Not your ordinary chef

The slight coincidence was that there I was lunching with a friend who was telling me about her latest book. Rae’s at Wategos is always even more alluring when the sun is out and on this particular day, as we dined on pan-fried snapper (me) and Thai green seafood curry (her), it was considerately doing just that. At the end of the meal with our bill came a slip of paper, a name and a telephone number on it. ‘The chef,’ explained the waitress, ‘has written a book and would like to talk to you’.

And that is how I came to meet Jim Hearn. Not before, however, I had done a small amount of research and established that he had already written and produced four films for SBS, worked on the screenplay for Chopper as well as an adaptation of Andrew McGahan’s novel Last Drinks, been employed as a script- assessor and had half a dozen fictional pieces published in various journals. This was not going to be my usual sort of chef at all.

Back at Rae’s, too early for customers, the sun is out again and I am facing a tall fair man with a wispy goatee, exuding easygoing charm and wholesomeness – despite the polite request that did I mind if he smoked. Which I don’t at all. This is a man who will later say of the PhD he is currently working toward that ‘I could look back and contextualise my experiences in the hospitality industry, so I am exploring the western philosophical histories of hospitality. I’ve gone back to Epicurus and I’m working from that.’

The book Jim has written, to be published next year by Curtis Brown, is a memoir entitled The High Season and it’s based on a season he spent cheffing at Rae’s. So I am swallowed up right from the start; in my opinion there are not enough books written from the inside of restaurant kitchens and it is a thing I have done myself, rendering me greedy for more. Of course there is Anthony Bourdain and we naturally bring him up at a certain point
– I have devoured and adored several of his books and yet here is Jim saying that he has
a sense that his book is darker in some ways. Darker than Bourdain!

With a complete absence of either embarrassment or self-pity Jim tells me that as a child he went to about eight schools, his mother was a prostitute and he was a heroin addict. ‘It’s all in the book,’ he says. He started his apprenticeship aged 15 at Oliver’s Seafood Restaurant in Townsville, and then went on to work as a chef for the ensuing 20 years. He was coming to Byron Bay on and off for a long time, becoming head chef at Rae’s in about 2004, he thinks. Or maybe 2005. ‘Then we had our second baby,’ he tells me. ‘I did a high season and came to the conclusion that I had to do something. So I decided to go to uni and do a degree in Creative Writing.’

This from a boy who had never finished high school, who had been working since he was 15, who had, I am gathering, spiralled ever downward into the underbelly of the unforgiving industry which is called hospitality. ‘I majored in Cultural Studies and did very well, to my great surprise. In my Honours year I started to write about that high season at Rae’s and it really flowed. I got a first class Honours and a scholarship to do a PhD.’

He continued to return to Rae’s to do high seasons, specialising in Thai food, thanks to the Thai-inspired chefs with whom he worked. ‘I developed my own skills in Thai food – I
call it Modern Thai because it integrates the West and brings the best of western traditions to Thai traditions.’ He tells me that doing his PhD gave him ‘the capacity to understand
the world and my place in it, and if I hadn’t developed that I couldn’t have written my book…Because I had such a mixed-up childhood I felt locked outside the possibility of being a writer – it was only when I went to uni that I saw its possibility.’

Later, Jim sends me an extract from The High Season. It is wonderful, wonderful, a taste of which I want much more. ‘I was a runt-in-a- litter part of the Kings Cross milieu,’ he had told me, ‘but writing was something I could do.’ And he can.

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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