High-flying Rockpool chef Neil Perry spends almost as much time on the road as he does at home in Sydney. That’s what happens when you you have restaurants in three Australian states – Rockpool on George, Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple in Sydney, Rockpool Bar & Grill in Perth, and Spice Temple, Rockpool Bar & Grill and new Rosetta Ristorante in Melbourne – and you oversee the menus for Qantas’s first- and business-class passengers. Currently launching his seventh book, Easy Weekends (Murdoch Books, AU$50), Neil talks about his life, work and travel passions.
What made you become a chef?
As a young waiter in Sydney, many moons ago, I stood on the flip side of the restaurant pass watching the chefs in the kitchen. I realised I was standing on the wrong side. In my mind, I became a chef at that moment and went on to run the kitchen. In 1989, I opened Rockpool (now Rockpool on George) with my cousin and business partner Trish. It was the proudest day of my working life, and both Trish and Rockpool remain with me today.
As a young chef, who inspired you?
I was inspired by the energy around me. I worked in places such as Berowra Waters Inn with Gay Bilson, and was influenced by Stephanie Alexander and industry stalwarts such as Barry McDonald and Simon Johnson. Some have remained working as chefs and floor staff at the highest level, others went on to become some of Australia’s greatest providores, writers and industry leaders.
What about now, three decades on?
I am continually inspired by other chefs, every day. Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Andoni Aduriz and René Redzepi to name but a few… Tetsuya, Shannon Bennett and Fuchsia Dunlop are others, as are the young men and women that run my restaurants now. It feels great to be excited by the next generation and I’m sure we will be leaving the industry in safe hands. All in good time though…
Do you spend much time in the kitchen these days?
I am constantly in my kitchens, though not doing the solid services I once did. With so many restaurants, a lot of my time is spent overseeing and I have such talented, hard-working staff that I’m now in a position to hand over some of the responsibility. Having said that, I am never happier than when I’m cooking alongside my chefs.
What’s your favourite hotel and why?
I love The Upper House (left) in Hong Kong. My wife Sam and I have stayed there a couple of times and they greet you like long lost family. The rooms are sublime, the service unbeatable, and to top that off with a great restaurant and cocktail bar is more than anyone could ask for.
Describe your perfect weekend away.
If I’m in need of a minibreak, I’ll try to get the family away with me to Perth or Melbourne so we can spend some time around my work commitments eating in our favourite restaurants and chilling out. I would, however, love to make the trip to Hobart soon to check out MONA gallery, Garagistes restaurant and all that Tasmania has to offer.
Who is your ideal travel companion?
Definitely Sam. We share a love of good food and wine, travel, and have similar ideals when it comes to the level of luxury we are after. We both love to ski as well. As my daughters get older – especially since my eldest is now at a great age to accompany me on so many trips – it gets even better.
Where’s the most romantic place you’ve been?
Our best moments have been just finding quiet, unassuming little restaurants with delicious food and wine on a balmy European evening, and sitting there talking and drinking it all in. We have wonderful memories of our journeys to Rome (right), France, Spain and Denmark.
What are your hotel loves and hates?
Good, free WiFi access is the first thing I look for. Hates include rooms too small to swing a cat in and bathrooms with dangerous floors. I nearly killed myself in a slippery London hotel bathroom.
What would you show a visitor to Sydney?
First, I take visitors to one of my restaurants, of course – Rockpool on George, Rockpool Bar & Grill or Spice Temple. I love to get them out on a boat on the harbour, show them the fish markets, take them to Chinatown for a late-night feed of pippies at Golden Century, swing by the wonderful MCA gallery and, if there’s time, drive up the Northern Beaches to Palm Beach. It never fails to impress. And you have to take overseas visitors to Icebergs bar/dining room in Bondi.
Share some top Sydney spots.
Room 10 (10 Llankelly Place, Potts Point) is a firm family favourite for breakfast. As well as great espresso, they do a knockout bircher muesli. At lunchtime, try Fratelli Fresh for beautiful, fresh pasta and salads, or Kitchen By Mike. For a relaxed, long weekend lunch, head to Chiswick restaurant. There’s also a tasty Korean barbecue at Madang (371a Pitt Street, city) and if I had to choose a Chinese place that wasn’t Spice Temple it would be Chairman Mao (189 Anzac Parade, Kensington). The Bridge Room has some of the city’s best food and is a great night out.
Read Neil Perry’s insider tips from Los Angeles to London. Rockpool dining isn’t restricted to terra firma: for 15 years Neil Perry has been devising the award-winning menus for first- and business-class cabins on Qantas, Asutralia’s national carrier, and also for the first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.
*Compiled by Carrie Hutchinson