You don’t work in restaurants for two decades without picking up a few war wounds. Just ask Neil Perry. Australia’s best-known chef has had more scrapes, scalds and scars than he can remember, not to mention a chronic back injury that, in 2005, had him popping 70 Nurofen per week. To this day, his back still causes shooting pain in his legs. “Apart from that I’m in good shape,” he grins.
This laconic Aussie understatement is typical of Perry. Even in the most trying of circumstances, he can still smile and say, “No worries mate”. It’s a trait that has stood him in good stead because, down the years, the hospitality industry has dished out some financial pain for him too.
Today, I’m talking to Perry in his plush art deco Rockpool Bar and Grill in Sydney – one of seven fine-dining restaurants in an empire that now stretches 4,000km from here, south to Melbourne and west to Perth. He also co-ordinates Qantas first and business class menus across the globe, while his television appearances have made him a household name. But the path to this success was far from smooth.
“In the late 1990s, I opened too many restaurants and didn’t have my infrastructure set up properly. And I chose the wrong sites,” he says, with a shudder. “I had 300 staff and I had to bring it down to 50. I lost probably about AU$4million. And I could have actually pulled the pin, like some people do.”
What saved him, he admits, was the Sydney Olympics in 2000. “We were really lucky that we were in the right place at the right time. We made quite a lot of money out of those few weeks and it changed the role of the company in a cashflow sense. It allowed me and my two partners to take some really heavy hits personally but to trade out of it.”
However, once the Olympic effect had passed, it was time to take stock. “You learn twice as much from a disaster because it’s actually quite painful,” says Perry. “And I learnt from my mistakes.”
Lesson one was the old adage: location, location, location. “It’s not just about cooking and food and service and ambience,” says Perry. “It’s [also] about where and what that site brings to the equation. I learned the hard way but it was a really awesome lesson because, going forward now, my business is structured around always choosing the right place first.”
This explains why all of Perry’s Melbourne restaurants are located in the enormous (and busy) Crown Casino complex. Similarly, his Perth restaurant sits in the bustling Burswood Entertainment Complex, a casino and entertainment mecca owned by Crown Limited. And he’s about to move his flagship Sydney restaurant, Rockpool on George, into the sandstone grandeur of the Burns Philip building.
As for lesson two? “The mistakes I made in the 1990s made me understand the importance of brand building,” explains Perry. “I think that’s a really important part of what we do. We don’t open restaurants – we build brands.” Starting from day one. “Our openings are great. They require me to be there for two or three months, night and day. In the kitchen I do lunch and dinner and I brief the staff every day. And by the end of that process, every single person that works for me completely understands what we’re trying to achieve, and that’s why we have the quality of restaurants we have.”
Perry’s brand philosophy also applies to his suppliers. “We’ve always felt that the strength of the restaurant is through the people who supply us,” he says. “That’s the beautiful ingredients that come in, the beautiful wine. It’s also if a guy comes in with a stack of tablecloths, we don’t stick them in the corner and crush them. We have to look after everything. I hate chefs who take a piece of fish and throw it on a board or don’t pick up something with respect for the people who grew it or fished it. That’s a fundamental that we’re really focused on.”
The same respect is also reserved for the consultants Perry works with, from kitchen designer Chris Love, to graphic designer Fiona Mahon, to architect Grant Cheyne. “I brief an architect thoroughly on what my expectation for that space is, and then I allow him to bring the best of me out of that space,” says Perry. “There’s no use having a dog and barking yourself. I can’t stand people who stop architects from creating.”
Here, Perry points to a chandelier (see picture) – made up of more than 2,500 wine glasses – that dangles above the bar. “Grant came to me and said, ‘This restaurant is all about wine. I’ve got this idea. You’re going to hate it because every month you’re going to have to clean it.’ I said, ‘OK buddy what is it?’ And it’s those $70,000 worth of Riedel glasses hanging there. Now, if it had been up to me there would have been two rows of glasses there because I think about the practicality of it.” But the end result is a striking feature that customers notice, and enquire about, every day.
It’s no surprise that Perry knows how to get the best from consultants, because he is one himself. For the past 17 years, he and his team have provided an extensive and integrated food advisory service to airline Qantas. “We work on all new products, we work on service, we work on delivery, we work on menu planning and I work on the brand council with only three other outside consultants to plot the direction Qantas is going in,” he explains.
Then there is Perry’s recently-announced consulting role for Crown Hotels, where he will not only advise on the menus in restaurants, room service and banqueting, but also take an active role in recruiting, training and mentoring the culinary staff. “That’s a big push for me over the next 12 months,” he says. “I want to ensure that the banqueting business continues to grow; that people are eating room service and saying this is the best room service in Australia.” It’s a particularly mouthwatering prospect for Perry because, in the next few years, Crown will open two gigantic six-star hotels (Crown Towers in Perth and another in Sydney’s Barangaroo development).
So while his past may has been blighted by growing pains, Perry’s future looks exceedingly healthy. “My life is so exciting and full of innovation and I have a wonderful group of like-minded people around me,” he says. “There are a lot of great opportunities ahead.”