Neil Perry is one of Australia’s most-loved chefs. A restaurateur, author and television presenter, Perry co-owns and is executive chef of four restaurants in Australia. In Sydney he runs his flagship fine diner, Rockpool, and this year he opened a modern Chinese restaurant, Spice Temple, and an up-market steakhouse, Rockpool Bar & Grill. In Melbourne he has another Rockpool Bar & Grill. Perry is also the co-ordinator for Qantas flight catering. His range of food products, Neil Perry Fresh, is sold in supermarkets.
MiNDFOOD: How do you stay on top of the many projects you have on the go?
I have great, committed teams in all my restaurants and in administration, along with my team at Rockpool Consulting, which looks after the Qantas project. They are people I can trust to carry on the work when I’m not around and I only hire multi-tasking self-starters – makes my life better! I do seem to have quite a good in-built filing system and a photographic memory as well, which is amazingly helpful. When all else fails I remind myself to breathe.
What most excites you about your newest restaurant, Rockpool Bar & Grill, in Sydney?
Just about everything, to be honest. The space itself [in a 1936 art deco skyscraper] is simply extraordinary – the history and grandeur! I love the wine list – it feels fantastic to have the support to be able to bring products of such calibre to Australia – and, of course, the fine producers and suppliers within Australia that allow us the freedom to create beautiful food. Above all, it just feels amazing to see people come through the door and have the best experience of their life, leaving with a big smile on their face.
How did you discover your love of cooking?
It goes way back to my childhood when I would trawl Sydney’s Chinatown with my father, who was a butcher. We would grab char siu [barbecued pork] from BBQ King and tinned abalone and then go home and cook great soups. My love of eating became my love of cooking.
What do you consider is your signature dish?
There are a couple of dishes that have followed me around over the years. The first is my Goat’s Cheese Tortellini. I make them with wonderfully soft potato dough and in the early days we filled them with Gabrielle Kervella’s unbeatable goat’s cheese. The second is my Stir-Fried Crab Omelette cooked in a wok and served in a soupy chinese broth – a crowd-pleaser.
What are your favourite seasonal foods?
“Seasonal” being the operative word here – food cooked seasonally is the best we can ask for – I’d say peas in spring; perfect, fresh tomatoes in summer; and wonderful, big, one-pot braised meals in autumn/winter.
When it comes to food, what have been your greatest influences?
My travels, as they are always highly food focused. Also my peers; working over the years with the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller is constantly inspiring.
What are the greatest challenges in co-ordinating Qantas flight catering?
The challenges are being able to constantly source quality ingredients, as produce varies from country to country; staying in tune with the seasons, as we write menus for both hemispheres at the same time; and taking into account cultural and religious obstacles. They’re not major challenges, really, but they do keep us on our toes.
How does a typical day look?
It’s a very early wake-up from my two youngest daughters, aged two and four, and then I have freshly squeezed juice and bircher muesli with my wife, Samantha. After that I’m off to work at Spice Temple or Rockpool Bar & Grill: emails, media commitments, meetings and on the go at lunch. We can do around 200 for lunch at Rockpool Bar & Grill at the moment so the orders fly in and out. Maybe I’ll have a meeting with my business partners in the afternoon and then go down to Rockpool at The Rocks to spend time in the kitchen with the staff there. At night half the time will be spent back in one of the kitchens or, if I get the night off, dinner somewhere with Samantha or friends. Throw in a trip to my restaurant in Melbourne a couple of times a month.
How would you like your day to look?
I love working at my restaurants, so not a huge change to the above. Perhaps a guaranteed “service off” every day? Could I put out my hammock and take a nap somewhere at 3pm as well?
What dishes do you never grow tired of?
Anything that is honest and cooked with love and to perfection.
Has the economic downturn affected the quality of ingredients?
Not at all. We are still buying from our loyal suppliers and producers – more, now than ever, because of our two new restaurants having opened this year.
What are some of your favourite restaurants around the world?
The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, England. The River Café in west London. Mugaritz in Errenteria (near San Sebastian), Spain. Etxebarri in Axpe-Marzana (near Bilbao), Spain.
How often do you cook?
Every single day of my life.
What’s next for you?
More cooking! And a quick trip to the US and Europe…to eat!