In his own words, Josh Niland is a “sucker for punishment”. It took the chef and his wife Julie two months to choose chairs for the revamped iteration of their Paddington restaurant Saint Peter, where the team now hand cuts shoestring fries.
With almost four years under its belt, the fish eatery reopened on 17 July after a 120-day hiatus. Yes, the break was pandemic induced, but Niland doesn’t mention that — a change was coming anyway.
“Julie and I were always wondering what the next step for us would be; what the evolution would be,” says Niland. “There were a number of different things we could have done.”
There was the option to find a new space, of course, but the Nilands were reticent to leave their Oxford Street premises. The decision was practical — the site has everything the Saint Peter team needed and it’s just down the road from sister venue Fish Butchery — but emotional, too.
“A lot of my effort and energy over the past three years has really been poured into this place, not just into the food we’re doing or the service we’re giving or anything like that,” says Niland. When Saint Peter first opened in September 2016, compromises were made. They were “good compromises” in Niland’s eyes, and he’s proud of what the team accomplished.
“We started with three chefs and ended up with seven,” says Niland. “The last roster I wrote had nine chefs on it for a six-day week. All the chefs were doing four days on, three days off and no more than 40 hours. That’s just how many chefs you need, even to run a 34-seat business.”
While Niland used to cook alongside two other chefs, there are now three in the main kitchen, one on the pass, one upstairs and sometimes a prep chef, too. “There were many challenges having the team split across two floors,” says Niland.
“It turned into a bit of a free for all. We need a bigger space for all the wonderful chefs we’ve got working for us. We need roles for them and we need greater opportunity for them.”
Standing in front of the new Saint Peter, Niland has the restaurant he always wanted. One built equally for chefs and diners. The space is split in two; one half kitchen, one half dining room. “Rather than getting a little bit bigger, we thought let’s get a little bit smaller and refine the product,” explains Niland.
By smaller, Niland means reducing the number of covers to 20 and making more room for cooking in the process. In the past, five to six chefs (all under 30), would be jostling for a place on the pans. Now, there are defined sections and more space — physically and mentally — for learning.
“Back then, we were all fighting it out to try to get on the stove and cook fish in a pan because when you’re a chef, when you’re a ‘real chef’, you’re cooking on fire,” says Niland. “I don’t know, it’s this ego bullsh*t.”
Now, with defined sections, there’s cross-learning. “The person who’s on oysters is now baking bread,” says Niland. “And the person on the larder is now making all the desserts. There’s a bit more scope and maturity in the roles that are required.”
From the beginning, the restaurant was meant to showcase Australian seafood and produce, and it’s done just that. But Niland thinks they can do better.
“It’s a very different feeling in here now,” says Niland. “It feels really good, it feels grown up. It’s got a really wonderful long marble counter in the middle of the room and these beautiful leather chairs go down one side. I suppose some people refer to it as a bar … I’m trying to steer away from the term ‘bar’. I know it’s bar-style seating, but it’s a beautiful restaurant that’s set on the counter.”
Acknowledging it’s a big call, Niland says he doesn’t think there’s a restaurant like the one he’s just reopened anywhere in Australia. “I just feel like the dynamic is very unique,” he says.
“Clearly, we’re not trying to fetch a larger amount of revenue a week, but the whole reason for doing this is to bring some visibility and context to the work and to the level of care and attention that gets paid to the food and everything chefs do all over the city. It’s just trying to showcase Australian seafood.”
The new fit out should help the team accomplish just that. Niland may have 160,000-plus followers on Instagram, but the chance to slice a prosciutto of tuna in front of 20 diners is worth more in some ways.
“It will bring some real context to the work,” he says. “I’m excited to interact with our customers more on that level rather than just giving them a wave from afar.”
Image credit: Jason Loucas