November 13th, 2013. Posted by stephanie young
When you sit down to write a piece titled ‘Memories of Rockpool’, you spend a minute in some kind of weird space between a flood of information racing through your memory bank and a total void. Did that oyster bar ever really exist? Was Rockpool (fish) a figment of my imagination? Is it possible that Tom Sykes still looks as young as he did 15 years ago?
The thing about Rockpool, though, is that it really did all happen. 24 years, 9 months and whatever days since inception, the mother ship has been there, done it and worn the tee-shirt (or at least the precision ironed white jacket with special silver toggle).
Today, we say farewell to Rockpool on George, or Rockpool as she was once known and probably will be again. There are so many highlights in a restaurant lifespan of such length. There were tremendous highs and dreadful lows. Some remain with us forever and a day, others pop back into our head and surprise us at the most random moments.
Let’s start at the beginning…
THE EARLY DAYS
Pre-Rockpool, 107 to 109 George St housed a jazz club called ‘The Old Push’, where you could indulge in a dozen oysters for $4 and a tuna and cheese strudel for $3.50. Ahhhh the glory days!
It was February 28, 1989. Neil Perry and Trish Richards stood before their brand new restaurant and thought about what lay ahead. They were exciting times. Neil was a young gun chef, flavour of the month and his food early on considered ahead of its time. He was the creative left brain. Trish, right brain, was the strategic one – the one who made the business run (she still does, by the way!)
Rockpools’ earliest architects and designers built one of the most elegant restaurant spaces that had ever graced Sydney, considered ground breaking stuff in the world of local hospitality. The original restaurant was designed by D4 Designs. They brought us the mirror walls, the overall theatrics and the beautiful ‘Rose Room’. The space was filled with the iconic chairs (soon to go to auction) by Stephen Roberts, Alessi pepper grinders and adoring diners. The upstairs Oyster Bar was a lesson in deco glamour.
Managers and chefs, kitchen hands (vale Mr Hai), bus boys and girls, administration staff, accountants, PAs and more. It takes a lot to run a restaurant. There are staff with the Rockpool Group today that were with it in 1989 – a few have been here the whole time, many have come, learned, moved on and returned. The legacy of Rockpool will always be well trained staff and loyalty above all else. There are certainly more than a few that have gone onto be the next generation of hospitality leaders – far too many to mention in fact.
Iconic dishes were created – and many of these still grace our menus today, not just at George St but in our other venues too. Yes, stir fried spanner crab omelette – we are looking at you!
John Dory fillets seared in Indian pastry with tomato and cardamom sauce and Date Tart
It’s 1996. Rockpool is awarded Restaurant of the Year in the Good Food Guide and is joined by Tetsuya’s, Claudes and Forty One in the 3-hat club…amazing the amount of dishes on the menu this year still doing the rounds…
THE MIDDLE YEARS
The middle years were fascinating. There were restaurants opening and closing all around us (some of them our own!). We were adored by some restaurant critics, not so much by others. Multitudes of awards came in and a couple left via the back door. Such is life in the hospitality industry and Neil himself said in an interview years later “I was beaten to the canvas, but I got up and now I’m fighting a lot smarter.” Sydney Morning Herald food critic Simon Thomsen described Neil as a “punch drunk fighter who just keeps going”.
We made TV at Rockpool, we created cookbooks and shot the photos upstairs in the 40’s – the private room. We converted a little wet room off that same private dining area (once the acclaimed oyster bar) into a test kitchen where we created simmer sauces and dressings for ‘Neil Perry Fresh’, Qantas First and Business class menus, where we tested dishes for the books and magazine columns and even for the restaurant.
We pulled on our charity hat in a big way – even from the very early days Rockpool was a keen and eager participant in charity dinners and events, giving back where we could. We ‘cooked for a cause’ for OzHarvest, Chandon Supper Club, Canteen, Table for Ten, Bear Cottage and the Starlight Children’s Foundation – just a handful of the many we have supported over the years.
The Ultimate Dinner – now a philanthropic institution raising much needed funds for The Starlight Children’s Foundation kick started at Rockpool. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for one of our favourite charities and we hosted visiting friends and chefs such as the late Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Phil Howard, Heston Blumenthal and Tom Colicchio, alongside local legends Guillaume Brahimi, Tetsuya Wakuda, Chui Lee Luk and more.
It’s 1999. Rockpool turns 10. Neil and Trish walk across the road, stand outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, stare back and get emotional.
1999. Rockpool loses its 3rd hat.
2002. Rockpool slides elegantly into number 4 on the list of the World’s Best Restaurants. This one will never be forgotten. Nathan Sasi of Nomad recently reminisced… “The year Rockpool was no.4 in the top 50 was an amazing achievement and it was a true honour to be part of that team”.
In 2002, Neil and Trish decided on a refurbishment with a more sleek design, again employing Bill McMahon and Michael Scott-Mitchell (formerly of D4 Design).
2005. Rockpool loses its 3rd hat once more. The mood is sombre.
2006 and Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney opens up the road. Sydney’s taxi drivers get confused.
MORE RECENT TIMES
It’s 2007 and after the restaurant’s 3rd hat was again not restored, a sense of frustration inspired Neil and Trish to close Rockpool for 12 days and re-open as Rockpool (fish) – a more casual seafood place. It didn’t work. A lifetime of brand building teetered on the edge. The following July (fish) was gone and the rebuild of the iconic diner began. The signature dishes returned, customers and friends popped back in. Big sigh.
The late David Band, artist, photographer Earl Carter and architects Bates Smart with designer Grant Cheyne, now all a part of the Rockpool wallpaper themselves created a stunning new look for Rockpool (fish), the best of which has remained – the incredible still life of seafood madness, for want of a better description, a beautiful curved kitchen pass, amazing lights and banquettes and finishes. Rockpool swirled in a time of fantastic design and creativity – from inception till end, ever changing but somehow, not.
The awards returned and those that didn’t leave remained. We were consistently awarded 3 stars by Australian Gourmet Traveller with bonus awards here and there…
The Wine Spectator Years. Rockpool was consistently awarded a “Best of Award of Excellence” for our wine list.
A few letters we loved…
In 2008, Wendy Raymond of Wyee Point wrote this letter to the editor of (Sydney) magazine
I work in The Rocks and often see early-morning deliveries of produce to Rockpool; half a dozen punnets of perfect raspberries, greens practically with the dew still on them, disappearing into the under-street cellar. I occasionally see Neil Perry going to work as I depart mine. He always seems preoccupied, striding down the Suez Canal at the same pace as he must work in the kitchen. One thing, though, brought home to me that extreme attention to detail has played a part in his success. The first time I saw his back-of-house garbage storage, I was amazed: the room was spotlessly clean, his staff dressed in immaculate white overalls. The diners are never going to see the bins, but Perry’s standards are not relaxed even at the back door.
In 2009, we received a hand written letter by post. It was simple, not flashy, yet written from the heart and indeed, didn’t need to be written at all – these were the letters we always loved, our customers just dropping a quick note to say hi, we think you guys are doing things well and please keep up the good work. Here’s a snippet.
Dear Mr Neil Perry,
My partner and I have been celebrating his 40th birthday since Tuesday. .. We have been to Rockpool in the past and always enjoyed your food.
..We just wanted to let your team know that we thought very highly of the Oyster Bar and particularly of the really natural and sincere hospitality you offer which is at the very same time formal and perfectly appropriate. We noticed also that your birthday is coming up and so, indeed many happy returns!
February 28, 2009. Rockpool turns 20.
Happy birthday to us. Rockpool reaches 20 and it’s a milestone. There are few places around town, or indeed Australia who can boast such longevity, so we felt we earned the right to be a little proud. Neil said at the time ~ “One of the greatest things going for Trish and I over the last 20 years has been the loyalty of our staff, the great commitment from our suppliers past and present, and of course the extraordinary presence of our wonderful customers.”
We took a bunch of our best dishes from the last 20 years and created a 5 course tasting menu titled ‘Rockpool’s menu of the classics’. We changed it regularly throughout the year to keep it fresh and alive. This is how we kicked it off.
Zucchini and parmesan tart (2003)
Mud crab and sweet pork salad with green mango, salt and pepper tofu (1994)
Grilled king prawns with goat’s cheese tortellini, pine nuts and raisins (1991)
Seared spice crusted yellowfin tuna with moroccan style eggplant salad (1989)Slow roast english breed lamb with “our ratatouille”and aioli mayonnaise (1992)
Date tart (1984)
2009, Franz Scheurer of Australian Gourmet Pages reviewed Rockpool and awarded us 9.5/ 10 ~
“I love the room in its simplicity and, despite a couple of refurbishments, it’s familiarity. The second I sit down all the worries of the world seem to seep out of me and the focus is 100% on food and wine. It is no secret that I love Rockpool, they live up to my expectations more than most.”
It’s around about mid 2009 and Head Chef Mike McEnearney (now of Kitchen by Mike) returnd to Europe. Sob! But there’s a new kid on the block. Young gun Phil Wood stepped up to the hot plates.
2009 and Rockpool undergoes a full-makeover courtesy of Bates Smart (designers of all Bar & Grills and both Spice Temples )
2010. Time Out Sydney says we are the best restaurant in town.
Rich and Noble lobster congee. That is all.
February 2011 – the Rockpool Floodlight Dinner was held for victims of the horrifying Queensland floods. The brainchild of Colin Fassnidge from The Four in Hand, it was an exercise in true philanthropy and good spirit…and one that came to be via a simple tweet. Ah the power of social media!
Rockpool staff dinners continue to rule!
Mid year, 2011, we received perhaps the best feedback letter ever. It’s about the length of the old testament, so we’ll spare you the entire script and indulge you in but a few of the highlights. Take it away Chris…
Dear Rockpool Restaurant,
On Saturday the 28th of May, 2011 I attended your fine establishment with my girlfriend, Laura, to celebrate our 2 year anniversary.We had a wonderful time, and I was inspired to give you some feedback in case that sort of thing matters…
I am a young man (a ‘dude’ or ‘bloke’, if you will) from the western suburbs of Sydney, and if I might call your eatery a “fancy restaurant”, I think that may be the best way to convey my personal perspective and context for this review, gleaned from my sum life experiences of steakhouses, fashionable sushi joints, and maccas drive-thrus (which are largely expertly managed by Kristys, but frequently let down in the ordering department by Nathans and Beths)
This opening dish was fabulous. Mum used to put anchovette paste on Jatz crackers when we were kids, and I thought that was alright until tasting the Sterling Caviar. Wow! Turns out mum was just cheap and lazy.
I can not stand unflavoured seafood. Without being too narcissistic to believe it is impossible for me to be uncouth, I still think there are a lot of wankers out there who love crab and lobster because they are told it is crab and lobster.
You could probably serve them diced Vietnamese lung fish, call it Macedonian Reticulated Shellblob, and they would fall over themselves to comment on it’s texture and timbre on the palette.
Please note, this is not a suggested ingredient change. The crab was excellent, and the point to my diatribe is that it was superbly accompanied to form a complete dish, instead of something that would require an assertive personality-type to order lemon juice to the table.
The chicken crisp was intriguing, though. How is that made? I told Laura that a whole baby chicken is liquified then pumped into a shallow biscuit mold and baked, but she accused me of just making that up, and well, she was right.
The quail tea egg did look and behave more like a raw human eye, than I could have imagined, but tasted a lot less like I would imagine a human eye would taste (if I were to imagine such a thing) which might be actually be a plus, I am not sure.
In case anyone who works at Rockpool is still reading this after my possibly offensive quail egg review, I would like to make the following points:
- I have never experienced a higher standard of service at… well, anywhere.
- Every staff member I encountered was smiling, friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.
- Our water glasses never reached empty.
- When we were discussing a dish and had forgotten one of the ingredients mentioned (apparently loud enough to be overheard) a menu was kindly placed back on our table so we could see what had arrived and what was on the way.
- Every little thing was taken care of.
If I write any more, I think I will run out of compliments.
Thank you for an amazing dining experience. We will be back.
We start making our own bread and butter in house.
The annual Rockpool truffle dinners get going…
July 2012, it’s time for a name change at Rockpool. Those taxi drivers have driven us crazy so we become ‘Rockpool on George’.
Serving up Smiles for Starlight with some junior burgers in the Rockpool on George kitchen. Cutest chefs ever.
September 2012 sees the return of the 3rd hat to Rockpool on George. It’s been a while…one very very happy Rockpool on George family! It stays on for 2013.
2013, the end of George St is nigh and we dive into The Rockpool All-Star dinners, inviting a few favs back to cook for a night – Kylie Kwong, Mike McEnearney and Ross Lusted. Such wonderfully melancholic evenings and a true trip down memory lane.
I asked a few Rockpool staff, past and present, to furnish me with an everlasting memory or two of their Rockpool.
Doing a function in the Chinese gardens on a beautiful summers night, with woks set up out in the open and sudden freak rain pouring down. There was no need for deglazing the woks that night. Nothing to do but grin and get on with it!
Neil kicking out a group of belligerent drunken kiwis one night when they challenged the staff that we had not actually decanted their wine into the decanter but had swapped it with bad quality stuff from a box…he calmly walked to the table with their jackets and with great dignity asked them to stand, take their jackets and leave his beloved restaurant.
When Bill Clinton was in town – not sure what year – doing a walk through The Rocks. George Street was closed. He strolled past us as a group of about six people crammed onto the stoop to see…I was managing that day. He walked over and said “Oh my, this place looks nice, do you mind if I have a look in?” Knowing that now was not the time to say ‘no’ to Bill, I walked him up through the restaurant amid lots of admiring oohs and aahs. He held my arm in a very gentlemanly manner. Enormous charisma.
Billy Crystal, his wife and two friends on T36 for dinner – he had four vodka martinis before dinner and still managed to keep himself together. Awesome.
Sylvester Stallone was in for dinner with a bunch of people promoting The Hard Rock Café, complete with bodyguards and the lot. When I asked if he would like an aperitif, his bodyguard said ‘Mr. Stallone will have a vodka cranberry’…back in 1994 nowhere in Sydney had cranberry, so I said “Unfortunately we don’t have any cranberry, could I offer you orange or tonic instead?” The bodyguard responded “You will find some cranberry”. About 20 minutes later I was back from the fastest run in my life down to the Park Hyatt and back with a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry in hand…. “Your vodka cranberry, Mr Stallone”…
An unidentified American movie star who was in the group with Sylvester Stallone (I think it was Charlie Sheen?) went out deep sea fishing whilst he was in town. He later walked into the restaurant with a large tuna in his arms, placed it on the pass, saying to Neil – “Hey mate, can you do something with this fish for me?” Neil naturally coming to the rescue and created a selection of fabulous dishes for the group.
I have so many memories but the one thing I always tell people is the extraordinary bond we all formed at Rockpool. Most of us still keep in contact and most of us are all still dear friends. Unusual for a restaurant to have been the creation of this type of bond!
Kevin Costner in the ‘Bodyguard’ days – he strode into the restaurant in his white shirt, jeans and cowboy boots to the instantaneous sound of women holding their breath. On his way out later, he touched my necklace – I’ve never forgotten it and to this day it is still ‘Kevin’s necklace’.
In conclusion, I wanted thoughts on Rockpool from a person who has been with us from the very first minute – not a Rockpool staff member but a Rockpool friend who is one of the best observers I know and has something of a way with words. It is great to hear it from someone on the outside looking in. Over to you John Susman…
My memories of Rockpool George Street are many and varied.
It was Rockpool that really made my business, The Flying Squid Brothers and the inspiration and motivation that Chef provided has been catalytic in driving quality seafood in this country. At Rockpool, the concept of an ingredient driven menu was real, not a hackneyed cliche – the relationship between Chef and I became symbiotic – he would often be writing the menu as I was calling in from the markets or the airport with the latest of what we had found from fishermen around the country. Neil encouraged me to go further, ask more questions and see what we could dig up – it often became a challenge between us as to how exotic, unusual or downright stupid the seafood would be that we would hunt down – I reckon I ate more periwinkles than any guests at Rockpool just to support the concept!
From the days of the ball busting deliveries down that stupid hatch, which included getting fish market tubs stuck and the hatch obstructing the footpath, to pushing it up and knocking unsuspecting pedestrians over, to dropping a box of live eels at unload with half of them disappearing down George street and the other half being lost in the bowels of Rockpool, possibly forever.
Rockpool through all the ups and downs has been without peer the most supportive restaurant in Australia for providores – 24 years before it was fashionable it was a mandate.
The amazing lunches and dinners were legendary – a handful of my favourite dishes – that I can remember :
Roast Palm Beach Mooloolaba jewfish with red braised vegetables
Yamba prawns ( Rockpool via Flying Squid Brothers) was the first restaurant to identify the provenance of these amazing Clarence River King Prawns – with soft polenta & mushrooms
Tea Smoked Jervis Bay oysters with ginger and garlic
Palm Beach Lobster with Figs and Duck Confit Salad
Woolongong John Dory Murtabak with curry
And so we bid George St farewell and say thanks for an amazing 24 + years. There is so much not touched on here – great dinners, special menus, unmentionable situations, fabulous guests, unforgettable staff and oh, leaky roofs. This retrospect is but a dot on our mighty past and a blink in the forward facing direction to all the memories yet to be created – for us, and for you.
We look forward to the next chapter at Bridge Street.
Adios Rockpool (on George). Gone but never forgotten.