Cooking all over the world
Food has kept James Perry away from home for the better part of 27 years. Sure, he’s visited. In 2003 he even opened a restaurant with Butterfield Bank chef Chris Malpas thinking it would ground him.
Cafe Gio kept him busy for roughly 24 months.
“The restaurant did extremely well, so well that someone made us an offer,” the 47-year-old laughed. “We sold it and I went back to New Zealand.”
His love affair started with a culinary course at the Bermuda College. Fred Ming and Wolfgang Hauschild taught him the basics, and then he got a job at Tom Moore’s Tavern.
“Most of the chefs [there] at the time were German,” Mr Perry said. “They told me if you really want to learn cooking, you have to go to Germany. In hindsight, that’s not necessarily true but I packed my bags and decided to find out how much more there was to learn.”
He left in 1990, thrilled with the prospect of work at a five-star hotel in a small town just south of Munich.
“Before going to Germany I’d never seen snow. I had, maybe, one pair of long pants; I think I’d left Bermuda with my parents once,” said Mr Perry. “It took a lot of nerve but my mindset at the time was to go and learn what real cooking was all about and then come back and settle down.
“But the more I travelled, I realised the more I had to learn. [With every] new hotel there was a new region and the food type changed so much I felt like a novice all again. It was incredibly frustrating but also incredibly enlightening.”
The experience helped him land a job on one of the great transatlantic ocean liners of that time, the 1,800-passenger Queen Elizabeth 2.
He travelled the world twice on the grande dame before deciding a change of pace was necessary.
“I always tried to work in the best places with the best names and I was lucky enough to land a position on board. The flavour and type of food changed depending on what we could get from port to port so it was another education on different eating habits.
“After a year, I got off the QE2 — life on board is so hard no one stays on for long. I did three or four shifts a day, seven days a week; the days were long. It wasn’t the best education in fine dining, but certainly an education nonetheless.”
Mr Perry is now the private chef for David Taylor, the New Zealand ambassador to Brussels, Belgium.
He recalls his first visit to the island nation as one of the highlights of his time on the QE2.
“I fell in love with Auckland, not necessarily the food, but certainly the people, the place. They have the same sort of attitude that Bermudians have — not overly complicated — and life is pretty good there, but there’s so much more space.”
Stints in Switzerland and Berlin, and time on the Sea Goddess, a cruising yacht that, like the QE2, was owned by the Cunard Line, followed. He also spent six months in Moscow, part of a team sent by a German company to open the city’s first five-star hotel.
“Moscow was an incredible place,” Mr Perry said. “It was during the Communist era so there was huge hyperinflation, everything was controlled by the mafia. There were a lot of dealings to get the hotel open; food products were hard to come by. And the weather was a shock.
“I remember walking by a clothing shop. People were lined up outside for jackets and when they arrived, they bought them up even before they made it into the shop.
“The grocery store was so sparse you’d walk around and see the basics, but nothing else. It wasn’t a challenge for the hotel but it was certainly for the Russians who worked for us. And it was a lesson for me on how to improvise.”
In 1998 he finally made his way back to New Zealand.
Two years later he was back in Bermuda, where he busied himself with Cafe Gio. He returned to New Zealand in 2005.
“I ran a lodge in one of the national parks and became a tutor at a college. I stayed there for six or seven years, which was fantastic. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. In a fast-paced restaurant you don’t have time to teach people who work for you, either they can keep up or they get spat out. At the polytech I was able to slow everything down and teach everyone. But as you start teaching you start realising how much more you need to learn.”
For three years he told his students about a chef post in remote Antarctica before he signed up for the job himself.
“I stayed for six months, during the summer season, cooking for the New Zealand scientific base. We made masses of food because you burn massive calories in cold climates but we only got food every three weeks. [Our menus] were great at first but we became more inventive depending on how long we had to wait the for next plane.”
Mr Perry learnt of the job in Brussels while there. He has been in the European city for just over a year, showcasing everything from New Zealand lamb to wine to tea, at events held under the auspices of the ambassador.
The chef will be back on the island for the America’s Cup, working with his old pal Chris Malpas on a superyacht hired by Butterfield Bank.
“I come back for a visit probably every three or four years,” he said. “Every time, in between each job, I almost came back to Bermuda but went somewhere else. I love it but once I get here my eyes start wandering, looking at the grass on the other side, and the travel bug captures me again.”
• Mr Perry will write a weekly food column for The Royal Gazette, starting Tuesday, March 21. Look out for his recipes featuring Bermuda dishes that are popular in different forms around the world
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