Fresh take on kings

“Straight From The Sauce” is a series of articles, and soon-to-be podcast, that has hand-selected some of Australia’s best restaurateurs and chefs who love fishing – just like us. The goal is for our guests to take us out to wet a line in their local waterways and then take a feed to their restaurant to cook up. We learn their processes from the ocean to the kitchen, picking their brains for ideas on how your everyday punter can reproduce restaurant-quality meals at home.

Mark Labrooy is one of the original co-owners of “The 3 Blue Ducks”. His ideologies and passions are reflected in the ever-changing menu at the restaurant he manages in the Sydney suburb of Rosebery. I was lucky enough to spend a few days with him getting an insight into his world, and we had an absolute ball.

Mark Labrooy – 3 Blue Ducks

My first introduction to Mark is the afternoon before we intend to head out to his local for a fish. The garage roller door came up unveiling a cheeky smile and a seriously well-equipped man cave, with a purpose. It is toys galore in an organised mess of hunting and fishing equipment that he is super proud of. The idea is that he can provide organic, wild and fresh produce for his family year-round. To Mark, knowing exactly where his nutrients have come from is worth the extra effort.

Mark’s journey has him transfixed on how he can minimise his footprint on the earth. He has moved to become a picture of the modern-day hunter-gatherer. Someone who understands and appreciates the value in ethically sourced nutrients prepared using thoughtful techniques to minimise waste. The best way to get your protein is by putting the energy needed to source it from the wild, on land or by sea. Persevering and earning your food naturally by collecting it is not just satisfying to eat, it is healthier and better for the environment. Relying less and less on farmed products reduces the risk of crossing paths with protein that has been raised on grain that has also been farmed, sprayed and potentially genetically modified.

Serving seasonal produce to his family has some major challenges. Adapting to learn a variety of fishing, foraging and hunting techniques to be able to access the nutrients that nature has made available. He relies on his experience in bow hunting, spearfishing and bush tucker to get the job done.

It is April, Mark recounts stories from hunting the rutting season for invasive red deer. He always packs his waders and fly rod to cast at some trout if the opportunity arises. And why not pull over to collect some pine mushrooms to top it all off? Mark seems to be connected with these cycles and at home in the outdoors. He enjoys the highs and appreciates the lows by keeping things fun and light-hearted which gives his lifestyle so much more longevity. Loving what you do.

As he shows me around his most prized possessions we pass a plethora of equipment that is all about maximising the quality of his quarry. A superior harvest is the target. A couple of head-high dry aging fridges are an essential piece of his arsenal. The left-hand fridge is loaded with fresh salamis, sausages and cuts of deer that are in the process of tenderising within the 70% humidity and 3 degree celsius controlled atmosphere. We plan to hang our fish in the fridge to the right, which is squeaky clean, this gets me excited to observe the difference in the texture and flavour of the meat. Now we need to tie some rigs and talk about some strategies so we can be best prepared for the following day’s session.


We are going to launch the boat from Port Botany. The plan is to catch some fresh squid and send them out on the downrigger. We prepared several twin hook live bait rigs to 80lb flurocarbon the day before. He only ever runs the one rod at this spot because with just the two of us fishing a double hookup may cause a calamity. The bait and visiting predators are held up along a ledge that runs parallel to the cliffs. It is easy enough to present a single bait to focus our efforts. Running one rod reassures me that he is confident and has a solid understanding of the feeding habits of the local Kingfish. There have been plenty of smaller models around with the benchmark being 1m in length. Plus Mark is wearing his trusty kingfish cap, surely…

The boat has an inbuilt ice box loaded with YETI blocks to keep his catch cold. With the legal size of kingfish being 65cm it only takes 1-2 fish to ensure that there is plenty of food to go around. Even though the bag limit of 5 could be a realistic goal, Mark isn’t out there to fill his freezer. Fresh is best. If we are unable to convert our live bait into some fresh kingfish, our plan is to eat our bait. At the end of the day we are out there to get a feed. He says he has a calamari dish that will make you think twice about using them as bait.

Launching the boat in the dark with the navigation lights looming we manoeuvre over to a large grass bed with scattered patches of kelp. The perfect spot to target calamari. The low tide change is set for sunrise and the conditions are silky smooth, the stars are aligning.

Initially, we anchor up. Mark flicks the switch to turn on his secret weapon, submerged green lights at the stern of the boat. Before long the light has attracted some squid that can be spotted hovering on the edge of darkness. We can also cast 360 degrees of the boat as we have positioned our anchor right in the thick of the squid grounds. We managed to start the session with some candy-sized calamari for a kingfish.

The sun cracks the horizon and we decide to change tactics as the green lights seem to have lost their charm. We start to drift along the grass bed. We cover more ground by casting forward in the direction of the drift of the boat, allowing the jigs to sink naturally. Mark loves a long gentle lift of his rod tip whereas I seem to lightly jerk the rod tip to mimic a prawn, both methods are working effectively. The commonality between our actions is that we are allowing the jigs plenty of time to sink. Squid will eat a presented jig on the drop so prolonging their opportunity to strike is key. We laugh about how forgetting about a rod in the holder is always a great way to catch them because less is best.

When we hook a squid that doesn’t seem to be too big. A fast wind of the rod gets them skiing on the surface which is an entertaining and successful way to drag them in. The larger squid may need more patience as some of their lunges require plenty of give in the rod tip to cushion their chances of escape.

Mark discloses how all the local “fishos” have been having a lot of success with white-coloured squid jigs that replicate the underbelly of baitfish. At this particular spot, at this time of year, he says that white is the only colour you really need. Right on cue, his rod starts bending and even a few clicks of drag peel off. The biggest for the morning is landed. We can’t count the amount of squid in the live bait tank with the ink discolouration of the water, we have ample. We spent a few patient hours focussing on bait collection, time to head out to see if we can fulfil our plan of downrigging a kingfish.

The downrigger is a very simple, effective and popular way of trolling live baits along the cliffs. Mark’s intimate knowledge of navigating his trolling line makes a big difference. He knows that the 2kg downrigger lead should be positioned around 12m deep. Which will keep the bait just below halfway of the 18-20m total water depth. Any deeper and we will miss the bait, any shallower we will risk losing the weight. Our live bait trails 10m behind the downrigger weight to avoid spooking the fish. The boat moves with the motor idling. Having a quality four-stroke engine that is nice and quiet gives Mark the upper hand.

The live bait is rigged with one hook through the top of the hood of the squid and the other is lightly positioned on the head. To avoid killing the squid the hook between the eyes is only pierced through the outer layer. If you aren’t confident with this technique the hook is best left to trail alongside. The pressure of the drag of the boat should make the second hook track tightly to the bait.

On the sounder, we can see a consistent line that indicates the depth of our downrigger weight. As soon as we hit the sweet spot on the ledge the sounder lights up a bait ball stacked midwater. The bait is spread out and there are no arches indicating kingfish corralling their prey. We aren’t too concerned but we are encouraged by the sighting of bait within the first few minutes of fishing. Sure enough, the rod goes off. The outfit is heavy and for a fish to pull any drag or have a solid bend in the rod it would have to be a substantially sized kingfish. We think this must be a legal-sized kingfish. Wrong. We both are gobsmacked when we see a solid snapper surface. A first for both of us, never part of the plan. A very welcome and rare bycatch.

When Mark lands a fish that he wants to keep he moves quickly to spike the head of the fish and kill it. He finds the brain spot by following the lateral line of the fish and the gill plate to where they would intersect. He then bleeds it by cutting through and removing the gills. The heart continues to pump for several minutes after being dispatched which facilitates the process. The fish goes straight on ice to lower the core temperature. The snapper swiftly follows this fate.

Within 15 minutes we had done several passes of the ledge. Sounding bait tightly stacked, inevitably started the countdown for an imminent kingfish strike. The first fish was just over legal size. Circling around and backtracking our GPS position to find the same readings. Mark is bent over on a bigger model. I drive the boat away from the ledge to reduce the risk of getting reefed. There is a fair bit of pressure on the rod, touch and go for the initial stages of the fight. The tug-o-war ends with an 80cm fish and cheers all round. Job done.

To ensure that the fish is looked after we head into the boat ramp. This decision could be the difference between superior sashimi grade kingfish or not. We want to get the fish gutted and in the dry ager as soon as possible.

The early mark gives the consolation prize of still having plenty of live squid to cook up. Mark karate chops the heads to quickly dispatch the squid. He knows that he has done it correctly when the squid loses their colour immediately after the swift blow. Mark “black belt” Labrooy.

What an epic morning on the water. It blew our expectations with everything and more coming to plan with the addition of the snapper. There is plenty of food for his family and for us to indulge in back at the restaurant. At this stage, I am chomping at the bit to see what he comes up with the following day.


It’s time to cook up the leftover bait. The squid coil and innards are put aside as well as the head, wings, beak and skin. The pearly white meat is cleaned of any ink by dragging the blade away from the sharp edge to avoid cutting the flesh. The larger squid are sliced and portioned at an angle to increase the cooking surface area. This way all the pieces can be cooked simultaneously.

Szechuan chilli sauce provides the kick for the deep-fried cephalopods. Dusting in a light gluten-free flour that doesn’t take away from the natural textures. No one likes a gluggy overdone batter. They get dunked into the boiling hot oil and just come out like a treat. Too good for kids.

The calamari dish has been designed by the 3 Blue Ducks Head chef. Later, when we are leaving the venue we see a similar version to Mark’s creation get plated up at the pass and carried out to wide-eyed patrons.

On to the fish.

The fish has firmed up in the dry ager which allows Mark’s Blade to easily glide through the flesh when filleting. The bloodline is minimal and the flesh is gleaming white after he spent the time bleeding the fish properly. He avoids washing any of the meat under fresh water to retain the salty flavour of the ocean. If you want to get a raise out of Mark, you can mention same-day filleting of fish before they have been chilled and properly set, he doesn’t have a bar of it.

Mark has planned to utilise the belly flap of the kingfish. Quite often people overlook this cut and throw it in the too-hard basket. To Mark, discarding the tastiest part of a kingfish is blasphemy, and I was about to find out why. The Belly flap is full of fat so the meat is unbelievably tender if you break it down thoughtfully. Mark has cut both sides of the fish from the top of the wing down to the poop shoot. Making an incision down the midline of the piece in order to butterfly the filet. Fine knife work is needed to gently remove the gut lining. Directing the knife edge towards the bone allows minimal waste of flesh and the removal of the ribs. The wing bones remain untouched and hold the structure of the meat.

Almost every dish on the menu at the 3 Blue Ducks in Roseberry has been cooked over the coals. Before cooking the flesh needs to be at room temperature to ensure the centre cooks evenly and retains moisture. Our kingfish was marinated in a fermented chilli peri peri sauce and thrown in the pizza oven with the skin on as a protective layer. It came out charred with the sauce reduced to a glazed. The flickering flames illuminate the sizzling kingfish in the pizza oven making me want to crack open a bottle of red and jump into my PJs. I kept my composure.

The dish was served in a colourful display. Pomegranates, tomatoes, red onion, cucumber and parsley provided the complimentary salsa. The acidity was softened by a yogurt dressing that bounced off the spice of the peri peri glaze. The raw smoky flavour of the fire coupled with fresh seasonal produce complimented each other in a perfectly balanced palate pleaser.

So often people aren’t willing to put the effort in to maximise the yield from a single fish. It is easier to take home a greater bag, only using the main filets. The way Mark talks about the possibilities of the different cuts of the fish in terms of flavour profile and cooking methods keeps things exciting and automatically creates variety, which keeps things spicy.

Mark has made a concerted effort to ensure that there is no waste. The snapper filets have been cryovaced, and will go home to be crumbed for his kids. Any leftover bones have been chucked into a stock pot to brew a broth, to help fight off any future colds in the Labrooy household. Offcuts from the calamari have been blitzed to be used for berley, on his next fishing adventure. The wings of the kingfish came off to be the single best kingfish dish I have ever tasted, by a country mile. Respecting the entire catch has provided extra nourishment with the same impact on the environment. Makes sense to me.

Thank You to Mark Labrooy and the 3 Blue Ducks, Rosebery. It has been an eye-opening experience figuring out why it is so important to know “where you got it from”.

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