Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

Food and Drink

As New Orleans Cracks Down, The Rest of America Discovers Beauty of To-Go Drinks

How bars have gotten creative and why takeout drinks might be here to stay.

Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan
Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan
Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan

There’s a simple pleasure Chris Hannah enjoys on his days off from tending bar at his French Quarters spots Manolito or Jewel of the South: Going for a walk with a drink in hand.

It’s so run-of-the-mill in New Orleans that when, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he headed out to see some friends at Longway Tavern en route to the Mississippi River, he didn’t think twice. But then, everything had changed and in New Orleans, one of the myriad ways you could tell was the crackdown on to-go alcohol.

“That was a pretty sad moment,” recalls Hannah, one of the city’s premier bartenders, who helped reconnect New Orleans with its storied cocktail history after Hurricane Katrina. “It didn’t dawn on me until I got to the front door that I couldn’t take a drink and walk away. It was like they took away my normal rite of walking around on a day off.”

Jewel of the South
Jewel of the South
Jewel of the South

Hannah’s habit had long been an institution in New Orleans, where locals parade in the street and tourists’ eyes grow wide at the sight of takeout drinks. But as the pandemic’s impacts became clear in the weeks after Mardi Gras in 2020, local leadership shut the lid on sales of go-cups, as to-go drinks are known here. Though they enjoyed a return in the months since, they’ll be gone again for the final days of Carnival season. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced February 5 that, citywide, bars will be closed and to-go alcohol will be prohibited.

But even as New Orleans’ restrictions have tightened, loosened, and look to tighten again, the rest of the country has caught on to the joy of a go-cup, embracing the creativity and the, well, freedom that comes with a takeout drink. “It gives me an outlet to be creative,” says Roger Gross, the bar curator at Sherkaan Street Food in New Haven, Connecticut, “and has helped me get through these tough times.”

By the summer of 2020, well more than half the country had embraced “on-demand alcohol laws,” according to an ABC News report, as restaurant and bar owners struggled to find ways to stay open. With business models reliant on people getting together, in the era of social distancing, there were few options other than to open the tap on alcohol sales.

“Legislators have been forced to recognize, especially independent bars and restaurants, as participants in their economy as opposed to things that need to be regulated,” says Jabriel Donohue, the bar manager at the Mountaineering Club in Seattle. “There’s this ingrained assumption that the reason that particular regulations exist is because there was a good reason for them, and when you dig into why some rules exist, most of it has to do with either something more puritanical or things that have happened because of geography.”

Photo courtesy of Mountaineering Club
Photo courtesy of Mountaineering Club
Photo courtesy of Mountaineering Club

That’s exactly the case in New Orleans. As local geographer and associate dean for research with the Tulane School of Architecture Richard Campanella explains in Bourbon Street: A History, go-cups were the result of enterprising club owners who in 1967 sought to solve their biggest challenge: “Instead of convincing people outside to buy drinks inside, why not sell inside drinks to people outside?”

Eventually, the city codified the practice, but the impact on the local landscape was almost immediate, with “window hawking” changing the face of the city’s biggest tourist destination. The drinks themselves changed, too, as did the vessels that carried them.

“Spiked beverages became increasingly gaudy, colorful, beachy, tropicalized, oversized, and extra-powerful-enter the daiquiri-while the containers grew ever more outlandish, molded in the form of hand grenades, penises, fish bowls, and footballs, some equipped with neck straps,” wrote Campanella.

Nationally, with to-go getting the ok, the approach during the pandemic has been slightly more utilitarian: Drinks are coming in plastic bottles, cans, reusable glassware, and coffee cups. At the Mountaineering Club, director of food and beverage Steven Sue says choosing a receptacle was “a little of the tail wagging the dog,” when he and Donohue found a glass canteen that fit the bar’s aesthetic.

“I like guests being able to control when they’re going to start adding chill and dilution,” Donohue added. “But at the same time, our drinks are such that if you want to walk down the street nipping out of a flask, you can do that, too.”

At the Capo Deli in Washington DC, the pandemic forced a creative shift for the speakeasy-style bar. When local laws first permitted to-go alcohol there, Malhotra says, he simply transitioned his bar menu to takeout containers. Between divining themes out of the news of the moment and a vendor who dropped off a bunch of drink pouches, Malhotra struck social media gold: The Fauci Pouchy.

Capo Deli
Capo Deli
Capo Deli

“We did a post on Instagram and next thing I know, I have a ton of notifications,” Malhotra says. The to-go lineup at the Capo Deli still includes the Fauci Pouchy, which Malhotra described as something of an homage to “voice of reason” of Dr. Anthony Fauci and rotation options like  Biden Bubbly, Harris Hot Chocolate, Flu Fighters, Mike Penicillin, and Joe Imbibin.

“We’re trying to have fun and make the best of this unfortunate situation,” Malhotra says.

Of course, what’s in the drink matters, too, and Hannah, who has years of experience under his belt shaking and stirring up his cocktails for the outdoors crowd, describes transitioning a drink for takeout rather simply: “It is all math.” While crafting a drink meant for immediate consumption walking around the French Quarter means little to no alternation, Hannah says, batching cocktails for home consumption essentially translates to honoring proportions while super-sizing. “One drink goes from two to eight,” he says.

These kinds of large-format cocktails were quickly popularized during the pandemic, and the trick for bars and bartenders became how to recreate the experience of sitting down for a freshly made, well-crafted cocktail once someone actually made it home.

In New Orleans, which enjoys warm weather for much of the year, that translates to more frozen cocktails, like the daiquiris Hannah’s team sells at Manolito, which could be consumed almost immediately. For Gross, at Sherkaan Street Food, that meant considering the stability of a cocktail once batched.

Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan
Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan
Photo by Winter Caplanson from @connfoodandfarm for Sherkaan

“That’s why I stuck with two stirred drinks and punches and sangria,” he says. “They will stay more stable than if I tried to do a sour cocktail because the citrus will show a lot more.” Consider, for example, Esteban’s Sangria at Sherkaan, which comes in a small bottle with a label offering light guidance: “Pour and enjoy, or sip straight from the bottle like no one’s watching.”

Many also started selling full-blown cocktail kits to avoid any chance of degradation altogether, while also giving customers an entirely new experience. At Hidden Harbor in Pittsburgh, you can get a cocktail subscription, and at the Hunt and Alpine Club in Portland, Maine, Briana and Andrew Volk even started selling specialty ice.

“You’re basically taking your craft and putting it in [a customer’s] hands and giving them a recipe guide, and they’re immersed in the experience,” says Gross, who created make-at-home versions of his drinks by selling sealed liquor bottles alongside mixers and his own syrups. “They get to take that home and technically make a restaurant-quality cocktail.”

The one thing no one’s making for to-go cocktails? A Ramos Gin Fizz, which requires egg whites-and a lot of patience. “If someone can figure that out, I’d love to talk to them,” laughs Malhotra.

It’s unclear what the long-term plan for the loosened alcohol restrictions will be nationwide, but many agree the genie’s been let out of the bottle. “This one is out of the box at this point, and Pandora’s not putting it back in,” Donohue says.

The carefully crafted at-home experience, Gross says, is one of the reasons he hopes to see takeout sales of alcohol stick around long-term. “It creates a better guest experience, and I think that’s the whole point of commerce and restaurants,” he says. “Creating the comforts of a restaurant while allowing people to stay safe.”

Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, where she formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist.

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