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Tony Harrison was classically trained as a chef in the Hunter Valley under his mentor, Robert Molines from Robert’s Restaurant. Tony went on to open Nor’East, a multi-award winning seafood restaurant in Newcastle. In 2012, Tony received the Australian Hotels Association Chef of the Year Award and is currently the manager and head chef of Bar Petite, a French themed bar in Newcastle, offering an internationally influenced bar menu, with a la carte dinner and degustation upon request. 

As we approach the festive season, Tony shares some of his knowledge on seafood, Australian’s essential Christmas ingredient. 

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+ You once opened a seafood restaurant which went on to winning multiple awards. You also teach seafood based classes at The Essential Ingredient Newcastle. Where does your passion for seafood come from?

My father was a passionate and accomplished fisherman so I suppose it was bred into me as a child. We always had a lot of fresh fish and crustaceans around and I learned early how to prepare and cook it.

+ If one isn’t able to fish their own, where would you recommend buying seafood in Newcastle? 

The Co-op offers a mixture of local fresh fish as well as imported and frozen ingredients. While frozen ingredients might be convenient, there is no substitute for fresh clean fish and crustaceans. We are blessed with fish in this country because of the warmer waters which result in better textured and lightly flavored fish like yellowfin tuna and Tasmanian farmed salmon.

+ As consumers, we are starting to understand better the impact of the food industry on the environment as well as on the animals themselves. What are some tips for buying seafood ethically and enjoying the best quality?

The Australian government introduced some very strict rules in the 1980s’ to avoid overfishing and in some cases, the near extinction of certain species like the coral trout. As a result, Australia has developed some very sustainable open-water fisheries.

Australians want to eat all the good stuff all the time which creates a huge strain on certain species (snapper, tuna, salmon) while other, less appreciated, species are mostly left alone, like flounder and sole.

Sustainable aquaculture means that the market is able to meet the consumer demand with quality controlled fish without negatively impacting the natural balance of species in the wild.

+ What types of seafood can we look forward to for the festive season? 

Locally, snapper and Teraglin from Port Stephens, as well as brim, whiting and flathead are all in season in the summer months. Yamba and Ballina prawns are readily available and delicious. You can’t go wrong with Sydney rock oysters for christmas. Crustaceans tend to have a long season thanks to our warm winters so there will be plenty of bugs, prawns and mud crabs around for a while.

+ What are some tips for choosing the freshest seafood all year round? 

When buying fish, the eye should be plump and bright. The fish shouldn’t smell. The flesh should be plump and firm. Check for signs of bruising which would indicate mishandling.

The way it was killed is important too. Fish that has been brain spiked is the most tender – this technique is called ikejime and is imperative for sashimi. When spiked correctly, the fish fins flare and the fish relaxes, immediately ceasing all motion. The blood contained in the fish flesh retracts to the gut cavity, which produces a better coloured and flavoured fillet.

+ What fish is best for sashimi? 

Available locally, yellowfin tuna, kingfish, spanish mackerel, mackerel tuna and snapper are all great.

+ How do you recommend storing seafood? 

– Cooked crustaceans: keep on ice in a colander, allowing the moisture to go through the flesh, which is porous. 
– Uncooked crustaceans: keep in a bowl in an ice slurry (50% ice, 50% water + some rock salt) for up to 3 days, refreshing the ice slurry regularly. 
– Whole fish: straight on ice. 
– filleted fish: wrapped in cloth (to avoid ice burn) and covered with plastic in colander on ice for 3 to 4 days. 

+ You were taught early in life how to work with fish and lack of technique is probably one of the biggest reasons to steer clear of fish. How would you suggest people overcome this? 

Keep it simple. A lot of technique around the preparation of fish is much easier than it seems. Filleting, even gutting fish require very simple processes. Taking a cooking class is a good place to start. In my classes, I introduce filleting as well as how to prepare crustaceans, squid, octopus.

And when in doubt, just google it, you’re sure to find a video to help you through it.

+ Finally, what are your essential ingredients when cooking with seafood? 

Good quality sea salt and preserved lemon. Saffron, verjuice, butter and fresh parsley make an instant and delicious sauce with white fish.

+ Is that what you will be having for Christmas? 

Yes! with a big bowl of Balmain bugs!

Tony runs regular classes at The Essential Ingredient Newcastle. Check the cooking school schedule for his next ‘Seafood’ or ‘Pate & Terrine’ masterclasses.