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Food

Impress with: Josh Niland

You’d be hard pressed to meet a nicer guy than Josh Niland. At just 30 years old, with three kids, two businesses, a slew of awards and global respect, Niland is on a fast-train to becoming one of Australia’s best known and most-respected chefs. You would not know it to talk to him. 

His background is coloured with stories of people who helped him: time in Peter Doyle’s kitchen, learning the refinement of a fine dining restaurant; on the pass with Steve Hodges gathering a tangle of ideas for Niland, “to decipher later”; and months in the Fat Duck development kitchen, where Heston Blumenthal taught him the importance of surrounding yourself with smart people. His tapestry is rich with knowledge garnered from others – it’s a part of the tale he is anxious to share. 

Even his run-in with cancer, diagnosed a couple of days after his eighth birthday, is recounted with pause to reflect on the positives. It was the days spent recovering from the radiotherapy and chemotherapy accompanied by the tv, Niland explains, and a gaggle of mononymous tv chefs – Jamie, Curtis, Hughie – that gave him his first taste of the joy that food can bring. There is a resilience, fortitude and an unmistakable gratitude in his spirit.

“I started cooking for Mum and Dad,” recounts Niland, “and seeing how they felt after eating it, seeing their response, that was what I started to crave.” Indeed, that vicarious pleasure is part of the reason Saint Peter, his small 34-seater restaurant in Sydney’s Paddington, has such an open kitchen. Seeing people enjoying the food is part of what makes Niland tick. 

ageing creatively

However, a chef needs more than a generous character to find acclaim, and Niland has ‘more’ too…in spades. In fact, Niland has been credited with changing the global perspective of fish cookery. His focus is multi-directional: sustainable stocks, local fish, whole fish butchery and, perhaps most uniquely, an approach to dry-ageing fish that has seen the eyes of many of his culinary idols watching – Nigella, Jamie, Rene – and commenting on his techniques from all over the globe.

“The original idea was to find the best fish from Australian waters, handle it really well and store it the best way I knew,” explains Niland. Sounds simple enough, but for him that was taken to extremes: no fan to dry them out and a constant temperature of 0–2; never washing the fish, scaling with a chef’s knife only, and never laying fish on trays “to sit in its own swill,” rather suspending fish from hooks. There’s a determination and perfectionism in his character too.

“We found we could maintain day one condition for an extended period of time,” says Niland, “but then we started working on how far we could go, we pushed the tuna out for two weeks, and found it significantly different, so much more savoury and so much more delicious – and so we started with lots of species.” 

Dry-ageing, a traditional butcher’s skill, was always part of his plan. “To find the sweet spot,” explains Niland, “but where there was a certain amount of moisture pulled from it and it becomes ultimately more delicious than it was on day one.” 

Niland references the bass grouper we are shooting for this issue’s cover. “For a fish without a great deal of natural fat,” Niland explains, “if you can drop the water content by 10%, you get some of those oils going, liven it up, you can really distinguish the flavour of the bass grouper as opposed to, say, the hapuka or bar cod.”

Dry-ageing meat is not new, indeed it has been used by butchers for centuries. It’s just that it hasn’t been done with fish. Niland has changed that.

Comfortable confrontation

This multi-disciplinary approach is carried through to his cooking. “The whole idea of a chef has been to accentuate the produce,” says Niland, “but to manipulate it comfortably, to bring less confrontation. If I make Spanish mackerel look like a lamb rack, you get that at the table, have a giggle, but it’s not confrontational, all that work helps for the fear to drop away.”

“I think making it familiar helps to ensure people don’t feel small – food they can’t replicate is important, they are paying for the prestige of someone’s creativity, but I also want to make them feel comfortable.” 

This may be a chef keen to espouse the virtues of all who came before him, and look after those who dine with him, but it is indeed the original tapestry he has sewn together with that knowledge that makes his cookery truly ground-breaking. While there is no question it takes strength and creativity to step outside the box, indeed to build new ones – but to do that without fear of plagiarism, in fact with a desire to share, well, it is the lack of ego that really makes this man.

Niland’s first cookbook has just hit the shelves. It is endorsed by many of the world’s best chefs. It will be read by many of the world’s best chefs. It is a book written by one of the world’s best chefs, right here on our doorstep. 

Styling: Matt Page

Food Prep: Julie Ballard

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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