AS WE UNVEILED OUR FOOD REVOLUTION IN BONDI JUNCTION, CELEBRATED CHEF NEIL PERRY TOOK US BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE AMBITIOUS PROJECT.
LUXE STEAKHOUSE FOUNDER. Champion of uncompromising Chinese cooking. “Slow food” hamburger advocate. Seafood whisperer. Neil Perry has worn many hats in his 42-year – and counting – hospitality career.
This August, the Order of Australia recipient and Rockpool impresario will add a new entry to his mighty CV when he partners with David Jones to launch its new food offering within its Bondi Junction store.
A project that’s been in development for 18 months, it is part one of the company’s new three-year, $100 million food strategy that will see similar halls rolled out across Australia including at its revamped Elizabeth Street flagship (due to open 2019). And in typical Neil Perry fashion, the high-profile – and high-aiming – chef is thinking big.
“We want it to be world-class,” says Perry. “We want everything to be as delicious and well-sourced and well looked after as possible with great service. When you’re in New York, you go to Eataly. When you’re in Milan, you go to Peck. In Sydney, we want people to go to David Jones in Bondi Junction and, later, Elizabeth Street.
Bondi is going to be our little baby to get everything perfect before the big store opens.”
Ambitious? Certainly, but in Perry, David Jones has a partner with the know-how to turn even the loftiest vision into a reality. Perry’s restaurant track record aside (fun fact: the original Rockpool in The Rocks was ranked fourth on the inaugural World’s 50 Best Restaurants list published in 2002), his work with QANTAS’s food program speaks to a level of big business expertise few Australian chefs can match.
“There’s a synergy that’s worked from day one,” says Pieter De Wet, David Jones’s group executive for food. “Australia’s food service industry is among the best in the world, and we realised we needed to partner with somebody who has an incredibly good reputation, which he clearly does. But more than that, when we had our initial meetings with Neil, it was clear that his personal and business values were aligned with ours and what we stand for.”
So what’s on the menu at the new department? The food service offering is divided into two categories. The first, “Food For Now”, is all about ready-to-go items: the sort of dishes and sections customers might find at your standard-issue food hall, only re-imagined through a restaurateur’s eyes.
Think juice and salad bars, a rotisserie. Then there’s “The Restaurant”, which brings together different counters and cooking stations. A more formal and refined area than the higher-volume Food For Now section, it’s a place for business lunches and shoppers by day before switching to small bites in the evening. While every area has been designed to accommodate solo diners, they’re equally suited to groups of friends keen to put each Neil Perry consulted menu through its paces.
An authentic Italian station will sling pizzas and pastas while fresh-shucked oysters and seafood specialities (spanner crab finger sandwiches, say, or chowder with smoky pangrattato, Italian bread crumbs) are the order of the day at the 22-seat oyster bar. At the combined Asian and grill bar, a bowerbird instinct shows off dishes plucked from Japan (sashimi with a ponzu sauce), Thailand (dry red curry king prawns) as well as the region’s dazzling array of noodle dishes. Grass-fed Cape Grim beef with classic condiments is typical of the meatier side of things.
In other words, diners can expect unfussy, delicious dishes that made Neil Perry a household name in food circles: just don’t go expecting a Rockpool Bar & Grill, Spice Temple or Rosetta satellite at your local David Jones.
“The brief wasn’t to create Rockpool at David Jones,” says Perry. “It is really about the David Jones personality with Neil Perry making sure we’re getting the food, service and knowledge right. We’re creating new classics for David Jones.”
Being able to get something tasty to eat is only half the story of the new areas. Just as David Jones is overhauling its food service, it’s also stepping up its retail game, starting with a move to carrying smaller, more curated product ranges: in other words, focusing on quality rather than quantity. And while plans are afoot to introduce a range of top-quality, David Jones-branded products, De Wet insists that David Jones will continue to champion the best products and producers, regardless of where they come from globally.
“We’re very conscious that Australia produces some very good food and we certainly want to have that as our first port of call when it comes to sourcing and getting products from the best producers,” he says. “But we’ve got access to incredibly good suppliers across Europe and North America that can source the absolutely best products from around the world.”
The other aspect of David Jones’s new food strategy sees the retail side of things dovetailing with and feeding the new-look restaurant offering. Once upon a time, both sides of the business almost operated independently from one another. Circa 2017, every aspect of David Jones’s food operation is an opportunity to show off its impressive larder; a larder that customers are welcome to try before they buy and buy after the try.
Wondering how fresh those Coffin Bay oysters are? The attendant at the oyster bar will shuck a few to order before you part with your hard earned. Impressed by the beefy flavour of that dry-aged rib eye on the bone you just had for lunch? The butcher will sell you a handful of steaks for your weekend barbecue. It might sound like a revolutionary idea, but Perry believes the move is all about staying true to the spirit of Harrods, Marks & Spencer and the world’s other great department stores.
“We’re bringing it back to what the essence of the food hall is: great produce,” he says. “We’re going to have a much more nimble, fun experience where people relate both the retail and food service to each other. They’re David Jones ingredients, whether you’re eating them in-store or taking them home.”
Like many top-flight chefs, Perry has been a vocal champion for sustainability, both regarding the ingredients he’s using and the way he and his people conduct business. While this s-word mightn’t be bandied around with the same vigour in retail circles, it’s long been a key, if somewhat unspoken, tenet of David Jones’s business philosophy.
“It’s really in the DNA of the way we do business,” says De Wet. “It’s about working with the best suppliers that are using sustainable practices in the way they produce food. Building partnerships is something we do differently, and it’s also very much about how Neil has gone about building his business.”
Perry is equally thrilled about joining forces with a kindred spirit committed to responsible and ethical business practices. “One of the great things is that David Jones is completely committed to sustainability – I do not have to push anything uphill,” he says. “We’ve even had to question some of the things that we do. We’ve always had this strong sustainability focus, but we need to make sure that it’s serious at every level.”’
In food terms, this translates to a focus on provenance every bit as exacting as what diners might expect at a Neil Perry restaurant. Sustainable seafood advocate John Susman is consulting on the fish offering and engaging suppliers like Bruce Collis (Perry: “the most amazing flathead and King George Whiting fisherman in the country”) to ensure fresh is more than just a catchphrase.
“It’s about making sure our guys go out and find these products and bring them to us in the most pristine condition,” he says. “We want to move away from having every variety you can imagine but saying, ‘This is what’s available today because that’s what’s been caught. We know it’s in the best possible condition and that’s why we’re offering it to you.’ That’s a big mindset change for retailers.”
These new food halls signal an exciting new future for everyone in the entire food industry, from suppliers to customers. The brains trust at David Jones knows that plenty of eyes will be on Bondi Junction when the doors of its latest project open in August, not least because it will hint at what the public can expect when David Jones unveils its new-look Elizabeth Street flagship. From a business point of view, De Wet points to massive investments in infrastructure, IT and supply chain that – fingers crossed – will run seamlessly and invisibly in the background. Perry, meanwhile, is excited about being part of the story of the world’s oldest-running department store, an iconic Australian brand with a history that’s 179 years young.
“We just want to delight our customers,” says Perry. “From top to bottom, that’s the whole David Jones experience, whether you’re coming in to have something at the grill or taking home some meat. We want to delight people with quality, value and the service experience they get.”
Words by MAX VEENHUYZEN
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