On Tuesday night, after a fraught week of cooking, packing and dodging raindrops, Neil Perry opened the doors of his new Rockpool restaurant at 11 Bridge Street. But not to the public, to 100 guests of Qantas. He had planned to move his iconic George Street restaurant to the new location in just three days. But things did not go according to plan.
Perry and his team managed to serve dinner to the Qantas crowd on Tuesday but the food had to be prepared in the old restaurant and ferried by removal vans to the new. It was supposed to open to the public on Wednesday but it was not ready. It opened on Thursday night amid continued chaos.
Hours before the paying public walked through the door, Perry was stressed and nervous: "It's been a pretty hairy week and it will be hairy tonight as well. Tradesmen are still everywhere, one of my kids is sick, and has been for a week and a half. It has all been incredibly stressful. But you wouldn't trade it for the world."
How to move a restaurant (or not) in three days
Thursday November 7, 2.34pm, Rockpool offices 66 Hunter Street, Sydney
Marketing and sponsorship manager Tara Seymour is juggling schedules for Perry and the removalists. "The new kitchen is being freighted from Melbourne tonight," she says. "It will be tight but everything is on schedule so far. Though there are still no basins in the bathrooms at Bridge Street."
Friday Nov 8, 6.30am, Perry's mobile phone
A text message from Mark Wetherspoon, the builder: "Don't panic but the kitchen didn't make it onto the truck."
Saturday Nov 9, 8.34am, new Rockpool, 11 Bridge Street, Sydney
Climbing the stairs of the historic Burns Philp building in Bridge Street, I squeeze past removalists lugging stainless steel benches and sinks to find Perry standing in the centre of, what will be, the new dining room. The delayed kitchen seem to be the least of his problems. Perry is surrounded by electrical cables, tool boxes and large pieces of the kitchen which has just arrived, wrapped in plastic. "I'm Zen. Yesterday we weren't going to make it, with the kitchen missing," he says. "But now that it's here we'll be OK. Mark's team will work 18-hour days to ensure it will be," Perry tells me above the din of circular saws and drills.
In the kitchen, there is no chatter, no blaring radio, just a team of electricians, plumbers and stainless steel specialists working quickly and methodically. "The fridges are from Switzerland," says Perry. "The rest of the kitchen has been made in Victoria."
Saturday noon, Rockpool George Street
Sydney staff have lunch and are briefed on the weekend's events. After lunch, prep starts for the final dinner. This evening's menu comprises Neil's favourite dishes of the past 24 years. Salt cod tortellini with burnt butter and yoghurt, sweet pork, mud crab and green pawpaw salad, Korean-style tuna tartare, Chinese roast duck and scallop salad with Sichuan pickles; stir-fried squid with smoked bacon, squid ink noodles, chilli and coriander, slow roast lamb with red braised vegetables and aioli, strawberries and cream with coconut sorbet, date tart (original since 1984).
Saturday 6pm, Rockpool George Street
Josephine Perry, Neil's 19-year-old daughter and Rockpool's hostess, opens the doors of the 24-year-old restaurant for the final time. "It is really nice to see dad at the pass again," says Josephine of Perry busy in the kitchen in his whites. "That is a very old memory for me."
Saturday 6.34pm, Rockpool George Street
John Susman of Fishtales, a long-time supplier and friend of Perry, was here for the first service, and now for the last. "I celebrated my 30th birthday here, my wedding, the birth of my two children and I've snuck in here with mates after we've had a horse win at Randwick," he says. "I think I am one of a handful of people that have eaten at every Neil Perry restaurant, 27 restaurants in all," he says.
Saturday 11.28pm, Rockpool George Street
Sam Perry, Neil's wife, acts as official photographer and snaps friends and family for the Rockpool family album. "He was out the door at 6am this morning," she says. "And he'll be out the door by 6am tomorrow too."
Saturday 12.54am, Rockpool George Street
Perry emerges from the kitchen for a drink with Sam and friends. The kitchen team breaks down the kitchen for the last time. At 2am he addresses the staff over drinks, thanking them for a fantastic final service. He readjusts tomorrow's start time from 8am to 1pm.
Sunday Nov 10, 7am, Rockpool George Street
Plumbers and tradies arrive to remove the dishwashers and other equipment required at the new site.
Sunday 1pm, Rockpool George Street
Packing day. Staff arrive, blurry eyed to begin packing, including 650 bottles of wine. Richards is carrying boxes of glasses. Chef Michael Clift is lugging crates of platters. Restaurant manager Tom Coleman is wrapping the new staff uniforms. I ask him what time everyone left last night. "Somewhere between 2.30am and 5am," he says. "It was a fun evening, not at all sad. It's not the end of an era, it is the beginning of an exciting new phase."
Sunday 2.14pm, new Rockpool
Wetherspoon who has been fitting out Perry restaurants for 18 years, is overseeing electricians connecting the equipment. "We should be on time but we can only work with what we can control," he says.
Sunday 2.34pm, Rockpool George Street
The weather can't be controlled. "I've been watching the long-range weather forecast for weeks," says Perry. "It does not look good for moving day."
Monday Nov 11, 7am, Rockpool George Street
Moving Day. The rain is heavy. Staff and removalists load box after box into trucks. Over at the new premises, these are ferried into the building, where more than 100 new chairs have arrived.
Monday 2pm, new Rockpool: decision time
Perry elects not to open for dinner to the public on Wednesday night. "There is no one single thing preventing the opening but lots of little things aren't running to time, which will prevent the team being able to offer the best possible experience," he says. "It is important we focus on our event for Qantas tomorrow night."
Tuesday Nov 12, 8am, new Rockpool
The cellar is being stocked. Wetherspoon and his tradesmen keep working. The kitchen is not yet ready to be fired up.
Tuesday 9am, Rockpool George Street
The kitchen team begins prepping for tonight's Qantas dinner, in the "old" George Street kitchen. The new kitchen is not ready. Throughout the day ingredients are moved between the George and Bridge street kitchens. "It worked quite well. Thankfully we still had the keys to George Street," says reservations and functions manager, Miranda Cheng.
Perry leaves Bridge Street for a prior commitment he cannot move. Tradespeople and Rockpool staff continue preparing for the function at 6.30pm.
Tuesday 6pm, new Rockpool
"Open doors!" instruct Josephine Perry and Cheng, who greet guests at Bridge Street for the first time. Qantas guests arrive. Rockpool staff look smart in their new uniforms by Dallen.
Tuesday 6.30pm, new Rockpool
Perry's car turns into Bridge Street and he spies a fire truck in front of the Burns Philp building. "I walked in as guests were arriving. I went to the kitchen to find Phil Wood having a nervous breakdown because an electrician had put a 45 degree Celsius fire sprinkler next to the combi oven. The entire pastry section was soaked the moment they opened the oven," he says. "Thankfully, we only lost one date tart and one tray of pastry."
Tuesday 10.15pm, new Rockpool
The first service has gone well and final guests leave. But behind the scenes it has been chaos. The food prepped at George Street was moved to the new kitchen - which is still not fully functioning - in moving vans.
Wednesday Nov 13, new Rockpool
Electricians keep wiring the kitchen and dealing with the sprinkler issue. Everyone sighs with relief that tonight's service has been cancelled.
Thursday Nov 14, 9.43am new Rockpool
As I climb the stairs again I pass ladders, buckets and tool boxes. Tradesmen are still working. I step over industrial vacuum cleaners, saws and cords. Wood is in the kitchen with five staff. "We are getting there."
Richards is on the phone and buoying the team. Tonight is the first service for the public – 24 hours behind schedule. Everyone, though clearly exhausted, is in high spirits.
Thursday 5.30pm, Rockpool 11 Bridge St, Sydney
The builders and tradesmen finally leave. The restaurant, with the full quota of floor staff, is ready for its debut to the public.
Thursday 8pm, Rockpool 11 Bridge St, Sydney
There are 70 covers. Phil Wood is much more relaxed, no sprinkler issues this evening.
Friday Nov 15, 9.32am, Rockpool Offices, 66 Hunter Street, Sydney
"Last night was terrific!" says Neil. "Tonight we will have 80 covers and on Saturday 110, it is beginning to sing and the room is finally finished and looking fabulous."