Jess Ho hospitality memoir Raised by wolves a savage, warm and funny expose

August 16 2022 - 1:00pm
Jess Ho ... "I said I would never write a memoir, but it was lockdown". Photo Morgan Hancock Inset, the book cover
Jess Ho ... "I said I would never write a memoir, but it was lockdown". Photo Morgan Hancock Inset, the book cover

There was a full house at Melbourne's "home of books", the Wheeler Centre, for the launch of Jess Ho's memoir Raised by wolves - A memoir with bite late last month.

Such is the reputation of Richmond-based food blogger, social media commentator, one-time cooking show judge and Time Out Melbourne food writer and editor that more than 200 tickets for the event were snapped up.

The book was written in four-and-a-half months during lockdown last year, and was edited while Ho was working on a podcast series for SBS Food called Bad Taste.

"I said I would never write a memoir but it was lockdown," the author tells the Inner East Review.

"And I was like, 'Yeah, okay, I'll do it. What time but now, while I'm sitting here insignificant in my apartment isolated from everyone, where I can write things to incriminate myself and the rest of the industry!"

Given the author's reputation for caustic wit and searing critiques, it may come as a surprise to learn that the book, at its heart, is about love and kindness.

"I think the messages people should take away from it are: one - love yourself, love other people," Ho says.

"The other [message] is that kindness is not weakness."

As its title suggests, the memoir relates a coming of age journey that has been tough and often lonely. But as well as savage, it is warm and funny.

Food and big banquets were the focus of Ho's Cantonese family growing up but from the age of 15 the teenager was living alone and working in hospitality while finishing school then studying at university.

The memoir charts Ho's progress through fast food, gastro pub and fine dining venues, negotiating long hours, bad staff meals, bad behaviour, sexual harrassment and an entrenched culture of alcoholic excess.

It is full of camaraderie, drinking stories, expletives and incredulity at the thoughtlessness of patrons and the exploitative attitudes of employers.

Having played a major part in creating the hype around a high-end Southeast Asian-themed Melbourne restaurant, Ho, by then a well known "doorbitch" and arbiter of taste, came to despise what the place stood for, particularly its "dumbing down an entire cuisine into entertainment".

"I worked in a venue that was all about cultural appropriation," says the writer, whose general rule of thumb these days is: "If I want to eat Vietnamese food, I'll buy it from a Vietnamese person".

What people need to be aware of when it comes to other cuisines, is that: "It is someone else's culture, it is someone else's history. "Be respectful; respect that."

With regard to hospitality in general, "there are a lot of things that are broken in the industry".

"People have always been exploited in hospitality ... it's completely normalised, because everyone is experiencing it."

Alongside the industry narrative is the story of a desire, behind a tough-nut exterior, for "naivety, excitement and magic" previously denied by harsh early life experiences and incessant hard work.

An accidental discovery of gentleness grows into the beating heart of Ho's story and opens the door to new possibilities.

Then it is tragically lost.

After leaving "the restaurant", Ho's forays into television, wine promotion, and small business ownership turn out to take a similarly unreasonable physical and mental toll. But now the author has broken free to embark on a new chapter.

Local crafts a hospitality memoir with bite
Local crafts a hospitality memoir with bite

Jenny Denton


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