Food News

Exit interview: Nik Hill on leaving The Old Fitz, bringing Scotch eggs to the people, and his eel-good feelings for the future

“Leaving on a high is the right way."
Chef Nik Hill sitting at a round table, with a beer in hand, with a red wall in the background.

Nik Hill, former head chef of The Old Fitzroy Hotel, Sydney.

Benito Martin (main)

It’s been five months since Nik Hill has served a dine-in customer at Sydney’s The Old Fitz, and in some ways it’s given him the time and space to mourn the pub he’s led for 18 months.

Yesterday, the head chef announced he was leaving the historic two-storey venue in Woolloomooloo that, in 2019, put Scotch eggs and chip butties on the map for Sydney diners craving pub food, done right, and lined with plenty of paper doilies.

There’s whispers of The Old Fitzroy Hotel reopening in a few weeks’ time, but Hills’ decision to leave The Old Fitz, along with fellow chefs Abigail Amen and Joaquin Gadea, was down to creative differences. “The vision for the pub wasn’t the same as what we started with, so that’s the point where I thought it’s probably time that we moved on.”

Here, the chef reflects on the short-but-sweet run that was The Old Fitz’s old-but-new pub food stylings, and the, uh, eel-good future ahead of him.

You took charge of The Old Fitz kitchen in February 2019. What are you most proud of during your time there?

I’ll probably say making the Gourmet Traveller front cover. [laughs] The best part about it was we just got left alone and went nuts. There were no ties, and a lot of freedom in what we cooked.

The pubs in Sydney in general are good, but the food’s very same-same: a parmi, a schnitty, a nachos, and a sort of UN menu where you get spring rolls, risotto. I lived in London for a long time and really loved pubs that did pub food. The pub food over there has a real identity. We came here and decided to give the British pub thing a crack.

We came into the pub fresh off the back of Sepia closing, and put something new in this little corner [of Woolloomooloo]. People didn’t really know we were there, and that was the beauty of it. It just happened really organically. Having a full pub of people eating food that we were cooking, there was a real joy in that.

Leaving on a high is the right way. We’re really proud of what we achieved in such a small amount of time and how it was received by the public. It would have been a big injustice to go back, have a different offering, and try to push that.

You’ll forever be credited as the guy who made Scotch eggs in vogue, too.

The Scotchy was a real cracker for us. It was the first thing we put on the menu. I love them. In the UK you get great ones with a runny yolk. It’s not rocket science to make them, but you’ve got to get the little things right to make it good. It’s like a sausage and egg McMuffin rolled into one, though heavy on the sausage and egg. Which is what you want, really.

The Scotch egg & piccalilli at The Old Fitz Hotel.

(Photo: Benito Martin)

Is there anything you won’t miss?

If I had one gripe, it would be pan-frying the schnitzels. That was a pain in the arse. Instead of just lowering them into the deep-fryer, we’d pan-fry each one in butter. But when there are 45 of them on order on trivia night, that wasn’t overly pleasant. But I suppose you get that everywhere.

You announced yesterday you were leaving the Old Fitz. How did the day unfold?

I spoke to the landlord yesterday [about leaving]. He was a bit surprised, but it was the right thing to do. We collected our knives, went for a coffee to regroup, and that moved pretty quickly to wine and beer.

I spent most of the day in the beer garden at The Courty [Newtown’s Courthouse Hotel] with Abi, Joaquin and our general manager Mark Murphy. I’m not a big wine-drinking guy. I prefer beers, and I prefer pubs to drink, let alone eat. We just really love pubs.

We had some pizzas at some stage. And I’m pretty dusty this morning to be honest.

Did you take any souvenirs from The Old Fitz?

We have a [fake] taxidermy boar’s head above the kitchen door. We call him Barry the Boar, and he wears different sunglasses every other week. I’m not sure where I’ll put him – my wife’s not going to want it in the bedroom.

I took an Old Fitz plate, and the Perspex mould of our bone marrow pie by Dinner A La Perspex. He even made Perpsex doilies for us. They’re unreal.

I took the paper doilies too. We won’t have coasters in this house – we’ll just use disposable doilies.

How does it feel to close this chapter of your life?

I just feel all right now. In a way, I feel relieved, but not in a way that I was waiting to get out of there. It’s still my favourite pub. I’ll get rid of this headache, then I’ll figure out how I feel after that.

What does the future look like?

It’s a hard time for everybody. Some people are opening [restaurants] but it’s not the same like in pre-COVID times.

But the future looks eely. Snakey, even. [Earlier this year, Hill and Michael Robinson launched Smoke Trap Eels, a small business that produces smoked and cured long-fin eels]. I once did a segment with Escape with ET, the TV fishing show. All the chefs who are on there get to fish for coral trout, something posh like that, and I got to fish for mullet and eels in the Hawkesbury. It was pissing rain, there was mud everywhere, and it was great. That’s how I got into eels.

The first time I got a couple of eels at The Fitz, we barbecued and glazed them with treacle and whisky – like a Japanese kabayaki vibe. It tastes just like lobster meat.

With Smoke Trape Eels, we get three-kilogram eels, blanch them, scrape off the slime, brine them with treacle and salt for two days, then smoke them over hickory, really gently, for about eight to 10 hours.

We had our first batch ready just as COVID hit. I had 30 kilograms of eel sitting at The Fitz, and just thought: “Shit, I don’t know what to do with this.” Then Josh Niland saw them, and asked to buy them, which he used in his take-home pies [at the Fish Butchery].

We’ve just got to look at how we can grow in the right way. We just need to keep working on production, and I’ve got plenty of time to do that.

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