JOSH NILAND HAS A RADICAL IDEA. In fact, it’s one he’s had since 2016. That is, to change our view of fish; to change how we use fish; and to change how we consume it. You see, Niland is no ordinary chef. He thrives on the challenges the often-negative associations with this essential food source present—how difficult fish can be to prepare, its pungent smell or the fact that many people have problems eating it. So, what do you do when you want to inspire change? You take action.
Set on overhauling seafood’s polarising reputation, Niland opened Saint Peter, a quaint 34-seat restaurant in Sydney in 2016, immediately shaking up perceptions of the ocean’s bounty, both in and outside of the seafood industry. Saint Peter—and two years later Fish Butchery, an artisanal fishmonger of sorts—would aim to utilise at least 90 per cent of a fish, in some way, shape or form. Niland would order his seafood based on what was good that day, then let his imagination run wild to create an array of bold, often spectacular dishes, like fish-head terrine or ice-cream made from fish eyeballs.
“It all started out with the ambition of creating a restaurant that served really beautiful fish,” says Niland, whose devotion to sustainability and innovation put him on the radar of Zenith Watches, who just announced him as its newest friend of the brand. “I wanted to ensure that we would generate the most potential from one single fish so that one more doesn’t need to get captured—we’ve celebrated quantity over quality for far too long within the world of fish mongering and it’s just a backward broken system that needs an overhaul.”
It’s fascinating to listen to Niland, who opened another restaurant, Petermen, in North Sydney earlier this year, speak on sourcing, preparing and ultimately eating fish. He is, after all, the master of fish butchery, and leading the conversation on seafood sustainability and consumption in Australia. His story starts 14 years ago when, at 20, he met his wife Julie—the Robin to his Batman. They travelled around London working “under tremendous pressure” for some of the best chefs in the world, including Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Berkshire, west of London. It was a priceless education and Niland returned home to Australia emboldened to start a revolution: to find a home for every part of a fish.
It wasn’t easy, but while Niland admits that reconfiguring a nation’s perception of fish has been “incredibly stressful” at times, he’s been guided by his belief that what he’s doing is the right thing to do.
“Opening Saint Peter, I remember it was met with some friction and resistance with regards to saying things like you’re going to age a fish because that wasn’t really something that anybody did nor think could be done,” says Niland. “But to me, the biggest friction and resistance lies within the idea that it [fish] is a finite resource—if we commit to taking one fish, then we have to use all of it rather than just half of it. The solution isn’t to stop eating fish altogether, but to curate and plan a system that exists where we can use more of one [fish].”
This steadfast and dedicated approach to his field extends to all facets of Niland’s life, his drive born out of the adversity he faced as a child—he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eight. “I’m obviously very proud that I’ve come from a place of hardship; I was very sick as a kid,” says Niland. “I think looking past that conversation of ‘will you make it or won’t you’, you end up with a rocket pack on your back and you can pretty much do anything you set your mind to. That’s the philosophy that I’ve always had; that if I want something then I need to go out and get it.”
Niland’s commitment to excellence in a deadline-focused profession makes him a hand-in-glove fit for legendary Swiss watchmaker Zenith. Niland’s appointment as the Swiss giant’s new friend of the brand sees him join the likes of world-renowned French chef Matthieu Dupuis Baumal and pastry chef Jeffrey Cagnes.
“I feel like there is an unwavering sense of quality that exists within Zenith and that has been the biggest value piece to come out of my partnership with them and my initial conversations; they are very focused on championing this uncompromising, unwavering attention to quality and being acutely aware of the attention to detail,” says Niland. “I’m not even gonna try to draw the lineages between wearing a watch and prioritisation of time but it’s all about being intentional with the moments that you get given, isn’t it? Trying to be the best version of yourself in whatever setting you have.”
Niland hopes to further elevate the conversation around fish with the recent release of Fish Butchery, his third and “most important” cookbook to date, one he describes as a thorough examination of the whole fish.
“I think this new book is the most important of all three [cookbooks] because now I understand my work more clearly,” he says.
“I was dabbling in a lot of topics with The Whole Fish, but not necessarily dropping the hammer on each one. Now, I feel I have something truly valuable to offer, not just for home cooks but for industry specifically. This is the very beginning of what I see as being the curriculum towards creating a new profession called fish butchery. This is where all my energy is going to go over the next couple of decades and hopefully the legacy piece is that we genuinely changed the way that we work with fish for the better.”