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Fish and chips

Meet the Owners: the Golden Fish Bar

Run by John Ruocco, the Golden Fish Bar is a traditional fish and chip shop and restaurant on Farringdon Road in central London. The premises has been a family-run fish and chip shop for around 150 years – before that it was a chemists. Originally from Ravello in Italy, the Ruocco family have been in the fish and chip trade since John's parents bought the shop as a going concern in 1970. John fried his first bit of fish in the shop's range when he was 12.

The Golden Fish Bar, Farringdon Road, London
The Golden Fish Bar, Farringdon Road, London
© Cognitive Applications/Ally Ireson
Let's start with the fish – which varieties do you serve and where does it come from?

We've got a pretty varied menu for a fish and chip shop: cod, rock, plaice, haddock, skate, scampi, halibut and fresh roe during the roe season. I've also begun to try doing different fish – salmon is starting to go well. It all comes from Billingsgate [London's wholesale fish market]. Some comes in fillets but I buy large cod and cut them myself. I must get through 100 portions of fish a day, easy.

Is cod still the most popular fish to have with chips?

Yes, by far. Cod is maybe around 80% of what we do. I don't know if cod's nicer, it's just easy. People will decide – you can't make up their mind for them. But we do try and encourage them to try other stuff.

What goes into your batter?

There's no secret to it, it's just normal batter mix – there's different types, you choose the one you prefer: light, golden or dark. You just mix it with water, whisk it up and it's ready. It's just flour, there's no egg in it – just a few raising agents.

How does the fish get cooked?

All the fish gets dipped in the same batter – there's no special technique: just dip and go. Denser fish like salmon and halibut takes longer, about ten minutes; plaice, cod and haddock are all quick: five minutes.

Which potatoes do you use for chips?

Maris Pipers. Most people use them – they're good frying potatoes. I know they're English but I'm not sure exactly where they come from – I get mine from a bloke at Billingsgate. As long as they're nice potatoes and I don't have to send them back, I'm happy. We go through about 30 25kg sacks a week, but in the middle of winter it might even reach a ton.

How are the chips prepared?

The Golden Fish Bar, Farringdon Road, London
Making chips at the Golden Fish Bar
© Cognitive Applications/Ally Ireson
We use a straight backwards and forwards slicing machine – that gives you straight chips rather than the ones that are slightly rounded. The machine knocks out standard-size chips. If I had the option I'd go for a thicker chip because it means less fat. We also have a peeling machine. Its inside is like rough sandpaper – it spins the potatoes round and rubs their skin off. If you keep them in too long, nothing comes out. I think in the old days they used to do it by just putting potatoes and bricks in a bath tub and stirring them round.

How long does a chip take to cook?

I guess about five minutes. Depends how many you cook: the more you cook, the longer it's going to take. Refrying is totally out or order. A lot of people blanche their potatoes – half cook them. Then when they get busy they give them a second cook. I'm not saying I wouldn't do that, but I don't need to. I can cope by cooking chips once and cooking them well. That the best way: cooked once, fresh.

What oil do you use to fry them and the chips?

It's heated to about 320º [160ºC] – at 350 it starts to smoke. That's for groundnut oil; if you were using vegetable oil, the temperature would be slightly higher. We've always used groundnut. It lasts longer and gives you better results throughout. The only time we used vegetable oil was back during the lorry drivers' strike [in 1978–79] – you couldn't get hold of anything then.

How often does the oil get changed?

My range holds 40 litres. You can top up the oil on a regular basis and it'll stay fresh. I do mine every day. But you've got to make sure you don't burn your oil – if you burn anything in there, you have to start afresh. It's all about controlling your temperatures and not putting anything silly in there – no Mars bars or pizzas.

What's your busiest time of the day and week?

It peaks about one o'clock. And the busiest day is still Friday – fish on Friday, has to be. People are brought up that way.

Do you enjoy the work?

It's a job like any other but you have to enjoy it to do it. I've always been proud of the fact I can do it and do it well. I always thought it was a challenge to get the nicest bit of fish out of the pan.

What do think the future is for the fish and chips trade?

I think the future's bleak. The old traditional family businesses, they're dying out. Fish and chip shops aren't opening – they're closing, especially in London. Fish and chips was cheap man's food but if you look at the price of fish nowadays it really is the top end of the market. Fish will cost you more than meat now. Your fish and chip restaurant may survive but for a fish and chip shop, it's hard going.

Finally – pickled eggs. How often does the jar get opened?

Come in when you're drunk on a Friday night, you'll buy a pickled egg. People bet each other they can't eat one. The eggs would probably keep forever, but I get through about a jar a week.