It's clear from the menu that Josh Niland's popular Sydney restaurant isn't your typical high-end seafood place. Instead of a simple tuna steak or anything deep fried, you're more likely to see striped marlin nduja and broadbill (swordfish) bacon. What you're actually served on your plate at Saint Peter is far from regular cuts of fish.
Niland is a proponent of cooking with "the whole fish," as he named his 2019 cookbook that's viewed by some as a manifesto. Instead of simply grilling a fish's fillets, he dry-ages cod for two weeks in the restaurant's climate-controlled "cool room." His charcuterie -- traditionally a tray of cured or smoked meats -- features mortadella sausage made from Spanish mackerel instead of pork. There are also dishes like puffed fish swim bladder, fish liver parfaits and fish eye chips that, yes, are made from eyeballs.
All of Niland's food is fresh (well except for the dry aging). All of it is local. And it follows a core tenet of his cooking philosophy: Eliminate the waste typically generated by restaurants when cooking seafood. In the US alone, about half of all edible seafood supply is lost each year largely due to consumer waste, according to a 2015 report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
"We decided to cut fish differently, and it worked out that we could turn an eyeball in a fish into a chip … and make black sausage [from] a fish's blood," Niland says in an interview over Zoom. Chefs typically assume they can only use about half of a fish in cooking, he says. But Niland aims to use as much as 95% -- basically everything except the fish's gills and gallbladder.
"The opportunity with fish isn't limited to its two fillets," the 32-year-old Australian says as he prepares a fish in Saint Peter's minimalist kitchen. The fish's pink flesh stands out against the room's bare concrete walls, as Niland cuts apart the seafood to explain his butchery process.
Fossil fuels get most of the blame for climate change, and rightly so. But food production overall is responsible for about a quarter of global emissions. In response, some people are seeking plant-based meat substitutes or exploring other alternatives to a protein-heavy diet, but many people don't want to give up eating meat entirely. For them, one option to eat more sustainably is to use more parts of an animal in cooking, like the liver and kidney. Those organ cuts, called offal, are popular in cuisines across the globe but have fallen out of favor with many in the US. Sometimes, those cuts are shipped overseas, but they're often turned into pet food. Some are just thrown away, adding to the global food waste problem.
The movement to use as much of an animal as possible, known as nose-to-tail, has experienced a resurgence over the past decade as chefs like the late Anthony Bourdain made offal trendy. In more recent years, it has moved beyond foodies to people following protein-heavy paleo and keto diets, and now, worries about a global meat shortage could again give offal a boost. The novel coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the gaps in the food chain and has made some reconsider adding offal --- purchased from local butcher shops or farmers -- to their diets.
"We have an unsustainable food system in a lot of ways right now," says Alison Blay-Palmer, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and UNESCO's chair in food, biodiversity and sustainability studies. Making the food chain more sustainable is "really complicated" but starts with building local food systems.
"Part of that ethos is very complementary to things like eating nose-to-tail," Blay-Palmer says in an interview. "The idea is to bring the circularity into the food system again so that there's no waste."
In the US, about 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted, according to the US Department of Agriculture. But the USDA also says nearly 11% of US households didn't have enough food to eat at some point during 2019. It wasn't from a lack of food but was because hungry households didn't have the money to buy what they needed.
At the same time, livestock generates nearly 15% of the world's greenhouse gases through methane emissions, according to a widely cited 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Aside from eating less meat overall, the best way to curb that contribution from animals is by consuming offal, according to a study of the German meat supply chain published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
That study found that eating kidneys, livers and other organs could reduce emissions by 14% because fewer animals would need to be produced for the same amount of protein. When combined with other efforts like eliminating meat waste, livestock emissions could be cut by 43% from the current level, the study said, "implying a tremendous opportunity for sustainably feeding the planet by 2050."
"If we learn to embrace the animals and utilize all the parts, there's less waste, we raise [fewer] animals and then everybody wins," Chris Cosentino, a San Francisco Bay Area-based chef who's one of the highest-profile proponents of nose-to-tail cooking, says during a couple conversations with CNET over the phone and Zoom. "People need to start recognizing that a pig isn't literally a centipede of pork chops with bacon legs."
Offal has long been a key ingredient in dishes from places like Asia, Latin America, France and Italy. In some countries, organ meats are everyday food, while they're considered delicacies in others. Offal isn't just kidneys or other organs that tend to make some people uneasy. Pork belly and pork cheeks are offal, as are bone marrow and oxtail -- all dishes now seen as prime, succulent cuts.
"In China, we basically eat anything," Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor in Harvard University's departments of nutrition and epidemiology, says in an interview. "From the head to the feet, even the tail, we eat every part of a pig except maybe the hair and the eyes. But in the US, it's a different story."
As Sun noted, the love of organ meats hasn't extended to much of American cuisine. It's common to walk into a Vietnamese restaurant in the heart of Silicon Valley and find pig's blood or ox penis on the menu. Restaurant after restaurant in New York's Chinatown serves tripe, which is the small intestine or stomach lining of an animal. Chitlins (hog intestines) are beloved in the South, and Jewish delis carry sliced beef tongue. And now, anyone can get offal delivered through the mail from butchers like Oakland (California)-based Belcampo Meat Co. But such cuts are rare at traditional American restaurants.
Organ meats have long been viewed in the US as "food of the poor," as Cosentino puts it. Enslaved people typically were given offal while their owners kept the choice cuts, and immigrants often could only avoid the less-expensive organ meats. And meat has long been relatively inexpensive in the US, which has meant people have opted for roasts and steaks over kidneys and livers.
"It just fell out of favor in this country due to the optics of it … as immigrant food, poor food," says Cosentino, who won Top Chef Masters in 2012; published a cookbook about organ meats called Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, With Guts in 2017; and ran two popular popular San Francisco restaurants, Incanto and Cockscomb, that featured haute-cuisine offal on the menu. (Incanto closed in 2014, and Cockscomb closed this fall during the pandemic.)
"'We're a prosperous nation. We should get to have real cuts of meat,'" Cosentino says over Zoom, his eyes blazing from behind thick-rimmed, teal-blue glasses and tattoos peeking out from underneath his short sleeve Vans T-shirt. He sits in front of a bookshelf wall of cookbooks, part of his extensive collection. "It was a perception versus a reality thing," Cosentino says.
During World War II, the US government asked anthropologist Margaret Mead to convince Americans to eat organ meats so more prime cuts could be shipped to soldiers overseas. Her plan was to urge people to try the then-undesirable cuts, which weren't rationed, to add "variety" to their diets. They did -- but only until the war ended. When meat was no longer rationed, offal yet again fell out of favor, though some people continued cooking with it.
Fast forward half a century.
When chef Fergus Henderson and his business partner, Trevor Gulliver, started the St. John restaurant in 1994 in London, offal wasn't commonly found on the menu in British restaurants, either. There'd be steak-and-kidney pie, blood pudding or Scottish haggis, but forget about tripe or sweetbreads, the glands of an animal. St. John changed that. Longtime, popular dishes at the high-end restaurant include roast bone marrow and parsley salad, and many variations on tripe.
"A lot of what we do is pure common sense," Gulliver says in an interview over Zoom from his home in the south of France. Of the pair, Gulliver is the wine expert -- and the talker. What was supposed to be a 30-minute interview turns into nearly two hours as Gulliver reminisces about St. John and his time in the restaurant industry. "If you knock an animal on the head, it's only polite to use all of it," he says. "If you don't think you're eating it, you are because it goes in the pie, in the sausage."
Henderson decided to cook with offal because he liked the way the cuts tasted and how they let him be inventive in the kitchen. "It was always that, the way I wanted to cook," Henderson says in a phone interview from his home in London. And letting nothing go to waste is "the way that animals should be treated. They should be treated lovely."
That passion and belief ended up inspiring chefs like Bourdain, who called St. John "the restaurant of my dreams" in 2014 and said it led him and others to experiment with organ meats back home in the US. Henderson attracted hordes of fans. Today, St. John remains popular, and it plans to expand to a new Los Angeles location, though the pandemic has put that on hold.
"Nearly anyone -- after a few tries -- can grill a filet mignon or a sirloin steak," Bourdain wrote in the 2004 introduction to the US edition of Henderson's cookbook, The Whole Beast. "A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love, and time, and respect for one's ingredients to properly deal with a pig's ear or a kidney. And the rewards are enormous."
Having a chef tackle sweetbreads or brains is one thing. Asking a home cook to try them out is another matter altogether. The rewards may be huge, but the challenges can be daunting.
There's still a squeamishness factor for some people to overcome when it comes to offal. The cuts have a different texture than other meats, and some have acquired tastes -- especially if cooked poorly. For some, organ meats look too much like what they actually are, such as hearts and intestines. They're not slabs of ground meat or thinly sliced ham, products that give essentially no hint of the animal they came from.
"We have become disconnected from animals," Jennifer McLagan, author of cookbooks about blood, fat, bones and offal, says in an interview. "The problem with offal is heart looks like heart, and tongue looks like tongue. Steak, we don't associate with something walking around the fields."
Some cuts are illegal in the US. Animal lungs, the key to haggis, are banned here because of worries about the spread of disease. And foie gras, made from the liver of poultry, has been banned in parts of the US because it's viewed as harmful to ducks and geese because they're force-fed to produce large livers.
At the same time, there's only one liver in each animal, one heart, one tongue. Today, such cuts are cheap, but once a cut of offal becomes more widely accepted -- like oxtail and bone marrow -- prices tend to jump. At Belcampo, for instance, beef liver and hearts cost $8 apiece, way less than a pound of organic hamburger ($13) or an organic boneless ribeye ($35). But an order of oxtail will set you back $28.
It also can be intimidating to find the cuts. They're typically not carried in mainstream grocery stores in the US. Instead, they're at local butcher shops or Asian markets -- staffed by experts who often can give important tips on how to clean and cook offal.
"You have to get past the unfamiliarity of it," McLagan says. "People are always scared of things they don't know. They have to be a little bit more opened-minded when trying dishes" made from offal.
One thing that could give offal a boost -- at least for a while -- is the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
"What's happening right now is going to force the hand," Cosentino says. "We're having massive global economic issues … and now is a time more than any to embrace cuts of meat that cost less."
In the spring, fears about meat shortages swept the country as workers in meat processing facilities got sick and plants closed their doors. Grocery stores started limiting purchases of meat like chicken thighs, and shoppers faced long lines, empty shelves and soaring prices.
More than anything, the meat shortage laid bare the problems with the nation's food chain. It also gave weight to the movement to seek out food raised locally -- and to not waste parts of an animal that could be eaten. Today, the meat shortages in the US are largely over, but risks of another big coronavirus outbreak -- and the panic buying of food -- remain.
"What COVID has done is shown us that food that gets produced locally is more readily available," UNESCO's Blay-Palmer says. "And people … appreciate knowing where their food is coming from in the context of a global pandemic."
Many are flocking to local butchers or purchasing animals from local farmers. When people buy half a cow, for instance, they're often taking home the offal along with the steaks and roasts. Now they have to figure out what to do with it.
But Blay-Palmer has doubts about the pandemic having a lasting impact on demand for offal. When mad cow disease prevented exports of meat from Canada into the US in the early 2000s, she helped Canadian farmers line up new customers at local markets. Those farmers "swore up and down that when the border opened, they'd continue to supply the local markets," she says. But instead, many again shipped their meat to the US when the border opened.
"The tendency is to go back to what's easiest, and most people know what they're comfortable with," Blay-Palmer says. "That's unfortunate because I think we have an opportunity to do something different now."
What could give offal more of a lasting boost are the popular keto and paleo diets.
Ashleigh VanHouten, a 36-year-old, brown-haired health coach with a new offal cookbook, stands in front of her stove, spatula in hand. Shallots are sizzling in a cast iron skillet, and VanHouten eventually adds shiny brown lumps of chicken liver to the mixture. VanHouten is turning them into a mousse, a popular and simple dish that, for many, is a gateway into cooking and eating offal.
"It's a very rich, creamy, almost sort of sweet something that goes really well with crusty bread or crunchy crackers," she says during her Zoom cooking demo from her kitchen in Ottawa, Ontario. Sparse, brown bookshelves hang on either side of the stove, the place where VanHouten perfected her recipes. "But it's also ... incredibly nutrient dense."
VanHouten is one of the more recent converts to cooking with organ meats, thanks to her focus on healthy eating and the paleo diet, the effort to consume only food our cavemen ancestors would have eaten. Paleo tends to focus heavily on meats, and organ meats like liver contain more nutrients than some other cuts. VanHouten's new cookbook, It Takes Guts, aims to make it easy for people to get started cooking offal at home.
"If we accept that we are meant to eat meat, [then we should] do this in the most sustainable, ethical, healthy way possible," VanHouten says. Eating nose-to-tail "doesn't have to be something that's scary or extreme, [and] it doesn't have to be something that people kind of choke down because they know that's good for them."
Proponents of offal include Dr. Paul Saladino, the Texas-based doctor who popularized the "carnivore diet." He eats only animals, no plants, and even started a company that sells supplements made from freeze-dried beef organs. "Eating nose-to-tail is what our ancestors have done," he says. "By not doing that, we are missing out on key nutrients that we cannot get elsewhere."
But that way of life isn't right -- or healthy -- for everyone, says Harvard's Sun, who conducted research comparing the nutritional value of organ meats to the muscles of animals. The nutritional value of a cut depends on what it is. While animal organs are high in nutrients, some cuts also have a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol. One 113-gram piece of beef liver may have a high percentage of vitamin A and other nutrients, but it also has more cholesterol than the daily recommended dosage, according to the USDA.
"If you talk about the US population, eating the liver … is not very optimal for human health," Sun says. "But if you're talking about a malnourished population, eating organ meats can be a very good source of the nutrients they need."
Sun recommends eating offal in moderation, both in terms of the amount and frequency. It's not something to consume every day but once or twice a week, he says.
Something that's typically not debated in terms of nutritional value is fish. It's considered to be one of the healthiest and more environmentally friendly animals, as long as the fish are sustainably raised or caught.
Chef Niland's Saint Peter restaurant isn't just about using the whole fish. It also tries to extend the shelf life of fish -- by dry aging them.
Dry aging is a technique commonly used for beef. Moisture is removed from the meat as it decomposes -- over several weeks or even months -- in a room that controls both moisture and bacteria levels. It results in beef that's more tender and more flavorful than fresh meat.
Japanese restaurants at times will dry-age fish, but it's not commonly used in Western cuisines. Niland is pushing to change that.
Saint Peter has a cool room that's kept between 0 and negative 1-degree Celsius (30 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Rows of fish hang from hooks, distanced apart from each other to not spread moisture. They'll remain there for days or even weeks to draw out their liquid and enhance their flavors.
"It's not so much that it's a magical cupboard, like some people think it is, where you just throw a fish in there and then 20 days later it's perfect," Niland says as he shows off Saint Peter's cool room over Zoom. "It's about trying to find a moment where that particular fish tastes better and texturally it's improved upon."
Ultimately, the fish tastes great, he says -- and dry aging also ensures nothing goes to waste.
The restaurant was rated TimeOut's top Sydney restaurant of the year in 2018 and was shortlisted for the World Restaurant Awards' top prize for ethical thinking last year. It reopened in mid-July after being closed for four months during the pandemic. Dinner at Saint Peter will set you back about $85 to $115 (AU$120 to AU$160).
"Countries all around the world celebrate the whole fish more so for the necessity to consume the whole animal rather than make it cool," Niland says. "This is really good for the environment, and this is a better way of handling fish."