Creating “sustainable” sea food menus – is a big focus of concern for James Green, Head Chef at North Bondi Fish, high-quality seafood eatery, overlooking Sydney’s iconic beach.
Sustainable fishing is aimed at safeguarding the replenishment and survival of marine ecosystems. As we become increasingly aware, the prevention of “over-fishing” remains a global priority in contributing towards fighting climate change.
James is keen to highlight his commitment to, “keeping our seafood options both sustainable and crowd pleasing”. In practice, it means his chefs ‘use only the best produce and work with local suppliers’ to create their innovative seafood menus.
Strong affinity for seafood and a lifelong fascination
It was growing up on Lord Howe Island, nestled in the fish-and coral-rich waters of the Tasman Sea that James says gave him his “strong affinity for seafood”, and a lifelong fascination.
“I find it so interesting to work with – the versatility and the great variety we are blessed with in Australia. From the tropical reef species to the Pelagic gamefish*, right down to the cold-water deep species, and the amazing array of shellfish and crustaceans we have at our fingertips”.
*Pelagic fish live in a zone of the open sea that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore.
Throughout his career, James says that, “being able to focus more intensely on something I had always been drawn to that was the big attraction”.
The journey began for James in his teens. His father had opened up a café, and James says he “naturally gravitated” to working there during the school holidays, washing dishes and basic cooking preparation.
Despite this early foray into the kitchen, James headed to University to start a commerce degree, “because it seemed like a good idea at the time”. However it wasn’t too long before he felt drawn back to the kitchen, and as James admits, from then he “never looked back”.
Real eye opener for how a busy kitchen runs to a very high standard
Working in the kitchen fulltime started for James at Otto, Sydney’s prestigious Italian Ristorante, under Head Chef James Kidman. He says it, “was a real eye opener for how a busy kitchen runs to a very high standard”. From there James spent time at Fratelli Paradiso. Its more compact styling – ‘between cosy neighbourhood trattoria and stylish upmarket restaurant’ – was “a great experience in a completely different way”, for James who says he “really enjoyed the broader responsibilities”.
As with so many aspiring chef careers, it was to kitchens abroad – specifically in Toronto and New York – that James was to be found over the next two years. There he was part of the opening team in their first year bringing David Chang’s NYC concept to the Momofuku Toronto. This was followed by a few months as a stagiaire (intern) at WD-50, the molecular, gastronomy restaurant in Manhattan, New York City, opened in 2003 by chef Wylie Dufresne.
Those 24 months were to be career-defining for James: “Both of those experiences dramatically shaped the way I approach my craft today. Wylie and Dave Chang are probably my two greatest culinary influences”.
I really try to buy the best product we can and let it speak
On his return to Sydney, James next worked under Executive Chef, Monty Koludrovic at Icebergs, the seasonal Italian Dining Room and Bar at Bondi Beach. This was followed by the Woodland Kitchen in Neutral Bay under Damian Heads. Next up, two years with Matt Kemp at Sydney harbour’s Q Station, where James was promoted to executive chef until eventually arriving at North Bondi Fish to lead the kitchen.
Clearly, his whirlwind journey, packed with culinary exploration, has helped James to form his own style of food philosophy, “using the knowledge collected along the way to be a little creative and enhance the product you started with”.
“Most of my training has been Italian focused, and on its ethos. While I have moved away from the more traditional aspect of that background, the Italian approach very much underpins my style.”
For James, “keeping it fairly simple with great ingredients, and not burying dishes with complexity” is what he loves best, adding, “using great products and enhancing them with a few simple and well executed techniques is what it’s all about for me – I really try to buy the best product we can and let it speak”.
Which brings us onto food sustainability and the explosion in exploring Australian native indigenous ingredients, which James says he loves to use throughout in preparing menus.
Shift towards diners being more open to different options
“I’ve recently discovered sunrise limes, which make for a killer addition to a mignonette dressing for oysters. Sustainability, particularly with seafood is always a massive focus, and keeping our seafood options both sustainable and crowd pleasing can be a challenge”.
James says he has definitely noticed a shift towards diners being more open to some different options in the last few years – a moving away from the “typical buzzwords and safe species” that he says are so prevalent in restaurant culture. “I do make a conscious effort to keep some more interesting species on our market list”.
“At North Bondi Fish, we have four major seasonal changes throughout the year, where we change probably 25% of the menu each time. We also have a market list of 3-5 dishes, which we change very regularly, allowing us to take advantage of what’s great at the markets, and those often feature ingredients that may only be available for a fleeting moment”.
Nevertheless, James points to fish tacos as one of the most popular dishes on the menu, “I think we’d have riots if they were ever removed from the menu”.
Importance of developing and training a team to execute your vision
Talking of preventing riots brings us onto managing the demands and stress of the kitchen. James admits he “only recently learned in the last few years how to switch off”. For him handling the pressure was all about learning to trust the team he had trained up.
“When I was Executive Chef of Q Station, I mainly oversaw four separate food and beverage outlets – it made me realise that you can’t do it all yourself – and outlined the importance of developing and training a team to execute your vision. I’m fortunate to have a very competent team at NBF that look after things very well when I’m not around so I can take days away and not stress too much. Of course, my brain never truly switches off either, so I do usually keep my finger on the pulse even when I’m not in venue”.
When James is away from the Pass, his passion is game fishing. “It really ties in nicely with my interest in seafood cookery. I’m also a pretty terrible golfer, and I enjoy dining out”.
James always loves to cook risotto, his favourite dish to eat since childhood. “There’s something relaxing about cooking it, particularly at home, when the time crunch and pressure is off. The bonus of cooking it at home is it’s a one pot wonder, so minimal mess”.
Love of reading about the ‘big chefs’
The culinary hobbies continue with his love of reading about the ‘big chefs’ and owning the coffee table adornments of his favourites including, Dan Barber, Thomas Keller, Corey Lee, Modernist Cuisine, David Kinch, Magnus Nilsson and Wylie Dufresne.
Special mention is made of possessing an ’amazing’ Josh Niland book, Bourdain, “one of my favourite authors”, and “Dave Chang’s recent biography is one of the best reads in recent years”.
Eat out and experience the industry as a customer
James has worked alongside several of the big chefs in his own career, which helped form his outlook on how to progress. He has a compelling checklist of advice for younger chefs starting out in the industry.
“Ask questions, no matter how stupid or basic they may seem. Learn how to taste, build flavour profiles and develop your palate. Don’t be afraid to work hard and be patient. Don’t expect to be a sous chef in three years, to be good it takes time. Get out of your comfort zone, work overseas and put yourself out there in unfamiliar surrounds. Eat out and experience the industry as a customer”.
“Silver lining” of reopening after Covid
James reflects on how he and his industry was affected by the global epidemic. “Covid has been very tough. The shutdown in March was one of the worst days of my life, having to have two dozen conversations with each staff member to stand them down, and then packing up the restaurant not knowing when we would get to open the doors again, or what the industry would look like on the other side, and whether I’d have a place in it”.
Despite the disruption caused to the hospitality industry, James believes the experience has given him a “much better understanding of all facets of the business”. Moving forward for James was “rebuilding from scratch” and the “silver lining” of reopening.