Woodford Reserve Icon Award 2024

Woodford Reserve Icon Award 2024

Neil Perry

Margaret, Sydney

Legendary Australian chef who has reframed his country’s gastronomy over four decades

The trademark ponytail may be a little greyer, the ever-smiling face a little more lined, but after more than 40 years in the restaurant game, Neil Perry remains a dynamic force.

The Sydney-born chef and restaurateur has been his country’s most influential culinary figure for decades, inspiring a generation of young chefs and delighting millions of diners across his multiple projects. What’s more, after one attempt at semi-retirement, he’s back rattling pans at acclaimed neighbourhood restaurant, Margaret.

Perry is known throughout Australia, and by gastronomes across the globe, because he helped challenge stereotypes around his country’s food culture. Australians love good food and drink: but we’re not just talking pies, lager and barbies. This is a country with one of the most sophisticated, diverse and under-rated restaurant scenes in the world.

However, when Perry began working in restaurants in Sydney in the mid-1980s (starting out front of house, before migrating to the kitchen), the city’s gastronomic revolution was in its infancy. He made his first splash when taking over Blue Water Grill at Bondi Beach in 1986, where he championed fresh seafood, and built relationships directly with the local fishers.

It proved the precursor to the original Rockpool in Sydney, opened in 1989 to huge acclaim. This landmark destination helped put Australia on the international dining map, as Rockpool was ranked No.4 in the very first edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2002. With an open kitchen, casual but professional service style and its championing of producers, Rockpool was decidedly ahead of the game in terms of restaurant trends.

Through the Noughties, Perry and his business partners took the more steak-focused Rockpool Bar & Grill to Melbourne and Perth, as well as opening a range of different concepts, many inspired by Asian foodways. These included Spice Temple, Jade Temple and XO, as well as Italian favourite Rosetta, and the self-explanatory Burger Project.

Meanwhile, Rockpool retained a spot on the 50 Best list for many years, reflecting its international reputation. In 2017, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards was hosted in Australia, with the gala event held in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. Naturally, it was Perry who curated the food at the event, delivering an unimpeachable celebration of the multi-faceted modern Australian cuisine he was instrumental in shaping.

Over his storied career, Perry has been awarded more ‘chef’s hats’ by Australia’s Good Food Guide (loosely equivalent to Michelin stars) than any other individual. He also oversaw in-flight dining for Qantas Airways for more than 25 years, published numerous cookbooks and appeared regularly on TV. Having built Australia’s foremost restaurant empire, Perry stepped down as culinary director of Rockpool Dining Group in 2020, though he continued to focus on its not-for-profit Hope Delivery initiative during the pandemic.

And then, in 2021, he came roaring back as an independent chef-restaurateur with the opening of Margaret in the affluent Sydney suburb of Double Bay. Billed as a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’, in reality it is much more than that (Perry doesn’t really do low-key), with the veteran bringing together his love of super-fresh seafood and Asian flavours to outstanding effect.

Perry and his wife Samantha have added a wine bar next door – appropriately named Next Door – as well as the adjacent Baker Bleu bakery to the ever-evolving mix. There are plans for further expansion in the area, with Perry’s enthusiasm for his latest projects showing no sign of waning, even as he notches up 45 years in the business.

Neil Perry AM [Member of the Order of Australia] is not only an Australian icon, he’s an icon of the restaurant world – and a winner yet again.

The Woodford Reserve Icon Award recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the hospitality industry worthy of global recognition. The accolade is voted for by the Academy, formed of 1,080 independent restaurant industry experts and well-travelled gourmets from across the world.