Founder, Rockpool Group
Born in: Sydney
Home Town: Sydney
You can't escape Neil Perry -- even if you want to.
His Rockpool Group runs eight venues across three states which have garnered eleven Good Food Guide hats between them. For nearly a decade he's been popping up on our TV screens and in our magazines. Even in the air you're eating Perry's tucker, thanks to his 16-year relationship with Qantas. Add in his connections with James Packer’s Crown, and you'd be hard pressed to find an industry Perry hasn't dipped his finger into for a taste.
But it's his famous ponytail that most Australians remember him for.
"I'm getting to the stage where I’m thinking 'should I be cutting it off?" but I just can't think of any other look,” the ex-hairdressing apprentice says, laughing down the phone line to The Power Index. “Single-minded, you see. It's been part of a brand for me. I didn't think of it that way, but I've become synonymous with it in the industry."
With over thirty years working in hospitality, the Rockpool founder has become synonymous with a lot of things: Modern Australian and Asian cooking. Steaks. Relationships with the big end of town. A love for quality Australian produce. And a one-eyed obsession about everything he does.
Food industry insiders say Perry exists in his own world: “Planet Perry”. “We're very single minded about what we do and I think you've got to be to be successful,” admits Perry. “Sometimes people say I'm arrogant or whatever. That generally comes across [because of] just not having enough time to do the things I'd like to do.”
What he does like to do is open successful restaurants -- although he’s had his fair share of unsuccessful ones over the years. His Rockpool Group runs three restaurants in Sydney (Rockpool on George, Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple), four in Melbourne (Rockpool Bar & Grill, Spice Temple, The Waiting Room and Rosetta, which opens September 14) and one in Perth (Rockpool Bar & Grill). The company is budgeting to spend $26 million on staff wages in 2013.
The location of Rockpool’s venues also hints at Perry’s powerful connections. As one food reviewer puts it: “Half of their restaurants are in a hideous, disgusting casino.” All of Perry’s Melbourne restaurants are located in the Crown Casino complex. His Perth restaurant sits in the Burswood Entertainment Complex, a casino and entertainment complex owned by Crown Limited.
Plus, flagstaff restaurant Rockpool on George is widely assumed to be a loss leader, helpful for gaining foodie cred, but useless at making money. Instead it's the highly profitable relationship with Crown -- which gives support in the form of cheap rent, fit-out and marketing support -- that helps make his restaurants so successful.
Not that he hides his gambling connections. Perry names James Packer as one of his business mentors: “James is just fantastic and has been very generous with his time and advice.”
There's a strong relationship between the two businesses. “I sort of think that Rockpool Bar & Grill brand and Spice Temple co-exist with the Crown brand," says Perry. That's particularly interesting since Crown just announced a Crown Towers hotel in Perth and a new entertainment precinct in Sydney's Banagaroo.
Since 1996 Perry and his Rockpool Consulting team have determined what travellers dig in to while onboard a Qantas flight. Six full time staff work on the project all year long, examining the strengths and weaknesses of catering centres around the airports of the world. Former Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon and current CEO Alan Joyce are the other two names that come up when Perry talks about his mentors.
But Perry is also known for his own mentoring role. His passion for Aussie produce has meant he’s pushed the careers of several now well-known farmers, seafood producers and growers. “The amount of Australian food producers that he has supported along the way is a reflection of his influence and power,” declares chef Kylie Kwong.
As a former apprentice of Perry’s, Kwong is just one of many of Perry’s “young disciples” -- as she calls them -- to have gone on to run their own restaurants. Others include Ross Lusted from The Bridge Room and Mike McEnearney from Kitchen by Mike. Perry is known for paying staff well and many are deeply loyal to him.
His personal endorsements and media appearances have also helped make him a wealthy man. Perry's six cookbooks are beloved by foodies and home cooks alike and he pens a weekly column for Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine.
Although Perry’s longevity is impressive, Rockpool’s restaurants no long appear in the San Pellegrino Top 50 lists. Perry was credited as one of the pioneers of the Modern Australian food movement, but several restaurant reviewers and food writers tell The Power Index that younger chefs and other restaurants push the boundaries more than Perry and his venues these days.
Not that the 55-year-old is complaining. Ultimately he sees himself more as a restaurateur than a chef, and he’s planning to open five more venues in the next five years.
Rockpool can live on without its founder, claims Perry. “I try and build restaurants in their own right to stand for an experience and stand for quality and value and that's why I don’t have a restaurant called Neil Perry or plates with my name on it, which I think is a bit of a doomsday situation.
His 18-year-old daughter already works at Rockpool and his other children express interest in continuing the family business, although Perry quips that he'd prefer them to be doctors. No word on who'll carry on the ponytail tradition.