An art form at a gleaming bench

16:00, Jan 12 2013

Stewart MacDonald's work is dispatched to some of our finest restaurants - Kermadec, the Roxy, Matterhorn and Martin Bosley's among them - but mine, he pronounces, will be catfood.

Macdonald, a professional fish filleter for more than three decades, describes it as an art form. Every day before the sun rises, he stands before a gleaming workbench, dressed in white boilersuit, white gumboots and a plastic apron, sharpened knife in hand.

Macdonald came recommended to me by Rachel Taulelei, from specialist fish supplier Yellow Brick Road, which has flown him to Wellington to deliver filleting master classes.

He's fast. He can fillet a snapper in a few seconds. But although he and one colleague at Leigh Fisheries, near Warkworth, can process a half-tonne of fish a day, it's not about speed, but how much "profit" he can yield from each fish: Macdonald can find more than a kilo of fillets from 3kg of snapper. The average punter, he says, will get far less. "Anyone can cut a fish. It's how much return you get."

So we learn the first rules of (properly) filleting a fish: parsimony, patience, and a very sharp knife. Macdonald learnt his trade as a 16-year-old under former test cricketer Hedley Howarth at Auckland's Kia Ora Seafoods back when the Viaduct was a fishing port, and has had only one serious injury (a severed finger tendon). That's through precision, concentration (he stops cutting if someone talks to him, or ignores them until he finishes his cut) but also his knife: "You've more chance of cutting yourself with a blunt knife, because you're forcing it." They call this hacksawing, which leaves a ragged, unsaleable fillet.

Macdonald demonstrates his art on John Dory, gurnard, snapper, a beautiful kingfish and a 5kg side of swordfish, but because he's so quick, it takes a while to work out what he's doing. He feels for the hard part behind the fish's head, tucks in his knife and makes a firm, deep, diagonal cut. Then he nicks neatly through the ribcage, before running his knife smoothly against the top of the backbone to ensure he gets all the flesh. Once the fillet is off the body, he feels along the central pinbone, makes a surgeon-style incision either side and nicks it out, then chips off any imperfections. Then a small cut at the tail, where he turns his knife, and using it as a lever, drags the skin to remove it perfectly.


This looks easy. But my first fillet is the one destined for catfood. The second, Macdonald suggests, may be suitable as craybait. I'm fairly proud of the third, even if Macdonald spots a bit of flesh left behind. "Not bad for a first one."

Then we're into scaling (start at the tail, move slowly towards the gills) and gutting, which Macdonald makes look like sliding cake mix from a mixing bowl, but proves a tricky and dirty skill to master.

The compact Leigh fishery produces between a tonne and 50 tonnes of fish a day, caught by a fleet of independently-owned long-lining boats.

"We're the last of our type," reckons chief executive Greg Bishop. With branches in Singapore, Switzerland and the US, 90 per cent of their sales are exports - fish can be on a dinner plate in the UK 48 hours after leaving Macdonald's knife. The fish is here less than a day old: men in white boilersuits rapidly pick and pack them into plastic boxes, which are weighed, plastic-wrapped and put on waiting trucks.

When fish arrives, Macdonald inspects it to find what he wants for his orders, which are precise: the Australian supermarket chain Coles wants all its fillets weighing within an 80-gram range. He has three pages of restaurant orders to meet, written in code such as "snp s & g" (snapper, skinned and gutted). Today, the Matterhorn wants 20kg of snapper and Bosley's wants 5kg of bluenose.

The sun is now up and shining. Macdonald will be finished by 10.30am. By mid-afternoon, he'll be out in his tinny with his teenage son, catching tonight's dinner. "I love fish and I love the sea," he explains.

Sunday Star Times