In spite of retiring from Rockpool Dining Group in July, Neil Perry says he has never worked harder in his life than over the past six months.
"I'm everywhere at the moment," says the celebrity chef, who founded community meal program Hope Delivery in April. "If I'm not on the line cooking for Hope, I'm out fundraising to make sure the program can keep happening."
The initiative was established to feed homeless and disadvantaged people affected by the pandemic in Sydney and Melbourne, plus workers on temporary visas ineligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker.
Hope Delivery feeds thousands of struggling hospitality workers
Rockpool chef Neil Perry talks about his initiative to feed up to 2,000 hospitality workers each day during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
On Wednesday, Hope Delivery celebrated providing 200,000 meals since the program launched, cooked by staff and volunteers at Rosetta, Sydney, and Crown Melbourne's Rockpool Bar & Grill.
"It's not bad for a little gem of an idea I came up with in March," says Perry, halfway through making 550 portions of a tomato, cardamom and potato curry to be delivered by OzHarvest to refugee centres in Sydney.
"Besides helping the community, the other really nice thing about Hope Delivery is the positive effect it's had on the mental health of Rockpool staff, especially in Melbourne where everyone was so shattered to go back into lockdown. It's been brilliant for the team to be in the kitchen and handing out meals on the Southbank Promenade."
Rockpool's food and beverage director at Crown, Joshua Hillary, says he has been overwhelmed by the amount of people queuing to receive Hope Delivery meals during the week.
"We were cooking 250 meals a day for the two weeks of the program, but now word has reached more of the people we're aiming to serve, that number has passed 1000. People have burst into tears when they've picked up food on the promenade. One out-of-work visa holder told me he hadn't been able to feed himself in three days."
Hope Delivery's Melbourne menu on Wednesday was chickpea and vegetable curry, cauliflower soup, and roast chicken with chat potatoes. Hillary says the initiative also aims to help local producers and suppliers with reduced revenue due to lockdown.
"Buying produce from local guys is providing them with much-needed cash flow while restaurants are closed or only offering takeaway. It's all about Victorians helping Victorians."
Financial support for the program comes from corporate partners such as Lexus, American Express, Coles and Macquarie Group, in addition to donations from the Turnbull Foundation and private citizens.
Perry is now looking for permanent Hope Delivery homes in Sydney and Melbourne as the initiative expands. "Any benevolent landlords are more than welcome to get in touch," he says. "We're really making a difference in the lives of the people we feed. The foundation needs to keep going."