In a cooking career spanning more than 30 years, Neil Perry has created some of Australia’s most memorable dishes, inspiring and influencing a generation of chefs along the way as they passed through the kitchens of his flagship Rockpool restaurant and a dozen more restaurants along the way.
Perry is one of the founding fathers of Australian fine dining, as well as spending nearly 20 years designing the menus for the pointy end of Qantas planes.
But the big change in Perry’s career came as he approached 50 and teamed up with James Packer to open the first Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne’s Crown Resort nearly a decade ago. Inspired by US steakhouses, Perry created glass-walled dry aging rooms where diners could see the meat being aged on the bone.
A few years later, the spectacular Sydney version opened, followed by a western outpost at Packer’s Perth casino. The chef now has eight restaurants in three states under his creative control.
The shift for Perry, after two decades of the culinary high-wire act that is Rockpools complex, dazzling blend of Asian and European styles and flavours was that Bar and Grill reflected a more straightforward approach: steaks on wood-fired grills and comfort food such as creamed corn.
But even then, Perry had ambition, setting himself the task of designing the perfect hamburger, once again setting a path that other top chefs would go on to follow, using David Blackmoore’s wagyu beef, a brioche bun, Gruyere cheese, bacon and Zuni pickle.
It was the Bulgari of burgers and a critical hit that got him thinking.
Now he wanted to make “the people’s burger” for at least half the price, but without compromising on quality. And thus the Burger Project was born, finally coming to life in Sydney’s World Square in November 2014.
Perry was a little late to a trend that had seen several high-end chefs turn away from fine dining in favour of burgers and Mexican. But the Rockpool boss spent his time deciding how he was going to be different.
“I’ve come into a space that’s very different to where I’ve been before,” Perry told Business Insider, five months after Burger Project’s launch.
He describes it as a return to his childhood. As a chef who once said restaurants were in the “nostalgia business”, he call Burger Project a “real hark back in history”.
“It’s what the diners and the corner stores were when I was a kid.”
That’s not the only thing that’s a world away from the kitchens of Rockpool Group, where a main course generally costs more than $40. A Burger Project hamburger is $10 or less.
“It’s a different business model completely in the approach compared to restaurants I’ve run before.”
There’s one thing Perry’s clear about however, the underlying philosophical principles don’t change. Environmental sustainability is critical and philanthropy too – “giving back” is a core value for Perry.
For diners it all comes down to the burger. For the chef that means the meat. He chose 36-month-old Cape Grim cattle grass fed in the purest part of Australia – Tasmania’s northwest coast.
The recipe is simple: hand-chop chuck and brisket steak, mince it, form the patties by hand, salt, cook on the grill.
“There’s nothing in the pattie but meat. That’s what creates the quality, you can taste the beef,” Perry says.
The point of difference for the Burger Project was the same approach taken in all of Perry’s restaurants: everything is made from scratch on the premises, from the pickled cucumbers to the “secret” sauce and the ice-creams.
“It’s the major difference to everyone else and by going to the extra effort, I’ve got something that I believe attaches us back to the Rockpool philosophy,” Perry said. “It’s fast food with slow food values.”
But going from high pressure of fine dining to flipping burgers wasn’t easy, even for a chef of Perry’s calibre. He got hammered in more ways than one.
“The first two months nearly killed me and I promised myself I’d never open another one,” Perry said.
From the outset, Burger Project was a hit and regularly serves more than 1000 hamburgers a day. Now the chef has national and global expansion plans.
“The reality is that it’s a business that’s scalable, something most restaurants don’t have,” he explains.
While Perry won’t say how many places he wants to open, he expects to have 2000 people working for him in the “next five to six years”.
“And we’re trying to create something different where skill levels are lower and people can be trained. We started out with a lot of young kids with little experience, but lot of enthusiasm. That’s the opposite to a high end restaurant where everyone starts with an established skills set.”
The challenge, Perry says, was to create quality and consistency at speed.
“We had to refine method to put the ‘fast’ in the food,” he said.
“We documented everything we learnt along the way and overall, things we mostly to design. Now we’re hitting the wage and food cost targets we want, turnover is growing and we’ve getting really good feedback.”
Part of keeping the costs under control was sourcing produce directly.
“We work on slightly different margins to a normal restaurant and essentially I work straight with producers like Cape Grim. If I had to buy it through a supplier, we couldn’t hit the prices we wanted to for our burgers,” Perry explained.
Labour is a major cost, especially with all the components made in-house, but the chef says it’s worth it, because it gives the end product “a fresher quality” and “some ingredients that are really good for you”.
“There’s no way we’d buy a preformed patty,” he says.
And the chef who’s gone from fine dining to flipping burgers is offering his team to head in the opposite direction.
“Work with us and you could end up going into one of the Rockpool Group restaurants or being part of our expansion plans. That means people will have the chance to go from being a $20 hour casual to an $85,000 regional manager at Burger Project down the track,” Perry said.
The other side to the equation is the chef believes in training the next generation to love an industry he’s dedicated his career to.
“It’s an amazing business and these incredible people keep you fired up.”
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