Rockpool Group’s Chinese haven, Spice Temple, has been a Sydney-Melbourne institution for over a decade. Led by renowned Australian chef Neil Perry, the Culinary Director of the Rockpool Group, the restaurant is known for its punchy Sichuan flavours, attention to detail and rich attention to the culture behind the recipe. In April this year, head chefs Andy Evans and Neisha Woo worked with Perry to alter the menu for the first time, and the process started with two customer dinners.
With these changes underway, Backyard Opera chatted with Chef Neil Perry about the what is in the works at Spice Temple, the use of native ingredients and what this represents in Australia’s lengthy and diverse culinary history.
BYO: How were the recent customer dining experiences to introduce the new direction at Spice Temple? Were you happy with them?
Neil: We got great feedback from customers, they really enjoyed it. They enjoyed the flavours both in the way that some of them came through being very unique and also how well integrated and delicious they ended up [being]. So yeah, I think it ticked all the boxes for people and they were really excited to try new flavours within the Chinese regime that we were using.
BYO: What’s it like pairing native Australian ingredients with Chinese flavours?
Neil: Well I think if you take it back to the basic notion that there are flavours of ingredients — bitter, sour, stringent, sweet — all those things actually are through Chinese food. I had no doubt, because as they say they use everything except the beak of the duck in cooking, that if these ingredients did grow in China that it would be completely integrated into the foods for sure by now. So, the way we look at it is, we live in Australia, we use beautiful fresh Australian seafood, we use Chinese techniques, and now we can wind these Australian flavours in. These Australian flavours have uniqueness, and help create a kind of Australian-Chinese cuisine that was the starting point for what we wanted to try and do. But we really feel very naturally that these flavours work with Chinese cooking.
BYO: How will these new editions to the Spice Temple menu change the direction of the menu in the long run?
Neil: So we’ll continue to experiment using various ingredients throughout the other dishes. I think it will be a situation where we’ll start out with about three or four, we’re definitely thinking warrigal green, saltbush, desert limes, pepperberry, we want to get into wattle seeds too. We’ll probably start working with some kangaroo as well and probably some wallaby tail, and over time you’ll see more native ingredients integrated as we have with the native seafood program, all our native seafood is in there, so it just makes perfect sense.
BYO: This is the first menu change you’ve had in about ten years. How did you feel about this? Were you pleased, nervous…?
Neil: Well I just thought it was time. Like I said we’ve been using [native ingredients] at Rockpool for years, and for me, something I’m very strong on, is we have 60,000 years of food and culture in Australia through our First Australians, and they are a people who are really incredible and need to be recognised for how unique they make Australia, and of course these ingredients make Australia unique. So, I’ve been very big on trying to incorporate and build a bridge between the original culture here and the culture that we currently have, and for people to recognise that we are not almost 250 years old but that we are in fact 60,000 years old and that a march towards reconciliation is the most important thing we can do as a country, it’s very much a healing process.
I think from our perspective, we feel like we’re so blessed and lucky that through food we can take little steps in showing people that there is such a thing as Australian flavour and Australian uniqueness through our food and though our First Australian’s culture. It’s an extraordinary position to be in so we really want to push that. That was really the driving force behind why we decided to make the change at Spice Temple.
BYO: What are the main pressure points when cooking Chinese dishes? And if you had one golden rule for young chefs approaching the Chinese cuisine, what would that be?
Neil: Well the starting point, particularly for stir fry, is to ensure you have great knife skills so you cut everything very well because the speed of cooking and the heat involved is really important. So that’ the second pressure point I suppose, making sure that the wok is hot and the oil is hot before you start stir frying anything. Because the whole notion of the breath of the wok is really that searing or slight caramelisation burning of what you’re stir frying.
So they’re the really important parts but the Chinese cuisine is incredibly complex and a lot of people don’t understand that you can take yellow rock sugar and sesame oil and ginger and garlic and spring onions and water, and boil it, and you can take a chicken and you can actually end up with half a dozen different textures depending on how you boil it, for how long you boil it, for how long you steep it for, for when you take it out, whether you double cook it by frying it again, whether you dry it and fry it, whether you leave it, steep it and cut it up as a cold cut. You know you can have firm skin, soft skin, crisp skin, you can white cut it and plunge it into ice water and have all the beautiful juices set into jellies under the skin. There’s an incredible array of complexity that you can get out of cooking with Chinese [techniques] and the way that they braise and boil and fry and stir fry, so it’s a really interesting cuisine to dive into and learn the techniques of.
BYO: What do you think is special about Spice Temple compared to other restaurants in the portfolio?
Neil: I think it’s the fact that it’s very authentic, and the way we use chilli, it’s the House of Spice really, and we try to stay fairly true to the Sichuan and Hunan use of it. But we use it fresh, we use it long and short, dry, we use it [as] powder, we use [it as] flake, we use it salted, we ferment chillies, we brine them, we pickle them, so we get all those incredible flavours. But I think what is really wonderful about it is that we bring all this craft of Chinese cooking to some of the greatest ingredients the country’s got. So, beautiful organic chickens, fantastic free range pork and amazing line caught fish and beautiful grass-fed beef, and you know it’s that providence of the ingredients that set it aside and make it amazing.
BYO: Finally, what qualities do you look for in the executive chefs of your restaurants?
Neil: Look all the guys that run my restaurants look strongly at the enthusiasm level first, because you’ve got to be incredibly enthusiastic and be passionate about the industry and food obviously and specifically.
We want people to love the food that they’re cooking and love the beautiful ingredients and care about the ingredients because of the incredible suppliers. But most importantly we want them to care of each other because we want to make sure that we’re looking after each other’s mental and physical health and also mentoring and growing, as not only a chef and a cook but so that our young people, when they leave the restaurant, they’ve got a better understanding whether it is Indigenous rights, or it is things that are important like sustainability and climate change. It’s important that we get a group of people who care about what happens to the country and what happens to the world, and most importantly what happens to each other.
You can find Spice Temple’s full menu and details here: http://www.spicetemple.com.au/sydney/menu/