'Un-Australian': Celebrity chef Neil Perry criticises government, launches charity meals

Josh Dye
Chef Neil Perry and OzHarvest chief executive Ronni Kahn hope to make a difference for overseas workers.
Chef Neil Perry and OzHarvest chief executive Ronni Kahn hope to make a difference for overseas workers.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

Celebrity chef Neil Perry has criticised the federal government for abandoning temporary workers as he launches his own charitable initiative to feed more than 1000 people a day. 

Workers on temporary visas, including international students, are ineligible for the government's $130 billion JobKeeper program which provides employers $1500 a fortnight to retain their employees during the COVID-19 crisis. This is a problem for many businesses in the hospitality industry which are built on the back of foreign labour. 

"I think it's un-Australian, leaving people without a safety net," Mr Perry said. 

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.

While praising the Morrison government's overall handling of the crisis, the Rockpool Dining Group brand ambassador said the omission of foreign workers was a "glaring mistake". 

"I just think they've got it wrong in this case. I'm going to keep lobbying for that."

To fill the gap, Mr Perry's Rockpool Foundation is launching its own meals program in partnership with food charity OzHarvest to feed vulnerable people. 

"I think it's un-Australian, leaving people without a safety net."

Hope Delivery will provide 1000 meals a day from Rockpool restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne to foreign workers, refugees and the homeless. 

There will be a variety of beef, chicken, lamb and pork dishes, as well as a vegetarian option. With each meal costing $2.50 to make, the program will cost $35,000 a week. 

Mr Perry said the plight of some temporary visa holders was ironic because visa conditions prevent them from seeking other work. 

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"Strangely, because they are sponsored by the restaurants, they're unable to go and get another job. They can't even go get a job stacking shelves at Woolworths. 

"We see those guys as vulnerable and we want to provide 1000 meals a day for those guys."

Mr Perry is pessimistic about the economy rebounding quickly, predicting unemployment will remain high. 

Each dish, such as this pasta prepared at Sydney's Rosetta restaurant, is estimated to cost $2.50 to make.
Each dish, such as this pasta prepared at Sydney's Rosetta restaurant, is estimated to cost $2.50 to make. Photo: Supplied

"When this is all over we really have to look after Australians in a position of vulnerability," he said.

"Our job is to nourish people and there's going to be a lot of people who can't afford to go to our restaurants." 

The Rockpool Foundation is aiming to commit to the initiative for the next six months. Continuing the meal program beyond the crisis will make him "feel like a better human", Mr Perry said. 

There will be a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes prepared daily from Rosetta's Sydney and Melbourne restaurants.
There will be a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes prepared daily from Rosetta's Sydney and Melbourne restaurants.  Photo: Supplied

The shutdown has caused Mr Perry to do some soul-searching with the chef pledging to "live a simpler life" on the other side of the crisis. 

"I hope we take a few deep breaths after this," he said. "I'd hate for us to come out the same way we went in." 

Owned by Quadrant Private Equity investment firm, Rockpool Dining Group was formed in 2016 when Mr Perry's fine dining establishments merged with the restaurant portfolio of Urban Purveyor Group, owner of the Bavarian Bier Cafe chain.

Chef Neil Perry and OzHarvest CEO Ronni Kahn are working together to help feed vulnerable people.
Chef Neil Perry and OzHarvest CEO Ronni Kahn are working together to help feed vulnerable people.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

On behalf of union Hospo Voice in October 2019, law firm Maurice Blackburn accused the group of underpaying staff $10 million over a five-year period. The group denied the allegations, but remains under investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman. Mr Perry was not accused personally.

In March, it was announced Rockpool Dining Group would split. Mr Perry was to regain control of his hatted venues (Spice Temple, Rosetta, Rockpool Bar & Grill), allowing the business to focus on the ambitious growth of its casual eateries.

Mr Perry told the Herald and The Age he was no longer thinking about regaining control of the premium restaurants, with the proposed deal put on hold. 

"To be completely honest with you that hasn't even entered my mind. We've been completely focused on the Rockpool Dining Group's survival - getting to the other side and making the restaurant group great again." 

Mr Perry was keen to underline the fact this new meals initiative is not just for Rockpool staff. 

"It's for any visa holders trapped in our borders without a safety net."