Rockpool reflections: Neil Perry celebrates 25 years
After celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rockpool earlier this year, Neil Perry talks to Hospitality about creating memories, making mistakes, and mentoring the future generation of restaurant professionals.
“Hello, is Neil there please?” No need to say his surname; he’s like the Madonna of Australia’s culinary scene, only classier. I’d been chasing this interview for weeks, hoping to get a few minutes of Neil Perry’s time, to congratulate him on Rockpool’s 25th anniversary, and hopefully get some insight into exactly how he’s managed to last so long in what we all know is a formidable industry.
“It’s amazing. It’s a great honour to be in a city that has respected a restaurant for that long and continued to help it survive and be vibrant,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like 100 years and in other times it feels like the blink of an eye.”
Perry has been a successful chef and restaurateur for more than 30 years. His name, and the Rockpool group of restaurants he oversees, is synonymous with attention to detail, elegance and professionalism. Yet despite how well regarded he is in the industry and amongst diners both domestically and around the world, Perry hasn’t rested on his laurels at any time over his career. He’s continually grown and evolved his business not only to suit Australian diners’ demands, but to expose them to a quality of food and service that isn’t easy to come by.
In November last year, Perry’s baby, Rockpool, shut the doors of its George street location, where it had resided since its inception in 1989, reopening on the ground floor of the 115 year old Burns Philp building on Bridge street.
As is always the case with changing a business’ location, there was a degree of risk involved, but Perry insists the move has worked in Rockpool’s favour.
Shifting from George street to Bridge street not only allowed Rockpool, which Perry owns with his cousin and business partner Trish Richards, to take stronger advantage of the corporate clientele than the George street location allowed, it was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the brand without deviating from its core offering.
“We didn’t take the move lightly, but it really needed a lot of work on the fabric of the building in George street, so that was the reason we moved. It would probably have been two years’ worth of renovations and then we would have had to renovate the restaurant after that. We made the decision to move and we couldn’t believe that we could find a place that was so suitable, and where we could take the heritage and experience of Rockpool into a new space and kind of rebirth it.”
Like its predecessor, the Bridge street location seats about 100 people, but unlike George street, it’s given Perry and his team more room to move and be creative. The back of house area is more spacious, and the upstairs area not only houses Perry’s office, but a wine storage area, change room and soon a development kitchen which will allow chefs to work on new recipes, not just for Rockpool, but for other venues in the group including Rockpool Bar and Grill (in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth), Spice Temple (Sydney and Melbourne), and Rosetta Ristorante (Melbourne).
One of the best things about the new site is its contemporary, yet classic design. “The new site is really awesome,” Perry says. “In the brief I said I wanted it to be elegant, sophisticated and almost more SoHo than Sydney, in that America is quite good at taking older buildings and inserting contemporary fit-outs in them. Sometimes heritage holds us back here in Sydney; we end up with some sort of faux period piece within a heritage building. So it was really lovely to be able to create something that is amazing and contemporary yet still pays some beautiful homage to the heritage of the building.”
Some might say there’s a certain degree of luck required to operating a successful – let alone iconic – restaurant in Sydney, but when you speak with Perry, you get the strict impression that his success and the success of the Rockpool group is the result of a lot of careful thought and strategy.
“I made a conscious decision [25 years ago] that I wanted to open a world-class restaurant. I wanted to have the best service, the best wine list and the best food that I could deliver in an environment that excited people and gave them a dining experience. And I think you’d probably have to say that I’ve achieved that. For most of its life, Rockpool has had three hats; it’s won Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant of the Year four times; it spent seven years in the top 50 restaurants in the world. But we’ve still got a lot to achieve. We’ve got a lot ahead of us and we feel renewed and invigorated in the new space. We’re excited about the future, the next 25 years.”
Perry is very quick to praise his 650-strong team when discussing his successes. As much as he still loves tossing the pans, he’s not in the kitchen as much as he used to be. Instead he takes pride in mentoring younger industry members and providing them with opportunities to thrive and grow in the hospitality sector.
Rockpool, Bridge street
“I’m really lucky to be working with a brilliant crew of people across all my restaurants. I have great chefs, managers, GMs and sommeliers, and lots of really brilliant folks who keep me young and relevant and make me want to get out of bed everyday. The crew that I work with are the most important people, and together with the major suppliers who we work with daily, make the restaurant come to life. They’re incredible,” he says.
Sitting alongside his staff and suppliers are the people who helped Perry get to where he is today. First and foremost is his Dad, he says, closely followed by a long list of hospitality heroes including Stephanie Alexander, Damien Pignolet, Steve Manfredi, David Thompson, Thomas Keller, Tetsuya Wakadu and Guillaume Brahimi, as well as entrepreneurs and business brains such as James Packer, Qantas’ Alan Joyce and ‘coffee king’ Les Schirato.
“These are all people that you can ask advice from and talk to, that have a wealth of information and an understanding about business. So I’ve been very, very lucky.”
Now and then
While he has a long list of industry members that he’s drawn inspiration from over the years, Perry says there are so many more skilled, passionate professionals in hospitality today than there was when he was a budding young chef. The sheer number of motivated, accomplished young industry members means it’s not only easier to run a successful business, it also breathes life into the entire industry.
“Many young people have travelled overseas and learnt there. All my GMs have spent time overseas and many of my chefs have done the same thing. Twenty-five to 30 years ago there weren’t a lot of great people on the ground, whereas now there are a lot of fantastic young chefs, restaurateurs, managers and sommeliers who are going out and opening restaurants where they can afford to not spend too much money and the rent’s cheap, but they’re cooking with great craft and they’re cooking interesting food and using lovely ingredients.
“The winner is the dining public. That’s what’s really fantastic about it. There’s a great array of fantastic restaurants now that we didn’t have [before]; there was probably four great restaurants in 1983 when I first started out,” he says.
(Other than Phil Wood and Andrew Evans from his own team, Perry lists Matt Lindsay (Ester), Nathan Sasi (Nomad) and Daniel Puskas and James Parry (Sixpenny) as young chefs to watch).
But despite having access to lots of very capable young people, Perry admits business is definitely harder than it was back in the day.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Thirty-five years ago when I got into business there was no random breath testing, there was no Fringe Benefit Tax. When we first started Rockpool there was no superannuation. We were one small restaurant, so we weren’t paying payroll tax; there was no GST; there wasn’t much government red tape; the Modern Award hadn’t started, which since WorkChoices has just been disastrous for the industry. So you just absolutely have history lined up against you, and anyone who wants to go into business needs to come in with their eyes wide open. It’s difficult.”
So what advice does he have for young chefs looking to follow in his footsteps? Number one: expect to work hard.
“You’ve got to work two lifetimes in one. There’s no doubt about this: it’s the toughest industry there is.”
Number two: expect to make mistakes.
“And every single mistake that you make, analyse the absolute shit out of it. Why did that happen? Where did I make the mistake? Why didn’t they come? Why didn’t I get the spend per head? Why did the staff leave? And figure out how you can never make that mistake again.”
In no way does Perry see himself as someone who’s mastered the art of running restaurants; he’s made his fair share of mistakes and credits them as key contributors to his success today.
“I’ve made heaps. I’m only successful today because of all the mistake I made in the past. We started Rockpool in ’89. By ’97 we had like five restaurants and noodle bars and 300 staff, and by 2000 I was $2 million in debt. I probably could have quite easily folded the business and gone into administration, but both Trish and I took a lot of hits personally, and we figured out a path through it because we would never let our friends and suppliers and staff down,” he says.
“And every single time that I’ve opened a restaurant subsequently, I’ve looked at that experience and thought about why that won’t happen now … You need to learn more from your mistakes than from your triumphs. If you lose money or make mistakes or embarrass yourself, it’s probably a really good thing to put in the back of your mind and never ever forget.”
Perry says one of the most important lessons he’s learnt over the course of his career is that it takes more than great food and attentive service to keep a restaurant afloat. Entertainment is an important part of the business, and he won’t consider a location unless he can sees the site contributing something special to the overall dining experience.
In addition to understanding what a memorable eating experience involves, budding restaurateurs also need a strong dose of business nous. While it’s important, passion can’t pay the bills.
“If you don’t have a business plan, you can’t make it. Don’t write the menu first, write the budget. That tells you everything you can do; that tells you how much money you can spend. And that’s only a forecast, so you don’t really know if you can achieve that, but if you don’t have that idea in the first place, it’s going to be a complete disaster.”
There’s more: never forget that you’re in the business of creating memories; make it clear that you care about your staff, suppliers, and of course your diners, and make sure all of these stakeholders understand, share and exude your business’ philosophy.
In the brief half hour or so that I spent chatting with Neil Perry, a few of his qualities shone through. Humble, yet proud. Passionate, yet pragmatic. And reflective, but with a very obvious desire to push on, innovate and make the future even better than the past. Despite one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in Australia’s history, I get the impression that the best is yet to come.
“I think we’ll go overseas and continue to grow over there. And then we’ll make sure that every single restaurant we have in Australia gets better and better and better. I never want to have a restaurant group that’s not regarded as being one of the best in the world,” he says.
“We’re not mucking around here, we’re trying to create the best restaurants we possibly can.”