“The garden is a vital source of inspiration and the visit to the produce souk has stirred memories”
The metaphor of the garden is a vital source of inspiration and this morning’s visit to the produce souk has stirred some memories. “When I was a kid we had the most amazing meat from Dad, a butcher. But we also had an aviary, and I fished with Dad all the time. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I ate a piece of fish he hadn’t caught. And I suppose 65 per cent of the vegetables we ate came from our garden. We picked from the trees in summer and pulled from the ground in winter. It was a beautiful experience of vibrant seasonality.”
From time to time he would work with his father during school holidays, and the other butchers were Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, Spanish; for lunch, they’d be having salami sandwiches and braised peppers. “It was a deeply multicultural childhood.” For years afterwards he thought he’d lived an average childhood and it was only later that he realised how rare and influential his upbringing had been.
Perry still credits the farmers, growers and fisherman with whom his restaurant group maintains a “unique relationship” as a powerful source of inspiration. A sign of the food industry’s increasing sophistication, in his view, is the ability of growers and restaurants to utilise “the amazing variety of fruit and vegetables from all the different climates and microclimates we have. We have fish from very cold deepwater species to fast-growing tropical species. It’s thrilling to cook with all these different textures and flavours.” His appreciation extends from the “guys who grow the most beautiful radishes and carrots” to those who “grow the best beef, pork and chicken. Those people really drive the food we cook and we’re in tune with them — they’re the unsung heroes of great Australian food.”
When I leave Perry that spring day he is buttoning himself into a chef’s smock waiting to cook with a local chef, Osama El Sayed, on Dubai television. A little over 24 hours later, at the Qantas baggage carousel in Sydney, I catch up with him again. He has in the interim learnt a few things from “chef Osama”, including the recipe for a “superbly fragrant” chicken and vegetable soup using some of the dried limes we’d seen in the souk. But perhaps the most important gift he’d taken from Dubai was a memory. The fruit and vegetable souk had reminded him that his global career began, in many respects, with the tending of a garden in a southern suburb of Sydney.