Rockpool Dining Group's Neil Perry On The Pan-Asian Table That Is Australian Cuisine
“I’m turning 62 this year but I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon,” quips celebrated Australian chef Neil Perry. And why would he when he’s at the peak of a brilliant career spanning over three decades?
He is often referred to as the man behind the Rockpool Dining Group, which owns acclaimed restaurants such as Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple; and where he continues to serve as the group’s chief brand and culinary officer even after it was acquired by Quadrant Private Equity in 2015.
For the past 22 years, he has also been the creative director for food, beverage and service at Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, and has the arduous but fulfilling task of constantly changing and improving the menus for both the meals served onboard and at the airline's first class lounge at Changi Singapore. In fact, the lounge which will undergo a makeover to include an a la carte restaurant-style dining with an open kitchen, will also boasts a cocktail bar. The more luxurious look will be launched at the end of 2019.
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Perry and his team of Qantas-Rockpool sommeliers (who work for both Qantas and Rockpool) also take care of the wine selection, which won top accolades at the Cellars in the Sky 2018 awards. “Qantas is renowned for bringing the best of Australian wine to the world and we pride ourselves on offering blends that celebrate both boutique and classic wine styles, grape varieties and regions,” shares Perry, adding that they are the third largest purchaser of Australian labels.
He likens his role to being “captain of the Australian team”; it’s also a badge of honour he proudly wears as it it gives him a platform to not only showcase excellent Australian wines but also his brand of Australian cuisine, which he explains is rooted in the country’s close affinity with Asia.
“We see ourselves as incredibly linked to Asia, more than America and Europe," he declares, explaining how he feels the connection adds to the intricate fabric that makes up their food and culture. Due to its close proximity, "we travelled a lot to Asia, particularly Bangkok, Bali and China while growing up", and this is one of the reasons why he believes Australians have a better appreciation of such cuisines.
A good part of its population are of Asian heritage, too, so "we've imported pieces of their beautiful culture". In fact, to Perry, Australian cuisine is all about great produce cooked with beautiful Asian influences. This is evident in how he dreams up delicious dishes using mostly exquisite harvest from Australia—80 per cent, to be exact—but with beautiful Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese or Japanese touches.
For example, the silken egg custard that's served on the Qantas first class menu, was inspired by one of his many trips to China. “My companions and I would always go out and have big food spreads there, and then one time, I encountered this beautiful custard dish,” he recalls, adding how he quickly fell in love with its smooth, silky texture. His version, which is similar to the Japanese chawanmunshi, is topped with portions of stir-fried duck, quail eggs and a generous sprinkle of cashews.
Perry has been playing with Asian flavours since the early days of his career, as showcased in the classic Rockpool snapper, one of the main options onboard. “It’s a cross between Indian and Thai cuisine; the gorgeous slice of fish is gently poached in a piquant curry sauce that renders it extremely moist and delicious,” he explains. Gara masala is used to spice things up, but not too much as he needs to cater to a range of palates.
When choosing produce—whether it’s a beautiful piece of beef or pristine seafood— Perry ensures that it’s sustainably sourced. With the way the world is growing exponentially and the possibility of not having enough food to feed 7.2 billion people, he says that “chefs and restaurateurs should be the leaders in this conversation, as ingredients and provenance are important to us”.
It helps that he has acquired a “celebrity chef” status, a title he says he is only comfortable with if it puts him in the position to make positive changes. “We have to use that moment of fame or concentration of people looking at us to make as much noise as possible for all the right reasons.”
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On most days, he sees himself as a regular chef who still clocks in a fair bit of hours in the kitchen, though, he admitted with a laugh that he’s in “a lot of different kitchens in different states or countries” every week.
With experience he has sharpened over the years; he has seen his role evolve into more of a mentor to his staff which he does by working closely with the team. In coming up with new menus for Qantas, he guides the team by starting with a blank wall where various destinations are written on post its, to which they add all the dishes they've come up with. Sometimes, they have 50 soups that they narrow down based on what would or would not work in places such as Singapore, Los Angeles or London.
"These are alll written down and processed into menus," he states, adding that it's another long process of choosing ingredients, simplifying dishes based on the given budget, and doing menu tastings for eight to 10 weeks until they're happy with the final product. "We tweak as much as we can to make it as foolproof as possible, which the catering staff can easily follow."
At his restaurants in Australia, he starts the day by talking to his team and asking them why they love food, what they love cooking, where they've travelled to and what inspirations they got from the experience. “I want to help them be the best they can be, and be better sommeliers, chefs or restaurant managers.” At the end of the day, he just wants them to love and be passionate about what they do.
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Images courtesy of Qantas Airways