Kids in the kitchen

July 24th, 2012 by admin

High Season
Jim Hearn
Arena/Allen & Unwin  

Icons of the hospitality industry sparkle tantalisingly in the opening pages of this insider’s memoir about the gritty world of commercial kitchens.

The action unfolds at Rae’s, a boutique hotel and restaurant on Wategos Beach, just below the lighthouse at Byron Bay.

Paris Hilton has arrived unannounced for lunch with her entourage. It’s New Year’s Day at the peak of the high season. But alongside all the rubbernecking and texting out front as patrons and passers-by ogle, tension is building in the kitchen.

One of the apprentices is off his game, and head chef and author Jim Hearn is near breaking point after years of spending too much time away from his family. Against the odds, lunch ends well but this fateful day does not. Amid the perfect setting and the sumptuous fare it unravels to an achingly sad conclusion.

The celebrity-in-the-house story is the backdrop for Hearn’s personal tale struggling with drug addiction as he skittles from one job to another in the bubbling pressure cooker that is the restaurant business. The two stories intertwine, sprinkled with cooking tips and wry observations about the industry as they tumble towards their own different conclusions.

We meet all kinds of bosses and managers from the demanding and flippant to the straight-up and kind-hearted. Out back slaving over the six-burners, hands buried in the sinks and dashing from the coolrooms to the benchtops are an assortment of wannabe head chefs and youngsters finding their way in the weird and wired world of kitchen work.

Ever present is the demonic duality of a chef’s life – the exhilaration of delivering a perfectly plated feast and the nerve-wracking torture of working with the heat, the constraints of time and the limits of space and equipment.

It’s a close-quarters cauldron where a time-honoured means of survival is taking the piss – out of the boss, the front of house staff and each other. Little wonder the industry is rife with substance abuse.

So it was for young Queenslander Hearn, who fetched up at the imposing and notorious Bondi Hotel in the late 1980s as a junior chef. The 24/7 bars were territorially divvied up by drug-dealing bikies, Kiwis and Islanders. Fights were an everyday occurrence.

“The people weren’t just loose, they were off their fucking chops,” writes Hearn. “This was how I pictured heaven.”

Seduced by the atmosphere, the wild and seedy subculture and the pool tables, Hearn entered what he calls his “heroin period”.

There’s back-story enough to figure Hearn’s early life choices were severely limited. His mother became a prostitute after she left his father. Dad was an altruist who sold the family home and gave away the profits without appearing to grasp the consequences. We get the picture that young Jim’s road to a drug-addled existence was paved with more than a fair share of misfortune.

Not that there’s a hint of self-pity in this story. Quite the opposite. It’s a gut-wrenchingly visceral portrayal of a life lurching towards a miserable mess at the margins. Hearn’s journey as junkie traverses regional Queensland, suburban Brisbane, the gentrified eateries of Balmain and the sleazy side of Kings Cross.

There’s plenty of  humour en route, and a desperately dumb road trip that terminates in a lice-ridden bed in Nimbin. Once he reaches rock bottom he’s ready to detox and emerges from rehab months later to cook again.

It’s a rollicking, candid and often comical memoir, filled with every shade of darkness and tainted with tragedy. Throughout Hearn maintains an illuminating and sometimes confronting authenticity.

Not all Hearn’s co-workers survive – a human cost that doesn’t appear in the closely scrutinised ledgers of this cut-throat industry.

High Season offers a vital ingredient we don’t find in the banal and slick version of cheffing we see on the box: hard-bitten reality.

Jim Hearn appears at the Byron Bay Writers Festival on Sunday, 5 August.


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