The Fish Butcher: Josh Niland on how we've been doing fish all wrong

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Australian chef Josh Niland on how we've been doing fish all wrong in his new book The Whole Fish: New ways to cook, eat and think

Related tags: Fish, Butcher, Chef, Australia

Australian chef Josh Niland has penned a groundbreaking book that calls for a total rethink of how restaurants buy, store and serve fish. Part cookbook, part manifesto, it is essential reading for any chef that handles fish.

On page 44 of chef Josh Niland’s landmark book The Whole Fish​ is a full breakdown of a bass grouper that brings to mind a butcher’s cut chart, with no less than 31 different parts. A handful of these are familiar – there are portions that resemble fillets and pavés – but the majority will be alien to all but the most intrepid Western chefs.

Niland has borrowed from the vernacular of the meat world to produce spare ribs, jowls, cheeks, collars and even a forequarter rack that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Frenched rack of lamb. Alongside flesh and bone are the innards of the fish, including the liver, throat, heart and spleen.

Broken down with surgical precision, it looks technically daunting. But Niland – who runs two acclaimed venues in Sydney, a fish restaurant called Saint Peter and fishmonger Fish Butchery – does not expect his peers to follow it cut for cut.

It’s there to highlight that the standard industry practice of removing the fillets from fish and throwing the rest in the bin is not good enough. With a little effort, nearly all parts of the fish can be rendered edible. And in Niland’s hands, every one of them can be rendered delicious.

“Respecting the animal by trying to use every bit of it is now an idea that’s totally accepted in the world of meat, but far less so with fish. If you buy a fish it’s your responsibility to use all of it. That seems obvious, but sadly it’s very rarely done,” says Niland, talking to Restaurant on the phone ahead of evening service at Saint Peter.

Crimes of poisson

In the vast majority of kitchens, chefs will either buy in pre-filleted fish or quickly remove the fillets from whole or nearly whole fish, either throwing the rest away or using it to make a stock. A fish such as John Dory – which has a big head, a bulky frame but small fillets – has a yield of around 40%. Other flat fish typically yield a little more, but not much. Round fish tend to have better yields – typically 60% to 70%. On top of this, poor filleting technique can result in a further 10% ending up in the bin.

“The bass grouper pictured in the book gave us a 91% yield from a fish that traditionally has a 40% yield,” says Niland. “Chefs have how to prepare a fish for cooking burnt into their brains. But they need to ask themselves questions. ‘Why am I cutting off the belly? Could I not just leave it on? Why square up a fillet? Why not cook fish on the bone?’ Instead of working with a bin next to you, put everything you take off into a container and have a look at it. You’ll be surprised.”

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But there’s far more to The Whole Fish​ than rethinking carcass utilisation. The book – which hit the shelves last month (Hardie Grant, £25) – calls for chefs to completely rethink how they purchase, store, prepare and serve fish (though Niland understandably focuses on fish from the southern hemisphere, his ideas are applicable to any fish). Though the ideas presented are nothing short of revolutionary, it’s important to note that Niland is no zealot, presenting his ideas in a noncritical and constructive manner.

At the very heart of his pitch is the idea that chefs should approach fish in the same way as they do meat. Just like the bass grouper, this concept needs to be carefully broken down as it covers everything from procurement and storage to cooking technique and overall attitude.

Treating fish like meat

The logical place to start is buying and storage, and the central concept here is that – oddly, given their preferred environment – water and moisture are the enemy of great fish.

“At Saint Peter and Fish Butchery people often ask me for my least fishy fish,” says Niland. “None of our fish is fishy. Fishy fish is the result of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) breaking down into derivatives of ammonia. This is a result of the fish being mishandled and is often ‘fixed’ by washing off the smell with tap water.”

This compounds the problem. Fish is like a sponge and will absorb the moisture, dramatically reducing both its shelf life and eating quality and promoting the release of yet more ammonia. Interestingly, acidic ingredients cause TMAO to bind with water and become less volatile (smelly), which is why fish is so commonly served with lemon and other acidic ingredients.

Niland’s solution to fishy fish is dry handling throughout the supply chain. “Not only will you get a better quality of fish, you will also increase shelf life to eight to 10 days. This will vastly simplify logistics and reduce wastage.”

At Fish Butchery – which supplies Saint Peter – fish is dried carefully with a cloth and hung by the tail with a hook to maximise its exposure to the air in a setup that’s nearly identical to that of a meat ageing room.

“We also cut the scales off with a knife rather than a fish scaler, which leaves you with the actual skin of the fish. If you leave the honeycomb-like membrane on the fish, it traps the moisture and makes it harder to keep it dry,” says Niland, who also points out that there are few better ways to encourage the development of ammonia than following the near-ubiquitous industry practice of holding filleted fish ready for service on a tray lined with blue cloth and tightly covering it with clingfilm.

The majority of fish at Saint Peter and Fish Butchery is aged for what most chefs would consider an extreme amount of time – Niland ages tuna and swordfish for well over a week before serving them. Different species have different aging times, and some – including smaller and more delicate fish such as whiting and herring – are best eaten very fresh. A high fat content and dense muscle composition indicate a fish is likely to age well.

Fish needs to be kept dry (and cold) the moment it leaves the water. Niland concedes that his unusually close relationship with his suppliers makes it easier for him to control what happens to his fish before it enters his kitchen. But there are some simple steps restaurants can take to ensure fish arrives in good condition.

“The first thing to do is commit to the labour of scaling and gutting your fish in-house,” he says. “You can also ask your supplier how the fish is currently being stored. If it’s being stored on ice – which will inevitably melt – you can ask them to put it in a dry container.”

The next big barrier for chefs to overcome is to stop looking at fish in such narrow terms. “In general, chefs are far less creative with fish dishes than they are with meat dishes. There’s far more to it than white fillets on garnishes. Pretty much everything you can do to meat you can do to fish,” he says.

A common mistake is to let the garnish dictate the fish, when really it should be the other way round. “Don’t be a chef who has a handful of fish in their repertoire that go with a handful of garnishes,” Niland continues. “When you get a fish in, cook a slice of it and just eat it for what it is. Think about how to cook it. Is pan frying really the best option?”

A quick flick through the book reveals Niland doesn’t just talk the talk. While there are some takes on classic fish preparations, the majority use meat dishes as a jumping-off point to create strikingly original plates of food. There is a take on buttermilk-fried chicken using blue-eyed trevalla; a salmon wellington; a bacon and egg muffin made with swordfish bacon; and a play on steak tartare with well-aged yellowfin tuna standing in for the beef.

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“When I see a whole swordfish, I always see a pig. Any opportunity I see in a pig, I see in a swordfish. There are no rules. Our swordfish bacon is very similar to pork bacon. With the aid of a bandsaw we can also do a standing rib of swordfish that looks like a bistecca Fiorentina. It’s not about manipulation. It’s about confrontation removal. We want to make people feel comfortable with something they might otherwise not be.”

Embracing innards

Perhaps the most exciting part of Niland’s repertoire is his offal dishes, particularly as they champion parts of the fish that are nearly always binned by restaurants.

“Monkfish liver is a thing. Caviar is from sturgeon. Bottarga is roe from a mullet. But for some reason there’s no desirability for anything outside of those ingredients. But if I give you herring roe or blue mackerel roe you’ll find it just as delicious. Yet little else gets air time. At least not in western cooking cultures. It should be recognised that Asians have been eating every bit of the fish for thousands of years,” says Niland, who cites the work of St John’s Fergus Henderson as one of his key inspirations.

“I’ve always put that restaurant on a pedestal because of the humility the kitchen shows to the product. And guess what: you can put a cleaver between a large fish’s backbone, extract the marrow and roast it the oven and serve it with a parsley and shallot salad just like Fergus does with beef marrow.”

Part of the reason for Niland making preparations that reference meat products is because they can make it easier for his customers to get their heads round eating the more icky bits. For example, he uses milt (fish sperm) to make a take on mortadella that’s served as part of a bánh mì sandwich.

“Milt’s not an impossible sell. It’s creamy and soft and delicious. But as soon as you say sperm, people go a bit crazy,” Niland continues. “But we eat fish eggs, right? We had a well-known Australian chef called Pete Evans in the other day. I know he likes his offal so I made him a tempura-style dish using smoked milt. It was delicious. The next day Daily Mail Australia did a huge thing about him coming to the restaurant to eat fish sperm and said that I got my kicks from serving all this weird stuff.”

Fish heart, spleen, roe, head, blood and bone marrow all make regular appearances on the menu at Saint Peter – dishes include prawn crackers made with fish eyeballs; black pudding made using fish blood; fried scales; glazed fish throats; and smoked hearts, spleens and roes – and are also found on the counter at Fish Butchery alongside advice on how to cook it.

Eyes

Working with Sydney’s best

Niland grew up in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, a couple of hour’s drive north from Sydney. As such, his first experience of seafood was a can of tuna, not an oyster freshly plucked from the seabed. At eight years old he was diagnosed with cancer. “It put a rocket up my backside and made me want to get on with things,” he says. “If I want to do something, I put my head down and work towards it. It’s probably why I’m 30 years old, married with two kids and running two businesses.”

Niland started cooking at 15, working his way through some of Sydney’s most noted kitchens, including Peter Doyle’s Est, and acclaimed seafood restaurant Fish Face. The chef at the latter was Stephen Hodges, one of Australia’s foremost experts on cooking fish.

“I was very spoilt learning from him,” Niland recalls. “He was a lunatic in the kitchen, and quite challenging to work with at times. But I was able to distill the crazy and took away nuggets of gold from his rants. He understood how to buy and handle fish. I was only 19 but he put a huge amount of faith in me. There was a fixed menu of classic dishes, but I had full responsibility for the specials. He gave me the freedom to fail creatively, which is very unusual in professional kitchens.”

This early recognition of Niland’s creative talents would put him in good stead for his next posting. Back then, a stint in London was a rite of passage for ambitious Aussie chefs, so Niland applied for a job in The Fat Duck’s Development Kitchen and – a year or so later– found himself in Bray working side-by-side with Heston Blumenthal doing the research for the chef’s Heston at Home​ cookbook (Niland’s wife and now business partner Julie accompanied him to the UK and worked in The Fat Duck’s pastry section).

Expecting to create the next snail porridge amid billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen, Niland was initially disappointed that he’d been put on the domestic book. But he very quickly realised the team had done him a favour: the work he did alongside Blumenthal and then head of creative development James ‘Jockey’ Petrie was every bit as creative and interesting and – crucially for his next step – was less concerned with proprietary techniques and dishes and more about understanding the behaviour of ingredients.

“It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experience I’ve had in my working life,” says Niland, still clearly wowed and humbled by the experience. “I was only in my early 20s but got to work with an elite squad of people that included me in frontline conversations about dish development.”

Upon returning to Australia, he briefly worked again for Hodges at Fish Face before opening Saint Peter in 2016, to immediate critical acclaim. But it was Fish Butchery – opened in 2018 – that put Niland on the international stage and kickstarted a new round of development that saw him take his fish-as-meat approach to the next level. Four years on from launching his first business, Niland is an internationally-known chef with over 100,000 Instagram followers. If he’s not on Netflix’s Chef’s Table within the next few years, there’s something fishy going on.

But why fish? Why does a chef with the creative capacity of Niland choose to limit himself to just one type of protein? “Because I find it really hard,” is his immediate reply. “It’s uncharted waters for most chefs. The reason for people not eating the whole fish – especially the icky bits – is most chefs’ inability to make it appealing. I love the challenge of making an eyeball approachable for my mum, and I also like the idea of convincing a macho guy who thinks what he really wants is a rib of beef to enjoy a cut of fish on the bone.”

Netting the right catch

Niland originally sourced his fish for Saint Peter from Sydney fish market but now mainly works with fishermen who are able to deliver to him direct (even if fish is caught on the far side of Oz, it typically reaches him no more than 24 hours after leaving the water). He acknowledges that the majority of his peers in Australia and further afield don’t have the time to work in this manner.

Mooloolaba-flame-tail

“I get that it’s harder if you’re not a specialist and just have a few fish dishes on your menu. My top bit of advice for people in that situation is to not specify what species you want – just ask a trusted supplier what’s in good condition and plentiful. Obviously, there is demand for white fish and flat fish, but you don’t necessarily need to name call.”

Niland is knowledgeable about fish stocks and sources his fish in a manner that is as sustainable as possible, however the issue of finite wild fish stocks is not explored in The Whole Fish​. This
is partly because Australian chefs are in less of a tangle about sustainability than their European counterparts.

“We’re fortunate in that Australia is leading the way. There are strict rules about what comes out of the ocean here,” he says. “We have the most regulated fishing industry in the world. That’s not to say we can just sit back and not worry about it, but it does make things easier,” says Niland, whose close relationship with his suppliers allows him to be incredibly specific about what he wants (there’s one fisherman he works with who catches the fish, holds it in a tank aboard the boat and only kills it using the ikijime brain spike technique once he has a confirmed order).

But there is some fish that is available in Australia that Niland won’t use. Stocks of southern bluefin tuna have made a near miraculous recovery in recent years, but it doesn’t feature on the menu at Saint Peter or on the counter at Fish Butchery.

“It’s a very good fish, the fat is fantastic. But it’s too emotive. People would say ‘why is this guy who flies the flag for sustainability putting bluefin on the menu?’ I don’t use some of the pretty reef fish that come out of the water north of Queensland for similar reasons. People don’t want to see Nemo on the menu.”

Farmed versus wild

While Niland is not against aquaculture per se, he doesn’t serve any farmed fish at Saint Peter because he believes the taste and texture does not compare favourably to wild-caught. “Aquaculture is a hugely important part of the future. Hopefully, in time, producers will get it tasting more similar to wild fish. Another factor is that these products have been designed to appeal to a broad market in terms of taste and texture, which is understandable.”

Fish Butchery does sell some farmed fish because it’s typically a more forgiving product for home cooks. “Hiramasa yellowtail kingfish from the Spencer Gulf is one of our bestselling products. It’s popular in Sydney restaurants because it has a rich, buttery flavour. I find it a bit neutral, so we dry-age it for two weeks prior to selling it to give it a more robust, savoury characteristic,” he says.

While those who read through the book might be surprised that there’s little discussion of sustainability, Niland’s ideas have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of fish kitchens need to order. Armed with this knowledge, chefs can explore new ways of getting more off the carcass while simultaneously dramatically reducing spoilage by following his advice on procurement and storage.

Forward-thinking chefs are already taking influence from Niland’s approach, and the book – which is already being championed by some of the biggest names in the food world including René Redzepi and Jamie Oliver – will further extend Niland’s reach. “I’m looking at Instagram and seeing all these chefs making bone-in cutlets using a bandsaw. I don’t look at these images and say, ‘oh, they’re copying me’. It’s wonderful. I’m proud and happy people are rethinking fish.”

The Whole Fish: New ways to cook, eat and think ​by Josh Niland is published by Hardie Grant, priced £25.

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the October issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here​.

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