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Future Shapers Food and Drink Josh Niland
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Time Out's Food and Drink Future Shaper: Josh Niland

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Fish don’t have noses, but if they did, Josh Niland would find a way to feature them in one of his dishes. Best known for his ‘nose to tail’ approach to seafood, Niland is the founder of three celebrated Sydney venues: intimate Paddington fine diner Saint Peter, boundary-breaking fishmongers the Fish Butchery next door, and upmarket chippie Charcoal Fish in Rose Bay. As one of Australia’s most highly regarded restaurateurs, Niland is not so much an enfant terrible as he is wise beyond his years – he may only be in his early 30s, but his name is already uttered amongst the ranks of the elder statesmen of Australia’s food scene.

That is in no small part due to his unflinching seriousness about showcasing the parts of a fish that almost always end up in the bin; the eyes, blood, sperm and guts. Niland’s distinctive menus strive to break down the squeamish stigmas that might deter diners from trying dishes that feature these unconventional ingredients, but he is also driven by a desire to educate about the wastefulness of Western food culture. His vision for a more sustainable, ethical, and waste-conscious dining scene in Australia has made him one of the most important changemakers in the food industry today.

It seems that one of the biggest challenges you face is the psychology of your diners, who may be turned off by just the notion of eating unfamiliar parts of the fish, regardless of how expertly they are prepared. How do you go about changing those minds?

Other cultures around the world have consumed the whole fish and entire animals for centuries, so it’s nothing new by any means. But those practices may have been driven more by necessity, within coastal communities who consume the whole fish because that’s what they’ve got access to and they need to make that food source stretch as far as possible. Within a Western point of view – particularly the UK, US and Australia – in privileged parts of the world where we do have the choice as to which species we want to eat and when we want to eat it, we’re throwing away more than half of the animal, which is not just neglectful, it’s actually ridiculous. 

The world of meat has been the inspiration and catalyst behind bringing up the desirability and attention to the secondaries [what’s usually considered offcuts to be chucked out] of a fish. You could imagine a family in the hills in Italy rearing an animal from birth through to a mature product that's ready to consume. They might kill that product as a family, because there's respect amongst the whole family who’ve put all of their attention and labour into this product. This is what's going to sustain them for the next 12 months until the next animal is ready, so at that point there’s a matrix and a formula that historically has been followed to generate the highest yield from that animal. By no means is that family cutting the loins off the back and then throwing the rest of the animal in the bin. Everybody always laughs after I say that, because it's the most ludicrous, stupid thing you know, that just wouldn't happen. But that’s exactly what happens with fish. So in order to change perceptions, I approach fish in exactly the same way as you’d approach meat, taking inspiration from a repertoire of cooking that already exists. By no means is this new. It's just the re-application of knowledge into the world of fish.

What are the systemic barriers to encouraging people to think about fish differently?

There definitely needs to be a conversation about our marketplaces and the way that people purchase food. And we're not talking about an isolated issue here in Sydney, we're talking about an international issue around what we prioritise when it comes to fish. This tends to be quantity over quality – an attitude of let's get as much of this fish to market as we can, at the lowest possible price the most efficient way. That process means we’re generally working with fish in a three to four-day window of opportunity, because of how poor the handling is up front. If you take a fish out of the water and mishandle it, not kill it correctly, not cool it down correctly, and then for the market to be washing it under a tap and holding it on ice – all this really accelerates the deterioration of the fish in a really short space of time. If there’s more attention to doing things correctly at the front end, then that creates a whole lot of opportunity for us to think about fish in a completely different way.

Like dry ageing, which to me is something essential for anybody interacting with fish. Dry ageing is about trying to find a moment where a fish is texturally more improved or is more definitively tasting of itself. That may mean a matter of hours, or it may be days or it may be weeks. It's not like aging a steak, where you can put it in a cabinet, forget about it for three weeks, and then pull it out and it's perfect. This is about saying that a sardine is better to eat hours after coming out of the water or moments after coming out of the water if you have that luxury, but then something like a tuna may be perfect on day four. Once you start to think about fish in those terms you realise that on day 12 there is another exceptional thing that happens and then on day 20 and on day 30, there're all these moments that transport that fish into a totally new spectrum of taste. And that’s something the majority of people have never had the opportunity to experience, because the way the fish that is most readily available is handled doesn’t allow for that process.

How can we champion more sustainable practices when it comes to seafood? 

My place with sustainability has always come from generating a greater output of one single fish. The currently accepted yield for a fish is 50 per cent, and I will always try to challenge that with every single fish that I get my hands on to try to get it as close to 100% as we can. We've worked out that there are two to three things that are in a fish that are very difficult to work with. So from that point of view, I encourage everyone I talk to and meet and interact with to not work next to a bin but rather work next to a tray, so when those parts come off you have the opportunity to work together as a group to see what kind of application you can discover for those more difficult secondaries.

When we learn to accept the higher yield of a single fish, we can then stop taking the amount that we're taking, because we’ll only need half. This means we won’t need to fish so aggressively or distribute so carelessly. If we stopped all trawling and went to only line, it would decrease the supply of fish that we can get access to, but the fish we do get can be raised in terms of the price that we sell it for because we can make it go so much further. And if it’s handled correctly, the shelf life would be far longer, meaning we could generate so much more from that one single fish. We’ve got a long way to go – this is a 35-year conversation, but it’s got to start somewhere. It was 25 years ago when Fergus [Henderson – one of the original pioneers of nose-to-tail cuisine] said we should all be eating more of a pig. Only now do we walk into a butcher's and find ourselves paying a bit more for a beef cheek than we do for sirloin. So it can be done, it just takes time for attitudes to catch up.

Meet the Future Shapers

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