Neil Perry was retired for what felt like five minutes. The legend of the Australian food scene announced his shock exit from the Rockpool Dining Group last July after 40 years working in restaurants. Six months later he had signed a 10-year lease for a new eatery in Sydney’s Double Bay, hired architects, come up with a concept and was back in business.
“I think it’s kind of like vampires needing blood. I always think I need the vibrancy and input of young people to stay young myself; it keeps me focused and driven,” he tells WISH over coffee just up the road from where his new venue will open. “I really missed the day-to-day interaction with my team, supporting them and growing them.
“A lot of people have said ‘hey, you are 64 this year – what are you doing? Are you nuts, signing leases and hiring people?’ But I just love the business so much I find it hard to see myself out of it now. I did take a break but I hated it.”
The project has particular personal significance for Perry: it is the first restaurant he will open and operate solo and he has chosen to name it after his late mother, Margaret.
He says his approach to food came from both his parents, but his father’s input has been known about for years. “If you know anything about me you will know that my father basically created the whole platform for the way I think about food and how I interact with it,” he says. “My father was a butcher and a mad-keen fisher and a gardener, and he taught me all about the seasons. We had an aviary and we had chickens, and we used to get the eggs and eat them a few days later. That was fundamentally where my whole philosophy came from.” What is not so well known, he says, is the impact his mother has had on his career and the influence she had on the way he runs his restaurants.
“I have a thing call the care philosophy, and that came from my mother’s nurturing and caring and sense of generosity that she created with her house,” he says. “We had a big extended family; there were always people staying. I grew up in this big Brady Bunch situation [with stepsisters and brothers] and she was always creating a focal point for the family. So that sense of generosity and community comes from Mum.”
After spending most of his career in fine dining and looking after corporate types in the city, with Rockpool Bar & Grill, Spice Temple and Rosetta, Perry is also going in a new direction with this restaurant: it will be a local bistro that caters for all at any time of day.
“The suburbs are definitely feeling more vibrant than they ever have because I think people feel comfortable staying local”
“I want it to be a really fantastic neighbourhood place,” he explains. “You might want to drop in at lunchtime and grab a sandwich at the bar; it might be 5pm in the afternoon and you feel like a glass of wine and a dozen oysters. Or you just want to grab a drink with friends and you know the best cocktails in Sydney are here, or you decide to take the family to celebrate your birthday. You know my restaurant can provide all of those things because it is accessible.”
The chef says Margaret’s focus will be on the quality of the ingredients and the craft of cooking that showcases them. There will be a wood-fired oven and charcoal grill. It will be dishes that Perry both loves to cook and loves to eat. “You will be able to spend as little or as much on the food,” he says. “The same as the wine list. It will be very affordable, but if you have some business guys come in who want to drink some Burgundy or Bordeaux, then those wines will be available.”
Perry says this new direction – what brought him out of retirement – was in part influenced by the impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant scene. “The suburbs are definitely feeling more vibrant than they ever have because I think people feel comfortable staying local,” he says. “The city will come back, of course, but a lot of small, dynamic firms have decided to take up residence around here. So Double Bay has that true village atmosphere, where you have commercial and corporates, residential, retail and restaurants. You have a community that is self-sustaining.”
It was also about the space that the new restaurant will occupy. As soon as Perry walked into the Pallas House Sydney redevelopment on the corner of Bay Street and Guilfoyle Avenue, then still a building site, he was taken with it. “I thought, wow, there isn’t a better site in the eastern suburbs,” he recalls. “I just had a really good feeling about it; it is north-facing, beautiful frontage and two of the best streets in Double Bay, and one of them faces Guilfoyle Park.” The $13.5 million refurbishment is being run by Pallas Capital and development group Fortis (the building will be house its new offices) and involves refitting the existing building and adding two floors. Perry has brought on famed Australian industrial designer David Caon and architecture firm ACME & Co to do the interiors of Margaret. “It has been a terrific collaboration,” he says.