Small fish, big pond. That would be a fair assessment of the prospects for 27-year-old chef Josh Niland and his wife, Julie, when they opened their self-proclaimed “Australian fish eatery,” Saint Peter, in Sydney in 2016. Yet from his tiny converted shopfront, the chef (“fish butcher”) startled the food world with his unique approach to the sea’s diverse riches. It wasn’t just because of his dishes, and definitely not owing to a chef-y swagger. On Instagram, Niland diligently documented the daily inner workings of a little fish restaurant and, more precisely, the innards of various fish. Laying out the pieces of each animal in stark formation—the eyes, the lungs, the liver, the tail—the filets almost seemed an afterthought. He combined his reverence toward each species, along with a clinical precision and humility in front of the beauty of nature, to create images and then dishes that are both deeply alluring yet curiously educative.
Like schools of fish, diners rarely diverge from what they know and what they are comfortable with when it comes to seafood, so to see, say, a fish liver paté en croute or some obscure, normally inedible fish on the menu, had the effect of challenging diners. But not in a “chef recommends” way, or the kind of chef’s dish that conjures his days of running through the fields as a child or some such nonsense. Instead, in his gentle way, Niland teaches a master class in classic cooking and contemporary technique, sustainable fisheries and perhaps even philosophy, with each dish or fish photo. It’s no wonder he went from a tiny restaurant and humble Instagram following to a James Beard Award-winning author with The Whole Fish, with the eyes of the world on his collection of 37 knives. Mostly he lets the fish do the talking. But he stepped away from his kitchen to speak with us.
David Prior: So, let’s start with the simple question. Why seafood?
Josh Niland: I think my affinity with seafood goes back to the very beginning when I was a third-year apprentice, and I got the job that I’ve wanted since I was sixteen. Once I got into that kitchen, they’d always put what seemed like the most ambitious, skilled, talented person onto [the seafood] station. I’d watch from afar, the way they went about it. Everything was a little bit more systematic. I just liked the control and precision. It’s a similar thing that you see in pastry, whereas elsewhere in the kitchen it is a bit more of a testosterone charge: “Let’s just get in there and shake some pans.” Instead, there was a certain sense of elegance.
How did it evolve from there?
I said that I was really interested in learning to cook fish a little bit more specifically. Ultimately, I thought there was so much in it that I wasn’t learning. Peter Doyle, whose Sydney-based restaurant I was working at at the time, sent me to work for Steve Hodges at Fish Face, which was a thirty-four seat restaurant based entirely—as the name suggests—on fish. He was the kind of chef who was there every single day. He was a genius of technical precision, and his accuracy in cooking fish was just unseen. I had never seen anybody able to get the volume of fish in the door, like a diverse species, and know a method of cookery to apply to it like that. He invested so much time and training in me that I thought it would be a bit of a middle finger to him for me not to do something with seafood.
Can you describe your restaurant Saint Peter and its offshoot, the Fish Butchery?
Saint Peter is labeled an “Australian fish eatery.” Julia (my wife) and I came to each other on the same day, about a month before we opened, and said: “Well, I’ve got the name for the restaurant.” And we both said it at the same time. And she said, “Saint Peter.” And I said, “Well, that was what I was going to say to you.” Saint Peter is of course from the Bible, the miraculous catch of fish. It’s based on the idea that he was the patron saint of fishermen, but it’s also the other name for John Dory. So that’s why we put the black spot [from the John Dory] on each plate for the mark of Saint Peter on our dinner plates.
And it also makes every dish you do recognizable, especially on Instagram. Let’s talk about Instagram: that is really how global attention initially came to what was an obscure Sydney restaurant.
Well, in the world of Instagram, where everybody’s taking photos, people would know where they were eating when the black spot was on the plate. So that was our budget marketing scheme! Now everybody sort of says, “Who did your Instagram strategy for you?” or, “who built that kind of plan with you?” And I said, “I only did it because I was very scared about the restaurant closing because it was my business.” I was fearful that no one would come. And I would be left with a failed restaurant and a concept that people wouldn’t embrace.
Well embrace it they did. When I saw what you were doing, it was incredibly startling, something entirely fresh, treating seafood in this stark, precise and reverent way. Taking extraordinary photos not only of dishes that have flooded Instagram for years, but also of the broken down anatomy of all of the diverse treasures of the sea. I think in what you do there is something very contemporary in its presentation, but something also very elemental and classic.
I think it is about looking at it from another perspective, but it is nothing new.
I don’t know about that. You are being humble. To me what you do speaks to waste and anatomy and then the beauty of nature and fragility and technique and humility all at once. I think anyone who really understands produce or nature appreciates it. It clearly resonated with a lot of people, not just in Sydney, but globally. Did that just take you totally by surprise?
It’s interesting. I would watch the Instagram likes for certain images that I would project, and I would look at who was liking it. I was quite fascinated that some people would really, really be drawn to the anatomy of the fish, and that separation and cleanliness and linear lines and everything. And that’s what I love the most, just those really graphic, clean lines. But then others would just like a really big chunk of cooked tuna on the bone and things like that that are yummy, and they’re looking at it through the eyes of a meat eater.
You also received an astonishing review from the New York Times, in that it really introduced the idea of how you approach waste.
I think mainly the review by the New York Times, and the continued reviewing process and support from the national media here in Australia, helped propel the idea around, bringing desirability to the waste of the fish. And that’s been my agenda since six months into the restaurant. I’ve realized that we are as a society putting too much in the bin.
I’ve traveled to many Eastern cultures and African cultures, places where using fish is not just about taste. It is about scarcity and nutrition, obviously. Why do you think in Western culture we value so few parts of fish?
I don’t really want to say it’s a sense of entitlement. But it is. I think we’re spoiled for choice, and we can have whatever we want whenever we want. And it doesn’t cost that much. There’s a certain sense that 365 days a year we can gain access to the center cut of a fish.
It is different with meat, though, and there has long been the notion of “the whole animal” when it comes to that.
I think that with fish we don’t know methods of cookery for a diverse array of species, or we don’t know what to do with the organs of a fish. Why should we go and engage with that when I’ve got a tried and tested method for my salmon filet?
Many people have a complicated relationship with fish. I think about smell as an example.
You need to bring comfort to something that has carried so much discomfort for so many people for so long, whether it’s visually or texturally, just by looking at it and saying what it feels like. I think everybody’s got this disillusionment around fish, and that’s why I had to write my book, which was about trying to relieve the stress that people have around this bony, smelly, wet product. And to perhaps ask just one question at least: why do we continue to wash a fish once it comes out of water? It doesn’t make sense to me. Bizarre if you think about it.
I never thought of it like that, but it’s completely true.
We only feel we need to keep it wet because it used to be there. But if an animal was killed, and you went into a butchery and you saw a guy breaking down a beautiful sirloin, you wouldn’t see it taken off the bone then dipped in water, then put back on the board, slice of steak, dip it in water, and then put it on a tray of ice. If you think about what would happen to that kind of meat in three days, it would begin to acidify and go bad. And that’s what’s happening to our fish. Just like if we only ever take 50 percent of a fish, we’re going to need two fish to realize that 100 percent, whereas if I can generate 94, 95 percent, for every one fish coming out of the water, I get the yield of two. And so if we look at that on a global scale, we can start making an impact, a tangible impact in how much fish is coming out of the water.
Personally, I’m building all of my food with the mindset that nobody wants fish guts. People want desirable products, hence why I’ve tapped into that Euro style that is liver pâté.
To see that style of European charcuterie applied to seafood is surprising.
Another thing I thought about is, why should one fish, like sturgeon, have this desirability as a source for caviar, yet a John Dory produces eggs in the female fish as well—why can’t I make John Dory caviar? It doesn’t make sense because it can be just as good, if not better. So it’s questions like that that inspired the restaurant and the Butchery and ultimately the book. The work that we do is done because we’re just trying to give people an idea of what is possible. I know that some fish and recipes in the book aren’t tangible for everyone, as proven by Bon Appétit magazine when they tried to give a few recipes a crack in their test kitchen.
Really? That’s hilarious.
Yes, but I’m really fortunate that everybody’s seen what I saw in the book. There’s been some skepticism around the recipes, and they aren’t often meant to be replicated, really. It’s more about being provocative than anything. Trying to see fish in a different light, rather than just a square of fillet sitting on another garnish.
Aside from the book being super educational—and actually I think paradigm shifting—for professional cooks, if I was to embrace your new approach to fish, remembering that I don’t have 37 knives, what would be the one lesson I should take away?
On the 37 knives thing, I really honestly only use a couple most of the time. My advice would be and continues to be: make sure that the people you’re buying your fish from remain loyal. And if you’re confident that they are going to give you a great piece of fish, stay with them and be loyal, because that kind of conversation building over a period of time will put you in the best place to get the best quality. And while being loyal, you shouldn’t be submissive to just accepting whatever. You should continue the conversation with the people who are giving you fish and ask what they are having for dinner. Because when you ask that question, you will get something very different, and then ultimately we’ll slowly start to eat a wider variety of fish.
I’d be interested to hear what you think are the hallmarks of Australian seafood.
If you’re speaking broadly about seafood, the rock oysters obviously are some of the best in the world. But coral trout is the Ferrari of the Australian ocean. It’s just the most incredible fish, especially when you’re working with people as we are here, who go out and catch them on an old-fashioned hand line and pull them up one at a time. There are these young fishermen now that are catching fish and who are extraordinary. They’re following the Japanese methodology of ikijime (the humane killing of fish through the brain and spinal cord that also preserves taste) and correctly handling the fish up front. And fishermen are getting them to wholesalers so quickly now that the immediacy of receiving product in such a big country inside a day is astonishing.
What are some others to look for on the menu and in the market when traveling in OZ?
Well, the other one is King George whiting, which I think rivals turbot. I know people will be shocked and horrified to hear that, but King George Whiting for us is our beacon of the ocean here. I mean, people will say, “Well, what about barramundi? And what about salmon?” And all this sort of stuff. But very rarely have I ever experienced an extraordinary barramundi. I’ve had wild barramundi and they were delicious. But rarely do you get those and rarely are people patient enough to wait for the season where there are wild barramundi available.
And in fact most people don’t even realize that there’s a season with seafood.
Seasonality with fish is just not even considered a thing in Australia. People know that they want John Dory, King George Whiting. But then they don’t actually appreciate that if they were to eat the King George Whiting in the moment when they’re better, they’ll have a transformative experience that would blow their mind. We have incredible Rock flathead, which is celebrated all over the country for its quality. But when it comes down to it, it is going to end up in batter or fish and chips. People will be horrified, but I don’t think it’s the best fish to put in batter.
You aren’t telling me you hate fish and chips.
No! fish and chips is a part of the wheelhouse of the Fish Butchery.
So what’s the best fish to use for them?
I like pink ling, which is just delicious and a very thick and juicy fillet. But fish that wouldn’t even be considered to go into batter, like mahi-mahi, I think is amazing because of how gelatinous and sticky it is. Leaving skin on the fish when you batter gives the fish identity rather than it just being white protein in batter. A batter shouldn’t be used as a mask, which was probably why it was created in the first place, to offset ammonia and offset harmful textures and all that sort of stuff. It should be there to enhance textures and insulate and steam and promote flavor. But that’s another interesting conversation around why we continue to add lemon to fish as well.
Oh, interesting. What about lemon?
You know ideas about adding acid to a fish are only to offset ammonia, because that’s the only way that you kill ammonia, through using acidic ingredients.
So no lemon?
You’ve got centuries of repertoire of cookery with regard to seafood and the use of acidic ingredients: tomatoes, oils and vinegars, Hollandaise, tartar sauce and all sorts of things. They’re all being built with the view that, inevitably, the fish that you’re using will spoil, and in a much shorter timeframe than what’s actually necessary. If fish gets washed under a tap, you will immediately put a shelf life on that fish for a maximum of five days. And outside of that five days it will be putrid and all you will smell is fishy fish. And that’s why in a retail setting, that’s the first question that you always get asked. “What is your least fishy fish?” Because heaven forbid, you will have an ammonia laden fish that gives you that negative experience, and doesn’t realize that monetary investment that you’ve placed in that fish.
What cultures and their approach to the ocean do you admire?
I haven’t had the great fortune of traveling to Japan or the Middle East or Africa. But watching people like Anthony Bourdain travel to different parts, going to beaches in Africa where fish get brought up onto the beach, and then they’re just lined up and sold off the sand without refrigeration, I mean, I think that’s incredibly powerful to look at as an image.
In Mauritania where the desert meets the Atlantic there are Muslim women who make bottarga and it is a 1,000-year-long tradition. It is some of the best bottarga in the world and it is not from Sicily. The sight of them on the beach in their colorful hijabs drying out the fish egg sacks is something to behold.
I am of course interested in the reverence and precision of the Japanese. I hope to experience that in my lifetime. But you speak of inspiration from the ocean and the global view of that. To be honest, I think that becomes very limiting. I am not looking to others when I approach fish. It is not out of disrespect, but it expresses what we already know or what we may have already seen, and I want to think about it in a different way. I am looking more to people like Fergus Henderson and his “Nose to Tail” approach, or meat butchers, honestly.
You’ve become a spokesperson for sustainability in the seafood industry, but it did not come from that perspective. It came from finding deliciousness, right? Sustainability was a by-product of that, am I right?
Everything’s been born out of the culinary approach and through being curious, and questioning certain things has walked hand in hand with aligning ethical thinking and a more sustainable approach. So, absolutely, I was never Captain Planet from the get-go. And now I’m literally coming at this always from how can we mitigate waste to create something amazing, without making people feel uncomfortable? You don’t want to ostracize anybody for thinking, “What, you’re an idiot for throwing that in the bin.” I’m trying to make sure that it’s an encouraging positive thing.
Speaking of seafood and sustainability, people will want to know: what is off the menu? What, from a biodiversity perspective, should we just never eat again?
Slow growing fish. I’ve stopped buying them. Big breeding female fish. And Bluefin tuna.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.