The concept behind Margaret, Neil Perry’s new Double Bay restaurant which was set to open on the day of the Sydney Covid-19 outbreak, is a simple one. “It’s my food,” says Perry. “It’s about great produce cooked with great craft. I’ve put a beautiful wood-fired grill in the middle of the kitchen, and we’re doing a lot of seafood. We use the best fisherman in the country direct to us, great beef and chickens on the rotisserie and fantastic burgers off the wood-fired grill out in the bar.” Superlative drinks and “a fantastic wine list” complete the picture. “It’s just a really sophisticated neighbourhood restaurant,” he says.
Sydney diners agreed. “This restaurant had more bookings than any restaurant I’ve ever had,” he said. “And I’ve had some pretty popular restaurants.” He says he’s cancelled six weeks’ worth of reservations on account of the Sydney lockdown – a total of 11,000 bookings.
But as a new business, Margaret is not eligible for state or federal government support, despite employing 50 people. To stay afloat – and keep staff employed – Perry is serving takeaway burgers at lunchtime, much to the delight of Double Bay locals. On the first day, Perry prepared 100 burgers and sold out in 15 minutes. “We’re doing 200 today and will probably build it to 300,” he says when we speak to him in early August.
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But Perry has also partnered with Providoor, the premium meal delivery platform that fellow chef and restaurateur Shane Delia started in Melbourne last year. Delia recently launched Providoor in Sydney, fast-tracking his existing plan to bring the platform to the city due to the ongoing lockdown.
As well as Perry, whose Providoor offering is Neil Perry at Home, Sydney restaurants including Cirrus, Monopole, Yellow, The Apollo, Cho Cho San, Icebergs Dining Room + Bar, Golden Century, Spice Temple, Rockpool and Ciccia Bella have signed on to the platform. Perry says it’s a lifeline in the current lockdown.
“Shane had done such a nice job with the guys down in Melbourne during their extended lockdown,” he says. “I’ll be surprised if we open this year. So it was either do something like Providoor, as well as burgers at lunchtime and cocktail sales, or not survive. That’s the choice.”
Providoor’s Neil Perry at Home showcases the type of dishes Perry plans to serve at Margaret. “We’re doing chicken cacciatore, beautiful steak – we’re sealing it over the wood fire, and then you get to finish it in the oven at home – and lots of antipasti, which is always great when you’re sharing.”
Also available are pappardelle and duck ragu, a spinach, raisin and pine nut torta, and, on the banquet menu, “beautiful roasted beets with a pistachio butter, caponata, mozzarella with slow-roasted onions we do overnight, which is so sweet and delicious, and a gorgeous mascarpone trifle.”
In addition Perry is teaming up with Delia to run a cooking class via Providoor’s Instagram Live on August 13. “I decided to take that in a different direction altogether,” he says of its four-course Chinese-inspired menu.
Participants will receive a kit with all the ingredients they need to prepare a chicken salad with black vinegar and chilli dressing, “tingling” prawn salad, steamed snapper fillet with ginger and shallot, and red-braised pork hock and shiitake mushrooms. Perry and the team at Providoor provide dessert in the form of classic chocolate mousse.
The idea behind the class is to “give people a great meal but also the skills they need to cook more Chinese food at home,” says Perry. “It teaches good fundamentals like ginger and shallot fish, which you can apply to a lot of things, red-braised pork – you can do red braising with heaps of stuff – and the two dressings, the tingling and the black vinegar and chilli oil dressing, go with just about anything.”
Another pandemic project that has kept Perry busy over the last 12 months is Hope Delivery, a community meal program initially founded to help feed international hospitality Visa workers, the homeless and the disadvantaged during the first national lockdown. Today, Hope Delivery operates out of the food court at Stockland Piccadilly in the CBD. “We’re doing about 5000 meals a week for OzHarvest, and we’re doing about another thousand for a couple of Indigenous charity groups,” Perry says.
Perry expects his plans to open Margaret for sit-down dining won’t come to fruition until next year. “Unless we’re open later this year for a bit of outdoor dining, I’d say it’s 2022 [with] the way the numbers are looking at the moment,” says the chef, who encourages everyone to get vaccinated against Covid. All he hopes for the next six months is to “survive”, he says, “and hope I get out the other end.”