Bait to Plate

Kev Collins

Well known Restauranter and co-owner of Fish D'vine & The Rum Bar in Airlie Beach. When Kev's not working he's out fishing in the amazing food bowl of the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park or in his tinnie in the estuaries crabbing! His blog imparts wisdom, tales and info on all things fishing and food.

Who's YOUR favourite footballer?

Anyone North of Brisbane really has to say J T . In my case, as a fisho and foodie however, It is one of these “blokes”.  I catch a lot of nice coral trout and there can scarcely be a better fish on the table. Famed across Australia and in enormous demand internationally our Coral Trout ranks as one of the world’s great (and expensive) fish. They come in many colours and back a few months ago I did a blog post on the varieties we get to see and catch. Amongst these “footballers” are the star. To me, they are maybe a 1 in 500 catch, maybe even 1 in 1000. A brief weather window yesterday let me get out to the reef in marginal conditions and the fish are biting their heads off. What cyclone? A mate has coined the term “Red Piranha” for Red Throat Emperor. They are large (some amongst the biggest I have ever seen), ravenous, and everywhere, with bag limits reached inside an hour and fish after fish being released while we looked for some trout. Another 1 in 1000, or in this case only the second one I have every caught in a lifetime fishing the reef is a Coronation, or “lunar Tail” Trout. Only a little tacker but the tail is the giveaway. A stunning looking fish but will never replace my favourite footballer. Sorry JT. You are number 2, and if we win Origin on Wednesday, who knows.

In Search of Perfection (Fish & Chips)

There are dishes that we eat, things that are life’s staples that are so often cooked and served poorly. An overdone steak, soggy pizza, lumpy mashed potatoes and limp chips. We all know what they are supposed to be like but often what seem really simple dishes actually take a bit of time to get right. What makes a perfect steak? A brilliant Pizza, and, in my case, what makes the perfect Fish & Chips?

Breaking it down there are really 3 elements. The fresh fish in crunchy light batter, boneless, delicious and flaky inside. The chips. Maybe the hardest thing to get right. Golden and crunchy on the outside. Light fluffy on the inside with the tang of sea salt and maybe a splash of vinegar. Then there is the tartare sauce. Always so much better made from scratch, not from a super market bottle.

There will be quite a few photos attached to this post. A quest for the perfect fish and chips.

Let’s start with a few hours on the water in the bay at this time of year when it is flathead time. Plenty around and a couple of hours flicking soft plastic lures in the shallows rewarded me with 4 lovely fish and this humble but often underrated species is as good as it gets for a battered fish and chip lunch.

Filleted, skinned, deboned and dusted with flour. Tick. Job 1 done.

The chips. Big waxy potatoes, cut to uniform size and triple cooked. First in a steamer for about 8 minutes till they soften. Drain and refrigerate. 2nd cook in fresh oil at 160 degrees for about 4 to 5 minutes till the chips just start to colour. Again set aside to cool, and then, just after the fish itself is cooked, back into 180 degree oil till golden and crunchy. I know this sounds like a lot of messing around just for the humble chip, but, trust me, it is worth it.

The batter. First rule, it has to be cold, really cold. Make it and set it aside in the fridge (or even the freezer) for 20 minutes or so. A lot of chefs use just beer as the batter liquid but I find it has too much sugar and colour and it goes dark brown, often before the fish is cooked. I like to use 50/50 beer and ice cold water and whisk in enough flour to make a batter about the consistency of thickened cream. It has to be set aside to rest. If you use it straight away it will be “fluffy” and full of bubbles when cooked.

On to the sauce (getting hungry yet?). 2 egg yolks, whisked while slowly adding light oil. I like peanut oil. Not strongly flavoured oils such as olive oil. Whisk in about a cup of oil till a thick mayonnaise has formed. Add the fine vest of a lemon, juice of 1 medium lemon, equal parts finely diced dill pickles/gherkins and capers (2 gherkins and about a large tablespoon of capers), a grind of black pepper and done. It should not need salt as this comes from the capers but add if needed to taste.

We are almost done. Dust the flathead fillets in flour, drape through the cold batter, letting the excess drain a little and slide into oil at about 160/170 degrees till golden brown. Turn up the heat on you fryer, smash the chips through for their third cook, crack a nice bottle of chardy and the perfect Fish & Chips is served. Enjoy!

Life (and fishing) after Debbie

Happy to report the reef fish are still abundant and just as delicious after cyclone Debbie. Even in fairly rough conditions our local commercial fisherman have been to sea over the last week and are supplying great quality Red Throat Emperor, Coral Trout, Nannygai and all the usual reef “suspects”. I even had my first day off since the cyclone yesterday and popped out on the water for a little look (and a quick fish). The area looks a bit like a beautiful girl after a big night out. Lippy a little smudged, mascara running a bit and a bit dishevelled, but still, a beautiful girl (or hunky guy to be non-sexist).

Plenty of good quality fish around including a cracking Blue Spot Coral Trout and a whopping big Flowery Cod which I released. There are nice to eat but better to let them swim away with plenty of more abundant species for the table to catch. This is about as big as I have ever seen a Flowery Cod and they are a strikingly beautifully patterned fish. Reports from the reef is that Red Throat are showing up in almost plague proportions and we will have these as a special in the restaurant over the weekend.

Speaking of this weekend our catering team is doing big things. The Mango Growers conference on Bowen with 240 delegates for 3 days and nights and the variety Club Jet Trek into Airlie Beach for another 250 hardy souls so we are doing 2 dinners and a lunch for them as well. Never a dull moment.

Pop in for some fresh RTE (Red Throat Emperor) or Coral Trout over the weekend. As fresh and can be and supporting, through us, another local small business operator.

Debbie does Airlie

I have not been blogging much of late, or fishing much either over a busy Christmas, Chinese New Year and end of busy season wind down. I have a few trips in the camera and had a few stories in the pipeline but everything has been overwhelmed by what happened on 27th March. A day now carved into Whitsunday history.

For anyone who wants to really know what it is like I am just posting 2 links. One is to a savage, emotional youtube video posted by a local and in the vain of a "picture tells a thousand words", nothing can compare. The other is a link to a fishing chat page is visit from time to time, where I fatefully decided to do a live blog on the experience of riding out a cyclone. It gets a bit raw as the penny drops that this was not just another cyclone. It was the 1 in 100 year monster nobody though would ever hit us.


Of Clouds and Silver Linings

While it is a great disappointment for all the visitors to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays to have a monsoonal low pressure system, virtually parked on top of us for the last few days, and seemingly intent on hanging around for a few more days yet, it does have a small silver lining. We have had very poor (or good if you are holidaying here) wet seasons as far back as cyclone Yasi in 2011. No rain means no barramundi, or at the very least, very poor spawning recruitments each season.

Every year, in November, December and January, the big Salt Water female Barramundi school in the mouths of local rivers waiting for the full moon. In our case the full moon is just a few days away. They need more than just the moon. Barramundi spawning is triggered by both the full moon and a flush of fresh water coming down the river. When the 2 collide it is a perfect breeding “storm” for the barramundi as the fry will make their way upstream, towards the smell and taste of the fresh water and make their way into the flood plain lagoons.

At the same time, fish which have for many years now, been trapped in the lagoons due to low water flows and no floods, will make their way down river into the salt water reaches of the river and out into the bay.

Every year the local commercial fleet waits for the flush of fresh to fire up the “Barra” and every year, as the season opens on February 1st for both recreational and commercial fishing it is a great disappointment if the barramundi have not spawned because there has been no decent rain.

Not this year. They will spawn next week, with plenty of water flowing down the rivers and off the flood plains. We will have a great year for Barramundi, a great year for local banana prawns and a great year for mud crabs, all because of the rain falling over the last week.

Bad news for the tourists, hard for those of us in business and reliant on tourism customers but, every cloud has a silver lining and in our case that will be the silver sides of great local salt water barramundi.

The rain will pass, the sun will shine again and cycle of wet seasons and dry seasons will continue for this area which is in what is known as the “dry tropics” and does not get the “set your clock” monsoons of areas further North.

When a read just a few weeks ago that the weather “experts” were predicting a dryer than normal wet season for North Queensland this year I warned our staff to get ready for a big wet.  Seems to me that the “experts” got just about everything else wrong in 2016 so why would this be any different.

The Bucket list

The movie “bucket list” has helped invent a term now used commonly in the modern vocabulary and helped crystallise future planning for many of us “baby boomers” and none more so than fisherman. Having fished (and cooked) a lifetime and nearing retirement there are “bucket list” experiences planned for the next few years, just as there have been bucket list experiences ticked off along the way. Things like jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane. I have always equated that experience to experiencing a serious cyclone up close. A little bit frightening, a little bit exciting, really glad to have done it, but never want to do it again. In the world of food my most vivid experiences over the last few years revolve around some of the great taste icons. Truffles, caviar, fresh Porcini mushrooms. 20 year old Grange Hermitage wine and Absinth and while some of these experiences have come with big price tags, some have been more modest and all of them underpinning just why these food icons have actually achieved their status in the food world.

On to the “real deal”, the fishing, or more specifically the fish I have on my bucket list, I have been lucky enough after a lifetime of angling to catch most of the amazing species of fish we have in Australia but have a few to go with one fish at the top of the totem pole. Still on my bucket list are dog tooth tuna, a brown trout on fly, a permit and a King George whiting  but my all-time number 1 is (or should I now say was) a Bonefish. Not a fish for the pan this iconic sportfish is the number 1 fly fishing target almost the world over. An inhabitant of sand cays and reef flats it is a fish pursued almost exclusively with a fly rod and a fish which has spawned entire tourism industries in places like Artutaki Lagoon in the Cook Islands and Kiribati in the pacific. Fly fishers travel from all over the world, just to chase “Bones”. A few weeks ago, in pursuit of my own bucket list dreams I booked 6 days at Kiribati on a bone fishing holiday, finally ready to join this club. They are present in the Whitsundays but a fish of rumour, legend and no specific pattern and my times trying to find them have never even resulted in me seeing one. I have only ever seen one dead one in the flesh, caught on a hand line, baited with a piece of kabana, off the back of a yacht moored on Whitehaven beach.

As you will have now guessed I have lost my “Bonefish Cherry” but in the most remarkable circumstances and deep down feel a little cheated by the experience. A fish of the shallow sand flats, hunted with stealth and some level of fly fishing skill, requiring tiny shrimp and crab fly’s to compensate for their tiny mouths my “Bone” was just bizarre. It came at 2am in the morning, in 180 feet of water with a 10/0 (read LARGE) hook and ½ a big squid for bait. Caught with a 6 ounce snapper lead, 60 lb trace and 80 lb braid on a heavy reef fishing rod.

My wife tells me I now don’t have to do to Kiribati, I have caught my Bonefish. Nope, I was cheated. Like winning lotto the day before you fall off the perch. To see this ball of amazing sleek muscle, up close and personal, to marvel at the sheer strength and density of the fish, like holding a lump of hardwood timber, has only made me keener to catch one “properly”. Maybe. With some luck I can even try some Coconut Crab on the way through Fiji and tick off a foods bucket list on the way.

I am going in July and will do a blog post on the fishing, the food and the culture of Kiribati and Fiji along the way.

Its beginning to feel a lot like Christmas (for seafood lovers)

I love this time of year. Calm seas, the build-up, northerly winds in the afternoon. The humidity rising and the fishing usually red hot, and often red fish. It has been a busy old time of late, monster functions, busy planning for Christmas, the music festival, the celebrity chefs dinner, just so much going on I have had not much time for blog writing and not even much time for fishing but it is always the same this time of year. A great challenge is also securing supply of seafood and as our relationship with our fisherman has grown I am getting first crack at more and more of the locally caught product. We pay top dollar, same day and really respect the product we get and try to showcase it in the restaurant every night. The Mud Crabs are back from the annual spawning run where they disappear to sea for about 3 months, beautiful Coral Trout, Red Emperor and plate size whole local snapper are all in good supply. This morning I even picked up an amazing Dog Tooth Tuna. I have written about these fish before, pale, almost white fleshed they are, in my view, the absolute king of local tuna and served seared and sliced rare are just , well, amazing.

I am trying to cram as much into this blog post as I can to relive the month that was since my last post. I will put the photos in order.

1. A huge event at Whitehaven Beach. Lunch under canvass for 240 guests. A few shots.

2. My contribution to the chefs dinner at Lure cooking with Qld Chef of the Year Ben Williams from Gerard’s Bistro (and taking my girls to his venue next Monday night). Roasted red skinned Coral Trout in Ginger and lemon Myrtle Consommé w/ Green Mango and Pawpaw salad.. I thought Ben’s steak dish was the star of the show but pretty happy to be in good company. The photos were taken by my Business Partner Bec who as well as being a great chef in her own right, has an amazing eye for food photography.

3. Red Snapper for crispy whole fish. All about bright eyes and fresh, fresh, fresh.

4. Coral Trout picked up this morning, plus a cracking shot of one a mate caught last time I went to the reef. For the sensitive readers the little trickle of blood on this photo is from brain spiking. I will do a blog post about it soon as, while it looks a bit gruesome, it is both humane and radically improves the quality of the fish on the plate.

5. Red Emperor. Just about my number 1.

6. Who let the dogs out? One of our great Chefs Dan with a big “Doggie”

7. The boys are back in town. Chilli Crabs and Balmy nights. I love summertime.

Cooking with the stars

The upcoming Celebrity Chef dinner at Lure is a great chance to marry the talents of some our countries great chefs with the produce our region is justifiably famous for and I have had a great time this morning scouting for some bits and pieces for what I expect to be the food and wine event of the year. A drive down to Conway Beach to some of the local hobby farms and boutique growers is a great experience for both locals and visiting foodies. The large paddock on the left, just past Salt Water Creek bridge that looks a bit like a tea plantation is actually Lemon Myrtle and this will be one of the aromats I use in the poaching stock, along with some Bowen grown Ginger , Garlic & Chilli’s for my Coral Trout dish. Speaking of which, our principle commercial reef fisherman Trevor Draper is heading to sea this weekend on the promise of good tides and calm seas and we should have ample supply of this wonderful fish, both for the event and the restaurant. It is abundant at this time of the year and even I managed to catch a couple, including one of the best I have caught in years a few weekends ago (brag photo included).

Green mangos are also heavy on the trees which will be the basis of a green mango and pawpaw salad being served with the Coral trout. We have some amazing U 6 Banana Prawns from Bowen, arguably the biggest this particular species grows to and they are a delicious sweet prawns but not as colourful as the more visually appealing tiger prawns. In my view however they are a much nicer prawn to eat and will form part of course 1, accompanied with some braised sticky pork belly.

Chloe Bowles, one of this year’s Master Chef Stars and an acknowledged “dessert queen” will be making a wonderful Lychee based dessert and I visited the Conway Beach lychee farm to check on progress. We may be a week or 2 too soon for local lychees but still great to see a heavy crop of fruit hanging from these trees with the promise of plenty of locally grown fruit for the Christmas feasts.

Ben Williamson from Gerard’s Bistro is also planning some stunning dishes and without giving the game away, keep an eye on the Lure Facebook page to see what he has in store and book a ticket. At $120 including a 7 course meal with 6 wines and a cocktail this is going to be an amazing dining experience with plenty of interaction, some tips and the showcasing of just how far our regions food culture has developed. I'm getting excited and hoping to see you on the night.

The Many Faces of Coral Trout

Wonderful Spring weather has blessed the Whitsundays over recent weeks with mainly clear skies and calm seas. As well as a great time to holiday in the region it is also a great time for fishermen with an abundance of all the prized reef fish available. The undisputed king of all being the highly acclaimed Coral trout, in all its many guises. I visited Whitsunday Seafood’s in Carlo Drive this morning, just as they starting to process the days catch. Destined for the resorts and restaurants of the area they also have  retail outlets, both at the factory front in Carlo Drive and at Abel Point Marina and are soon to open a “Fish & Chippy” at Port of Airlie next to Denman’s Cellars. We have been buying of Matt, Murry and the crew for a couple of years now and are delighted to have formed a close relationship with these passionate suppliers. All about providence and locavore supply. There are many varieties of Coral trout, in fact 7 clearly distinct varieties, all identical on the plate but vastly different in pattern and colouration, all the way from deep vivid red, through the oranges, browns, greens and blacks to the more outlandish footballer, passionfruit and leopard trout. Leopards are the rarest and I have only ever seen 2 in all the years dealing with these fish but to help you understand some of the many faces of our wonderful trout I have posted some photos and details. A bit like fingerprints every spot pattern, even within the sub species of trout if different on every fish.

1. Head shot of a common coral trout called a “strawberry trout”, caught usually in deep water.

2. Same shot of a common coral trout called a “black”, usually caught in shallow water but less “common”.

3. 3 different coloured “commons”. Strawberry, Black and one a variation and just called a “Trout”. Again a shallow water (less the 15 meters) fish.

4. Face shot of a “footballer trout”, called so for reasons very obvious in the next photos. Also known as a “Collingwood”.

5. A whole “footballer”. These turn up anywhere but usually in the shallows. One train of thought is that “Footballers” turn into “blue spots” as they get bigger but this is clearly not the case when you can catch footballer’s bigger then blue spots.

6. Face shot of a “Blue Spot Trout”. Also called an “Oceanic”. Similar in its face to a common but with larger blue spots, much larger spots down its body.

7. Body shot of a Blue Spot.

8. Another Blue Spot but much darker fish.

9. Face shot of a “Bar Cheek”, or “Island trout”. As the name suggests these are caught around the islands but only seldom on the reef. The face patterns vary enormously but always large irregular shaped and bright fluorescent blue spots on its face and flanks and generally a pale burnt orange colour. 

10. A big Bar Cheek I caught last week. Look at the 2 very different "fingerprints" face patterns of this fish and the one above.

11. A multi coloured bin full at Whitsundays Seafood’s. Greenies, Stanberry, Pink, Footballer and a dark blue spot all clearly visible.

So that is just one part of the fabulous Coral trout story. The other part is best enjoyed “on the plate”, I just happen to know a seafood restaurant in Airlie Beach with an abundant supply right now!!

Dinner at the airport but not airline catering

The runway dinner for 190 guests on Saturday night was a stunning success of both logistics and content and reminds me of what a great team we have in our company. Within the space of the last plane landing on the runway we had just 2 hours to set up the marquees, tables, chairs and table settings, and, at the same time the cocktail bar and mobile kitchen and the first guests arrived at 6pm and dinner was served at 6.30. A six course table banquet. The food looked sensational but you will have to take my word for it because once the buttons was pressed I was too busy cooking, plating and bossing everyone around to take photos. It is a great thrill to have it all go so well and even nicer knowing we have a crew capable of doing these off-site events and willing to do the hard yards cleaning up after it is over. Not sure how this went because the clean-up team were on a day off today after no doubt working well into the early hours of Sunday morning and I am sure they saw the sun rise while still finishing off. Collectively the crew fed over 1500 guests on Saturday. 190 at the runway dinner, 80 at a wedding at Waterline, 400 in the restaurant and 900 with the cruise boats. That’s a lot of food, a lot of dishes to wash and I also know it is a lot of happy customers. I went home at about 10, and then got up at 2am and went to the reef fishing….just to make sure there was a bit of “bait” to go with this “plate”, and Coral Trout are “on the chew”.

Unreal Estate with an unreal kitchen

One of the great advantages of offering off-site catering is that every now and then I get to cook in some amazing places, and nowhere more amazing than tonight’s “gig”. This Tuesday night (Tomorrow) a TV show called “Unreal estate” will feature a house I cook in a bit for special occasions, as I did for the show, and as I did tonight for some guests at “Mandalay House”. This is simply the best kitchen I have ever cooked in in a private house or superyacht. 2 ovens, separate steamer, 3 dishwashers, built in coffee machine as well as a wood fire pizza oven and BBQ on the balcony, the kitchen even has a walk in cold room and freezer, a butler’s pantry, a poolside bar, and spectacular formal as well as poolside dining areas. The kitchen has an enormous marble island bench that is a stunning and functional centrepiece, push button draws, induction and gas hobs and every bit of high end kitchen toys and cookware. I am going back Thursday to cook pizzas and next week to do a formal dinner in the wine cellar dining area. It is just an amazing house and one I feel quiet privileged to get to cook in. A great kitchen and great equipment help inspire great food. I will post some more shots later in the week but watch the TV show tomorrow night as I am sure it will do far more justice to the whole house than my “box brownie” photos.

Fish & Chip pizza. Is this the first ever?

I have been doing lots of fishing centric blog posts lately, so maybe time for one more about the end game. Sunday lunch is usually an “at home affair” and today was unexceptional, except the outcome. “What do you feel like for lunch honey”, was the question, answered with, “I’m not sure, pizza or fish and chips”. I am a big fan of homemade pizza and also love a good fish and chip meal, so I set out, on a whim, to do both…on the same plate. A “fish & chip pizza”. Has this ever been done? Not much in the world of cookery is unique, Someone, somewhere has done it before but if it was not unique, it was certainly “different” and the result….outstanding. I am sitting at my computer with a glass of Rose and can still taste the favours. Ingredients were simple, Flour, water, yeast and make a bread dough. Potatoes, some of that amazing big coral tout I caught yesterday. Some olive oil, rosemary from the balcony garden, some salt and pepper and I had “fish & chip pizza. The pictures will outlay the process but make a pizza base, drizzle with olive oil, layer with pre-cooked wafer thin potato (get yourself one of these  mandolins…gold),drain and pat dry potatoes after cooking, then then they are layered over the pizza with a little olive oil,  arrange a few thin sheets of fresh coral trout (other good white fish will do if you must). Some rosemary, cracked pepper, good flaked sea salt (like Maldons), another drizzle of oli and then let a smoking hot pizza stone and good BBQ do the rest. I love throwing a few rosemary stalks on the BBQ to create some smoke and a nice “wood fired” flavour to any pizza. This was not only easy but an absolute taste sensation and I am hard pressed as to remembering the last time I enjoyed a better Sunday lunch (& I’ve had a few). I have included an instructional “how to” if you want to have a go. The last 2 photos have little to do with the food. One was a matter of inspiration and other was “ Mo” saying , “where’s mine”. Try this. You will love it and it will never be on the menu at work.