SLIPPERY WORK: Meet the chef moonlighting as an eel whisperer
Nik Hill’s search for wild caught eel has led the acclaimed chef into a smoky side hustle, as food journalist Wendy Hargreaves reports.
Photo Credit: Wolter Peeters
Eels have few fans outside of sushi restaurants and the odd fine diner, but a Sydney chef is determined to put the snaky fish on menus across Australia.
Porcine owner/chef Nik Hill supplies a growing number of restaurants and providores with his unique brand of cured, hot-smoked longfin eel, wild caught in the Hawkesbury River and delivered ready to eat.
Hill launched Smoketrap Eels in 2020 with fellow chef Michael Robinson, owner of Hunter Valley butchery Hungerford Meat Co. They hot smoke 60-80kg every three or four weeks, depending on demand and seasonal changes on the river.
Always testing new flavours and ideas, the pair have created a smoky eel pâté, along with a unique dashi vinegar and new style of dried stock.
“We’ve got a sustainable product here,” Hill says. “We don’t want to waste a thing.
“The eels are purged for several to clear any muddy impurities, and then we brine them in a mix of salt, treacle, and water for two days. Then we dry them for a day or two in a drying fridge, and hot smoke them really gently over hickory for 10 hours.”
So how does a city chef go down the slippery slope of eel production?
Hill first cooked with eels as a young chef at the Ledbury in London, where he spent six years working under Newcastle-born Brett Graham before returning to Sydney as sous chef for Martin Benn at the three-hatted Sepia.
But it was a TV fishing show that gave Hill the idea of smoking eels for the Sydney market.
Hill appeared on Channel 10’s Seafood Escape with Andrew Ettinghausen, fishing for mullet and eels on the Hawkesbury River in 2019.
“All the other chefs who went on that show got to fish for coral trout in Queensland or something fun like that,” Hill laughed. “I got to fish for slimy eels. It was pissing rain. There was mud everywhere, and it was still great fun. That’s how I got into eels.”
Hill could see an opportunity and tried to source eels to smoke for his own menu, but the Hawkesbury River eel supplier’s minimum-order size was too big for his kitchen.
So he started researching local eels, and experimenting with smoking techniques. He discovered the native longfin eels are thicker and meatier than their shortfin cousins, making them better for smoking.
“Eels are the top predator in the river,” Hill says. “They’ll eat anything from small birds to crayfish to water rats. They’re quite vicious creatures and grow up to 6.5kg. That’s a pretty big snake – around 1.5m long.
“When we catch really big ones, the meat’s not quite as tight as the smaller eels. It’s still delicious, but it’s wetter, so we pass the smoked eels through a mincer with horseradish and make a smoked eel pâté with clarified butter on top. We sell it by the jar, and in 2kg bags for restaurants. It’s going really well.”
Hill and Robinson have also developed a unique smoked eel dashi vinegar (which goes down a treat with fresh-shucked oysters at Hill’s French bistro Porcine).
In another innovation, they are developing a katsuobushi-style stock base made from dried eel trimmings and bones, cleverly named “Eel Grey Tea”.