Stephen Hodges is the quintessential chef’s chef.
Pull up a pew at his quaint and frenetic restaurant Fish Face on any given Sunday eve and you can guarantee more than half the room will be filled with Sydney’s best chefs, all worshipping at the altar of this boisterous and affable seafood savant.
“Hodgo – he looks like the devil but cooks like an angel,” a prominent hatted chef quips.
Few, if any chefs know more about seafood, it’s culinary capabilities and the application of such than Hodges.
He is a once-in-a-lifetime chef. A chef with that special touch of balance, harmony and technique many could only dream of possessing. It’s not learnt, it’s almost an innate sixth sense.
Give the man a fish and he’ll tell you what it will taste like, the precise time it had its brain spiked and he may even tell you it’s mothers name too.
The Stephen Hodges we see today is refreshingly raw. An emphatically happy soul that is as passionate and enthusiastic about seafood as ever but the lines on his 49-year-old face tell the tale of a dark past where the demons of drugs and alcohol threatened to capture his somewhat tortured soul.
During October 2010, heated words over noise complaints with a resident living above Fish Face led to an altercation and an assault charge levelled against Hodges for what he describes as a moment when he had a ‘melt down’ and ‘pushed the guy’.
But this minor incident was really the tip of the iceberg. Greater issues were simmering away beneath the surface and Hodges was spinning out of control. His dependency on drugs and alcohol were taking its toll on his ability to get through a working day without it.
“I thought, f#%k what is this? I was so scared that I couldn’t do what I do without drugs or alcohol,” says Hodges, ”You get to the situation that you don’t think you can come to work unless you are f#%ked up.”
He was drunk before 7pm ‘most nights’ and one evening, not long after the ‘melt down’, he was so high he fell off the end of the bar in front of guests.
It became the catalyst to seek outside help.
He checked himself into The Sydney Clinic, a private psychiatric hospital for 31 days of rehab.
“Basically I went in there for drug and alcohol abuse,” says Hodges frankly.
“For years and years it was a recreational thing [for me], and then I started drinking a lot more as well. The last two years before I went into the clinic, I was drinking nearly two bottles of vodka a day.”
Add to this Hodges' consumption of what he describes as ‘a lot’ of cocaine and it’s hard to fathom how Hodges functioned, let alone handle the heat of the kitchen and run his own business.
“I put myself there, I didn’t get sent there.” Hodges clarifies on entering rehab, “I realised I had to check myself in because if I had any time off, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Hodges credits the 31 days in the clinic coupled with a further six months as an outpatient as something that most probably saved his life.
“Now it’s nice that I can say I don’t take drugs or alcohol at work anymore. At all,” he emphasises.
“To be able to walk away now (after work), I’m just tired – that’s all.
He describes his days in rehab as ‘blunt’, ‘in your face’ and a ‘harsh reality check’.
“I had some explosive days with the psychiatrist where I was frightened of the guy. First time ever in my life, because he’d just say to me these are the facts, get over it, face up to it.”
Now he is clean, has all his senses, the hard grind and grim reality of restaurateuring is hitting home - something he was oblivious to while intoxicated.
“It’s probably a little bit more emotionally draining now – the reality of it all [restaurateuring],” he laughs.
“It’s a grinding gig, margins are thinner and thinner and thinner. This is my 35th year in the industry and I probably make less money than I have ever made in my life.”
Interestingly Fish Face has rarely, if ever, been busier, thanks in part to the nature of the business.
“We are one of those restaurants that have a big following of people that come back every week, and even now we have regulars that go out and try new restaurants, and they always come back.”
Ask anyone who knows the man and they’ll tell you of his generous, cheeky but ultimately loving nature, but Hodges retains somewhat of an angry, ‘bad boy’ persona in the eyes of much of the press.
In fact in the early days when Hodges was working with Greg Doyle at Pier Restaurant there was a perception the pair were very anti-media, but as Hodges explains that wasn’t the case at all.
“It wasn’t that we were anti-media, but still to this day I am very careful about the fact you don’t want to be seen to be giving them [the media] anything.
“I don’t want to go to lunch with [the media], and it’s not that you’re brushing them off. But people perceive things like ‘oh well you’ve got one hat, what did you sleep with the guy?’ You know what I mean?”
He concedes a lack of maturity in those early days by keeping the media at arms length inadvertently sent the wrong message.
“I’ve always stuck on the ideal that cream always rises to the top,” he says of accolades and press.
And in the instance of Hodges, it certainly has.
After 12 years working with business partner Greg Doyle at Pier restaurant in Rose Bay (where the pair received a string of accolades including two coveted chefs hats) Hodges branched out on his own and opened Fish Face in 2003 – a casual dining space where all the attention was on the fish on the plate rather than who is in the room.
It’s held one chef hat for the majority of its existence and in 2011 was awarded the SMH Good Food Guide Best Seafood Restaurant.
“How lucky have I been with fish?” Hodges says, as if he’s somehow accidentally stumbled onto being the best fish cook in the country.
“[John] Susman highlighted [how good our seafood is] for everyone in the late ‘80s with the Flying Squid Brothers.
“I got deep into fish when I was introduced to Jolly Roger Exports and I started buying Australian fish through the export after realising we were losing all our best fish [overseas]."
He believed the only way he could get the best seafood was to pay extra money to have it pulled off the line before it ‘hit the plane’ to go overseas.
“The best seafood is going overseas. It is very hard to find it at the markets, it is there, but in very small quantities, but you can find it.”
At Fish Face all the fish come in whole, in coffins covered up, at the optimum of 0-2 degrees Celsius.
All fish are processed on premises. The fish are scaled, gutted and wiped clean – never using water.
“We use no water at all. We use a fresh Chux to wipe it out, that’s it. Water temperature coming out of the tap is 14-18 degrees and it’s too high.
“Fish is sky rocketing at 13 degrees. If you buy a fish that has been exposed to that you essentially need to eat it as you’re walking out the door,” he says.
“If you leave that in the fridge until the next day you are dicing with something that you shouldn’t be dicing with.”
Contrary to some practises, Hodges prefers to leave the head on the fish because he believes there should never be any exposed flesh.
“If you buy a fish with it’s head cut off, it’s been sitting in swill, it’s got bacteria on it, you can tell straight away.
“If you then put that into your best environment, a static fridge, you are still going to spread bacteria really fast. So if you are cutting heads off you have to clean out the fridge basically every day.”
Fish Face has a kitchen and coolroom downstairs specifically designed for the prepping and storing of whole fish. The fridges are static, read no air – to prevent the spread of bacteria. Essentially if you put fish in a refrigeration system that has got air, you’ll dry the fish out and aid the spread of bacteria.
“The easiest way to explain it is that at the back of your fridge at home you have a copper coil, that’s all we rely on and we run that copper coil all the way around the fridge and is set at 0-1 degrees,” he says.
At 0-1 degrees there will be ice build up, but it will not freeze the fish. Meanwhile the static constant temperature ensures the longest shelf life.
Hodges believes any chef worth their weight in caviar will scale, gut and fillet for service everyday. He adds that leaving the skin on is imperative.
“All the flavour and nutrients are in the skin. You wouldn’t cut the fat cap off a steak before cooking it would you?!” he exclaims.
There are simple principles to his cooking too – ‘seafood, vegetable, salt’ is a mantra he lives by but so too is cooking on the skin, not the flesh.
Each fish is cooked skin down, a heavy weight pressed on top which creates a vacuum underneath to ensure a crisp skin but a slow enough cooking process to ensure the protein relaxes and cooks.
“The easiest way to describe it is to compare it to egg white. If we fry an egg white, the texture and the flavour is just completely different to poaching it.
“So by cooking on the skin, creating a vacuum and setting your protein, you are going to have a sweeter and more distinct flavour and it isn’t going to have that course texture.”
His dedication and approach to seafood, coupled with a firm belief in offering casual environs means Hodges runs that fine line of profitability like practically every other operator across the country.
“When you cut to the chase of it, [with] a serious restaurant, particularly if they have good seafood, you are looking at 35 per cent plus on food costs.
“I don’t care what anyone says. You’re dreaming if you think you can do better, and if you are doing better then you are buying garbage, basically.”
Hodges then explains once you add wage costs which are perpetually ‘sky rocketing’ then you are constantly under immense pressure to turn a profit.
“We only seat 30 people and have nine staff. You could have a 120-seater restaurant that has 15 staff.
“We have a higher ratio of staff per customer, but the advantage we have is that we can turn [the tables] over. We had weeks in March where all we did was pay wages, and only just paid that. I’m not complaining about it, because at the end of the day it’s a challenge and a bit of excitement. I love it.”
With many restaurants going under during 2012 already Hodges firmly believes the only way Fish Face has traded through tougher times is that he has no debt - something of a rarity in the industry.
“I paid all the debt off, otherwise we’d be in the same boat as everyone else. We had a huge tax bill, a huge super bill, I sold an apartment to get rid of it all.
“[But] If you are confident enough in what you are doing it’s all going to come back,” he says.
That’s the difference between Hodges and many of his peers. He is unrelenting in his pursuit of the most delicious and distinct dishes from the deep blue. All his energy goes into ensuring consumers experience the best fish, prepared at its optimum in an environment free of fine dining pretentiousness.
Being the successful lone wolf fuels his engine more than any egotistical notions of celebrity. He simply goes about his business and backs those employees that come along for the ride.
“I really enjoy that we are sort of out there on our own a bit,” he says, “No one would go out there and spend what we spend on seafood and seriously think that it’s worthwhile. Most three-hat restaurants won’t buy the fish we are buying.”
Think Bar Cod, Blue Eye Trevalla and Mahi Mahi.
For Hodges, the success of his tiny Darlinghurst eatery comes down to one simple premise.
“It’s pretty damn tough to get a good piece of fish anywhere. I honestly believe that.”
“Fish Face is just about a good piece of fish,” he says with a smile. “That’s it.”
It sounds so simple, but for those that have been touched by the angel of seafood, they know it is oh so much more than just a good piece of fish.