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Chef Rantissi holding a knife with a fish in the other hand

How to Fillet a Whole Fish: Tips & Hacks from an Award-Winning Chef

In Partnership with WÜSTHOF

Chef Michael Rantissi is a modern-day culinary master with awards, cookbooks, and two acclaimed restaurants to show for it. Putting his dexterous knife skills to use, he crafts delicious Mediterranean fare at the respective hotspots of Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co. We wanted to cultivate some knife skills of our own and so we teamed up with Chef Rantissi for an exclusive video shoot, during which he filleted a whole fish while dispensing with essential tips and hacks.

His tool of choice for the task at hand? A trusty WÜSTHOF fillet knife, naturally. Hailing from Solingen (pronounced Zu-ling-en), Germany—aka the knife-centre of the world—the brand comes backed by over 200 years’ worth of experience. They refuse to rest on their established laurels and continue to employ new designs and cutting-edge materials, one stellar release at a time. Their limited-edition AEON range blew our minds last year and their current output is no less impressive.

Armed with cooking essentials and some truly extensive knowledge, Chef Michael Rantissi plied his craft before our very eyes. Along the way, he delivered a bounty of helpful tips and hacks. As you’ll soon discover, filleting a fish is more involved than first meets the eye, and so too is proper knife care. Are you up to the task? Read the following pointers before you pick up that WÜSTHOF!

Quick Knife Tips for Filleting Fish

Your first step is to buy a proper fillet knife. According to Chef Rantissi, that knife should have the following qualities:

  • It should be flexible, as this will ensure you get as close as you can to the backbone/cavity of the fish and will also make it easier and give you smoother cuts.
  • To test the flexibility of the knife, hold it by the handle, place the flat edge on a chopping board, and slightly bend the knife to see how flexible it is. DO NOT use the tip of the knife as this may cause damage.

How to Fillet a Whole Fish

Are you now equipped with a high-quality fillet knife? Good! Here’s how to properly fillet a whole fish:

  • Lay the whole fish down flat on your chopping board.
  • Starting at the tail end, slide the knife over the backbone of the fish in one long smooth motion until you reach the head.
  • With the head facing you, lift the filleted side and the belly in one hand, slide your knife halfway through the fish towards the tail and with a slight angle over the backbone, and slice until you reach the tail (without slicing the tail off).
  • Repeat in the other direction towards the head.
  • Flip the fish over. This time, start from the head and slide the knife on/along the backbone towards the tail.
  • Open the fillet and the belly side, and slide the knife towards the tail, then repeat the same motion towards the head.
  • To remove the fillets from the whole fish, slide the knife over the wings/fins and across the head, running the knife all around the fish to remove it from the head. With one sharp slice, remove the fillet from the tail side. Flip the fish around and repeat.
  • To clean the fillets, run the knife slightly under the bones at a 45-degree angle, sliding the flexible knife until you remove the bones and excess skin.
  • With your filleting knife, slide it through the whole side of the fillet to tidy it up.

Using a Cleaver to Turn Leftover Fish Bone into Fish Stock

A true master chef leaves nothing to waste nor should you. To turn leftover fish bones into fish stock, you’ll need a reliable cleaver, with a thicker blade can powerfully cut through bones. Did we mention that proper fillet knife makes exceptional cleavers? Get yourself one and perform the following steps:

  • Place your fish bones onto a wooden chopping board.
  • Hold the cleaver handle with one hand and use the other hand to hold the fish parts/bones in place.
  • With one firm and high motion, chop the head off.
  • Use your cleaver to chop up the remaining fish parts.
  • Find your favourite recipe and combine the fish bones with other ingredients to create fish stock.

Knife Sharpening

A sharp knife is a happy knife and a happy knife is a happy chef. One of Chef Rantissi’s favourite ways to sharpen a blunt knife at home or at work is using a whetstone, i.e. a rectangular block of stone with 2 different surfaces (a coarse surface and a smooth surface). The coarse surface is used to sharpen the blade and the smooth surface is designed to smooth/refine the edges. By the way, WÜSTHOF also makes whetstones and excellent ones at that. Here’s how to sharpen your knife:

  • Soak the whetstone in cold tap water for at least 10 to 20 minutes before using.
  • When ready, remove the whetstone from the water and place it with the coarse side facing up.
  • Place the whetstone in the stone holder so as to keep it from sliding around. If you do not have a holder, place it on a damp folded tea towel instead.
  • In one long motion, slide the knife at a 20 to 22-degree angle from left to right on the stone, 6 to 10 times on each side of the knife.
  • If the stone dries out, sprinkle more water to keep it wet and damp at all times.
  • Turn the whetstone over to the smooth side and repeat the last step, sliding the knife at a 20 to 22-degree angle from left to right on the stone, 6 to 10 times on each side of the knife.
  • Do not put the whetstone in the dishwasher. Instead, pat it dry with a tea towel and then store it back in its container.

How to Use a Sharpening Steel

A sharpening steel—which resembles a holdable rod—is a great tool to maintain the sharpness of your knives. It is recommended that you use this tool once a week or fortnight, depending on how often you use your knives. If your knife is completely blunt, you will need to use the whetstone, as the steel is more for the regular maintenance of knife sharpness. Does WÜSTHOF have sharpening steels? You bet they do. Here’s how a beginner can put one to work:

  • Hold the steel upright over a tea towel and at a 20-degree angle.
  • Slide the knife downwards along the steel in one motion.
  • Repeat 6 times on one side of the knife and then 6 times on the other side of the knife.

General Knife Pointers

Chef Rantissi loves to talk knives, in case it’s not yet obvious. Here are some extra pointers he threw our way:

  • Good quality knives should not be washed in a dishwasher—always wash them by hand.
  • Store your knives in either a knife bag, holder or knife protector.

Make it a WÜSTHOF

From flexible fillet knives to powerful cleavers to premium whetstones and more, WÜSTHOF has everything you need to bring out the culinary ninja lurking inside you. The brand has been manufacturing knives for over 200 years in Solingen, Germany—also known as the “home of knives”. Not only do they offer a lifetime warranty on every knife, but they even provide a complimentary sharpening service for WÜSTHOF customers within Australia. You can find their signature slicers in famous kitchens around the world, and score one for yourself through the following retailers: David Jones, Myer, Kitchen Warehouse, Peter’s of Kensington and selected independent stores. It could very well change your life.

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Jacob Osborn
Staff Writer

Jacob Osborn

Jacob Osborn is an accomplished author and journalist with over 10 years of experience in the media industry. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English and Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin--Madison and co-authored a Young Adult novel through Simon & Schuster. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Jacob specialises in entertainment, technology and alcohol reporting. You might find him crate-digging at the nearest record store or sampling whisky at the nearest bar. He daydreams of travelling around the world, but for now, the world will have to come to him by way of lifestyle products, gear, gadgetry, and entertainment. Let's call it a happy compromise while he saves up for the next big trip.