You've gotta hand it to Neil Perry. When he says he's going to get a few mates over to help out, he doesn't muck around. To raise money for the Starlight Children's Foundation at this year's Ultimate Dinner, Perry enlisted the help of his friends Thomas Keller, of Per Se and The French Laundry, and Heston Blumenthal, of The Fat Duck - simply put, the most highly regarded chefs in the US and the UK respectively. Blumenthal and Keller are Ultimate veterans, having joined Perry at two previous dinners; new to the mix for 2011 was none other than Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef at Mugaritz, the Spanish restaurant considered one of the great powerhouses of culinary creativity of our day. With the aid of Rockpool chefs Phil Wood and Catherine Adams and Bennelong's Guillaume Brahimi, they cooked for 150 very happy diners at Rockpool Bar & Grill, raising more than $280,000 for the charity.
With three of the world's top chefs in town, we thought it was a great opportunity to get them around the one table and get their thoughts on the big picture and the crucial details of what's happening in food and restaurants today. To add some spice to the mix, we added the three chefs we've ranked top of the heap locally, being Andrew McConnell of Melbourne's Cutler & Co, Mark Best from Sydney's Marque, and Perry himself. Over a lunch of some mighty fine beef and red wine in Rockpool Bar & Grill's Bligh Room, their discussion was wide-ranging and candid; GT's Pat Nourse was on hand to report some of the choicer cuts.
On the changing role of the chef
Thomas Keller: You lose the guilt about not being there every night after a while, but you never ever lose the desire to be 30 years old again and banging it out in the kitchen like you were back in the day. I treat my restaurants like a sports franchise. You have to understand that every employee has a life in that franchise and you've gotta rotate them and think generationally… I don't need to always be the chef, I don't have that kind of ego. I need to know that my restaurants will continue to evolve past the level that I could ever achieve on my own. The best thing that happens to me these days is when I walk into my restaurant and I smack myself on the head and say s*, why didn't I think of that? It means somebody has understood my philosophy, has embraced our culture and has been able to evolve the restaurant to a different level. That's pretty cool.
Andrew McConnell: I opened my first restaurant 10 years ago and that was a very mom-and-pop hand-to-mouth style of running a business and now that's changed a lot. With those changes the only negative impact has been that it has taken me away from cooking a little bit more. Trying to maintain that balance is the change that I'm battling with. I still get immense satisfaction from cooking and if I don't get to do that for a few days, I don't like it. I realise that if I have these ambitions, however, and if I want to work with various different teams, I have to work out how to use my time.
Neil Perry: I don't think anybody starts out saying "I'm going to have a three-star restaurant". They start out thinking, I love food, I want to learn more about cooking, I want to do more of this, let's start a small restaurant, let's get some staff, wow, this is exciting, and all of a sudden you look back 15 years and you're somewhere completely different. If you'd told me at the beginning that I'd be responsible for 520 staff and half a million in payroll every week, I'd have said, "f*, I'm not doing that, forget about it".
On technology in the kitchen
Mark Best: When we opened Marque it was a stove, a salamander, an oven and three people in the kitchen working their arses off 16 hours a day. With technology - sous-vide cookery, chrome griddles, small Combitherms, Thermomixes and blast freezers - we've taken that very limited space and increased the quality and consistency while keeping our food philosophy the same. We seat 50 and now do mostly dégustations, so on bigger nights we might be sending out 500 plates with a team of seven… even though we're putting out vastly more than we ever did before, we're able to do it more consistently.
Andoni Luis Aduriz: Technology in my perspective is just a magnifying glass. If it's put over something ugly, it'll make it even worse. If it's put on something beautiful, it'll make it more beautiful. The problem is not technology itself. The problem is how you use technology. You put the right technology in front of a terrible cook, it'll only make him worse. You put the same technology in the hands of someone who can make good use of it, it'll make him better.
Heston Blumenthal: Things like Madrid Fusión are fantastic for progress, and the globalisation of cooking… but the downside to them is that you get young chefs asked to do a presentation, and they think, gee, I can't just get up there and roast some meat and potatoes when I've got all these other guys doing this other stuff. I've got to think of something else to do. You then have the danger of young chefs coming along, sticking something in liquid nitrogen, running it through the dessicator and putting it in the Pacojet, and the agenda of cooking tasty, good fun food that generates some sort of positive emotion gets lost.
On advice for aspiring chefs
Blumenthal: When somebody has done something wrong, it comes down to three things: either that person is not good enough for the job, that person has not had enough training for the job, or you're expecting too much of them. All those things come back to the same origin: you as the boss are at fault. Realising that was huge for me, realising it was my responsibility changed the whole job for me.
Aduriz: We live in changing situations, with an uncertain future and sometimes an uncertain present; the only thing that will always be constant forever are values. Everything else has an expiry date. Your values will be what define you. Honesty, creativity, flexibility. These are the only tools you have against uncertainty. You can't know what you will be dealing with next, but your values will still be your values.
On the Next Big Thing
Blumenthal: The next big thing will be domestic sous-vide systems. In the next five to 10 years.
Aduriz: If I had all the answers, trust me, I wouldn't still be playing the lottery.
Perry: The next big thing is that when Australians say "barbecue" they're going to mean wood or charcoal, not gas.
Keller: The next big thing for me is that I'm going to Rockpool and in the true spirit of sharing, Neil's pastry chef is going to show me how to make a date tart.