Josh Niland talks to BeanScene about his rock star coffee encounter, the power of online learning, and breaking down the barrier to sustainable fishing.
Most home cooks and aspiring chefs have industry icons they idolise, but for Josh Niland, it was 2003 World Barista Championship winner Paul Bassett.
“I used to worship Paul. I’d only ever seen him in magazines like BeanScene, which was literally one of the first magazines I started reading. I used to buy it all the time when I started working in a café at age 14. I’m meticulous for details, so I got really heavily invested in coffee. I was aware of Paul’s coffee skills and his famous milk set. He was a rock star in that sense,” Josh recalls.
“It wasn’t until I opened Saint Peter a bit over four years ago that Paul became one of the first people to come to the restaurant. I didn’t even have to look at the booking name, I knew it was him with his very recognisable black bob [of hair]. At one point, he walked past the kitchen and was quick to have a chat. He’s been a regular ever since.”
Josh has been curious about coffee since the day he undertook work at a local café in East Maitland, New South Wales. He started washing dishes and running food until he turned 14 and was “finally” allowed to make coffee.
Josh took a shine to a guy at the café called Mike, who had just completed the Paul Bassett coffee course and encouraged Josh to watch his educational coffee videos.
“I thought it was brilliant and easy to follow. I was trying really hard to get better at texturing milk and perfecting shots. I had a good six to eight months of training on the coffee machine,” Josh says. “It’s a bit like riding a bike. Yes there are certain people who can ride better than you and probably faster than you, and have shinier bikes than you, but jumping behind a machine and making a coffee for myself or someone else is one of those things that still brings me joy.”
Josh found his coffee calling. He was warned to not drink too much or suffer the consequences. He found his limit during his third and fourth-year chef’s apprenticeship, consuming up to 18 piccolos on shift and experiencing its jittery after-effects in the kitchen.
“Now, I just have two a day – a strong three quarter latte – usually one in the morning and another mid-morning, and that’s it,” Josh says. “For a while I drank filter coffee. I really enjoy the actual characteristics of coffee without being diluted by the milk.”
Josh serves Artificer Coffee on batch brew at his restaurant, Saint Peter, a seasonal filter blend of 60 per cent Colombian and 40 per cent Mexican beans. Josh also enjoys visiting local Sydney cafés for different purposes: Room 10 in Potts Point for the ambiance, Double Cross Espresso Bar in Crows Nest for his morning ritual, and Bonython to “wheel and deal” for the restaurant and write his daily menu.
Aside from an occasional Instagram post for connectivity, Josh credits social media and the rise of YouTube and online masterclasses as one of the greatest developments in education.
“Thanks to educational videos you can get very good or as good as the best. I think when anyone gets good at a craft or focuses in, there’s a sense of pride, and that’s the feeling a lot of people get when they make coffee themselves rather than buying it all the time,” Josh says.
“Coffee is very single focused, as in it’s just about one product, much like fish is fish. Whenever there’s a lane you can drive in that has a one dimensional focus, you can get very good at it and understand it quicker and become more creative with it.”
Josh’s drinking habits have come a long way since the days of eating the milk froth off the top of his mother’s cappuccino and running the year 10 hospitality class café. His kids just bought him a Breville coffee machine for his birthday and he treated his wife to a coffee dripper so she always has coffee to enjoy first thing in the morning.
“Coffee has been made a priority to a lot of Australians because of the joy it brings, the bit of relief it gives you, especially for a generation that has more parameters around what’s good for us. I feel like coffee still sits within the boundaries of being healthy yet helpful. I just love it,” Josh says.
When Josh made his guest judge debut on MasterChef in 2020, he demonstrated how to scale, gut and butcher a large kingfish. He resembled a surgeon conducting an operation he’d done a hundred times before. Donning black gloves, every movement of his knife was precise, every step calculated, and the entire country was mesmerised.
“We filmed the week we also shut down the restaurant due to COVID. I was quite nervous on the flight over with everything going on. The morning of the MasterChef filming, my wife told me to smile a lot because it would air during lockdown. It was pretty extraordinary that a big brand like MasterChef and Channel 10 were brave enough to want to show me filleting a fish on national prime time TV. I could finally show people what I do on a commercial level.”
Josh started his chef’s apprenticeship at just 16 years of age after finishing year 10. One year later, he moved to Sydney by himself to work with Luke Mangan at Glass Brasserie and Peter Doyle at est. restaurant. But it was perhaps his work at Fish Face with chef Steve Hodges for several years that planted Josh’s career into seafood.
“Steven gave me so much trust, so much so that I was allowed to fail. Not many young chefs are given the ability to fail and exceed and feel both forms of emotions. It was quite extraordinary to be so completely in control with Steve’s guidance,” Josh says.
“I was 18 when I was proficiently running the kitchen. Steve was a demon in the kitchen, but so technically proficient and a perfectionist when it came to cooking fish. I felt that with the amount of time I spent with Steve and the amount of his brain that he unpacked into mine, it would be disrespectful to him and the people that trained him if I didn’t use that acumen and progress it further.”
Josh was 28 when he opened his own fish restaurant, Saint Peter, in 2016. In doing so, he’s started a conversation about the ‘fin-to-scale movement’. He backed it up in 2018 when he launched Fish Butchery, Australia’s first sustainable fishmonger.
Josh credits his own style and creativity to his overseas experiences including development work with Heston Blumenthal, the balance of skills from Peter Doyle, and the handling of fish from Steve Hodges.
“I feel that I’ve won out in terms of direction. Fish for me has remained untapped for a long time globally. It’s been seen as very one dimensional. The reason why everything has moved so quick for me is because my wife Julie and I own the business and can do what we want,” Josh says. “Not many people would agree to put four-week old fish on the menu. Having the confidence to do our own thing has been the pinnacle of our career so far.”
The interest in Josh’s craft saw his first commercial cookbook, The Whole Fish, fly off the shelves. His second cookbook is set for release in 2021.
“The first book started the conversation with so many new concepts no-one had ever heard of. The new one is far more blueprint, more colourful, more encouraging, and is a summary of where my head is at,” he says.
Last year was a turbulent one for so many in hospitality, with Josh managing the restaurant and home schooling of his three kids. He hopes 2021 will bring more opportunities on MasterChef, team building at Saint Peter, and a “head down bum up” approach.
“What gives me most joy at the moment is the general camaraderie of the industry and how open it is. When I started, the message was ‘these are our recipes, our processes, don’t look in’. The only way to look in was to experience the food and buy cookbooks. As an apprentice, every pay cheque was invested in food,” Josh says. “Cooking still brings me a huge amount of joy. It’s not something I do every day because I wear a few different hats now, so any opportunity to cook – for my kids or customers – is when I go into my own element.”
This article appears in the February 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.