Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to butcher it, and he eats for a week — or almost that. This is the saying adapted to the philosophy advocated by young chef Josh Niland, who has revolutionized the way we look (and eat) all the creatures that come from the sea. And who believes the future of eating fish delves into the importance of using the whole fish.
Sea species have been the focus of his work and the stars of the menu he serves at Saint Peter, his small restaurant that has become popular in Paddington, Sydney, for his, let’s say, very detailed take on fish cooking. Since the opening, in 2016, he started to embrace a nose-to-tail (fin-to-fin?) philosophy with fish, using every part of the animal in his dishes. It means that Niland uses its eyes and even its blood to cook — the ladder makes a more delicate version of black pudding.
By using the whole fish, Niland states that it is the only way to pursue sustainability in the ocean. His restaurant specializes in sustainably caught fish, so it includes all sorts of less well-known species and respects the seasonality — yes, fish has seasons, he says, ad we have to consider them to be better and more conscious eaters.
The "fish butcher"
Photo Nikki To
Niland says he came up with his butchering methods — that impressed some of the world's most renowned chefs who follow his Instagram profile, where he often posts his final results — through observation. “When I was processing fish, I noticed just how much was going in the bin,” he points out.
Niland’s career started early (at the age of 17) in some of the most notable Sydney kitchens. But he was hooked by fish butchery when he worked at Steve Hodge’s award-winning Sydney fish restaurant Fish Face. After 18 months, he spent some time at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Development Kitchen researching and experimenting before going back to Sidney to open Saint Peter, focused on fish. “By that time, I started weighing what the true value of that waste would be in restaurant terms, initially it was a financial and creative decision as we’re a small business”, he says.
“If you look at the traditional yield of a round fish, it could be anywhere between 35 and 55%. How could it be that we’ve normalized throwing half the fish in the bin? It just doesn’t make sense,”, he continues. Using the whole fish comes at a labor cost, he warns, but when you can produce more from one fish, you don’t need to take as many out of the water. “We can now hit around 90% yield from our fish, all real dishes that are delicious and not just for the sake of it”, Niland adds. All the fish he uses is line-caught, local, and sustainable.
Demand for tables at Saint Peter has become so high that they'd run out of room in the restaurant to serve all guests. So last year, they opened the doors of Fish Butchery, a fish and seafood butcher shop located a few doors down from Saint Peter. As a modern fishmonger that embodies all of the day-to-day practices carried out at Saint Peter, Fish Butchery offers a temperature-controlled ice-free zone, where the fish is dry handled and cut to order.
Interacting with local customers
“Through our restaurant dishes, we had created a market that had a desire to eat our fish at home, just the way we prepared it for the restaurant — even the offal and something dry-aged. That has then allowed me to interact with our local customers more: to offer a more diverse range of species and to suggest too, that there is a better way of handling fish that glamorizes and celebrates fish more enthusiastically”, he says.
Niland points out that premium fish come in at a significant cost, as well as that, the number of hands that are required to carry out the processing of 90% of the fish. “But the pros are we have a unique product that is inspiring chefs and consumers the world over,” he celebrates. From his work, he expects people to realize that fish is much more than a filet.
“I am part of a new generation of young chefs who are more questioning and willing to make people think about what they eat,'' he says. In a world where everything seems to have already been done, he believes young chefs through their businesses have been dedicated to questioning processes to find curious new ways of doing things. “Should we continue to do this way? Is it the best for the planet?’, he asks.
“Sustainability has been a hot topic of conversation these days, and it's a must-have issue, but not just about what we throw in the trash, but how we behave in our kitchens, we treat our teams. Questioning is our way of changing things, knowing why we do what we do. It can help us to eat more from a fish but also to think of even more complex answers”, he concludes.
Saint Peter at a glance
Chef: Josh Niland
For Saint Peter, sustainability is: Little action. Not all of it is viable, but if just some of the information is taken and put into action, we could see a big change.
Number of employees: 27
Main focus/projects on sustainability: The whole use of fish and seafood to make people eat better (and different parts) and pursue a better sea life environment.
Awards/Recognitions: GQ Chef of the year (2018), Gourmet Traveller Chef of the year (2018), Shortlisted for World Restaurant Awards (Ethical Thinking category)