., Niland got a gig at Luke Mangan’s French-influenced Glass Brasserie, where he washed lettuces, cut chives and shucked what seemed like several middens’ worth of oysters for every service.
“The numbers were crazy,” he says. “Two hundred and eighty people for Friday lunch, 300 for dinner.” Seventy-hour weeks were standard. Tempers frayed; plates were smashed. Niland loved every minute of it.
It was only after Glass Brasserie that he wound up back at Est., following which he applied for and won a three-month unpaid internship at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, in Berkshire, west of London. (His pastry-chef wife, Julie, whom he had only just married, went with him, and wound up in an unpaid internship in Fat Duck’s dessert kitchen.)
But Niland’s most formative experience was at Fish Face, where he worked two stints, in 2007, and again from 2013 to 2014. Before it closed in 2015, Fish Face was perhaps the best known, and best loved, seafood restaurant in Sydney, a 30-seater owned and operated by the hot-tempered and famously talented Stephen Hodges. Hodges, whom John Susman describes as “the greatest seafood cook Australia has ever produced”, had a monomaniacal devotion to seafood that opened Niland’s eyes. “Steve was the one who inspired me to dedicate myself to fish,” he says.
It was at Fish Face that Niland learnt to break down a whole fish, under the tutelage of in-house sushi chef Koji Nakamura. Hodges also experimented with dry-storing his fish in purpose-built cool rooms for up to 10 days at a time. “Mainly it was so we could order more fish at a time and keep it firm and fresh,” Hodges says. (Niland now dry-ages certain species of fish, including tuna, Spanish mackerel and swordfish, for up to 17 days, which both intensifies its flavour while crisping up the skin to something approaching pork crackling.)
Hodges was obsessive about detail. “Most chefs overcook their fish,” he says. “So we used to take the fish out to the table when the thin end of the fillet [the section around the belly] was cooked, but the thicker part was still not quite done. I’d then tell the customer to eat the thin part first, because by the time they got to the thick part, the residual heat would have cooked it to perfection.”
At Saint Peter, Niland has refined this neurotic micro-scheduling to a level just below the certifiable. In The Whole Fish Cookbook, he even talks about how a chef needs to take into account how many photos of their meal customers might take and upload to Instagram before they start eating.
Niland didn’t realise it at the time, but Hodges was teaching him how to run a restaurant, not just a kitchen. “Steve would walk through the door in the morning and say, ‘Did you clean the glass?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, because, like, I’m a chef.’ And he’d say, ‘Go clean the f…ing glass!’ Or he’d go, ‘Did you sweep the floor?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m the chef. Why is that my problem?’ But what he was teaching me was that when it comes to running a small business, everything is your problem.”
For a fancy restaurant, Saint Peter is notably un-fancy. A narrow room; exposed bricks on one wall, Sydney sandstone on the other. Black metal chairs; laminated ply tables. The food is the star of the show here; white linen and designer lighting would only be a distraction.
It’s chock-a-block when I turn up on a Thursday night at 8pm, just as the second sitting is starting. (The restaurant seats 34.) Niland and three other chefs are up the back, in the galley kitchen, a warm, bright space, just three metres by six, working wordlessly with wait staff and a harried-looking dishwasher, like a dance troupe doing improv, ducking and weaving around one another, dunking the deep-fryer, lunging for a pot.
“There are challenges with a small kitchen,” Niland tells me. “But I actually prefer it. This way I can stand in the middle and be in reach of pretty much everything.” It’s also more economical: “If this kitchen was any bigger, I’d have to hire two more chefs.”
All the fish has been processed that morning at the butchery. There’s no fixed menu; Niland orders his seafood according to what is good that day, then figures out a way to use it. There are some of the more outré items, the stuff Saint Peter has become celebrated for: entrées of bass groper throat, sweet-and-sour mirror dory liver and parsley on toast, and finely sliced calamari with smoked swordfish belly bacon seasoned with lemon and pepper and adorned with an egg yolk. My wife and I try all three of these, followed by a fillet of charcoal-grilled Australian salmon with barbecued eggplant, bush tomato harissa and broad bean leaves. Oh, and a little plate of raw, diced, 15-day-aged Mooloolaba tuna, with an eye chip to scoop it up with.
The food tastes unlike anything you’re likely to have come across. It’s also a lot of fun: dinner at Saint Peter is like watching a gastronomic trapeze act. As a diner, you sit waiting to see if Niland will pull it off or crash to earth, leaving a gory pile of yellowtail spleens and smoked hamachi hearts. Yet there is also an element of anticlimax. Given the hype around Niland, this is almost inevitable. Before eating here, I had read the many, many blurbs on the back of his cookbook, including from Jamie Oliver, who calls Niland “one of the most impressive chefs of a generation”, and Canadian chef and internet sensation Matty Matheson, who describes him as “a shining light”. Jesus Christ himself would have trouble living up to that kind of praise. And Jesus even caught his own fish.
Still, he is capable of working wonders, as I discover a week later. I am at home. I realise that I’m on dinner duty. I’m wondering what to cook when I remember that Niland had given me some 12-day-aged albacore tuna steaks. This is not your average piece of fish, but I am an abysmal cook: it’s like placing a Fabergé egg in the hands of a four-year-old.
So I text Niland for directions on how to cook it. He suggests I season the steaks with ground fennel, black pepper and salt, then rub them with olive oil. Then, without adding any additional oil, I am to pan-fry the fish at a high temperature “very briefly – 20 seconds each side – keeping them quite underdone”.
I do as he says. My wife comes home. She tastes the tuna. “Wow, that … is … amazing,” she says. Even my daughters like it. They say my cooking must be improving, which is a miracle indeed.
Tim Elliott is a features and investigations journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.