Monday, July 30, 2012

High Season - review by Nicky Pellegrino

Twelve years on from its initial publication the ultimate bad-boy chef’s memoir remains Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. So do we really need to return to the underbelly of the kitchen for more of the same? Australian Jim Hearn thinks so. His new book High Season (Arena, $28.99), billed as a memoir of heroin and hospitality, is highly reminiscent of Bourdain’s classic – pacey, upfront and sharply written. But Hearn seems a more introspective character, less passionate about food than Bourdain, less of the charming celebrity chef, more intense and troubled.
The memoir has two strands running through it. In one Hearn describes a single day as head chef during the high season at high-end, beachfront Bryron Bay restaurant Rae’s on Watego’s. This is a day that begins with Paris Hilton’s unexpected arrival for lunch and ends in far more dramatic fashion. In the other he takes us back to the beginning of his accidental career in hospitality and provides readers with a front row seat to the theatre of his heroin addiction. Both strands are raw, confronting and honest.
Central to the whole book is Hearn’s love/hate relationship with heroin and, while ultimately it serves as a cautionary tale, there are places where he describes the drug with an almost romantic sense of longing. Take this description of how he first experienced getting high:
“The sensation of my heart pumping heroin through my bloodstream was profound. Prior to that life as I understood it could be depicted as a series of random sketches that formed a clumsy whole. Now it all came together in the most warmly felt of ways, like hollandaise sauce”.
Hearn had a pretty rough start in life. His parents had an alternative lifestyle and gave away all their money. By the time he was 15 his mother had left the family to become a prostitute and he was a kitchen apprentice in a local restaurant. He doesn’t dwell on this, however, or use it as an excuse for passing the greater part of his youth consistently off his chops on hard drugs. There’s no self-pity and certainly no embarrassment as he describes the downs and downs of those difficult early years.
Just as compelling is his account of an eventful day behind the six-burner stove at Rae’s. It includes the things you would expect – the rough kitchen repartee, the scramble to get plates of food onto the pass and into the dining room; but there is also a tenderness in Hearn and the way he relates to his crew: Jesse, Choc and Soda.
Hearn wrote High Season after quitting Rae’s and enrolling on a university writer’s course. His prose is fluid and succinct whether he’s describing intense grief or the skill of cooking a perfect steak.
Foodies won’t find much to turn them on here - Hearn is more about the relationships in a kitchen than what ends up on the plate. But as an insider’s expose of the high drama of both restaurant life and addiction it’s fascinating.
It may not be as well seasoned as Kitchen Confidential, but High Season is still worth digesting.

Nicky Pellegrino, an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 29 July, 2012.
Her next novel When In Rome is set in 1950s Italy and is due out in September this year.

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