This article by Cecilia Leong-Salobir Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia originally appeared in The conversation August 15th.
Raised by Wolves sounds like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, if told by a second-generation Cantonese Australian from Hong Kong, whose work in the food industry spans 15 years. Jess Ho combines a compelling and unflinching critique of Melbourne’s food scene with memories of an abusive childhood.
This brilliantly written memoir deals with labor exploitation in the restaurant and bar industries, culinary appropriation – and persistent racism, sexism, alcohol abuse, depression, grief and of the loss.
Ho weaves Chinese culture into the fabric of the book, reflecting how deeply embedded it is in who they are. “Culturally, grudge was one of the pillars of being Chinese,” they joke at one point. And it’s intrinsic to the way they experience food, for example: “the Chinese […] value both silky and crunchy gelatinous textures”.
Raised by Wolves is charming, sad, honest and funny all at the same time. Ho admits he hates himself for dumbing down ethnic cuisines based on popular food culture, in his role at a popular Melbourne Asian restaurant frequented by hipsters. At a Chinese dinner, they lambaste their white colleagues for adding soy sauce to their food at the table, threatening to “tax them on soy”.
The author’s harsh criticism of their workplaces – and of themselves – shines through the pages. (And their liberal use of profanity mirrors the high-octane environment of working in restaurants and bars.) Interspersed with tales of grueling restaurant work, Ho relives their experiences of their own dysfunctional family, including abuse shocking physical and verbal responses from their mother.
Ho recounts how “my mother threw a dish rack full of wet plates, knives and pots at me across the room when she said I had drunk my cup of tea too strong. I was five years old. Outside the home, Ho was an anxious child, feeling “that my very fragile understanding of the English language was going to reveal how Chinese I was to my low socioeconomic background, underfunded, poorly educated and racist as a child. a primary school “.
Hospitality provided an escape route. It had been a way of making a living since Ho’s teenage years. In the restaurant industry, they excelled in everything they did, working in the front and back of the house. Hospitality staff often work 60 hours or more per week. The restaurant employee, having missed meals during the week, would later gorge on food and drink, “eating like it was your death row meal on your day off.” Half-hour breaks at night were spent in bars, with work then resuming until sunrise.
Ho was discriminated against as an Asian woman. They have since chosen to identify as non-binary, a decision they explore in the book.
“I hated being a girl, but being a boy wouldn’t give me inner peace. […] I never saw who I was until I cut all my hair and gave myself permission to reject binary definitions.”
Ho speaks of “rude leaders eager to show off their masculinity or flaunt their homosexuality.” And they point out that “it was an industry that had abused, stalked, harassed, sexually assaulted, bullied, belittled, gassed, bullied, rejected and overworked me.” There was no respite, even when they owned a bar. By the time they left the industry before turning 30, Ho’s whole body was wracked with hard physical labor and stress.
Ho’s gripping tale is a sad indictment of Melbourne’s hospitality industry (likely similar to storylines in other Australian cities).
Ho challenges the cultural appropriation of “fusion” dishes and cuisine. They disparage a restaurant in Sichuan that served cartoonish cuisine from the region – like potato salads with cold lap cheong chunks, raisins and apple cubes. However, history tells us that all cuisines are hybrids. Food historian Ken Albala says the movement of people, plants, and animals — and even colonization and slavery — gave us all the classic cuisines we now seek to protect.
Ho argues that the industry promotes European cuisine as superior, neglecting “the skill involved in tempering spices, nixtamalizing corn, fermenting sprouts, or folding soup-filled dumplings”. They add that chefs and restaurateurs, after a week of visiting overseas, often return to Australia and become guardians of the cuisine enjoyed as tourists.
Ho blames the media for allowing this, using words such as “reinvented” and “elevated” to “describe their watered-down versions of generational family recipes they mutilated in the name of art and capitalism.”
They felt they were contributing to the problem of cultural erasure, oppression and systemic racism, and blamed themselves for having
“Censoring parts of someone else’s culture and selling the easily digestible bits to a rich, white audience. […] I would push white faces to cook Thai food and turn an entire kitchen into entertainment.”
Ho recalls all of the Thai chefs at one restaurant resigning en masse in response to their “bastardised, voice-stripping national dishes”.
Philosopher Lisa Heldke has done extensive work on cultural colonialism, food cultural appropriation, and the exoticism of ethnic foods. Heldke says that cultural food colonialism is set up by adventurers in Western cuisine, in search of “cooking and eating ethnic foods – most often the foods of economically dominated or ‘Third World’ cultures.” Novelty, exoticism and “authenticity” are the values that frame their quest.
Significantly, Ho gave voice to Asians and their food, validating dishes and ingredients loved by Asians, without whitewashing them for Western sensibility. When Ho looks for flavors:
“I want crisp, charred, sweet vegetables kissed by a wok. I want fermented tofu melted on morning glory. I want herbal soup with tofu skins and chicken feet. I want silken tofu with raw garlic and century eggs I want crispy and lacy banh xeo with plump prawns, pristine lettuce, herbs and nuoc mam I want stinky bamboo salad I want fermented fish som tum so spicy that I go through time and sticky rice to mop it up. I want a pot of kimchi stew. I never crave cheese platters, but I always crave Asian food.”