Next generation follows top chefs into the kitchen

Close: Josephine Perry, 19, began working with her father Neil at 14.
Close: Josephine Perry, 19, began working with her father Neil at 14. Photo: Janie Barrett

Their parents call them ''restaurant babies''. Theirs is an unusual childhood - holidays in France and Italy dining at the best Michelin starred restaurants despite pleas for McDonald's, opening their own ''pop-up restaurants'' for Mother's Day, and being put to work young in the family business. Often working for their parents was the only time they got to see them, so unfamily-friendly, bordering on brutal, are the hours in the hospitality industry. So why on earth would these kids follow their dad and mum into the trade?

The Perrys

Neil Perry, 56 (owner - Rockpool, Spice Temple and Rockpool Bar and Grill) and daughter Josephine, 19 (host, Rockpool)

JP I first started working for the Rockpool Group when I was 14. I was working at Spice Temple just on Friday and Saturday nights after school. Being a 14-year-old girl, I thought the lifestyle was really cool - working in hospitality, getting to work with dad.

Josephine at Rockpool Bar and Grill.
Josephine at Rockpool Bar and Grill. Photo: Marco Del Grande

I grew up with older people - I was always really chatty, loved talking to people and meeting new people.

NP I wasn't worried when Josephine said she wanted to start working. A lot of 14-year-olds say they want to work at McDonald's or do a paper run. Josephine, like a lot of people her age, was looking for pocket money. I was very proud of her that she wanted to go out and earn her own money. But more proud of her that she worked the sort of hours she did. When her friends were going out, she was working at the restaurant.

JP When I was 14, I was probably doing 16 hours over Friday and Saturday nights. I'd go straight after school and have a staff meal with everyone, then I'd work 6 till 11 or 12pm. Once I turned 16, I was full time.

Peter Sullivan with Luke, 19, and Megan, 21, at Chiswick.
Peter Sullivan with Luke, 19, and Megan, 21, at Chiswick. Photo: Tamara Dean

NP Josephine approached me, she was in year 11, and said, 'Dad, I could waste the next 18 months of my life, or I could come and work for you.' And it's been really wonderful because Josephine has an incredible sense of timing - she knows when guests need something and when they don't, when to get in and get out, when to hold a conversation - you can't teach that.

My exit strategy is I don't really have one but this business is very generational and I'd love to see my children - if they want - take over the business.

BD How do you find working together?


JP Dad and I do interact a lot at work - we are very close. Like best friends. But also work is work for us, so we try and stay quite professional.

NP I give her lots of advice like I would to anyone - learn 10 times as much from your mistakes as you would from your triumphs: they hurt the most, so you have to really remember where you went wrong. For me, it's really important to select the right employees - if I've got people who are better than me, working for me, then I'm going to be in a better place.

JP One of the best pieces of advice dad gave me was when we went for dinner at Per Se (in New York). I was 14 - the service was impeccable. Then there were other meals where the service wasn't that great - so dad said, ''write it down - so you know what you like and didn't like … you could pass it on to staff members and trainees''.

Marcelo Cowdrill with his dad David at Da Mario Pizza.
Marcelo Cowdrill with his dad David at Da Mario Pizza. Photo: Tamara Dean

I still do have a little journal at home.

BD Josephine - did you consider anything other than hospitality?

JP I used to be a keen horse rider and I always wanted to be a mounted policewoman.

NP Ah, yes!

JP We lived in Surry Hills and used to drive past the mounted-police station and I used to say, 'I want to be a mounted policewoman!'

But otherwise, no other occupation apart from hospitality interested me.

The Sullivans

Peter Sullivan of MorSul (runs Aria, Chiswick and North Bondi Fish) and Luke Sullivan, 19 (waiter/bartender at Chiswick) and Megan Sullivan, 21 (transitioning from supervisor to junior sommelier at est.)

PS I didn't have a parent in hospitality. You learn by taking bits and pieces along the way. I was 27 and (business partner) Matt (Moran) was 22 when we opened our first place so we were reasonably young. My wife Susan and I never consciously pushed them [our children] into the industry and my wife was probably secretly hoping they wouldn't do it because I'm so obsessive about it.

MS We have one younger sister Emma who is still at school - so there's hope for her …

PS You try to not let it [work] get involved in your personal life, but of course it does. You'll be driving in your car coming back from holidays and talking about the restaurant. I think subconsciously over the years, as these guys [Megan and Luke] have grown up, they've just listened to us talk and absorbed it - and I think they just know. I didn't teach them what they should or shouldn't have done. I didn't teach them to be hospitable. They've just observed and have just been surrounded by it.

MS As a kid, Saturday was my day to spend at the restaurant. When I was 10 or 11 I'd go into Aria and polish the ice buckets and fold hand towels for the ladies' and men's bathrooms. I got 1¢ a hand towel.

PS I wanted to show them that if they wanted anything they had to work for it and I want them to see the full cycle of why I wasn't home, particularly at nights. I was a pretty absent parent for a lot of their life, I wasn't around a lot at nights, particularly in the early days - so there's some sacrifices that I wanted them to understand. It wasn't because I wanted them to get into it. It was to have them around while I was working - so I could spend some time with them [even though] they were working too. But restaurants are great fun when you're a kid.

LS The best thing about going to the restaurant as a kid was the post-mix. Unlimited soft drink and that, to a 7-year-old kid, was amazing.

MS We were lucky enough to go on some overseas trips. And obviously, there were restaurants that mum and dad wanted to check out, so we went with them.

LS Pete and I went on an overseas trip in London for 10 days and we would literally go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was only 13 and sometimes I just wanted McDonald's.

On one of the last nights we went to Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, Maze - and I would love it now but back then I hated it.

PS You hated it!

LS I had a massive fight, saying, "I am so over fine dining - I don't want to go to another restaurant, no matter how nice it is!' We do go out to restaurants more than we cook at home. If we are all off on one night it's like - 'what restaurant do we go to?" We're pretty bad cooks.

MS Before I started here I never had a full appreciation of the group - of what mum and dad did, until I got into it and I realised the extent of it and how successful they have been. You realise at the ground level why they are 24/7.

PS It's a big family. You're an employer, friend, therapist, father, mother; you have to be all those things at different times - that's what makes great employers.

The Cowdrills

David Cowdrill (ran Mario's, an iconic Italian seafood joint in East Sydney, for two decades before opening Pizza Mario in Surry Hills) and son Marcelo Cowdrill (restaurateur at Da Mario Rosebery).

MC I was always in and around restaurants - Da Mario was born about a year or two before me. My earliest memories are just being around the restaurant and watching my parents doing all the background stuff. A lot of the cakes originally were made in our own home. My grandfather and grandmother were also integral parts of the restaurant. I was born into it and I didn't realise.

In my mid-teens I spent a lot of time at the restaurant because I liked the atmosphere and I didn't have any responsibilities there, which made it even more enjoyable.

When I left school I did a year in retail then I went to Mario's. I thought, "OK, I'm going to give the restaurant a go". I was just a runner but they used to call me the walker because I wasn't doing much running, apparently.

I was always told by my parents not to go into the restaurant business, but here I am.

DC There's just as much financial pressure as in any business and when you go on holidays, you don't stop thinking about it. I warned him off it because it's disruptive to your family and social life. But I think Marcelo is a night person.

MC Yeah, I'm not a morning person! I didn't feel family life was disrupted when I was a kid - if anything, I was lucky because I was eating food that my friends wouldn't even dream of, back then.

DC And you were exposed to a lot of food because you travelled a lot, too.

MC We did a car trip from the north to the south of Italy.

DC No, we started down in the south - we went from Sardinia right up to Rome.

MC I would have been about 10 or 11.

DC One of the nicest memories was driving through Puglia. That was a revelation - my memory was of vegetables and pork.

MC I didn't have in the back of mind that I wanted to open my own place until recently. If you asked me, I would still say, 'I'm trying to work out what I will be when I grow up'.

DC He doesn't necessarily need my guidance with Da Mario because he's a clear thinker. He works it out. Before he starts talking to me, he works it out.

He can work with people. Whether they are customers or staff - he has that broad ability to communicate.

He's his own person, but it also came from his upbringing. It's been an open household - conversation was open, opinions were strong.

BD Did you ever work together on the floor? How was that?

DC No comment …

MC He's (dad) going to take the fifth!

There was that time at the start of Pizza Mario - 13 years ago, where dad was in the kitchen every night and my brother and I were on the floor. It was a very small shop and back then I was living with dad, too.

DC I work differently now. My day starts at 6am - I go to the markets twice a week. I don't have late nights, but it's a seven-day-a-week business.

MC What my youngest brother is doing now - he is only nine, he comes here once a week and he loves to get behind the scenes, polish glasses, do all kinds of things - because he likes the atmosphere.

But I didn't work nearly as hard as he does when I was his age - I got in the way more than anything.