'Rockpool changed everything': How Neil Perry became an Aussie food legend

Neil Perry at Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney in 2014.
Neil Perry at Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney in 2014. Photo: Nic Walker

Neil Perry, who stepped down as culinary director of Rockpool Dining Group this week, is a man of many hats. 

I don't mean that he's a chef, restaurateur, celebrity, philanthropist, recipe writer, cookbook author, member of the Order of Australia and creative director of Qantas in-flight catering. I mean many hats. So many hats. 149 hats, at my last count, but it could be more.

Rockpool restaurateurs Neil Perry and Trish Richards outside their Rocks restaurant in 1994.
Rockpool restaurateurs Neil Perry and Trish Richards outside their Rocks restaurant in 1994. Photo: Patrics Cummins

In more than 40 years of cooking, Perry has been awarded more Good Food Guide chef's hats than any other chef in the country. The very first hat was awarded by the very first Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide in 1984 when he was a young, pony-tailed, self-taught chef cooking at Michael and Judy McMahon's Barrenjoey House in Palm Beach. 

Next came Perry's in Paddington, then Bluewater Grill in Bondi, and in 1989, his magnum opus, Rockpool in the Rocks with business partner Trish Richards. After that, it was Rocket, Wokpool, XO, MCA Cafe, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Spice Temple, Rosetta, and a final flurry of venues in more recent years, including Rockpool est 1989, Eleven Bridge, Jade Temple and Burger Project, with various sister restaurants opening in Melbourne and Perth. 

Like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Perry has just always been there, forever renewing and repainting.

Perry working for Hope Delivery at Rosetta, Sydney.
Perry working for Hope Delivery at Rosetta, Sydney. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

But hats are only one way of looking at the legacy of a life's worth of cooking. Let's go back to Rockpool for a moment, because it was so very much of its moment. With its D4 Design interiors, open kitchen and fashion-friendly catwalk, it screamed look-at-me, note who I am, I have arrived. Typical Perry modesty, we've since learned. But he was right. 

Rockpool changed everything, because it was so very good, brave and proudly Australian. It taught us the value of immaculate seafood, the excitement of drawing flavours from both east and west, and a smart, friendly level of professional service that has since come to be recognised around the world as Australian.

He took Paul Hogan's shrimp off the barbie, and turned it into king prawn and goat cheese tortellini, tossed it in a green curry, and formed it into prawn wontons with aged black vinegar. (These days, of course, he's marinating it in lemon and garlic and throwing it on the barbie, because the world turns, the world turns.)

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Perry built benchmark restaurant after benchmark restaurant from little more than his passions – for Australian seafood, Chinese noodles, Thai curries, wood-fired barbecues, pure-bred Wagyu beef  – pursuing each with a degree of focus, drive and self-belief that is exhausting. 

"When you believe in something, it's not a fad," he told me. "You can still be influenced by things around you, but you always bring it back and make them your own."

Tellingly, he brought people with him. An entire Good Food Guide index of great chefs has worked alongside, including Lorraine Godsmark (Merivale), Mike McEnearney (Kitchen By Mike), Ross Lusted (Bridge Room), Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), Khan Danis (Totti's), Corey Costelloe (Rockpool Bar & Grill), Richard Purdue (Rosetta) and Phil Wood (Pt. Leo Restaurant). 

Perry at Blue Water Grill, Bondi, in 1986 with chef Andy Davies.
Perry at Blue Water Grill, Bondi, in 1986 with chef Andy Davies. Photo: Ross Willis

He pushed producers into the spotlight, listing them on menus. And he stays loyal to his chefs, suppliers, designers, photographers, and guests. Once he believes in you, you're in for life. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Neil Perry AM is the most talented, driven and inspirational chef that Australia has ever produced. 

Since the announcement, he has been busy feeding vulnerable visa-holding hospitality staff through his charitable Hope Delivery platform. But this so-called "retirement" feels more like a whimper rather than a bang. There's no way Perry is going to hang up his hat just yet.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Neil Perry on a plate

Top dishes through the years

Stir-fried spanner crab omelette, Rockpool, 1989

Rockpool date tart, Rockpool, 1989

Wagyu burger, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Melbourne 2006/Sydney 2009

Lamb and Cumin pancakes, Spice Temple, 2009

Rich and noble lobster congee, Rockpool, 2010