Neil Perry has been called a lot of things - not all of them complimentary. When I tell Australian foodie friends about plans to interview the chef of the celebrated fine-dining Rockpool restaurant in Sydney, the steakhouses Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney and Melbourne, and Spice Market (serving modern Chinese, in Sydney), their general reaction is that Perry has excellent restaurants, but that they've heard he's arrogant and egotistical.
So I'm a little wary when I go to meet him in Tsim Sha Tsui. Perry was in Hong Kong last month to cook dinner for assorted VIPs in his role as ambassador for New South Wales, for which he promotes the state's wine, produce and tourism.
The chef I speak to doesn't seem at all arrogant, despite being the head of a culinary empire that employs about 350 people - and is growing. Perry is funny, engaging and passionate about food. As we sit, he reports on a meal he had at the Michelin one-star Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok. 'It was great, there were some really fantastic things,' he says. 'The har gau were incredible - there was real intensity from the wonderful freshness of the prawn and very delicate pastry.'
When told that local foodies tend to think that Michelin was far too generous in giving a star to Tim Ho Wan, Perry says: 'Michelin is controversial. One of my favourite restaurants in the world is a much nicer-looking place than Tim Ho Wan, and it has food that's way better. It's a grill restaurant called Etxebarri in the Basque country in Spain. Everything is locally sourced using pristine ingredients, and they make their own charcoal from different woods. The chef is a genius but he doesn't even have one Michelin star. You need to go there - for your soul, you need to go there.'
Perry - a former hairdresser and waiter - made a splash on the Sydney food scene in the mid-80s, when he went from training under chefs such as Damien Pignolet and Stephanie Alexander to head chef at Barrenjoey Restaurant. 'I went from a stagiaire [trainee] to head chef,' Perry says, laughing at the memory. 'I took over the kitchen in November, and in January, Leo Schofield - a prominent restaurant critic - reviewed us and Peter Doyle. And [Schofield] gave us both 17 out of 20 points. He said: 'This kid's a star'. That was the beginning of my life in the spotlight and I've been playing catch-up from then on.'
Rockpool has been ranked one of Sydney's top restaurants for more than 20 years - even when Perry tried to mess with a winning formula by changing it to the more casual Rockpool (fish). He covers his face with embarrassment at the memory.
'I changed it - I shouldn't have done it but we're back to where we were before.'
Although Perry's food has been called 'modern Australian' by many food writers, he describes it simply as 'Australian'. 'I don't know if there was an old Australian cuisine,' he says. 'I call it Australian because it's cooked by Australians using Australian produce and with the multicultural influence that is Australia. When I was growing up, Anglo-Saxon people were in the majority but now, lots of my friends look Chinese or Thai or Japanese or Indian, but they're Australian - they were born there or immigrated there. The country was built on immigration - it's a melting pot. And the food is influenced by that - in my view, very fortunately.'
His restaurant empire includes Spice Temple, which Perry calls modern Chinese. 'It's inspired mostly by the non-Cantonese provinces. We look at a lot of full-flavoured food - not just Sichuan, Yunnan and Hunan, but some of the smaller areas as well. All the dishes are inspired by something I've eaten at a restaurant in China - usually the more classic dishes of those provinces.
'There's a lot of spice and chilli, but we carry the same philosophy of the Rockpool restaurant - which is based on the humane treatment of animals and sustainable farming by small farmers. No industrial farmed animals are served at our restaurants.'
Perry cites his father as being one of the biggest influences on his cuisine. 'He used to run a meat export plant and back in those days - the early 60s - a lot of people who worked there - the packers and slicers and so on - were what were called 'new Australians'. They were from Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain, Hungary. So we ate a lot of interesting European stuff because of the influence of the people who worked with my father. He also loved Chinese food so we ate a lot of Chinese.
'I remember growing up eating fried eggplant and moussaka and salami - all these things that in the early 60s, nice Anglo-Saxon people wouldn't be eating.' His tastes lean more towards traditional than molecular. Molecular gastronomy is a field of the culinary arts that concerns itself with the chemical processes that take place during cooking. Famed chefs such as Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Roses, Catalonia, have espoused the cause.
'I like to try new food,' says Perry, 'but I'm not really a great fan of eating the style of food at El Bulli - although Ferran Adria is a great friend of mine. I'd rather eat what Thomas Keller does at French Laundry [Napa Valley, California] and what Alain Passard does at L'Arpege [Paris], rather than what Pierre Gagnaire [Paris] does. And when I come to Hong Kong or China, I don't tend to seek out the Bo Innovation style, although I know Alvin Leung, when he was in Sydney, dined at Spice Temple.
'One of the great things about being a chef or cook is that when you start out, you don't really think you're going to be where I've managed to get to. Another great thing is ... to be able to raise money for the community and work with children who are sick ... I love that it can happen.'