It’s 9am on a Monday morning in east London, and outside the wind and rain are crashing and bashing. Inside, a 31-year-old Australian chef called Josh Niland paces the floor impatiently waiting for a fish to arrive. He’s not especially picky what kind of fish it is, only that it is an excellent specimen, not much tampered with. But he knows that’s a lot to ask: it’s Monday after all, and the weekend’s storms would have deterred all but the most intrepid boats from going out. So Niland has called in a favour and asked Nathan Outlaw, Britain’s most celebrated fish chef, to source one for him from one of his contacts in Cornwall.
Just before 10am, a hefty, elongated package is delivered and Niland unwraps it like a child. His eyes light up: it’s a sea bass, around five kilos in weight. Its scales – its “armour” he calls it – are perfect, even the translucent webbing of the fins is completely intact, and its bright, bulbous eyes seem to follow you around the room. “I don’t think many people in London get a fish like this on Monday,” says Niland. “We don’t get a fish like this on Friday. But when you’re the king of Cornwall…”
Niland loves fish. He loves how difficult it is to prepare. He loves that most people find it very hard to cook. He loves that a lot of people have issues eating it, that they are put off by the smell, the texture or the notion that fish is somehow “feminine”. He loves the fact that even people who do like fish would run a mile when presented with, say, head terrine or an appetiser made from fish eye balls. All of this makes his work more important, more vital. Since 2016, Niland has endeavoured to challenge all these convictions at his 34-seat Sydney restaurant, Saint Peter, and at his shop, Fish Butchery, a couple of doors down. For the rest of the world, he has his hyper-stylised Instagram account and he has now written the essential, enthralling Whole Fish Cookbook.
Niland, who has boyish features and a whip of brown hair, slips on a pair of black latex gloves, which have become a signature. “It’s a little bit Dexter-y, when I’ve got black gloves and 13 knives,” he concedes. And for the next hour or so, he clinically “breaks down” the sea bass, starting with taking long strips of scales, then turning his attention to the head, then lovingly disentangling the guts before, almost as an afterthought, preparing the fillets. It is estimated that only 43% of each fish and shellfish caught in the UK is eaten by humans; the bones, head and offal are either tossed away or ground into fishmeal. At Saint Peter and the Fish Butchery, Niland aims to use 90% in some form.
It is a radical idea, but also an important one at a time when sustainability and waste are essential considerations in our food choices. And Niland has some inventive, funny and downright loopy suggestions for what you can cook. The Whole Fish Cookbook includes a recipe for a fish Kiev, with garlic butter spilling out of a King George whiting. There’s a hot-smoked fish turducken, which Niland makes with a tuna loin inside cod inside a butterflied sea trout. There’s also fish black pudding, swordfish bacon, guanciale made from fish cheeks and jowls and wild kingfish pastrami (with alternative fish suggestions if you are reliant on Atlantic waters). Desserts are not yet so advanced but a Saint Peter staple is the fish fat chocolate caramel slice.
You might imagine Niland’s offbeat approach to be divisive, but in fact the food world has formed a rare consensus. Jamie Oliver calls The Whole Fish Cookbook “a mind-blowing masterpiece” and threw a party for its publication in London in October; Nigella Lawson thinks Niland is “a genius”. There is praise too from the high chefs: both Noma’s René Redzepi and Grant Achatz from Alinea in Chicago describe him as “inspiring”. Outlaw, who has devoted 20 years of his life to cooking fish, considers Niland nothing less than a game-changer. “Josh has basically taken all the old ways of fish prep and cookery and thrown the bad ones out the window and turned what remains on its head,” he says.
Some of these testimonies are stamped on a blingy gold band across the cover of the book. “It’s fairly aggressive, isn’t it?” smiles Niland.
Niland’s approach is often compared to that of Fergus Henderson, who pioneered “nose-to-tail” eating of pigs, sheep and cows when his restaurant St John opened in 1994. It’s a hefty compliment, but Niland would like eventually to have a similar impact. “Yeah, I think the same thing could have been said for Fergus 25 years ago,” he says. “I’m sure back then there were plenty of avant-garde chefs taking the centre of the circle out of a fillet of beef and putting it with 12 different mushrooms and celebrating that in all its glory. Then Fergus comes along and unapologetically puts an oxtail on a plate with a fork in it, or a pipe of bone marrow with some toast next to it. It’s not a middle finger to the system, but it’s definitely, ‘Don’t forget there’s all of this as well…’
“Because if an animal gets killed, if a fish gets killed, you have to commit yourself to using the whole thing,” he goes on. “It’s simple, basic logic.”
If Niland comes across as driven, even evangelical, there’s a reason. Two days after his eighth birthday, his mother noticed a lump under his ribcage. It was a childhood cancer known as Wilms’ tumour and it was growing fast. “Today is 14 October, so tomorrow it will be 23 years ago I had cancer,” he recalls when we meet. “I had to have my right kidney taken out, I had radiotherapy, I had 18 months of chemotherapy, and as a young man that was pretty scary. And relevant to who I am now, I feel that was a big rocket pack on my back at a very young age to think: ‘Well, alright, everything can go sideways very quickly, so if I want anything I am going to go and get it.’”
Niland grew up in Maitland, a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney in the Hunter Valley. His father had an accountancy business and his mother helped out with administrative duties. As a family, they were not especially interested in food, and certainly not fish; Niland recalls being traumatised as a child when his sister almost choked on a fish bone. But that gradually started to change as he recovered from cancer.
“Food was a comfort at a time when I was sick, food was very much something to look forward to as a treat,” says Niland. “I started really becoming infatuated with cooking when I was 13 or 14 and I had the opportunity to buy ingredients with Mum at the grocery store and cook a meal for everyone at home and see them actually really enjoy what they were eating. I loved the level of generosity there is in producing food.”
The fish shop that has fillets of fish draped over ice is just the most ludicrous thing ever
Niland left school as soon as he could and, rocket pack on, he moved to Sydney and started “cherry-picking” the skills he would need to open his own restaurant one day. An especially influential placement was two stints at Fish Face. There, chef Stephen Hodges was obsessive about the handling of fish, convinced that any contact with water should be minimised. Partly this was for the taste – it’s much harder to get the skin on wet fish to crisp – but mainly it was for longevity. Wet fish, both Hodges and Niland believe, typically has more bacteria and will also spoil more quickly.
“I feel like the fish shop that has fillets of fish draped over ice is just the most ludicrous thing ever,” says Niland. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why someone is standing with a fire hose and re-spritzes the fish to make it look wet, because somehow that makes it feel more like its fresh and it’s out of the water. It’s absurd.”
The other formative experience was spending three months, aged 22, in the development kitchen at the Fat Duck. When Niland arrived and was told he would be working on the Heston Blumenthal at Home cookbook, he wasn’t impressed. “Call it the 22-year-old ego, but I thought that was the worst thing in the world,” he says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? I’ve just flown all this way and now I’m going to do a domestic cookbook?’ I wanted to cook snail porridge and bacon and egg ice-cream.”
As it was, the Fat Duck’s granular approach to ingredients and methodology made Niland rethink everything he thought he knew about cooking. Each Thursday, Blumenthal would set him tasks for the week, which might be learning how to poach an egg correctly or finding out why a lemon tart cracks. The next week he’d report back. “They literally question everything,” says Niland. “Nothing is too stupid to ask.” The benefits of this experience can be now be found in the most playful parts of Saint Peter’s menu, such as the dish that looks like a jelly doughnut but is actually smoked eel with beetroot jam. (As an aside, Niland has also recently adopted Blumenthal’s dictum that all men in his kitchen should be clean shaven.)
Since opening Saint Peter, Niland’s own experimentation is going deeper and deeper. He has become passionate about dry-ageing: keeping fish in a low-temperature, low-moisture environment to find its “sweet spot”. He continues to probe which species it works best with (Spanish mackerel, tuna, swordfish) and how far he can push it (around 20 days seems to be the maximum). He’s also thought harder than almost anyone, at least in western cooking, to find uses for fish offal. “I’ve yet to master the gall bladder,” he says, looking pained.
But where, for some, Niland has pushed it too far is in the name of his shop. “I copped a lot of emails and messages – and continue to do so – about how silly it is and how you shouldn’t call a fish shop a butchery, it’s a monger,” he says. “But I’m like, ‘Anything you can do to an animal, let’s do to a fish.’ Like, it’ll work, whether it’s a swordfish that looks like a T-bone or a cutlet of sea bass with a little polished French bone, or a beautiful butterflied red mullet that’s got crumbs on it.”
At this point, you might be wondering if any of his findings are of use for even the most adventurous domestic cook. What’s one thing we can do to improve the taste of fish at home? “Just take the fish out of the plastic, out of the paper, and put it on a cake rack in your refrigerator,” he says. “Let the fan blow over it for a bit, so the skin dries out and when it comes time for cooking, whether you are baking, roasting, pan-frying, you’ll find the skin is just far more pleasant to cook with rather than just being really wet. And you’ll find your fish won’t have nearly as much odour.”
Niland clearly wants to change the world, or at least how fish is sold, and how we eat it at home and in restaurants. It’s not going to be easy and you sense he knows that. Although he comes across as highly focused and single-minded, a strange thing happened when he signed the lease for Saint Peter in 2016: it should have been the happiest day of his life, the result of 14 years’ hard work, but suddenly he was overcome.
“Honestly, I threw up in a bin in my solicitor’s office, because I couldn’t believe what I’d just done,” remembers Niland. “All throughout my cooking I wanted my own restaurant, but I didn’t know it would come in the form of me personally signing things that would make me very heavily, personally responsible for the success or failure of the business. So, it all just became this wave of unwellness at once.”
Niland stops, perhaps reflecting on the impact he’s had in just three years, and then deadpans: “But it turned out OK.”
Crumbed sardine sandwich
Who doesn’t love a crumbed fish sandwich on soft white bread? It’s important to fry the sardines in ghee in a pan rather than deep-frying, as the flavour is much better and the cooking is easier to control. Yogurt tartare sauce (see recipe below) could be substituted with a hot sauce or mayonnaise, if you like. This sandwich is so versatile and a number of different fish work perfectly here, including herring, whiting or anchovies.
For the sardine sandwich
plain flour 150g
eggs 4, lightly whisked
white panko breadcrumbs 120g
sardines 8 x 60g, scaled, gutted and butterflied
sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper
soft white bread 4 slices
yogurt tartare sauce 100g (see below)
For the yogurt tartare sauce (makes enough for several servings)
natural yogurt 375g
French shallots 3 large, diced
small salted capers 1 tbsp, rinsed, dried and finely chopped
cornichons 60g, coarsely chopped
flat-leaf parsley leaves 2 tbsp, finely sliced
To make the yogurt tartare sauce, stir all the ingredients together in a bowl.
To make the sandwich, start by flouring, egg-washing and crumbing the butterflied sardines, being sure to leave the tails of the fish uncrumbed.
Heat the ghee in a frying pan over a high heat and cook the crumbed sardines, in batches, on one side for 1 minute, or until golden and crisp, then the other side for a further 10-20 seconds. Remove from the pan and season liberally.
Cut the crusts off the bread. Spread some of the tartare sauce over two slices from edge to edge, then arrange four sardines on top. Add the remaining sauce and the remaining slices of bread. Serve with the golden edges of the sardines showing and the little tails exposed at one end.
The Whole Fish Cookbook (Hardie Grant, £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
The Observer aims to publish recipes for fish rated as sustainable by the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide