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The science of cooking

In the kitchen with Sam Prance-Smith

It was at a gentleman’s club in Sydney where chef Sam Prance-Smith got what he looks back on as his “biggest break”.

“My partner got tickets to this exclusive event that celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal was going to be at,” he says.

“And it was at a gentleman’s club and I was nervous as anything.

“We were sitting down having lunch and Heston was coming around and meeting everyone and I shook his hand and I just said ‘what do I have to do to come work for you?’

“And he was kind of taken aback a bit … and he said ‘email The Fat Duck, tell them that we met here and you can come over’.”

Sam, who has since co-founded Stirling fish and chip shop Angler, went on to spend three months doing an unpaid internship – known as a stage – at Heston’s three Michelan star restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Berkshire, England.

Known for his pioneering and scientific cooking techniques, Sam says Heston was at the “cutting edge of gastronomy” and taught him to “question everything”.

“He was working with ingredients and techniques and that whole sensory of eating was so fascinating to me – how you can get lost in cooking,” he recalls.

“… The methods behind it are so precise – unbelievable – down to the micromilimetre.

“You’re cooking with science equipment – I’m using centrifuges and rotavaps just to make a sauce … it’s just so scientific and I just found it so fascinating.

Sam Prance-Smith gives Hills Wanderer editor Elisa Rose a few tips on creating perfect fish and chips. Boiling the chips and then cooling them in the fridge helps to cyrstalise the starch and create a crispy crust.

“We’re talking about the humble fish and chip, but it’s incredible how science plays such a big role in that as well and I found that very, very interesting.

“That and it was just a great place to work.”

After returning to Australia Sam, who grew up in Stirling, worked as the head chef at the Star of Greece in Port Willunga, before stints around Australia, including high-end Melbourne restaurants Attica, Cutler & Co, Brooks and Pure South.

But it was a hung over idea after he returned to Adelaide that inspired him to return to his Adelaide Hills roots and embark on his latest venture: Angler.

“I was hung over and I wanted fish and chips and I was eating a piece of fish and it was butterfish and I just went ‘this is from South Africa … why aren’t we using South Australian produce?’,” he says.

“We’ve got some of the best waters, cleanest waters to fish out of, why aren’t we using them?

“So I said one day I want to open a fish and chip shop which just does really good fish and chips, dry aged sashimi and wood fire cooking – a bit more than just a standard fish and chip shop – we can sell fresh fish as well. And so that’s where the idea started.

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal said ‘email the Fat Duck, tell them that we met here and you can come over’

“It was like a week later we were sitting down working out the business plan.”

Centred around the philosophy of using local, traceable and fresh produce, Angler opened in January 2020, co-founded by Sam and his auntie, Mandy, just before Covid-19 struck in Australia.

It’s a modern restaurant-style take on the humble fish and chip shop, offering fresh fish and seafood as well as dine-in and takeaway menus that – while constantly changing to suit the produce that’s available – include dry aged sashimi, a range of beer batter, panko crumbed or wood-fired fish, hand cut chips and a ‘trust the chef’ experience, which takes you on a journey through SA’s waters.

Sam keeps a record of where his fish come from and when it’s caught and says quality fish is key to good fish and chips, whether at home or from the shop.

“Making sure you get a fish that is the right texture, depending on what you like, but the right texture and density,” he says.

“And don’t be afraid is the other biggest thing – because people are often afraid to cook fish at home, but there’s no difference between meat and seafood at all.”

Sam says making sure the fish is dry and at room temperature before it’s cooked prevents the skin from sticking to the pan and helps keep it crispy.

Centred around the philosophy of using local, traceable and fresh produce, Angler opened in January 2020.

“To dry the fish I would leave it in the fridge, skin side up, and just leave it on a cake rack or even on a plate, uncovered, and then a couple of hours later turn it over and pat the flesh dry and then just keep it on the skin side, that way you’ll get a nice crispy skin,” he says.

“Chips – I always par-boil them or steam them in salted water and then move them to the fridge – it helps the starch crystalise on the outside and once it crystalises you get a nice crispy texture but a really soft inner chip.”

Eating fish caught locally in SA and considering the sustainability, traceability and ethics of the produce is something Sam and Mandy are passionate about.

But Sam would also like to see South Australians embrace lesser known fish – including the notorious Murray River pest, carp.

“Carp, if it’s treated properly – purged properly and looked after properly – is a very, very nice fish,” he says.

“We have it here at Angler – we make cheeseburgers out of it, we do fish and chips with it.

“It’s such a versatile fish.

“You can cook it like any other normal bit of fish – fry it, batter it, skewers, salt and pepper it.

“What we want to change more than anything is the way people perceive it.”

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