Features & Stories

Author profile: Neil Perry

Chef Neil Perry

Neil Perry is an Australian chef and cookbook author whose career in hospitality spans 4 decades. Last week he received the Icon award at the 50 Best Restaurants in the World ceremony in Las Vegas, reflecting his global impact. Two more of his cookbooks (Rockpool and Simply Asian) have just been added to ckbk, where they join existing titles The Food I Love and Balance and Harmony. To mark the occasion, Roberta Muir caught up with the chef to discuss his cookbooks and his latest restaurant ventures in Sydney.

by Roberta Muir

Modern Australian cuisine – indeed the landscape of Australian food as we know it today – would be altogether different without the influence of a visionary young chef with a signature ponytail. In 1989, Neil Perry opened Australia’s first modern fine dining restaurant, Rockpool, in an historic building in The Rocks district of Sydney. The bold, post-modern look by d4 Designs, the Alessi pepper mills, and that central catwalk-like ramp leading past the open kitchen and other diners to the coveted backroom seats, were as much talked about as was the food. It was unlike anything else we’d experienced – theatrical, glamorous and the place to be seen throughout the ‘90s and early noughties.

The dining room at Rockpool

For many Sydneysiders, Rockpool was their first fine dining experience, and many still vividly recall the dishes they ate there. For me it was 1995 and I’d never tasted anything like the king prawn and goat cheese tortellini. I’ve eaten it many times since and now know that the pasta is so different because it’s made from potato gnocchi dough. The tea smoked duck at the same meal was my introduction to this simple Asian smoking method. Nor have I ever forgotten the stir-fried spanner crab omelette from subsequent visits, which went on to become one of Neil’s most iconic dishes.

At Rockpool Neil was in the business of creating memories, not merely serving food. “The first cook who had an enormous influence on me was my Dad,” he recounts. “He taught me that eating is for pleasure not fuel, and that if you think about the food you prepare, it will be remembered by the people who eat it.”

Neil’s father was a butcher who often served his sons brains and sweetbreads on toast for breakfast. “I really love offal,” Neil says, “but the reality is it just doesn’t sell in Australia, so I’ve rarely served it in my restaurants”. Still, he can’t resist sneaking a little into dishes, sometimes in the form of bone marrow in red wine sauces, which he says “adds a wonderful silky mouthfeel.” He uses the red wine and bone marrow combination to sauce freshwater salmon with braised cabbage, a dish that’s appeared on many of his menus over the years in various incarnations.

Neil’s father was also a keen recreational fisherman, often bringing home fish like flathead (great in beer batter), snapper (ideal for poaching), and whiting (perfect with a simple butter and lemon sauce); which may account for Neil’s passion for the freshest Australian wild-caught seafood. At the seminal Bluewater Grill overlooking Bondi Beach in the mid’80s, Neil began sourcing fish directly from fishermen, something no restaurant had yet done. The relationships he started building then with fishermen and other suppliers are the signature of his menus almost 40 years later.

Unusually for Anglo-Celtic families of 1960s Australia, Neil was exposed to authentic Asian flavours from a young age. “My parents were adventurous eaters,” Neil recalls, “dining often at the Mandarin restaurant on George Street [Sydney], where they befriended a couple of young waiters, Ken and Jensen. The guys would come to our home and cook for us sometimes, and in the restaurant they introduced us to things rarely eaten by gwailos such as mud crab with black bean sauce and red-braised dishes like pork hock with shiitake.”


Crispy Sichuan Duck with Mandarin Pancakes from Rockpool by Neil Perry


At Rockpool, Neil wove Asian flavours and techniques into his dishes and in the introduction to his first cookbook Rockpool (1996) he credits Australia’s “truly multi-cultural society” with allowing cooks to weave together myriad threads from different cuisines to create “food that is distinguishable and recognizably Australian.” Recipes in the Rockpool cookbook range from roast Illabo lamb with tomato, olives and aïoli, which has no Asian flavours, to classically Asian crisp Sichuan duck with mandarin pancakes. Then there are dishes that merge the two styles, like lobster, soy chicken and mango salad, combining olive oil with tamarind, soy sauce and palm sugar in the dressing.

In 1994, Neil opened his first Asian restaurant, Wockpool and in his second cookbook, Simply Asian, he shares many of the recipes from Wockpool’s mod Asian menu. There’s comforting wonton soup with noodles, spectacular looking tea eggs, easy steamed oysters with mirin and soy, and chicken and jellyfish salad. There are also a number of Thai-inspired dishes, from salads like crab & pomelo and spicy grilled squid, to curries including red curry of duck and green curry of swordfish.

As a young cook, Neil cut his culinary teeth working for some of Australia’s most influential chefs and restaurateurs including David Thompson, responsible for igniting his interest in Thai cuisine. Damien Pignolet, Stephanie Alexander, Gay Bilson and Stefano Manfredi were other early influences and working with Stefano and his mother Franca at Restaurant Manfredi, sparked a passion for fresh pasta and Italian flavours. By the publication of his third book, The Food I Love, in 2005, Neil was a household name. He’d begun developing first and business class menus for Qantas a few years earlier and hosting television cooking shows such as Fresh & Fast on the LifeStyle channel.


Crab and Pomelo Salad from Simply Asian by Neil Perry

Spicy Grilled Squid Salad from Simply Asian by Neil Perry


In The Food I Love – sub-titled ‘beautiful simple food to cook at home’ – Neil came out of the restaurant kitchen and introduced readers to a global menu of easy home-style dishes. There are Italian favourites like rigatoni with artichokes and pancetta, snapper with ‘crazy water’ (acqua pazza), and buffalo mozzarella and capsicum salad alongside Spanish squid ink paella, French boiled leeks with vinaigrette, and  even the original Swiss Bircher muesli. Middle Eastern and North African flavours often appear in Neil’s dishes and recipes, and there are plenty in The Food I Love, from cinnamon-scented lamb (a popular dish on Qantas menus), to Moroccan eggplant salad and bar cod tagine.


Cinnamon-Scented Lamb from The Food I Love by Neil Perry

Tagine of Bar Cod from The Food I Love by Neil Perry


Neil’s love of Asian flavours came to the fore again in 2008, when he started work on Spice Temple, a restaurant focusing on dishes from the lesser-known regions of China. In the same year his fourth cookbook, Balance & Harmony, was released. Despite having grown up eating authentic Chinese dishes, in this book Neil finds room for some of the much-loved western-Chinese dishes which, when done well, can be equally delicious. Classic fried rice (the best I’ve ever eaten), sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken and prawn toast sit alongside more traditional classics like lobster with XO sauce, ma po tofu and tangerine peel chicken. There’s a generous sprinkling of Thai influence again too with sour orange curry of salmon and Thai devilled eggs two of my favourites.

In 2021, Neil stepped away from the Rockpool brand, leaving it to Urban Purveyors with whom he’d partnered 5 years earlier. Within months, the then 64-year-old entrepreneur started over, with Margaret (named for his beloved Mum) in Sydney’s eastern suburb of Double Bay. Never able to stop at one, he’s since expanded into adjoining buildings to open the casual café/bar Next Door, bakery Baker Bleu, plus subterranean speakeasy, Bobbie’s, and modern Chinese diner, Song Bird opening in August. Unlike Spice Temple’s focus on lesser-known regions, the Song Bird menu will feature Cantonese classics dating back to the Rockpool and Wockpool days, such as white-cut chicken, steamed whole fish with ginger and shallot and roast duck.

A relationship with suppliers, especially fishermen, is still at the heart of Neil’s menus, and their first names are scattered around the Margaret menu like the dear friend’s they’ve become, there’s Luke's bonito, Pav and Heidi's albacore, and Ben's coral trout for starters. "We just take the freshest seafood and try not to screw it up," Neil told me recently when I dined there. “My style hasn’t changed a lot for a long time. At Margaret, just like at Rockpool, I cook food that I want to eat.” Nowhere is this consistency more apparent to me than on the dessert menu, where I find so many familiar favourites including flourless chocolate cake, crème caramel, millefeuilles, and freshly-churned ice creams.

From Neil's presence on the floor and pass to the warm smile of his wife Samantha, and daughters Josephine, Macy and Indy all doing their bit, like all of Neil’s endeavours, Margaret is a restaurant built on relationships between people: family, suppliers, staff and customers.

In discussing why he opened Rockpool, Neil says: “A restaurant is, in the end, a house, a meeting place, and a place for enjoyment.” Today that’s still what Neil believes, and when I ask him what he wants readers to take away from his cookbooks, he replies that he hopes his recipes will inspire them to create memorable meals with their family and friends, to turn their home dining tables into “a meeting place and a place of enjoyment” just as his Dad did for his family all those years ago.


Top recipes by Neil Perry on ckbk

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