IN PURSUIT OF THE PERFECT CHIP

By delivering restaurant-quality food at takeaway speed and prices, Northcote’s Sweet Salt is reimagining what a fish and chip shop can be.

By Peter Roper. Photography by Peter Tarasiuk and Vikk Shayen

The dream of an upmarket fish and chip shop had been bobbing around in the back of Lou Rossi’s mind for a decade, so when business partner Andrew Panayi brought up the idea of getting into a small-scale hospitality business, he floated the idea.

From that moment, to the opening of Sweet Salt in May 2015, a tremendous amount of development went into bringing the business to life – a business dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what fish and chips can be and treating food with the utmost respect.


CHASING THE DREAM

Rossi’s dream was to take the normal fish and chip to the next level. One where diners can come in, sit down to eat in a space with ambience, and even have a beer. It’s a Melbourne-made take on the ‘fast casual’ category pioneered by the likes of burger chain Grill’d.

To fulfil the vision, he and Panayi recruited their dream team: Adrian Malarbi in brand and marketing, Frank Sculli as chef and Robert Bolitho for the interior/venue design.

“It’s a little bit of a strange one, but it’s where the market is heading,” Rossi says. “As a fish and chip shop, people still expect it to be the normal routine, but it’s not. We need to reach out and let people know that we’re not normal.”

Malarbi, who’s responsible for the brand and marketing aspects of the business, says the location was chosen carefully. “We started off by looking at the demographic of the people here, and what would appeal to them. You’ve also got to look at the price point, what people will spend, create the menu based on that, then work from there.”

It’s common knowledge that Melburnians are very attuned to good food. “They know what a good chip is,” says Malarbi. “But then there are other people who are still coming off the frozen era of fish and chips, so that’s why we have to create a communication piece to say, ‘This is what we’re about, this is what we do’.”

A couple of slick YouTube videos illustrate the brand’s style and its take on food. “Once you empower people and educate them, they start knowing and relating to what you stand for, what you do and how you do it,” Malarbi says.

“It’s really just about pushing out the message about what these guys do and letting it grow.

“What we’ve done is provide restaurant-quality techniques and food in a takeaway-paced environment,” says Malarbi.

“The way the fish is cooked... I’ve been to restaurants that don’t do it that well.”


RESPECT THE FOOD

Supporting local suppliers, sustainability and the modern diet are important to the team at Sweet Salt.

“This is what Sweet Salt is about,” Malarbi says. “We’re trying to link up with a community of local suppliers, by not buying everything from overseas, avoiding unethically caught meat, and buying potatoes directly from Victorian growers.”

All produce used is fresh, not frozen, and all the products are made on premises by hand – the chips, the potato cakes, blue swimmer crab dim sims, ‘chick ’oh! rolls’, barramundi and prawn spring rolls, fish sticks...

It’s all delicious and, remarkably, most menu items are gluten-free.

“Four of the five fryers are dedicated to gluten- free,” Sculli says. “One’s for things we haven’t been able to make gluten-free yet – doesn’t mean we’re not going to, we’re still working on it.

“Some people haven’t had a potato cake in 15 years because they can’t get gluten-free ones. They come here and sit in the corner and just melt.”

To achieve gluten-free food that tastes great, Sculli agonised over the batters at Sweet Salt.


“We source all the flour from one of our local mills here in Melbourne, which spent eight years refining this gluten-free flour so that it actually holds up.”

The dedication to food is most evident in the team’s effort to perfect the chips. The temperature, for example, affects the levels of sugar and starch, which means they cook in different ways, taste different and burn differently. Months of development went into getting the chips exactly right.

Around 12 hours of work goes into producing each 200-kilogram batch. The most advanced piece of equipment is a hand-cranked chipper.

Every single chip that comes out of the fryer – or oven, if you like your chips baked – has been touched by hand before making it to the mouths of hungry diners.

But the menu is not just traditional fish and chips perfected. There are steamed buns with deep-fried soft shell crab, a slice of apple, pickled paw paw and green apple mayo. And a fish finger sandwich made with panko- crumbed rockling.

For those eating in a group, there’s fried school prawns or salted cod balls. For dessert, there is taiyaki ice cream – ice cream sandwiched between two fish-shaped wafers.

Sculli’s already working on the next menu. “We know how the kitchen works, we know what products have worked, we know what people like. It’ll always evolve.”


THE PLACE

The layout of fish and chip shops is typically as traditional as the food. The challenge for designer Rob Bolitho was to respect the tradition, but update it for a new era. “I had to break away from the traditional, but keep some of the aspects so that people still understood what to expect and what to do,” he says.

Bolitho also had to create a layout that worked for people who want to sit down and enjoy the experience and those who just want takeaway.

“The layout we’ve got has different sections, has more seats, to get people to come in and have that communal seating. These are all modern techniques that are trying to take something that’s very traditional and bringing it into now, to relate to people and how they eat.”

As in the chip shops of old, the Sweet Salt team took inspiration from the sea, but in a more subtle way. Coral reds feature, referencing the colour inside a fish when it’s sliced open. Little things, like patterns on the wall that subconsciously hint at caviar and calamari, create a little marine ecosystem, without it being in your face and tacky. Concrete stools, made by Bolitho, bring a touch of the wharf to Northcote.

“We still wanted to connect with the old world,” Bolitho says. “It wasn’t a matter of completely dismantling it and saying it’s not relevant. It’s still a good model; we’ve just got to make it connect better with people today.

“You do that with food, and you do that with the venue. It needs to connect without rubbishing where it came from.”


THE ROAD AHEAD

When designer and chef are perfectly in sync, you get a result like Sweet Salt.

Up ahead, says Rossi, is open water. Or, rather, the open road. “The next thing is to set up a food van so that it can work for marketing and also to get it out to the festivals.”

Trentham Spudfest, for example, which is a potato festival that attracts thousands of people.

“There’s a market,” Rossi says. “It’s about getting people to try it and letting them know where to come back to.”

To find out how Bank of Melbourne can help with your hospitality project, contact Dean Cleary, Relationship Director, Hospitality and Leisure on 0413 875 241.