There are seafood restaurants and then there is Saint Peter, the pescatarian fine dining destination in Paddington that has redefined how fish is prepared, cooked and devoured in the past five years.
The man behind this fin to gill restaurant is Josh Niland, the chef-owner clad in full whites and black gloves – Dexter style – who is a unicorn in the seafood world, with an army of admirers and a cult following on Instagram who monitor his every dish inside Saint Peter and his curated fish shop, a few doors down, Fish Butchery.
At just 32, Niland is no longer a star on the rise in the Australian hospitality game. He has arrived. Almost every publication in the country has anointed him chef of the year at one point or another since he opened his first restaurant midway through 2016.
International heavyweights like Rene Redzepi, Grant Achatz, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver all gush with praise. And the international recognition has been flowing in for some time, even despite a screeching halt on global tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Not many people worship fish like Niland does. Many put it in the too-hard or too expensive basket. Some can’t stand the smell or even the taste. It isn’t given the same level of gravitas as steak, not even those over-priced lobster rolls. But that’s part of the charm for Niland. He loves the fact that some are frightened by the creatures plucked from the water, and many raise their eyebrows or scrunch up their faces when they hear about eating swordfish bacon, prawn crackers made from eyeballs, fish offal or sperm. Then there is dry-aging fish. That’s for steak, isn’t it?
It’s what has driven him to such heights at such a young age, and it has for some time. Niland grew up in Maitland in the Hunter Valley, two hours north of Sydney. He dreamt about opening the batting for Australia, idolising Mark Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. But by the age of 12 or 13, Niland knew he wanted to become a chef, only a handful of years after his world was turned upside down.
That happened when he was diagnosed with cancer just two days after his eighth birthday when his mother noticed a lump under his ribcage. It was a tumour – and it was spreading fast – forcing surgeons to remove his right kidney before 18 months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. All before he reached double figures.
Food became a comfort during an awful period that terrified him and his parents. It lit a burning passion inside him that is still roaring today. Food hadn’t been a major part of his family life up until that point. They ate meat-and-three-veg like everyone else, but nothing adventurous. Niland’s father ran an accounting business and his mother was involved in the administration side of things.
But after suffering through the atrocities of cancer, Niland discovered he was different to his friends when he wanted to scavenge for the best ingredients inside the grocery store – and cook elaborate meals at 13 – when everyone else his age was drawn to the confectionary aisle, scheming ways to turn that no from mum into a yes.
“Enduring anything traumatic as a child with your family gives you very distilled clarity, direction and purpose. My fascination was food, as I loved to eat and I loved the idea of being creative. Above all the gesture of feeding my family and hearing their thoughts about what they had eaten is a wonderful experience even now with our guests,” Niland tells Man of Style from Saint Peter.
“My mum and dad made sure we had a balanced meat-and-three diet that occasionally saw us going to the local fish and chip shop, chicken shop or pizzeria from time to time. Nothing fancy but good wholesome real food, just like everyone else.”
Niland was only 27 when he took a significant leap of faith and opened Saint Peter in 2016. It was 34 seats when he first opened and is now a more intimate 20 spots in a mid-pandemic world, where Australia’s coronavirus numbers are as low as almost anywhere, but more prone to a snap lockdown than almost anywhere else. Small and intimate, like the great sushi restaurants in Japan.
Before Niland opened up his own restaurant, he spent two stints inside Stephen Hodges’ renowned seafood restaurant, Fish Face in Sydney. It was there where he received a comprehensive fish education, from cookery to storage to procurement. It was a one-stop-shop that gave him the confidence to open up his own shop.
That came after a three-month placement at Heston Blumenthal’s development kitchen in The Fat Duck. Although it was another Englishman – Fergus Henderson from St John Bread and Wine notoriety – who has had the biggest impact on the way he goes about his craft. It is why so many inside the food world draw parallels between the pair. Same philosophy, different genre.
“Fish to a lot of us is only being something that has a head and two fillets. Rarely do we place any desirability in the secondaries of a fish hence our continued desire to want to consume sub 50% of it. I am deeply passionate about exploring the very broad potential of fish cookery, handling, processing and storing,” Niland said.
“Where Fergus Henderson started some 25 years ago the very big task of bringing reverence to the whole pig, I see myself in a position right now where I have the opportunity to hopefully effect global change as to how we interact with fish. Why take two fish from the water when you can benefit more holistically from one? To throw half a fish in the bin is ethically negligent and economically incoherent.”
Niland has read every single word Henderson has written – at least he thinks he has – and has eaten inside his venues a handful of times when in the United Kingdom. He spent time with the man who pioneered nose-to-tail dining at a fine dining level when he first opened St John in 1994 the last time he was in London and is championing that mentality in Sydney, albeit with fish instead of beef, sheep or pigs.
More than 100 million tonnes of fish caught each year never end up on the plate, and less than half of each fish is actually consumed. But at Saint Peter, that percentage is north of 90 per cent and growing. That’s part of Niland’s mission. And it why his menu is so daring, even if it can make some squeamish. But life is about adventure and that’s what you get under his watch.
Contrary to almost everything we’ve heard before, fresh isn’t usually best when it comes to fish. A freshly caught fish may be exhilarating to eat straight away, but it is tight and still fighting back in a way. That’s why Niland and influential figures like Los Angeles fishmonger, Liwei Liao, preach dry-ageing fish for four to seven days, even up to a fortnight. In one extreme case Liao aged a Spanish mackerel for 90 days, a length of time much more common with steak, although that can exceed 200 days down the road at Lennox Hastie’s Firedoor in Surry Hills.
Improving the taste isn’t the only reason to dry-age fish. Niland explains that the process also decreases the amount of fish wastage by not just boosting the shelf life, but also allowing certain parts of the flavour to mature out of the water. It is why you will find so many fish hanging head down in his glass-door refrigerator.
“This topic requires more space than just a few lines, but in a nutshell, the moment a fish leaves the water and is either killed in the iki jime style or in an ice slurry to remove the lactic acid from the muscle of the fish then it is never to return to water. This thinking was born decades ago by my mentor Steven Hodges and his chef Greg Doyle where they had a no water cleaning policy for fish,” he said.
“Fish is porous and takes on water like a sponge. The shelf life decreases rapidly when a fish comes in contact with water. More so when that water is coming from a tap that isn’t anywhere near the temperature suitable for handling fish. Water contact and other poor handling conditions on fish are the key reasons for the rapid development of ammonia in fish. Ammonia is what we refer to as ‘Fishy Fish’ the odour that we all encounter when venturing into any fish shop or market in the world. Water is the enemy. Dry handling will be the way the world realises a greater shelf life with fish and how we will minimise wastage.
“The system needs to celebrate quality of fish that is fully utilised to its full potential, not quantity where we continue to fish day after day and we continue to purchase again and again working with the restraints of a 3-4 day window of opportunity and only using 45 -50% of the fish. It’s lazy and disrespectful. Fish have sweet spots. I believe that if a fish comes through the doors on day two of its life post-capture and it tastes incredible then we should cook it. Other times it may taste flat and be all texture and no flavour, so we allow it to develop in flavour. It is the role of the chef to distinguish and articulate the best moment any produce should go on the menu. It is also critical that especially before pan-frying or attempting to crisp the skin of fish to allow the skin to dry ever so slightly to give us the ability to make it as crunchy as roast pork or chicken.”
Life hasn’t quite returned to normal yet in Sydney. It hasn’t anywhere yet, let’s be honest. The threat of snap citywide lockdowns still lingers in the air, just out of reach but not far away. But most, especially the savvy, have found silver linings amid the gloom of the past 15 months.
“I have completely overhauled my thinking when it comes to my role. Am I a chef? Am I a manager? Or am I a leader? The latter is something that I have been focusing on in the past 12 months and making it my priority to see our team feel joyful about the work they do and the work we are trying to achieve as a team,” Niland reveals as we finish our conversation and he prepares for another day at Saint Peter.
Niland wears many different hats in 2021. But it is still about the food he serves and the lessons he teaches.