We ask the big questions, like what do chefs eat?
What’s the one dish you’ll always choose if it appears on a menu? I love great vegetable dishes. We cook a lot of vegetables at home – it’s probably why I stay reasonably healthy considering how much I eat and drink. And I’ll always order a terrific salad. At your own restaurants, what are the favourite staff meals? People often have a strong memory associated with things like roast chicken or pasta Bolognese – it’s just great comfort food. And we find the response to the food we do for Qantas flights also relates to that notion of comfort; feeling nourished emotionally plays a part in eating. It’s date night. Where do you go in Sydney? Ester [ester-restaurant.com.au] in Chippendale – we like Mat Lindsay’s cooking a lot. Sam and I got married at Bennelong [bennelong.com.au] so for our last anniversary, we went back to the Cured & Cultured counter, had a fantastic meal and a great bottle of wine and looked out at the Harbour Bridge. And in Melbourne? It has to be Flower Drum [flowerdrum. melbourne]. It’s probably one of the greatest Cantonese restaurants in the world. If it was in Hong Kong, it would have three Michelin stars for sure. We recently flew to Melbourne just to go to Flower Drum for Sam’s birthday. We had our favourite shallot cake and beautiful King Island crab dumplings. There’s even a dish they make just for me – it’s not on the menu. I simply ask for “Neil Perry mud-crab noodles”. Chefs usually have late-night haunts after they knock off. In Sydney, what are yours? I’m usually home by 11 o’clock these days but when I used to finish with the crew in the late ’80s, Golden Century [goldencentury.com.au] had just opened and we were always there. The last time I went out with the boys, we had beers and barbecue at Sydney Madang Korean BBQ restaurant [371a Pitt Street; 02 9264 7010]. It’s good fun and stays open until 2am. What do you order at Golden Century? Always seafood from the tank. I love the live prawns steamed with soy and seasoned with coriander, a little sugar, ginger and chilli.
If you could choose one restaurant in the world to eat at tonight, which would it be? Asador Etxebarri [asadoretxebarri.com], an hour outside of San Sebastián, in Spain. It’s the most amazing asador [barbecue] restaurant. Victor [Arguinzoniz] was born next door to the building that became the restaurant in his village. He forages wood from the hills, dries it, puts it in a kiln and turns it into charcoal. Then he uses it in a series of grills over which he cooks all kinds of seafood and local produce. Are you able to relax when you eat at other restaurants or do you notice every detail? I do notice a lot but when I’m eating at other restaurants or walking through markets, I just want to enjoy it and embrace the food. Any pet gripes when eating out? I dislike people who don’t realise that the industry is called “hospitality”. When you walk into a restaurant, you can feel whether good produce, great craft and nurturing staff are the heart and soul of the operation – or if it’s about aggression and precision in the wrong way. Diners aren’t perfect, either. What do guests in your restaurants often get wrong? Sometimes diners can be distracted, have other things going on and forget to relax. I understand but I think going to a restaurant is a great excuse to leave all of that stuff outside and let us take you on a journey. When diners just won’t go home, how do you move them on? [Laughs] We try not to! You can turn the lights out or mop around their feet but we don’t do that. We try to make sure it’s the guest who makes the decision to ask for the bill; that it’s their decision when to leave. Clearing plates before the last diner has finished eating: yes or no? I don’t believe in it – it’s kind of old-school – but I’ve seen situations where it’s appropriate on larger tables where one person is eating really slowly! It also depends on the style of service. If it’s an expensive meal that a lot of energy has gone into, you need to follow the etiquette. But if it’s a bowl of noodles at a laksa joint, that’s a whole other service experience. Should chefs be infuriated by someone ordering a well-done steak? There are people who don’t understand that customers have likes and dislikes. We are there to make people happy and it’s not about what we feel, it’s about how they feel. What does the perfect wine list look like? We’ve won awards for Spice Temple’s list, which has 100 wines on it, and we’ve also won with Rockpool Bar & Grill’s, which has 3000 wines. It’s about balance in the flavour profiles and the prices. That’s the key to a great sommelier: the ability to ensure every single wine on the list belongs there and is a great bottle, regardless of the price. What’s the essence of true hospitality? Generosity. People who are really good in this business are nurturers. Yes, we put plates on the table and pour wine but it’s all about creating a lasting memory – and that’s where generosity comes in. In essence, being a great restaurateur is nothing more than motivating your staff to carry out the philosophy of the restaurant. When was the last time you followed a recipe? A really long time ago! I tell people that recipes are to be used as a starting point and a guide but they can be changed. You can use different ingredients depending on what you have. Recipes aren’t necessarily things you should slavishly follow.
The chef's datenight go-to, Ester restaurant in Chippendale, Sydney (left and below)
The charcoal grill at Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo, Spain