Seafood in Brisbane is a lot better than it used to be.

That’s the opinion of Otto Brisbane head chef Will Cowper, who says the improved standards of fish, oysters, prawns, lobster and bugs seen in restaurants over the past five years is reflected in what the public can get its hands on at the local market.

“One hundred per cent,” Cowper says. “Now they’ve got live tanks, they’ve got lobsters. They’re trying to step up their game for the restaurants and that’s overflowing into retail as well.”

But where to buy fresh seafood, particularly as we head towards Christmas? We asked a bunch of Brisbane’s best chefs for their festive season tips.

Will Cowper – Head Chef, Otto
When Will Cowper is buying seafood for home he makes a beeline for The Fish Factory in Morningside.

“I went yesterday and it’s so good,” Cowper says. “Just the selection they have and the quality – I walked around and checked the prices, and it’s all pretty shit hot.

“Yes, you get amazing coral trout there but what stood out to me yesterday was the honker King George whiting. I hadn’t seen anything that big in a while. They had some amazing New Zealand turbot, and I like their appellation oysters, which I get for the restaurant. Yes, they have a whole lot of local stuff but they also have amazing stuff that they fly in regularly.”

Cowper reckons punters who haven’t shopped at a fish market for a few years will be surprised by the quality they can find in 2021.

“People don’t really know where to go, so they go to a supermarket and it may not be totally fresh,” Cowper says. “But when you find somewhere that’s consistent you start to feel more comfortable stepping away from the barra and the salmon, say, and looking around and seeing what else they have.”

Elsewhere in town, Cowper sometimes pokes his head into Fish Kitchen at Dutton Park.

“It’s awesome,” he says. “The range isn’t as large as The Fish Factory. The Fish Factory is like a mini-Sydney Fish Market with all the different suppliers. Fish Kitchen has only certain things but it’s all really fresh and well looked after.”

As for Christmas Day, Cowper loves cooking swordfish on the barbeque but his family won’t let him get away without preparing kingfish sashimi.

“I fillet it, slice it,” he says, “and keep it super fresh with a bit of lemon juice and chardonnay, vinegar, and heaps of fresh herbs and ginger. That’s what we do for Christmas now.”

Emily Yeoh – Chef-Owner, Emily Yeoh Restaurant
Emily Yeoh grew up in seaside Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, where she and her family dined on fresh seafood almost daily.

“We ate very, very good seafood,” Yeoh says. “So these days I’m very particular, especially with things like live lobsters and pipis.”

In Brisbane, Yeoh has a couple of favourite markets and suppliers.

Sunnybank Fish Market is really good,” Yeoh says. “But it’s best to call ahead and let them know what you’re after and ask if they can source it. They’re good with that … So if I call up and ask them about oysters they will tell me what kind they have and how long they’ve been out of the water for.”

The other contact Yeoh uses for fresh seafood is Umar Nguyen, a former chef who now runs her own seafood supply business, The Fish Girl.

“For example, if I want spanner crab, she’ll say, ‘Hey, I know a supplier,’” Yeoh says. “But the things she’ll recommend are very good quality. Any special ingredients that you might have seen on TV on a cooking show, she will be able to source for you if you want to impress your family at Christmas.”

For Yeoh’s holiday festivities, her family usually requests Singapore chilli crab or a whole smoked salmon. “This year instead of a smoked salmon, I think I will smoke some toothfish,” she says. “So Christmas this year will be a little fancier.”

Oscar Solomon – Head Chef, Yoko Dining
Oscar Solomon doesn’t really get the Australian Christmas obsession with ham.

“For Christmas you’re having oysters, you’re having cooked prawns,” Solomon says. “You’re having really beautiful barbequed fish with just some lemon, pepper and olive oil – you don’t need anything else. We live in the best fucking country in the world for seafood. There’s no reason we can’t be smashing beautiful goldband snapper, red throat emperor, any of the Queensland coral trout. It’s hot, it’s sunny – that’s what you want to be eating.”

As for where to buy seafood, one of Solomon’s local favourites is Frank’s Seafood in West End.

“It’s like you’re walking into a butchers or something like that," Solomon says. "They have Collison Reef Fish coral trout, which is a Queensland classic. That’s a rite of passage for Queenslanders. Also goldband snapper – just another plentiful fish that’s always there.”

Otherwise, Solomon, like Cowper, is a fan of The Fish Factory.

“I’d say they’re the strongest distributor in Brisbane for sure, with great quality,” Solomon says. “And then there’s Sunnybank Fish Market, which has a really nice alternative fish selection – speciality fish and lesser known fish. It’s a real chef’s spot.”

Solomon’s final recommendation is Australian Bay Lobster, based just over the NSW border in Chinderah, which is now delivering to Brisbane.

“People should be looking at Moreton Bay bugs more,” Solomon says. “Australian Bay Lobster has really close connections with all the fishing collectives in the northern NSW and the Tweed River region. They get eastern rock lobster, Moreton Bay bugs in all different sizes. It’s great.”

Gabriele Di Landri – Head Chef, Sasso Italiano
Gabriele Di Landri is planning on hosting Christmas this year in his Sunnybank backyard with friends from Sydney. They’ll be dining on seafood from Sunnybank Fish Market.

“For sure, we’ll start with oysters,” Di Landri says. “Then I’m going to do spaghetti with pipis and an XO sauce. And we’ll be doing sashimi – my wife is from Japan so we always like to do sashimi. And I’m going to cook some bugs with a yuzu-miso butter, a recipe I’ve developed this year with homemade miso and yuzu skin that I candy.”

As for Sunnybank Fish Market, Di Landri loves it because of the range of seafood and the local connection.

“Sometimes I go there and I don’t even know what I want to do do,” he says, “but I’ll walk around and, ‘Wow, they have grouper!’ Or maybe they have some sort of reef fish. You go and you get inspired because there’s just so much there. It’s not a big space but there’s a heap of variety.”

Tabitha Thomson – Senior Sous Chef, Beach Byron Bay.
Chef Tabitha Thomson has spent much of her professional life around exemplary seafood – perhaps most notably at Howard Smith Wharves’ brilliant if relatively short-lived Arc Dining (Thomson is now on the move to Byron Bay to take up a senior sous chef position at Beach Byron Bay). Her Christmases are typically spent with family on Hope Island on the Gold Coast.

“With my brother-in-law, Chad, for the past six or seven years we’d go crabbing,” Thomson says. “It’s just fun and it’s great teaching kids that as well. We used to not actually have a boat so we’d just paddle out on our stand-up paddle boards.”

When in Brisbane, Thomson prefers to get her seafood from The Fish Factory.

“It’s always going to be consistent,” she says. “And you know the shelf life of their seafood is going to last a lot longer than other businesses around Brisbane. They get it straight off the trawlers up north, and they get stuff from the south and Tasmania. But a lot of it is local, which is great. I think that’s really good for Christmas.”

Thomson also suggests The Standard Market Company’s Fresh Fish Co in New Farm.

“Every Wednesday and Thursday they get all of their whole fish directly from 1770,” Thomson says. “They have their own fisherman who [supplies] all their whole fish, which I think is amazing. I go there all the time because you … can tell straightaway that it’s super fresh."

Thomson reckons more people should put seafood on the menu at Christmas.

“Definitely,” she says. “It’s a good way for people to learn how to cook. People maybe get scared of cooking a whole fish, for example, but it’s actually not that hard.”