Chef Josh Niland's Zero-Waste Approach to Cooking Fish
Sydney chef Josh Niland uses as much of the fish as he possibly can to prepare dishes that are radical and unconventional.
Nothing irks Josh Niland more than waste. Give him a timeline and he’ll cut it by half. Hand him an opportunity, he’ll double its potential. Walk into Saint Peter, the unassuming 34-seat restaurant he owns and runs with his wife in Sydney, and don’t be surprised if he’s the person you hit when the door swings open. The space may be small, but it is a powerful testament to what happens when Niland thinks big.
It is also ground zero for a culinary movement few saw coming. Once Niland explains his groundbreaking approach to seafood it’s easy to wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
Ever tried—let alone heard of—a sea-urchin crumpet? Crayfish scrambled eggs? Fish-eye chips? Milt (fish sperm) mortadella? Niland has served each to skeptical customers, and to subsequently rapturous acclaim.
In short, Niland uses as much of the fish as he possibly can to prepare dishes that are radical, unconventional and often altogether breathtaking in flavor, to say nothing of their composition. Food critics have fallen over themselves to heap praise and awards on the boyish, unassuming 31-year-old and father of three. Nigella Lawson calls him a “genius.” Jamie Oliver says he is “one of the most impressive chefs of a generation.” Three years of consecutive full-house bookings at Saint Peter support their claims.
Niland's team in the dry-aging room at Fish Butchery.
On a hazy Sydney afternoon, Niland sits at an unfussy table in the middle of his restaurant and explains that fish may be the most misunderstood food on the planet. His desire to access seafood’s untapped glory led to Saint Peter’s opening in 2016. “Instead of envisioning what the restaurant would be, I asked myself: Okay, what is fish? What do the bones look like? What are we throwing into the bin—and why?”
Fish, he explains, has been bastardized by a raft of false assumptions that have in turn tainted how culinary schools teach its preparation, let alone what everyday eaters will order from a menu or attempt to make in their own homes. First, Niland points out, there’s a perception that fish can only stay palatable for three or four days. “How inventive and creative can you be in such a short amount of time?” he laments. Then there are what you might call fear factors: Fish is smelly, cold and wet, the eyes are freaky and the chance of biting into one of their little bones is just too disturbing— so screw it, let’s order steak frites.
This is where Niland’s aversion to waste—not to mention being the son of an accountant father and bookkeeper mother—helps him most, as it became the genesis of his game-changing theories on fish cookery. “At school, we were getting taught that 45 percent of the fish is yield and 55 percent is loss. I was like, This is crap!”
Skewers of grouper rib meat, kingfish heart, sea-bass liver and fish roe.
What Niland essentially did was approach fish as a butcher approaches a steer. “Have you ever walked into a meat butchery, watched a shoulder of lamb get cut off, be washed, put on ice and sold that way? No. We don’t wash meat. So why do we wash fish?” Niland sounds almost pained as he asks this. “We wash fish because people perceive it as having come out of water; therefore it just needs more. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
The result of all that rehydration is, well, “fishy” fish. The flesh of a fish contains an odorless chemical called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO); once a fish is dead and exposed to air, TMAO breaks down into derivatives of ammonia, creating that infamously foul scent. Water, Niland says, only makes it worse. “Fish takes on moisture like a sponge. You wash the fish, put it on a tray sitting in its own sweat, you’ve activated that bacteria and it’s going to grow. You take it home in your warm car, you get it out... and it’s smelly. It smells like fish—which it shouldn’t.”
This revelation drove Niland towards a logical re-evaluation of how we should eat, cook and think about seafood.
In The Whole Fish Cookbook, a handsome bestseller that balances his cooking philosophies with recipes such as John Dory liver pâté or doughnuts made from smoked eel and beetroot jam, Niland lays out his piscine version of British chef Fergus Henderson’s landmark nose-to-tail approach to meat, which altered how chefs and adventurous diners thought about offal in the ’90s.
“You look at anatomical posters of fish and see their makeup,” he explains, “and realize very quickly there are chops and racks and cuts, just as with other animals.” One spread in the book may be the photographic pièce de résistance in a volume filled with them: Laid out on a flat, white surface are 31 separately numbered parts of a fish, from the scales to the skin and everything in between—be it eyes, belly or bladder. If Niland has his way, all of it will get used. “There is a plethora of recipes for meat cookery with these organs and these cuts,” Niland says. “So I said, Let’s do it with fish. It’s as simple as that.”
Bass grouper, whole fish breakdown.
This isn’t exactly new—cultures around the world have eaten “odd” parts of the fish for centuries. Russians spread cod liver on toast and eyeballs have long been a delicacy in China, which also has a serious fish-bladder smuggling issue. As for Niland’s experimentation, he says it’s about observation and logic.
“For instance, if we’re talking about eyeballs, I would never pretend to enjoy them. So how do I get others to? What about if I make them crunchy?” The result: an infamous fish-eye chip made using the peepers of an albacore. He’s also savvy about naming. “You need to be able to translate these things to a friend, to be able to say: ‘It’s crazy. I had an octopus- head Scotch egg!’ Or, ‘I had a sea-urchin crumpet!’ If you can give people a buzzword, it’s a powerful marketing tool.”
The fish-eye chips are a recent development, but in reality, Niland started honing his craft at age 8, when he learned he had a Wilms’ tumor on his right kidney. Across two years of chemotherapy, the cricket-loving boy from a small town in the Hunter Valley wine region north of Sydney discovered that food—when he was able to keep it down—could be a balm. An interest in cooking blossomed after his recovery, as did his self-assurance. “When you get told as an 8-year-old that you have cancer, it’s like—I’m going to die. So I got perspective that the rug could be taken from under me very quickly, and if there were things I wanted to achieve—whether winning a cricket grand final or getting to date a girl—I was making sure I’d get what I wanted.”
Niland fell in love with food magazines, ripping out pages and pinning them to his bedroom walls. By 14, he was working in local cafés, and would save his earnings for three-hour train rides to Sydney, where he enjoyed a meal for one at a lauded restaurant he just had to try. On the way home, he’d sketch what he’d just eaten. “I think back to how many notebooks I filled,” he says, smiling. “It was absolutely romantic, a bit like Quentin Tarantino sitting and watching thrillers.”
Niland with a whole tuna.
When he was 16, Niland spoke at a cancer charity event, where he met Peter Doyle, a pillar of the Sydney culinary community who invited Niland to eat at est., his restaurant. The meal resulted in a job offer that he was too young to take, but he eventually ended up there, and later at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck near London.
While at est., Niland realized where he truly wanted to make his mark. “The fish section there was held in such reverence,” he says. “They made it out to be this holy grail, and I saw it as being so hard. I never had the chance to do it.”
If Saint Peter has a progenitor, it’s Fish Face, the shoebox-sized Sydney eatery where Niland worked under the tutelage of talented but troubled chef Stephen Hodges, who battled drug and alcohol issues. “Stephen taught me about smell, about not using water on fish, and about storing them for longer periods of time. When he invests in you, to not use that information would seem like a middle finger. So I locked myself in a room, expanded on what Fish Face was and applied some creativity and new thinking,” he says.
Glazed cobia Christmas ham.
Head about 10 doors up the road from Saint Peter and you’ll find the Fish Butchery, which opened in April 2018. It’s where The Whole Fish Cookbook comes to life, and functions as the stealth engine room of Saint Peter. A customer can walk in and choose from an array of seafood cuts presented inside a central glass case with such minimalism it resembles an art installation. It’s a place where you can watch how the swordfish bacon, kingfish pastrami and coral-trout sausage get made.
In the middle of the room sits a large marble slab where butchers clad in black T-shirts and black rubber gloves (Niland once joked it’s “a little bit Dexter-y”) cut apart whole fish while The Doors play in the background. Niland walks to the end of the slab and watches as a co-worker butchers a 14-pound snapper. First, he scales it with a sharp knife, a process resembling the peeling of a gigantic, slick potato. Once he guts the fish, parts are dispersed accordingly: Heart and kidneys get put aside for a terrine; liver finds its way onto Saint Peter’s menu, which Niland writes daily as he considers what’s in stock. Stomach linings end up floating in buckets filled with salt brine, and will eventually become casings for his seafood sausages.
Near the back of Fish Butchery is a chilled dry-aging room filled with fish dangling from butcher hooks by their tails. Species range from bright orange alfonsino to long silver teraglin to goldfish (yep, they’re edible). “What I’m trying to do here is prolong the fish’s shelf life by controlling moisture loss, never allowing it to come in contact with its own juices, and hopefully creating more savory cuts that can develop flavor over weeks or months.”
Swordfish bacon and egg English muffin.
One memorable dish in Niland’s arsenal is his bacon and egg English muffin, which replaces pork meat with strips of dry-aged swordfish belly. He says the dry aging pushes the fat forward and makes the fish more savory and delicious. For example, fresh yellowfin tuna can be supple, with slightly sweet flavor, but after one month on the hook in a temperature-controlled environment, it is more dense, with a concentrated flavor of aromas of mushroom and cured tuna (mojama).
With the success of the restaurant and the butchery’s experimentation, Niland is having more fun with what fish can mean for cuisine. Less than 24 hours earlier, he participated in Gelinaz, an international cooking event popular with foodies of all stripes. As part of his menu, he prepared a Christmas pudding with a Murray cod head, replacing the traditional suet with fish fat, the dish a flamboyant nod to both Australia’s British roots and his go-for-broke inventiveness.
It may have looked suspect (or back at you), but it no doubt tasted like nothing the guests at the event had ever eaten before. And that, he says with pride, is part of why he’s bent on unlocking some of the sea’s culinary mysteries. “It’s funny,” he says, reflecting on his success. “I’ve always been conscious that a plate has to look beautiful, because I worked with good chefs who drilled that into me. But now, more so than ever, people want and need a little bit of intrigue, too.”
Josh Niland’s The Whole Fish Cookbook: New Ways to Cook, Eat and Think is out now.