Food News

”We rip the [fish] guts out … We might say: that’s a nice liver, we can make pâté”

Fish Butchery's Rebecca Lara on triumphs with ocean trout salami, and making the switch from a chef's life to top-end seafood retail.

Rebecca Lara at Fish Butchery, Sydney.

Josh Niland

In her monthly GT column, chef Kylie Kwong celebrates the individuals helping to grow a stronger community. This month, we meet Rebecca Lara, chef and manager of Sydney’s Fish Butchery.

Having been a Fish Butchery customer since the beginning, I have witnessed Rebecca Lara’s journey from enthusiastic, young chef to taking on the top job as manager. It takes a special person to successfully steer the crew in Josh Niland’s avant-garde business, with its unrelenting focus on excellence. I was thrilled to hear of Bec’s promotion and true to her “can-do” style, she has seized the opportunity, showing natural leadership and enhancing each customer exchange with her trademark smile.

– Kylie Kwong

Rebecca Lara | manager, Fish Butchery, Sydney

When it comes to fresh thinking, Rebecca Lara is put to the test every single day. As the manager of Josh Niland’s Fish Butchery in Sydney, the 27-year-old chef is constantly looking for new and interesting ways to use each and every part of the fresh fish that arrive daily in the Paddington store.

“It’s very reactive – that’s part of the excitement of it all,” she says. “It’s always a different day and a new thing. There are so many possibilities to explore.

“You never know what’s going to come in until the morning and you see it come through the door, which is always fun. When it comes in, we start to process it. Depending on what it is, we’ll scale it and gut it straight away, and then it gets hung up and dry-aged in our cool room. Within a couple of days, we try to figure out the best application to highlight it.”

A big part of Lara’s role involves dealing directly with suppliers and fishermen around Australia, some of whom send photos of their latest catch. If she likes what she sees, she’ll order it in.

“We deal with nature,” she explains. “You get things that are challenging. You might get a kingfish that’s a little bit too soft or a fish that’s tougher than it needs to be because it hasn’t been handled in an ideal way.”

But those challenges, says Lara, only add to the excitement, as she is forced to get creative and think beyond a fresh fish fillet. “It might be a matter of curing it or salting it down; any way to make sure the fish hasn’t been caught and killed for nothing.”

Rebecca Lara at Fish Butchery, Sydney.

One of her most recent triumphs was ocean trout salami, which has started to appear on the menu at Niland’s restaurant, Saint Peter. “I’m quite proud of that one. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does.”

Not every experiment is as successful but Lara says that’s all part of the process. “Everything might not turn out the way that you would expect it to, but most of the time it turns out to be something that’s usable. It’s surprising and keeps you on your feet.”

Lara was 14 years old when she decided to become a chef, motivated by a dual love of eating and cooking.

After finishing high school, she began a chef’s apprenticeship with Simon Sandall at Aria Catering, before working at The Bridge Room and then Monopole.

It was at the latter wine bar that she developed the flair for charcuterie that she brought to Fish Butchery. “The biggest part of our ethos is we try not to waste anything, she says. “Normally, a fishmonger would get the fish, rip the guts out and throw it all in a bin. We rip the guts out, put it on a tray, and inspect it and have a look. We might say ‘that’s a nice liver, we can make pâté’… Even the hearts, we can salt them down and use them in an XO sauce or charcuterie products. It’s all about exploring the potential of things.”

That curiosity and openness for trying new things is what first led Lara to Fish Butchery, after she began to question her future and the gruelling hours that restaurant service demands. “When Fish Butchery came along, it was so different. It was a great opportunity. The hours

are different, the work-life balance was great. I was always the kind of chef that loved coming into a kitchen and prepping for a service. Working at Fish Butchery is like a really long prep day.”

Despite some initial reservations about moving to front-of-house, Lara quickly came to love the retail side of the business and serving customers, especially as they have embraced the Fish Butchery approach.

“In the beginning it might have been a bit tricky to sell something like a John Dory liver pâté or a terrine made with fish,” she says. “Now, they [customers] see it, and they’ve maybe eaten at Saint Peter or they’ve seen what Josh does, and they’re a lot more open to it. They’re willing to trust us when we tell them that something is great. As chefs, I think we underestimate the public, in terms of how experimental they can be. But they are willing to try anything.”

Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Joanna Hunkin.

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