One of Australia’s highest culinary achievers looks back on the evolution of his 40-year career to date, and forward to answering opportunity’s latest knock.
Google ‘Australia’s most successful chef’ and you’ll be presented with ‘Neil Perry’ as the answer, and it’s little wonder. With a career spanning restaurants, charity work, cookbooks, numerous television series and significant partnerships including his relationship with Qantas, Perry has had a stellar, wide ranging and, he says, somewhat serendipitous career.
“I started on the floor,” says Perry. “I was front of house at Sails in Sydney’s McMahons Point, and it’s that first job that made me a restaurateur,” he says. “It gave me an understanding of the restaurant business. Taking orders, doing the wage run, monitoring food costs and bookings, dealing with customers – it became pretty clear pretty fast that there’s no ‘front’ and ‘back’ of house, rather a restaurant is a singular beast. It needs to run on a philosophy of care from the kitchen through to the floor.”
Perry first gained attention when he began cooking at Barrenjoey Restaurant (now Barrenjoey House), in Sydney’s Palm Beach in 1982 and was awarded his first Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide hat there in 1984. He has since been awarded more hats than any other chef, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Chief Food Critic and former ‘Guide’ Editor, Terry Durack, counts 149 hats over Perry’s 40 year career.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Neil Perry AM is the most talented, driven and inspirational chef that Australia has ever produced,” said Durack.
Above: Neil Perry's Raw Tuna Belly with Quandong and Davidson Plum Harissa
Perry moved to Bondi’s Blue Water Grill in 1986 and opened what would become Australia’s most famous restaurant, Rockpool, in 1989 in partnership with his cousin Trish Richards. Rockpool held a spot in San Pellegrino’s World Top 50 Restaurants for seven years.
Rockpool Bar & Grill followed in 2006 in Melbourne, its glamorous Sydney outpost in 2009, along with Spice Temple tucked downstairs, a Melbourne outpost of Spice Temple opened a year later. Rockpool Bar & Grill Perth premiered in 2011 followed by Rosetta, Melbourne, in 2013 and his Burger Project outlets.
All the while, Perry was writing cookbooks, 11 of them, taking a leading role in charity work through his Rockpool Foundation, including as a founding OzHarvest ambassador, as well as fulfilling his role as Creative Director Food and Beverage for Qantas, a post he’s held since 1997.
It’s been a busy, and diverse, 40-year career. “I’ve not planned much of it,” says Perry. “For me, evolution is what has been important – always being open to the next opportunity, and always striving to be better,” he says. “I’ve never thought, ‘now is the time’ – the time to open a restaurant, write a book, sign to a new partnership, I’ve never approached anybody in my life, opportunities have appeared and I’ve considered them,” he says. “Qantas is an example, for me; being asked out of the blue by the national carrier to be their food and wine ambassador was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life.”
A caring culture
In 2016, Perry sold his 13 beloved restaurants to Urban Purveyor Group, and in July 2020, stood down as Rockpool Dining Group’s Culinary Director (he remains a shareholder). He planned to slow down, but Covid was raging. Perry had already established Hope Delivery by Rockpool, in response to the crisis in April 2020, using the empty kitchens of Rosetta, Sydney, and Rockpool Bar & Grill, Melbourne, to produce meals for those that JobKeeper had missed.
“When the lockdown was announced, and cafes and restaurants across the country were forced to close, I figured mass unemployment across hospitality wouldn’t be far away.” A team of 2,000 staff and volunteers worked beside Perry cooking and packing meals.
Left: Barbequed Sardines; Right: Passionfruit Souffle
His charitable work speaks to what Perry calls his ‘care philosophy’, an attribute he credits to his mother. “Mum taught me the importance of caring for people, a philosophy I’ve carried right through my career,” he says. “I’ve worked to build a family culture in all of my restaurants, by building environments that have nurtured people.”
“Through all of the ups and downs, I have always been driven by the notion that we must never let our families, our suppliers or our staff down,” he says. “Rather, we must do anything and everything to get through. Relationships are pivotal to the success and wellbeing of any business and care is central to running a restaurant – care for the customer, care for the staff, care for the suppliers.”
Perry will open a new restaurant, Margaret, on the ground floor of Pallas House, Double Bay, in June. The 170-seater – 120 inside and 50 outside – is named in honour of his mother.
Margaret was another project that presented itself, not part of a plan, says Perry. “I had no intention of opening another restaurant. Again, the idea was presented to me and once I saw the site, I thought, yes, I am in.”
Perry will serve the food he loves to cook. “Fish and steak from the wood-fired grill, chicken cooked on a rotisserie, freshly shucked oysters, through to simple sandwiches or a burger in the bar at lunchtime,” he says.
His advice to budding restaurateurs and chefs? “Get up every day and do something better than you did before. Look forward, take people on the journey with you, be open to opportunity.”