“It’s like you’ve been camping, like you’ve been sitting around a camp fire,” says Steve de Launay, as we joke about him spending most mornings working in plumes of thick smoke. “But I don’t mind it, it’s not a bad smell.”
He’s got a wide smile and while he’s happy enough having a chat about seafood alongside his son Adam, it’s clear de Launay’s eager to get back to the small, cupboard-like chamber with the red door to check on his handiwork.
We’re at Fish Place, the corner shop that didn’t make any attempt to blend in with its neighbours on Foveaux Street when it arrived in early 2013, stamped from the road to the roof with red and silver stencils of sardine cans. But even though Fish Place’s façade is loud on the outside, it’s what’s on offer inside that speaks for itself.
With a small, reasonably priced menu of only six dishes – including a hearty fish pie with a cap of mashed potato and a side of mushy peas – it’s the elder de Launay’s daily smoked ocean trout and salmon that are the stars of the show. New York-style bagels with just the right amount of chewiness are filled with pieces of tender hot-smoked fish and sell as fast as they can make them. The flavour is fresh and clean – the smokiness so different to the almost sour taste of cold-smoked salmon widely available in the supermarket.
For de Launay, most mornings begin at the fish markets, before heading back to Fish Place to clean and fillet the day’s haul and line them up on the smoking racks. It’s a process he’s been perfecting for over 40 years, beginning on the shores of Jervis Bay on the New South Wales south coast where he grew up in a family of fishermen. “For my father and my uncles, a lot of [their fish smoking] was done outdoors. They’d bring the fish up and they’d start the fires. They’d use old fridges, old ovens, old 44-gallon drums – anything they could find,” he says of the process that harks back to Indigenous practices of preserving the daily catch, which, after smoking can last for up to four weeks.
Raised on the spoils of his dad’s fishing and smoking expeditions on the pristine shorelines of Jervis Bay, Adam was “sick of not being able to get really good fish in Sydney, let alone smoked fish”.
“It’s hard to find a whole smoked fillet like what we do,” he says. “It’s just beautiful.”
And with the opening of Fish Place, the pair has clearly filled a gap in the market. “If you’re cold-smoking, the fire or the heat is separate from the chamber,” says de Launay. “That smokes the fish, but it doesn’t cook it, whereas with hot-smoking the fire is contained within the chamber, which then becomes an oven.”
Steve’s “chamber” is smaller than expected, but a peek inside reveals row after row of glistening fillets, flames flickering from a cavity in the floor and smoke billowing into every corner.
Just as there’s no smoke without a fire, there’ll be no fire without wood, the choice of which can drastically alter the flavour of the smoke and, in-turn, the fish. The elder de Launay uses wood sourced from a south coast mill he’s been buying from for over 25 years. He uses a mix of south coast hardwood plus ironbark and bloodwood, combined with oak and beech chips imported from Europe. “The oak goes particularly well with fish,” he says. “Hickory is traditionally used in Canada, but we don’t have it here. If I was in Tassie I would be using something else, but here I find that the flavour is good.”
For the moment, there’s ocean trout and salmon in the smoker at Fish Place. That said, it’s not that he father-and-son duo are limiting their options. Rather, they’re cementing their processes and producing a small number of products very, very well, rather than packing the smoker with all manner of novelty seafood.
If the mood strikes, however, that all might change. “Sardines are very good to smoke,” says de Launay. “[We’ve smoked] prawns, eels, soft shell crabs, scallops, oysters, mussels, whitefish and ling. Barramundi smokes very well too; anything that has [a high oil content] smokes well.”
It’s hard to not find his enthusiasm for the process infectious, especially considering all the years he’s been at it. His confidence is clear too. “I haven’t been to Canada,” he says with a grin. “But I have a friend who goes there regularly and says my salmon is better.”
Off the back of that comment, and as we take a bite from our bagel, filled with a thick spread of dill-spiked sour cream and perfectly blushed pieces of hot-smoked salmon, we’d be fools not to believe him.
70 Foveaux Street, Surry Hills
(02) 8958 0159