Food News

Josh Niland: what went down at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards

His restaurant Saint Peter was nominated for its sustainable and ethical practices. Here's what happened in the Paris ceremony (featuring cameos by Matty Matheson and Alain Ducasse), and what's next for GT's Chef of the Year.
Josh Niland

Josh Niland inside Fish Butchery

Will Horner

When I found out about Saint Peter’s nomination in The World Restaurant Awards, I was quite tearful.

Initially we were longlisted for the Original Thinking and Ethical Thinking categories, but then you’re constantly wondering when the shortlist would come out. To find out we’d made the shortlist for Ethical Thinking was incredibly flattering.

Saint Peter ticks a couple of boxes in this category. We’ve made huge efforts to minimise the seafood waste we produce at the restaurant, and at Fish Butchery. I think perhaps the biggest misconception about sustainable seafood is that we see fish as something “on tap”, when really it’s a variable commodity that’s so heavily dependent on the seasons. We need to collectively diversify the fish on our table and realise there is far more to a fish than just the fillet.

On the human side, we started Saint Peter with very few chefs, and that took its toll very quickly. Handling and cooking fish is a laborious profession, and it demands a lot from a person. Making the decision to change our system and give our team three days off rather than two was an absolute necessity. They’re now able to rest their bodies and their minds. We deal in fish, but we always make sure we remain human.

Josh Niland and his team at Fish Butchery (Photo: Will Horner)

The awards themselves were held at Palais Brongniart in Paris. I spent the days before with Matty Matheson (the Toronto chef, cookbook author and host of It’s Suppertime!) and Jordan Kahn (of Los Angeles restaurants Vespertine and Destroyer), who were both nominated. We spent one night sat out the front of Clown Bar until late in the night sharing veal brains, pigeon pie… and we were with the guys from Munchies, so it was a good distraction. Come Monday night, though, it was all business. The dress code was cocktail, but Matty was decked out in a tweed suit, and Jordan came looking like Neo from The Matrix. We feasted on French ham and smoked salmon, and beautiful French oysters. Champagne was basically on tap.

(L to R) Josh Niland, Jordan Kahn and Matty Matheson (Photo: Josh Niland)

The most bizarre part was seeing Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard in the flesh. They’re not people you think you’d stand in a room with – you only seem them through photos, videos, and the cookbooks you have. I didn’t talk to them, but it was cool to see what they were wearing. They’re traditional French men who know how to dress well.

It was a sharp and swift ceremony in the end. I sat next to Jordan, whose restaurant, Vespertine, won Atmosphere of the Year. I was telling him the whole day, “You’re going to win it”. At Vespertine they have choreographers who work with the floor staff so they all move in a similar way, and the restaurant works to a soundscape by post-rock Texan band This Will Destroy You. The place is like an art installation.

When it came to the Ethical Thinking category, the video commentary said that we were leading the way in Australia, and are only using Australian seafood (in a country where 70 per cent of our seafood is imported), that we minimise our food waste, and take care of our staff welfare.

Seeing Saint Peter up on the screen next to the other nominees – Blue Hill (New York), Noma (Denmark), Silo (UK) and Refettorio (by Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore in Italy) – was a highlight in itself. And when they announced Refettorio as the winner, instantly I was like, “Amazing – Massimo and Lara beat me.” Any of those restaurants could have won and I would still think it was amazing. My winning was being there.

Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore’s Refettorio (Food For Soul) won the “ethical thinking” category at The World Restaurant Awards (Photo: Josh Niland)

The nomination, and seeing us on screen among that company, certainly gives you confidence. It helps bring together the small team, and reflect on what we’ve achieved.

It is something you hold in the back of your mind, though, that one day we can win. We want to promote what we’re doing at Saint Peter and Fish Butchery because we believe in it, and having that recognised on a broader scale is something we all aspire to.

Now, it’s heads down, bums up. We’re working on getting the Fish Butchery better placed to supply more wholesale fish to Sydney restaurants, and I’ll be participating in dinner events and cooking demonstrations this year [including Niland’s appearance at the GT Institute]. I also have a cookbook coming out in September – it’s really awesome and it’s taken a lot of work. Now we can push on and keep working harder to remain special and unique. It’s good.

Matty Mathewson with Tattoo-Free Chef winner, Alain Ducasse (Photo: Marc Piasecki)

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