Neil Perry is arguably Australia’s most famous chef, but did you know that he sources a lot of his fresh produce from right here in Wauchope on the Mid-North Coast?
> You source a lot of your fresh ingredients from ‘The Company Farm’ right here in Wauchope on the Mid-North Coast. Tell us a little about the Farm.
I love the farm! We, at Rockpool were its first customer – and of course, Trish my cousin and business partner owns it. The farm has always been a home away from home to me and my family – a place to relax, unwind, hit the petanque court or hang out down by the river looking for the platypus. It is, above all, a place that grows beautiful produce that supplies our restaurant – everything from saladini and fabulous herbs to citrus and Asian vegetables. Trish has always tried to grow as chemical free as possible and will use organic fertilizers and natural manures and mulch to keep the goodness and moisture in the ground and everything tasting wonderful.
> How important is having the best quality ingredients for each meal in the overall success of your restaurants?
1000%. It is 1000% about the quality of the produce….then of course, it is also 1000% about the patience and love with which those ingredients are handled. It is about the quality of the staff, the design, the form, the function – all of that. But produce itself is where many restaurants go wrong. They skimp and save and fail to buy the best they can afford – or they spend on the produce and treat it harshly. We should all always shop seasonally as much as we possibly can. Forget mangoes in June. Forget asparagus in April. We live in a wonderful environment that supplies us generously…and close to countries that excel in ingredients that perhaps we don’t…. so we share. Let’s hope we don’t stuff it all up by being ignorant to the consequences of our actions.
> Tell us about The Rockpool. What was your inspiration for the award-winning restaurant?
Rockpool is my baby and next to my family, my life… which is a good thing because the majority of my waking life is spent there. When I’m not here, I’m at the new restaurant in Melbourne – Rockpool Bar & Grill. When you own a restaurant, you have to live and breathe it for it to grow. There is nothing else I would rather do though. I am incredibly proud of both my restaurants. I set out nearly 18 years ago to establish a restaurant that would one day be Australia’s best…
>How would you describe your cooking style and the cuisine you serve?
We have had every label under the sun thrown at us. I guess at the end of the day we are modern Asian with a strong emphasis on seafood. I have always been inspired by the countries I travel to – whether it is Thailand, Spain, France or America – and continually inspired by my peers. I cook using the best produce – David Blakmore’s wagyu beef, greens from the Company Farm, the best seafood from around Australia, truffles from France or Western Australia.
> Rockpool Sessions has become a very popular series on Austar’s Lifestyle Channel. How different is the pressure behind the camera compared to a busy kitchen?
Completely different. The pressure behind the stoves is fuelled by the knowledge that there is no second take. If we stuff up, there is no producer to yell “cut! Let’s do that again!” I am constantly aware that for many diners at Rockpool, they are there for a once in a lifetime experience – I want them to take away wonderful memories and an incredible evening that will stay with them forever. THAT is pressure. The television show is always a huge amount of fun to make. I’m very proud of the Rockpool Sessions and I got the chance to work with a great bunch of talented people from a different industry and world.
> What is your all time favourite dish?
In the last 18 years, I have created many dishes that I love. I love them all or they wouldn’t be on my menu. Asking me which is my favourite dish of all time is like asking a mother of 10 to choose her favourite child! Even if she could answer, I’m sure it would depend on her mood! When it comes to other people’s food….I seriously love the truffle tart at Robuchon.
> What motivated you to become who you are today? Was there anyone in the industry who really inspired you?
Many people have been instrumental in my life when it comes to food and cooking. My dad was an incredible butcher, fisherman and gardener. He taught me so much, and yet I never really realised quite the person he was or all that he had taught me until he was gone. When it comes to my peers, I get inspired continually by a person, a dish, a restaurant – sometimes something as simple as a texture, a smell or a place in time. At the moment, I am excited by the food created by the hands of such luminaries as Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Tom Collicchio, Feran Adria and Phil Howard amongst others. Alain Ducasse rules supreme as perhaps the greatest chef of all time in my eyes. I am inspired also by the wonderful Khan Danis who has been the head chef at Rockpool for years and is now at the helm in Melbourne – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Khan Danis cooks more like me than I think I do!
>You have personally designed the menu on all Qantas flights. How much of a challenge was this?
I have learnt an enormous amount through the Qantas project…about business…and the challenges of recreating restaurant food in the air. When we design our quarterly menus for Qantas flights internationally, we have to take into account everything that may go wrong up there – this can be anything from time constraints, the ability of our taste buds to tone down above the clouds, to weather-induced turbulence. We need to design the menus to be culturally sensitive and to take advantage of certain products that may be a standout in one country and lousy in the next. It is an intense and challenging process designing these menus and staying on top of the game in terms of originality and quality..
> You’ve penned some very successful cookbooks over the recent years consisting of a wide variety of cultural cuisines. How much work and time goes into each book?
A lot of time, love and energy. And a lot of blood sweat and tears. I would love to one day swing in my hammock on a tropical island and write to my hearts’ content. The reality is – I get excited by an idea – my publisher gets excited too – I grab my team and we start researching the recipes and trawling back through years of recipe files. I write. The guys recipe test then retest. We do the photo shoot then re-write the recipes with any changes – then I try to find those quiet moments that are as rare as hens teeth – to write all the other stuff – all the stuff that hopefully makes my books the type that will not only sit in people’s book shelves, but also lie open on the kitchen bench covered in stock and butter stains for years to come. The creative process from our end can take anything from 4 to 8 months, and it’ll be another 9 months till we see it on the shelves. I love writing books. I love being a part of a different creative process. I love putting my passion into words.
> You come across as a very community conscious man who’s passion lies in various charity work. Tell us more about the organisations you’re involved in.
I believe that we need to give back to the community to the best of our ability, as individuals.
I get that many requests for donations of both time and money, that these days I concentrate very much on charities for children…”The Starlight Childrens’ Foundation” and “Bestest”, a foundation that I sit on the board of are two favourites. Last year for Bestest we raised over $700,000 at one dinner alone with every single cent going to the kids.
“Bestest” distributes funds to Bear Cottage in Manly and The Steve Waugh Foundation amongst many others. Children’s charities are very close to my heart. I believe the people running these foundations are nothing short of incredible.
> You’re already beginning to conquer Australia with restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, programs on The Lifestyle Channel and a multitude of books. What does the future hold?
Hopefully a bit of a rest and a little more time with my family. I am happy concentrating on the restaurants and charity work at the moment. We have our next “Bestest” dinner coming up in March, hot on the back of a couple of weeks in America plugging produce and cooking for thousands as part of Gday USA Australia Week celebrations.. After that I’ll be organising the “Ultimate Dinner” again for the “Starlight Childrens’ Foundation”. I have two books coming out this year, both of which I am very excited about, and then there’s a little TV thing happening.
Did I mention something earlier about a hammock and a tropical island?
> Thank You for your time Neil.