Can David Jones and Neil Perry fi­nally put Aus­tralian food halls on the world stage? LINDY ALEXAN­DER in­ves­ti­gates

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - The new David Jones Food­hall Bondi Junc­tion opens this Thurs­day.

Neil Perry takes up the chal­lenge to re­vi­talise David Jones’s food halls.

Neil Perry is worn out. “I’m sorry my voice is croaky,” he apol­o­gises. He has been work­ing 18-hour days in his Rock­pool Din­ing Group’s new restau­rant, Jade Tem­ple, in Syd­ney’s CBD. “I’ve been call­ing lunch and din­ner for 14 ser­vices straight.” But it only takes a men­tion of his lat­est project for the patho­log­i­cally in­de­fati­ga­ble chef to re­gain his spark: he is re­viv­ing David Jones’ food halls.

Never mind late-night shop­ping, Aus­tralia’s iconic re­tailer now does ne­gro­nis and char­grilled steaks. In a com­pre­hen­sive trans­for­ma­tion of the 179-year-old depart­ment store’s food busi­ness na­tion­ally, David Jones this week un­veils its new food hall con­cept. The vi­sion is to cre­ate a se­ries of world­class food des­ti­na­tions where the in­te­gra­tion of ser­vice and re­tail is seam­less and im­mer­sive. First up is Syd­ney’s West­field Bondi Junc­tion.

Eat a steak be­side the open kitchen, dis­cuss the meat with the on-site butcher and then buy the ex­act cut from the same pro­ducer to take home. And, if that isn’t enough, you can buy the butcher’s block, the apron and the knife.

Not for sale, but cer­tainly part of the $100 mil­lion in­vest­ment over three years, is an­other iconic Aus­tralian, Perry. Like many Aussies, the 60-year-old chef has fond child­hood mem­o­ries of DJS.

“I re­mem­ber com­ing to town in the late 1960s and walk­ing through the David Jones Food­hall,” he says. “I’d never seen such highly pol­ished, beau­ti­ful, big ap­ples or such an amaz­ing ar­ray of fish. It was the pre-em­i­nent food ex­pe­ri­ence in the coun­try.”

But the years have seen this food icon lose some of its magic. Aus­tralia has strug­gled to keep up with the likes of La Grande Epicerie in Paris, Eataly across the United States, and La Place in the Nether­lands and else­where. When South African re­tailer Wool­worths Hold­ings ac­quired David Jones in 2014, a re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of the food re­tail and ser­vice of­fer­ing, pat­terned af­ter these high-end global shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ences, be­came a pri­or­ity.

The over­haul is spear­headed by CEO John Dixon. Be­fore tak­ing on the top job at David Jones in Jan­uary last year, Dixon spent al­most two decades at Marks & Spencer in the UK, and the suc­cess of its mar­ket-lead­ing food depart­ment is some­thing he hopes to repli­cate.

“Af­ter the ac­qui­si­tion of David Jones we re­alised there was a huge gap at the top end of the mar­ket,” says Pi­eter de Wet, group ex­ec­u­tive for food at David Jones. “We looked all over the world at pre­mium food re­tail­ers and took the best of those as in­spi­ra­tion.”

The re­vamp of the Bondi Junc­tion food hall is the first of at least four up­grades to David Jones na­tion­ally and will in­clude a $200 mil­lion re­fur­bish­ment of the en­tire El­iz­a­beth Street flag­ship store in Syd­ney (due to be com­pleted in 2019).

While the in­vest­ment is large, de Wet is con­vinced the un­der­tak­ing will be sus­tain­able and prof­itable. “Aus­tralians have high-qual­ity ex­pec­ta­tions and global tastes,” he says. “Re­search shows that our cus­tomers want to be con­nected to the ex­perts and prove­dores, see their food pre­pared and touch and try the food they are buy­ing.”

Team­ing up with Perry seemed nat­u­ral. “He be­lieves in sus­tain­abil­ity, prove­nance and qual­ity, and that is what we are build­ing our food busi­ness on,” says de Wet.

Prove­nance is an of­ten-used mod­ern buzz­word, but it has been part of Perry’s life since he was a child catch­ing fish with his fa­ther in Blake­hurst, NSW.

As head chef at Bar­ren­joey House in 1983, Perry named sup­pli­ers on the menu. “I’m not sure if any­one else in Aus­tralia was do­ing that,” he says.

It’s a com­mit­ment that de Wet finds ap­peal­ing. “Neil has put David Jones in touch with a num­ber of small pro­duc­ers who he be­lieves cre­ate the best pro­duce.”

The re­tailer plans to in­cor­po­rate 70 per cent of its food prod­ucts un­der a David Jones la­bel over the next five years, “by find­ing the best lo­cal ar­ti­sanal brands and those from across the world,” says de Wet.

“We have a team of more than 60 food buy­ers, prod­uct de­vel­op­ers and tech­nol­o­gists who to­gether have sourced and cre­ated a com­pre­hen­sive range un­der our brand.” The range in­cludes pre-cut veg­eta­bles, mar­i­nated meat and pasta sauces. David Jones has de­clined to name the pro­duc­ers be­yond Cape Grim.

It’s easy to as­sume that David Jones will be stock­ing all-aus­tralian pro­duce. Not nec­es­sar­ily, says de Wet. “[But] the vast ma­jor­ity of what we sell will be Aus­tralian. When we can’t find the best prod­uct lo­cally, we will search for the best across the world.”

Aus­tralia’s own Co­bram Es­tate has amassed awards in New York for its out­stand­ing ex­tra vir­gin olive oils, yet the David Jones-branded ex­tra vir­gin olive oil is from Italy. Long-time sup­plier to Perry and seafood ex­pert, John Sus­man, doesn’t see im­port­ing from over­seas as a prob­lem. He says it’s im­por­tant to have global bench­mark­ing when it comes to food.

“It is not good enough to sim­ply, ‘buy Aus­tralian,’ through blind com­mit­ment to the flag,” he says. “If our pro­duc­ers want to stand on the world stage and pro­claim they are best in class, then they need to be able to com­pete on that ba­sis.”

Like the pro­duce it sells, as DJS en­ters the global stage, yet an­other Aus­tralian is on the cusp of in­ter­na­tional suc­cess.

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