A leader in whole fish cookery and passionate advocate of dry ageing, Australian chef and restaurateur Josh Niland is a man on a mission.
Josh and his wife Julie own Saint Peter restaurant and Fish Butchery in Sydney, Australia. Fish Butchery, just a few doors down from the restaurant, features a temperature-controlled ice-free zone, where the fish is dry handled and cut to order. The fish is line-caught, local and sustainable and customers have the chance to try lesser-known fish, taking the pressure of over-fished species.
Josh has now shared his ethos and ground-breaking approach to using the whole fish in a new book The Whole Fish Cookbook (published by Hardie Grant). He was recently in Ireland for food symposium Food on the Edge and spoke about his mission to revolutionise how we handle fish.
On his talk at FOOD ON THE EDGE
“The main message [I wanted to get across] is that the way that we're processing fish right now is terrible across the board. Yes there’s acres of potential in fish - such as what we’re doing with dry ageing and fish charcuterie and there’s a wonderful exploration of using fish offal as well - but if you’re not getting the processing right there’s no point."
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On why we shouldn’t wash fish
“The idea of needing to wash a fish to clean it needs to stop – but it's something that has been common for thousands of years. The only reason people feel they can wash fish is because it came from water, but water is the enemy of fish. By handling fish dry you offer greater shelf life, greater quality and greater potential - of using close to 90 or 95 percent of the fish.
"The second you put a drop of water on a fish once it’s out of the water you’ve set the clock. That shelf life will constantly be around 3- to 4-day mark. It brings a huge inefficiency to the system we have right now and we have something that celebrates quantity over quality at the moment."
On dry ageing fish
"With regards to ageing; Japan specifically, has aged its tuna for centuries, to bring about better textures, better flavours and more complementary textures. Fish has been aged in a way that it’s either been preserved with salt or brine or wrapped and buried in ice. Matured in a wet kind of way.
"My methods now will have been born out of common sense, in my eyes. The potential that a fish could develop more flavour through time. Through trial and error at St Peter, we discovered that they become more savoury and texturally they become firmer."
On the need to diversity our fish diet
"I think globally we probably only celebrate 20 to 25 fish when there’s thousands of species. There’s hundreds of species of snapper globally yet we seem to have only one type; common snapper. All of these snappers offer very unique flavour profiles but we’re hung up on this one that’s been made available commercially.
"The system is built on quota and there is the celebration of quantity. If we take too much stock from the water and put pressure on a species oftentimes that leads to producing a farmed product in line with what was available wild. That, to a degree, is a good thing as it’s creating a sustainable future for that fish but it’s kind of championing that ethos of ‘let's consume one fish every day for the rest of our lives’ when we should be diversifying what we eat.
On using as much of a whole fish as possible
"Recently we got 96% yield off a seabass. There was a 4% loss and that came in the form of the gills and the gallbladder. [We used] things like liver, stomach, eyes, intestine, spleen, roe, bones, head, shoulder, everything!"
On his future plans
"You’re always striving as a restaurant to finesse the product, to find the sweet spot where a fish tastes better, and I’ve got a great team of people that are trying to do that. My agenda is shifting into this conversation around the way we’re handling fish. I’m talking to really well-respected journalists, food media and chefs from all around the world and no one’s heard of what I’m talking about. They have no idea that you should not put water on fish. But I’m going to try to make as much noise as I can, write as many books as I can and hopefully get on a level where I can get in front of bigger audiences. My energy is shifting into trying to bring about change to inspire chefs and see what the ripple effect is on the back of that."