As a 20-something year old young chef Josh Niland entered into our Electrolux Australian Young Chef in 2013, cooking his way to Highly Commended.
At the time Josh was working as head chef at Fish Face Sydney. Fast forward 3 years, after a stint as head chef at the now closed Cafe Nice in Sydney; Josh along with his wife Julie have opened their own restaurant, Saint Peter in Paddington.
Named for the patron saint of fisherman, Saint Peter features Australian sustainably sourced seafood. On a rare day off from the restaurant Josh kindly took the time to catch up with us and spills the beans on what it was like opening his own place; the process of dry-ageing fish and his particular fascination with ‘fish & bits’.
What was opening your first restaurant like?
Nothing like opening anyone else’s that’s for sure! It’s been really exhausting but we are extremely proud of what we have been able to produce so far. Paddington locals along with friends & family have all been very supportive and it’s wonderful to be seeing familiar faces returning each week. Our staff are amazing and have made the whole process less stressful then I thought it was going to be.
What do you think has been the biggest hurdle?
Biggest hurdle has been discovering the ‘hidden joys’ of a heritage Paddington terrace, the continuing small issues that arise in the beginning were tricky and required a lot of patience.
Do you have 3 pieces of advice for someone who is thinking of opening their own venue?
- Don’t spend too much money on the fit out or be smart about the choices you make and consider every purchase.
- Stay off Gumtree for important equipment purchases.
- Make time to go and say thank you and hello to your customers and the same to your staff/ look after staff during those first gnarly weeks.
Your focus is primarily on fish specifically the overlooked and under-utilised parts like offal. Have you always been interested in using ‘fish bits’ and why?
Since I was about 19 or 20 I’ve been fascinated that the yield from a fish is so poor and the loss is so high. Fish is so expensive and the shelf life is so slim so if that isn’t motivation for a chef to think out of the box then I’m not sure what is! Having worked in restaurants that sell a lot of fish, I began to keep all the bits.
The obvious method to start with was burying the fish roe from all of the different fish in salt, allowing them to harden then using them as a seasoning. Since then it has been a constant ambition to come up with delicious & different ways of cooking or serving these bits. From pan fried fish livers & parsley on toast, smoked fish heart, salt & vinegar fish scales, poached & rolled head, puffed swim bladders to aged and marinated milt served back with the fish that it came from.
I’m also aware that as Australians we aren’t overly keen on eating ‘fish guts’ but I hope to at least get them to try it!
Can you tell us about the process behind dry ageing fish and how you came about this?
In Japan and even locally in good sushi bars, there are chefs ageing mackerel & tuna and many other fish to heighten the flavour characteristic & texture of the fish.
We start by buying a perfect fish that is wonderful and firm, no imperfections and dry. We process the fish being sure it is thoroughly clean and again kept dry. We then place a butcher’s hook at the tail end and hang in our fish cabinet. Every day we wipe the fish with paper towel to remove any possible surface moisture. Come day 8/9 we remove the fish from the cabinet and place on the second rail we have in the cool room that is in the room with the fan blowing, we allow the fish to hang for another full day and allow the exterior to really dry out. Then it’s just a matter of application, raw/cooked .
We are fortunate to have had a fish cabinet custom made for us that allows us to hold fish between 0 & 1 degrees Celsius. This allows us to hold most fish (depending on the type) for up to 15/16 days. It takes quite a bit of trial and error to find the ‘sweet spot’ of different species but slowly we are getting very good results. In particular the albacore we have on our menu is hung & aged whole for 7 days in our static cabinet and then brought out to our main cool room area to hang for a further 2 days with the assistance of the cool room fan to dry further. By doing this we have found the fish tastes more savoury and the texture is far firmer than it was as a ‘fresh fish’.
My main reason for wanting to do this is mainly to extend what is usually a very small window of time to use fish and try to really hone in on what a particular fish species really tastes like so that we can pair it better with garnishes and wine.
Do you get the fish in whole and clean it? At Saint Peter we buy everything in guts in, scales on & head on. We then dry process the fish, we go to great lengths to be sure that our fish is well maintained and looked after.
What does dry ageing do to the flavour of the fish?
We’ve noticed that in oily fish like Spanish mackerel, albacore & wild kingfish that the unique flavour qualities of the fish begin to become more defined after approx 4-5 days. After 9-10 days the flavour is really promoted and it is like cooking and eating a totally different product.
For example the wild kingfish when fresh tastes wonderful and clean and has a mild acidity to it that tastes like fresh lemon juice. The idea then was to push it to a point (6 days) where the fish had a distinct acidity to it that it made your mouth water, the skin was dry – making it extremely crisp when cooked & with a firmer texture.
Can you serve it raw?
Yes definitely we have served 9 day aged raw wild kingfish with great feedback, the only thing to be conscious of is the red muscle oxidising giving the appearance a less then perfect look. This is maintained by constant love & care.
How do you train your FOH staff on the processes of cooking & ageing your dishes?
We ensure that we all taste the fish that we serve each day and discuss the length of time potentially that it may have been aged and why we wanted to do that then why we decided to pair it with a certain vegetable or sauce.
As the menu is changed every service our FOH staff have a very important roll to play at Saint Peter. Ensuring that the customers are fully briefed on what they are getting if they have any additional offal coming with their dish or if it is aged and then what best wine to pair it with.
What are three pieces of advice you can give about seafood that people may not know?
Never wash fish under water – use plenty of paper towel when cleaning up a whole fish to be sure it’s thoroughly cleaned before storing or cooking.
Never wrap fish or any seafood in cling wrap as this will cause the protein to sweat and it will deteriorate very quickly – invest in go between!
In my opinion avoid flexible fish knives and go for a long slender hard no flex knife, you’ll achieve better more consistent results when cutting whole fish.
Thanks to Josh, Julie and their team for taking time out of their busy schedule and for allowing Appetite to film behind the scenes… Keep an eye out on our website for more of Josh’s how to dry age fish in the coming weeks…
362 Oxford St, Paddington
02 8937 2530