Ugly delicious: The chef putting local eels on the menu

Nicholas Hill with his smoked longfin eels at Hungerford Meat Co in Branxton.
Nicholas Hill with his smoked longfin eels at Hungerford Meat Co in Branxton. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Slippery, slithery and unlikely to win a beauty pageant, eels are a rare find on Sydney menus outside of sushi restaurants and fancy fine diners.

Chef Nicholas Hill is determined to change that, although he admits eel is hard sell in the Harbour City. "We offered a dish of eel livers on toast at the Old Fitz earlier in the year," he says. "I think one person ordered it." 

Hill departed Woolloomooloo's Old Fitz pub last week; partly due to creative differences with the landlord, but also to grow his Smoketrap Eels side business and help the overlooked fish realise its delicious potential (liver toast aside). 

Smoketrap's freshwater eel pate topped with smoked butter.
Smoketrap's freshwater eel pate topped with smoked butter. Photo: Wolter Peeters

In partnership with Michael Robinson, owner of Hunter Valley butchery Hungerford Meat Co, Hill began selling smoked Hawkesbury River eel to Sydney restaurants and providores in July.

"We blanch longfin eels to remove any river scum, then brine them in salt and treacle for two days," says Hill. "The treacle lends itself really well to eel flesh. From there, we hot-smoke them at the butchery using hickory sourced from a local pecan farm near Branxton."

The end result is smoky, sweet and mellow, and a world away from the texture of aspic-set jellied eels found in East London pie shops. 

"We didn't want to go anywhere near jellied eels – I think Australians have encountered too many shocking versions of the dish in England," says Hill, who spent six years working under Newcastle-born Brett Graham at London's Ledbury restaurant, before accepting the role of sous chef at three-hatted Sepia in Sydney. 

It was Sepia executive chef Martin Benn who taught Hill how to handle live eels, but these days he tries to avoid doing so whenever possible.

"Wrangling a four kilogram eel is pretty hectic," he says. "There's a lot of blood and they fight back even when the heads are off. On top of that, an eel's heart will beat for more than three hours after it's dead. We now receive them put to sleep on ice."

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The idea to get more Sydneysiders eating eel was born in 2019 when Hill appeared on Seafood Escape with Andrew Ettinghausen, the former NRL player's Network 10 fishing and lifestyle program.

"A few chef mates had previously been on the show fishing for coral trout and cooking in Queensland," says Hill. "I got stuck with eels and mullet in the Hawkesbury."

However, Hill was impressed by the quality of eels he encountered on the shoot. Harvested by Paul "Nipper" Aquilina in a quota-managed fishery, longfin eels are thicker than their shortfin cousins and rich with fleshy meat. 

"The eels are trapped around Wisemans Ferry and Lower Portland, and usually sold to Asian restaurants or to shark fisherman for bait," says Aquilina. "I've seen some as big as 15 kilograms swimming around, but the ones harvested are generally no bigger than a third of that size."

Hill likes to eat slivers of eel on scones with creme fraiche and chives, or served warm with mashed potato and horseradish. The smoked fish stars in a carbonara pasta at Newtown's Cafe Paci this week, while eel pate is available for home use from $22.50 a jar at Continental Deli, Bar and Bistro (also in Newtown) and LP's Quality Meats, Chippendale. 

More retail shops and restaurants will offer the eel goods as Smoketrap's production increases, says Hill. "There's also a stock base made with dried minced trimmings and bones. We're calling it Eel Grey Tea."