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Neil Perry ©ak.images

Neil’s career in hospitality began at the Sails restaurant at McMahons Point and in Rose Bay before heading the kitchen team as the head chef of the Sydney iconic Barrenjoey house. Following the position, Neil took control of Perry’s in Paddington and the Blue Water Grill in Bondi in which he took the site from a 20-year failure to an overnight success.

In 1989, Neil and business partner, Trish Richards developed the Rockpool empire which now consists of 7 restaurants including Rockpool George Street, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Spice Temple and the new additional Waiting Room. Neil’s success is driven by his passion and dedication for fantastic cuisine and service and is no doubt recognised and noted as one of Australia’s most finest and respected chefs.

– QUESTIONS & ANSWERS WITH NEIL PERRY –

1– How do you define your style of cooking and the philosophy at your restaurants?

Neil Perry– Well at Rockpool, on George street I call modern Australian, or just Australian cooking because I’m Australian and I’ve been cooking that food and now I’m cooking it with Phil Wood who’s a new Zealand boy but we’re essentially cooking in Sydney, we’re cooking with produce that is in the vast majority fairly locally sourced, the highest quality and source from fishermen and farmers that we know. And then it uses inspirations particularly that’s always have been Rockpool , from China Thailand, Vietnam , really places that I think that relate more to Australia than Europe in a sense.

And then my other restaurants, Rockpool bar and grill, we set out for it to be one of the greatest steakhouses in the world. Now in Australia that we produce some of the best beef, we really feel that we can do that and define that target, so we went out and made sure we didn’t open a steakhouse first, we got a supply chain first and then we opened the steakhouse. So we worked with our growers, our 36 month beef from Cape Grim which we sort of made famous really, no one knew about it, it was all exported and no one wanted to know about old mature meat. So we’ve change that perception in the 6 years since we’ve been using it at Rockpool bar and grill, the brand building we’ve done with David Blackmore, full blood Wagyu and also with Rangers Valley which is an amazing grain fed product. So you know its defined by the quality of the beef, the fact that we dry age, we take it out further than anybody else, we take a great responsibility for it because we have dry age everything at our premises.

And then I guess Modern Chinese is what we call Spice Temple so really inspired by just how exciting and diverse the regional cuisines of china are and having grown up in Sydney and seeing the influences of Cantonese food.

Rockpool Dining Room/©Earl Carter

2- What will/should your diners expect when dining in your restaurant? 

Neil Perry- Well in all of the places, I’ll like to think that what they would get is a wonderful experience so what we try to focus on strongly is the fact that food and wine are part of the experience but service and ambience and that really in a restaurant that is exciting to be in and really enjoyable. There’s always an X factor involved and the crowd themselves bring part of that to the mix.

So I’ll like to think people would get is a really fantastic caring experience that is full of great hospitality from the guys from the floor and generosity from the guys in the kitchen. And always eating beautiful plates of food. Whether that’s driven by craft and labour like it is at Rockpool, where 17 or 18 chefs will turn out a 100 plates to diners at nights right up to here, where the selection process of the beef, and the cooking over wood and placing it on a plate with a lemon is just as difficult so the people would recognise that at every level that there is a great craft and also a great integrity behind the sourcing of the product. Even at Spice temple, we know that we are using organic chicken, free range pork and grass fed beef and that is different straight away to the normal Chinese restaurant.

So I would hope that what people get is the great level of integrity.

3- The cuisine you cook can be defined as Modern Australian, what does Modern Australian mean to you? 

Neil Perry- What I think it probably means something that taste fresh and very produce driven. I think the food that we eat here really does have a unique-ness to it, it’s very hard to put your finger on it and its not defining peking duck, beef bourguignon or meat pie. You can’t actually say it as simply as that because all of those things grew up in a regional world and we’ve pretty much in the new world and it’s difficult to grow an established cuisine with so many influences. But there’s an incredible of freshness, there is a lot of technique and there is a lot of Asian influence clearly in Australia and I think from all of the Asian influenced dishes I’ve eaten around the world, in three star restaurants in Europe and America and great restaurants around the world that people in Australia do it or a few people in Australia do it better than anybody else so I think it’s actually a vital part of what we do in Australia that makes it different.

And then when you go to the markets, it a multi cultural market which is really exciting, you don’t have to seek out Asian ingredients, in Australia you go to supermarkets and buy them and not just on the shelf but also in the greengrocer department.

And I hope it doesn’t get lost because I see so many young chefs focused and driven by what’s happening in Europe, and it’s great to be influenced and everyone’s influenced by someone. But mimicking something or copying and being so obsessed that you’re cooking Spanish food in Sydney, doesn’t make it great and it doesn’t make it Australian. I think you need to be influenced from that and you can absorb any technique but you have to relate to what’s going on in your world because we don’t need someone copying what Ferran is doing or Rene for instance.

So I hope we don’t lose our identity, I hope that all the young chefs don’t go down this path and most importantly, I hope food writers don’t push them that way and I think that there is a culture in Australian food writing at the moment that doesn’t understand what the basic quality is of doing something over and over again at a certain standard that the whole world’s cuisine is built on that and that rushing off and experimenting for experiment sake and being new for the sake of being new doesn’t mean that it’s good.

Rockpool Bar & Grill/©Earl Carter

4- Have you got a particular ingredient/product that you tend to use in your dishes.

Neil Perry- Now, we do 13, 14,000 people a week through the restaurants.  And of course, here it’s probably beef and that’s my main focus yet we have the wonderful char grilled ovens here that we only have direct relationships with all our fishermen and we get the most beautiful fresh fish. To eat, at the moment off the south coast, the silver dory, that is running for about 12 weeks. Just fat from that beautiful cold water and it goes into the chargrill oven and it’s like eating a piece of fish in Spain where it’s just got the most incredible taste and texture. I’m mad about fish at the moment because the season so perfect for fish and there in such great condition.

For me it’s difficult, I like a lot of Asian ingredients, clearly i love chilli. I love fermented red bean curd and five spice powder together, at the moment its one of my favourite combinations down in spice temple. And I guess with Phil, one of the things we like working with is taking very intense Chinese flavours and working them into a dish which has a relationship with wine.

5- Establishing a great relationship with your suppliers ensures great produce delivered to your door, how are the relationships with you and your suppliers?  

Neil Perry- Yeah I mean my Suppliers are the most important people in our restaurant, they allow us to start off on the right foot. We have a group of people that we have been working with for so many years and they are the unsung heroes and in all of my books, I talk about the suppliers a lot and in Bar and Grill, there’s a lot of pages dedicated to the guys who make the restaurants what it is.

We hide behind nothing, there’s nothing covering anything, we either source the best ingredient and look after it and cook it well or we’re done for. We just cannot send a steak and a piece of fish out on a plate with a wedge of lemon and expect people to think we’re one of the best restaurant in the world to think were the best unless there’s something magical happening with this ingredient

6- Wine matching is an essential part of dining; do you work closely with your sommelier to ensure the perfect marriages?

Neil Perry- Yeah absolutely, we do tastings when we create dishes at Rockpool and we work with Emma, and we look at dishes here and we have 3500 wines on the list here so we work really hard on making sure that there’s a good recommendation on a range of wines to go with particular dishes. The great thing about being a steakhouse is that it’s very wine friendly food but we make sure down at George Street that we work out whether it’s on the tasting menu or the four course work really well.

From my perspective, eating and drinking, wine and food is inseparable, I can’t imagine a meal without it and so for me, it’s a really important part of it and that’s why I like my food to be very wine friendly.

7-  How do you bring balance to each menu at your restaurants?  

Neil Perry- I think in any case, whether you’re doing set menus like we do at Rockpool or whether it’s A la carte like we do at Bar and Grill and Spice temple – you really got to bring balance through having a start to finish and that sounds pretty obvious I suppose because you’re having starters, mains and desserts. But in each of those, you have to have dishes that create lightness and I think that when looking at a menu, it’s really important also to have juxtaposition rather than similarities, so you gotta try to make sure that the person selecting something on the menu that there are clear choices rather than having a menu that reflects a similar style, whether you have the dory or the steak or the lamb, you in essence feel that you’re almost eating the same dishes because there are restaurants like that. And it definitely leads to seasonal as well.

8-  Have you got a mentor or figure that you particularly admire/respect throughout your career as a chef? 

Neil Perry-  Guys that have enormous influence on me are people like Stephanie Alexander, I mean Stephanie, I just thought was fantastic, I think if anything I got from her, the nurturing side, the caring about everything to do with the dining room to caring about everything to do with the way your staff worked together.

From Damien Pignolet, great direction in what to read and who to read and what to get involved in. And then you know great mentors in sense like people I haven’t met like Michel Guerard and these guys from the early 80s, I was just absorbing their books and cooking from their cooks and living their philosophy. And I think that they were really influential on my life because at that stage, when I first just started cooking, I was just a sponge absorbing everything I could possibly read.

Auguste Escoffier and Elizabeth David, all these people who through the words they wrote down, gave me huge inspirations.

9- Molecular Gastronomy have been going for a while now, what do you think of the techniques and do you follow the them yourself? 

Neil Perry- Well, I mean we use obviously some of the techniques, we use Pacojets for certain things and sous vide for a limited amount of things, where it’s appropriate, where it works well for long cooking and we tend to use either fire or pan or roasting to bring life to the proteins.

We don’t really use many chemicals; we might use a little bit of xantham gum to thicken our dressings occasionally but pretty much our food is based around great Chinese, Thai, Australian, French cooking model. I like what some of the guys do and i don’t like some of the guys do, I mean some of them create food that has no culinary or flavour integrity behind it whatsoever. Intellectually, it might be a brand new technique but if it doesn’t create something delicious, there’s no point in that technique.

Chefs that are cooking brilliant food like Heston Blumenthal, Alain Passard in Paris and Thomas Keller in New York, the French Laundry where they are using a lot of modern techniques but they are making sure that the food is really delicious and textually perfect.

10- With Masterchef and media attention on chefs, young people are coming into the industry wanting to be on tv (celebrity chef), what are your thoughts about this? 

Neil Perry- I think they better get on Masterchef because it takes a lot of hard work. But to me, the great thing about Masterchef is people in Australia are sitting watching fresh food prepared in a kitchen and it inspires them, once a week, once a month, once a year to go and buy something fresh and cook it rather than processed or fast food, then that’s awesome.

What’s sad about that is that they’re getting a group of people, I don’t really believe wanna be in the industry, they want to be in the food industry involved with the media based part of it, they want to write or they wanna have their own television show.

11- Have you got any tips or advice for anyone who wants to be a chef? 

Neil Perry- I think the most important advice is that you have to really that you have be very dedicated, I think you got to read everything you possibly can, you have to take every opportunity to hone a skill so you have to focus and get your head down and don’t expect to be moving every month but expect to really understand how to make great pasta or how to make great bread or how to run butchery or cut fish or whatever it might be or cook or grill or roast or make sauce, whatever it might be so by the time you are finished, you are really walking away with a great deal of skills.

But the most important thing is detail, you really have to look at detail and that’s what makes a successful chef and a restauranteur so if you look after every small details and make sure that everythings working, well everything will work well, it’s important because all the small details make the whole experience, it’s made up of hundreds of little tiny experiences that people have, the moment they are greeted and the moment they leave the restaurant and cookings part of that.

And I would say that the other important thing if you have any desire to really excel and rise to the top of the industry, you’ve also got to be a really fantastic motivator. You know, part of my skill and where I’ve got to, I’ve got 520 staff that all know me, that work for me and lots of them have given blood for me so it’s really important to make sure that you can lead and be a leader of people because that’s what gets these restaurants to the level that they are. That’s for every young chef, they’ve got to be aspirational, if you don’t want to lead, if you don’t want to be the person out there leading by example – you are not going to be out there.

12- Where would your favourite eating hot spots be in Sydney?

Neil Perry – I love my own restaurant, sadly, I’m sure everyone says that and I’m lucky because I can go and have amazingly exciting food that Phil and I produced at Rockpool and I think that it’s one of the best restaurant in Sydney and I can come to Bar and Grill when I feel like a steak, fish or a piece of lobster and on a Saturday night at Spice temple because that’s one of my favourite restaurants.

But look, I really love what Guillaume Brahimi is doing at Bennelong and what Peter Gilmore is doing and Martin Benn down at Sepia.

I tend to do things like Madang Korean down in Chinatown because the kids love them or Pasteur for a bowl of soup and Noodle King down on Sussex Street which to me, some really good basic simple Chinese flavours.

But I mean there’s lots of great restaurants in Sydney, I mean obviously the boys at Porteno are doing a nice job with lamb and their roasting and taking my friends over to Iceberg’s because the view is just amazing and to Tetsuya’s for a really special night.

Spice Temple/©Earl Carter

13- What was the inspiration and philosophy behind your cookbooks “Rockpool”, “Simply Asian” , “The Food I love”,”Good Food”,”Balance and Harmony” and your latest book “Rockpool Bar & Grill”? 

Neil Perry- My books are really about time and place, so “Rockpool” was really about Rockpool the restaurant in 1994 when I wrote that and 1996 when it was released.  That was really capturing the restaurant at that time and place, but I would like to do another Rockpool cookbook in about a year because that would capture where the restaurant is after 20 years on and that’s a goal for me to send it out at that time frame.

And then, “Simply Asian” was really a reaction to what we were doing at Rockpool and capturing the dishes that we were doing at that time.

And I guess the next one I did was “The food I love” and that was really and all these books, I try to talk to the reader and talking about the depth of knowledge that that technique should give them and where they should be able to go with that. So this isn’t just how to slow roast a peice beef or it isn’t how to make that pasta dish or that sandwich but a few thoughts on how to make that into 15 recipes or experiences.

And “Good Food” came off the back of that because I had so many recipes that we ended taking half the book out.

And then “Balance and Harmony” was my east and western side so it was really about all the things I loved to cook and I wanted it to be very much like a teaching book similarly to the food I love so that people could attack techniques and then move that into more ambitious recipes.

And now we have another time and place which is the experience of opening the three Rockpool Bar and Grills and it’s really a day in the life really, or an experience so there’s a lot of stories about the restaurants came about, how I brought the brand, the wine philosophy, the producer’s philosophy, the life about fire that sort of thing.

Rockpool Bar & Grill Cookbook ©Earl Carter

14- You have the Rockpool empire going, 6 cookbooks and you are Australia’s very own Iron chef – what are the future plans for yourself and your restaurants? 

Neil Perry- Very much focused on consolidation of what we have here.  And then, I’ve got a few things I’ll love to do – Rockpool, the lease is up soon so I want to either have it completely renovated or move, another year its up I think. Also, keeping the consistency of service and food quality throughout the restaurants and concentrating on the details.

15- Can you give us a recipe for one of your dishes? 

Neil Perry- Korean tuna tartare (recipe below)

Korean tuna tartare/©Earl Carter

Korean Tuna Tartare

 

 Serves 4

Ingredients

2 medium carrots

4 spring onions

1 x 400gm piece yellowfin tuna

1 small Chinese cabbage heart, finely shredded

Leaves from 1 bunch coriander

3 tablespoons roasted pine nuts

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Freshly ground white pepper

2 quantities sesame dressing (recipe follows)

Sesame dressing

60mls Chinese sesame-seed paste (tahini paste)

80mls light soy sauce

60mls rice wine vinegar

4 tablespoons ginger, finely diced

8 garlic cloves, crushed

60gms caster sugar

240mls sesame oil

Method

Cut the carrot and spring onions into a fine julienne and soak in iced water for half an hour.

Place the tuna on a chopping board, and remove the skin. Cut in into rounds of 1/2cm thickness, then cut it lengthwise into strips of about 1/2cm square.

Place the tuna, carrots, spring onions, cabbage, coriander, pine nuts and dressing in a bowl. Toss to dress and divide between 4 plates.

Make a little well in the centre of each and place an egg yolk on top.

Sprinkle with sesame seeds and grind over some white pepper, serve immediately.

© Neil Perry 2011


– FURTHER INFORMATION –

CHEF : NEIL PERRY  

Rockpool Restaurant – Sydney

Rockpool Bar and Grill – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth

Spice Temple – Sydney, Melbourne

Waiting Room – Melbourne 

http://www.rockpool.com/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Rockpool-Group/211178038902097

https://twitter.com/#!/rockpoolgroup

reservations@rockpool.com


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