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A Lasting Legacy – NEIL PERRY

By Madeleine Gray on July 31, 2017 in People

Photo: Jeremy Greive

Where are you originally from?
Sydney. I was born in Kogarah Hospital and grew up in a place called Bald Face Point, which is not very far from Tom Uglys Bridge, and the very famous Paul’s Hamburgers, which was a bit of a hang for my family and myself when I was younger.

How much of your culinary success over the years do you credit to the influence of Paul’s Hamburgers?
I don’t know about that! Mainly, I think it’s my parents. Both of them influenced me as a person, because they were both very even-handed and very loving, and I think that set the tone for the type of person that I am. My father was a butcher by trade, but a fisherman and a gardener, too. We would spend time in the garden, in winter and summer, and we had we had chickens, so we would harvest the eggs and about once every month or two Dad would kill one of the chickens and we’d have it for Sunday roast. Every weekend we’d be fishing, and that’s what we ate. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I just had this incredible upbringing, and what I learnt then is so important to me now: produce and seasonality.

I always used to say that Dad collected people, too. He was just such a lovely person, and just so engaged in what other people did. Because he was running a meat works, we had a lot of new Australians working for us – Yugoslavians, Greeks, Italians – and they all became friends. Their food culture became our food culture.

Dad used to take me to Chinatown as a very young person and we used to go to a restaurant called The Mandarin, which was in George Street, above a gun shop. We became really great friends with Robert Ho, who owned that restaurant. And Ken and Jensen, who were waiters, became really great friends, too. It was really fantastic: I got to go to their weddings, their auspicious occasions, Chinese New Year. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the mid-1960s in Australia and I was eating this incredible Chinese food. Everyone else was eating sweet and sour pork, chow mein, and black bean beef while I was eating suckling pig, chilli mud crab, abalone, and eggplant.

Where are you living at the moment and what do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
I live in Rose Bay. I love how close it is to the city, because the way I work, I’m in at work by seven in the morning and I don’t leave the office till quite late.

What gets your goat about the Eastern Suburbs?
I hate it when I miss that no-traffic window and end up driving to work in peak hour, because that turns it into an hour-long drive. It’s horrendous. In a perfect world I would live above Rockpool Bar and Grill, because I just hate waiting wasting time.

What are your favourite haunts in the Eastern Suburbs?
I’ll often go to Victor Churchill. I love the whole meat program over there; it’s exactly the same as Rockpool Bar and Grill. And my other favourite thing is Iggy’s bread. The bread shape they make is a torpedo, which is just fantastic; it’s the perfect shape to make the most amount of crust. That with some French butter is my favourite thing in the world. And if we’re anywhere near Bondi the kids make me drive to Messina.

My favourite place to eat in the Eastern Suburbs would probably be Catalina. A mate of mine owns it, so on a beautiful day I just sit on the balcony and eat oysters there. Plus, last year my group, the Rockpool Group, merged with another company and we took over the Sake restaurants, so we’ve changed the menu there and I really love it. There’s one in Double Bay that’s really handy for me, and the dish that we do there, bo ssam, is one of my favourite things in the world to eat.

The best coffee shop is in Llankelly Place in Potts Point – Room 10. My daughter JP went to school near there, at Vinnies, for two years during her “I need to go to another school Dad” phase, and that was when it became my favourite.

Your Wikipedia page says that you were a hairdresser before you worked in hospitality; is that true?
Yeah, that is true actually. It was from about 17 and a half to about 18 and a half years old. Does it say that on Wikipedia? I’ll have to get in there and change that (laughs). I worked for Lloyd Lomas, who’s a very famous Australian icon hairdresser. He looks exactly the same as he did then, only his hair’s a bit greyer.

How did what you learnt from hairdressing influence your understanding of the hospitality industry?
I think it’s along the same path. From being reasonably shy at school, it’s great to put yourself out there, and hairdressing’s really about the conversation. I think what happened was, after Year 12 I was going to do a gap year and I think I saw Warren Beatty’s hair in Shampoo. I thought it could be a good way to get chicks, basically, so I that’s why I got into it.

What made you move into hospitality?
My dad had always been restaurant savvy, and I’d been going to restaurants a lot as a young person, and I always loved the whole notion of eating out and the social context of it, and the family experience behind it. It always fascinated me: the whole movement of people through the dining room, how the food was presented and arrived at the same time, and the conversations going on at the next table. I was always geared towards that.

What was the first restaurant you worked at?
I worked at The Australian Club, actually, in Macquarie Street. The guys there were doing all this fancy stuff, like carving beef at the table. It was a whole white glove thing. I used to hate polishing the silverware in the afternoon, because at first I was obviously the most recent person employed there and as such that was my job. I was so happy when I was there for about three months and we employed another commis and I was like, “Yeah, you can polish the silverware!”

After working there I answered an ad for a job at Sails at McMahons Point for an assistant manager. I guess I just presented really well so I got the job without the qualifications and moved up though the ranks pretty quickly, and learned a lot about being a restaurateur from Ross Hartman, who was my initial mentor. I became assistant manager, which back in those days meant washing the windows, cleaning the toilets, vacuuming the carpet, then running the dining room, ordering all the wine, and tasting wine with reps. One of the great things back then was there was no import duty on imported wines. The franc was really weak against the dollar, so we were drinking amazing French wines at the same price we were drinking Australian wines, which allowed me to have an incredible education in wine, at that level.

Did the move into the kitchen happen organically?
Basically. I spoke to a great friend of mine, Damien Pignolet, who had Claude’s at that stage. Damien is running Regatta at the moment, but he ran Bistro Moncur too. I used to eat at all his restaurants, because I was running restaurants and making really good money, and I ate out a lot because I used to love it for the social aspect. Wherever I went I always became friends with the guys in the kitchen.

I said to Damien, “I really want to cook.” The first thing he said to me was, “Read everything from Jane Grigson, and everything from Elizabeth David, and then we’ll talk again.” After I’d followed his advice I got a phone call and he said, “Come in and start working casually with us.” After a week I was working for him full-time, then he got a job for me at Stephanie’s. I just worked at so many restaurants from then on.

A year after I started cooking I was offered a job as a chef at Barrenjoey House at Palm Beach. I was nowhere near qualified enough to do it. I think Michael McMahon, the owner at the time, just listened to all the people who I’d actually worked for, and we got on well and started talking about wine, and so I got the job. It was amazing. A month later Leo Schofield came up, did a review, gave the place 17 out of 20 and said, “The kid’s a star.” That was it. The place was full and reviewers were all over us. That was in January 1983.

Then you went on to open Rockpool, which basically epitomised fine dining in Sydney for 30 years…
You know I wouldn’t like to be starting out now; it’s much more difficult. There’s a proliferation of really good restaurants. I’m really happy I started when I did because it was easier to get traction. With Rockpool, the whole view was to create a world-class restaurant. At that time the focus of it was seafood, which is why I called it Rockpool. It’s quite interesting actually, because afterwards people would say, “Oh, so clever, it’s in the Rocks,” and I hadn’t even really thought about that.

The Rockpool focus changed over the years, but what was great was that we really set out to design a restaurant that had a beautiful ambience. You walked up that ramp and it was amazing. In 1989 it blew people away, and then we very quickly moved on to achieve three hats, and Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year, and all those sorts of things. Then I was away on my honeymoon in 2003, skiing, and got a phone call saying, “Hey, you’ve just been named number four in the top 50 restaurants in the world.” The subsequent nine years that we spent in that list were really awesome.

It all comes back to the fundamental philosophy from which we started that restaurant, though. From the beginning I spoke to the floor and the kitchen about the fact that the emotional side of what we do is so important, and that our business is to create great memories every day. We do a really great day today, we see our guests out the door, essentially it’s all over, and then we’ve got to recreate that experience tomorrow. I set my guys the challenge of doing better tomorrow than they did today.

Online restaurant guides like Broadsheet, Concrete Playground, and Urban List are changing the way reviewing works. Generally speaking, there’s a compulsion to be totally superlative on these platforms. Is that a shift you’ve noticed, and is it detrimental or beneficial?
There are people in my business who live and breathe those reviews, but I never read any of them. People send me reviews and I actually delete them, because it is really distracting. I take a traditional view of listening to word-of-mouth from a customer saying what’s happening. They say that probably 65 per cent of the reviews online put up by your opposition, so it’s really hard to weed out what is right and what is wrong. My daughter would probably take a different view, because she’s in the restaurant business now at 23, but I try not to undermine the tradition of what we’re trying to do, the social aspect, and the romance of it.

Food television shows are promoting the idea that anyone can be a chef and have a “food dream”; is that attitude something that you promote?
I think anybody can have a dream, but you can’t do it without the hard work. That’s the thing. If you think you can go on Masterchef, win, and open a restaurant, you can do that, but I would bet nine times out of ten that you would probably end up regretting it, because the bank would own whatever assets you started with. Cooking is only one part of the restaurant business.

That said, I started cooking when I was 25, so I would say to anybody who rocks up, dive in. Give it a go. I was really lucky, though. I think the important thing now is that I’ve created a great legacy. I want to see the Rockpool Group become something incredibly special, in terms of its longevity.

Speaking of business as legacy, you’ve recently teamed up with David Jones, the longest operating department store in the world; can you tell us about your relationship with David Jones?
I think one of the most important things is that we have very like-minded brand values. I am certain that DJs is a really great fit for me. I get asked to do endorsements all the time, and I’m really selective because, essentially, I want to make sure that we share values, and that we add value to each other. The current management group at DJs is totally invigorated. They want to create great memories, to surprise and delight. You’re going to see an incredible, iconic, Australian brand burn bright again, and be a very important part of people’s lives.

I’m working with the DJs food halls, and the strategy is to single-handedly create one of the greatest food experiences in the world. There’s a really amazing focus on food service and retail intertwining for the first time, so that we deliver a better, integrated, curated experience for our customer. You can buy what you eat, and vice versa.

Often there’s been a retail attitude of ‘stack them high, watch them buy’, which would mean offering say 35 olive oils and telling the customer to take their pick. We’re saying, “Here are 10 olive oils that we believe are the best. Here’s why we think that and we’ll help you make a decision if you want.”

And importantly we’re looking at waste and sustainable usage of everything within our sphere, so that the customer is getting the best freshness, the greatest experience, and as little by-product as possible is wasted.

You just opened your new restaurant, Jade Temple, where Rockpool and then Eleven Bridge once stood; if the industry is harder than ever, as you say, what makes you think that this restaurant is going to work?

I think all the years that I’ve spent in the business, and the incredible staff. I mean, at the core restaurants are about people; they’re either about customers or staff. I have the most brilliant staff – they’re fantastically trained and they all buy into the philosophy. We’re famous for our service standards, from food notes, to photographs, to sequences of service, cocktail training to wine training.

Most importantly, though, I think I have a really good sense of what people enjoy. I think I’ve chosen a really fantastic Cantonese menu that’s expressive of some of the clichéd classics, but there are also brilliant less-known dishes there. We’re going to be very strong in roast and we’re bringing a dim sum master out from Macau. We’re really excited; it wasn’t easy to get him here. I had to use every relationship, even from the Prime Minister’s department, but we got him over the line, which is fantastic.

It’s 9pm, you’ve just gotten home from work, what do cook for yourself?
I’d knock up a very quick pasta dish. Or it would be some stir-fried noodles, probably more Korean than Chinese, because I do tend to go for the Gochujang a fair bit in the fridge. Or it would be an omelette, because I make great omelettes – they go very nicely with a good glass of burgundy. It would probably be five past nine when I got started, because I’d go down to the cellar and pick out a nice bottle of wine.

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Neil Perry?
I can’t see myself stopping work, so I would really want the dining group to be incredibly successful. And, crucially, we’re focusing very strongly on the Rockpool Foundation; we’re the only dining group in Australia with our own charity. We’re headhunting a CEO at the moment, and all the funds for head office will come from the restaurants. We will have zero costs attached to any funds raised.

We believe we’re capable of raising between five and six million dollars a year, and we’re going to have a very strong focus on youth support, education, and changing the cycle of education so that we can change cycles in poverty. We want to support disabled youths to come into work and have self-worth, and be able to be supportive to the point where they can then feel that they can then continue that job and work within a business, both in the food industry and otherwise. That’s what I’d really love to see.