Raised by Wolves: A Memoir with Bite

Jess Ho

Raised by Wolves: A Memoir with Bite
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Raised by Wolves: A Memoir with Bite

Jess Ho

Growing up Cantonese in the racist outer suburbs was hard enough for Jess Ho, but add in a dysfunctional family who only ever made peace over food (and then only until the bill arrived), and it was clear that a normal life was never on the menu. They emerged from their childhood with two important traits: a major psychological complex, and a kick-arse palate. Both would help them fit right into the messy world of Melbourne’s food scene.

In hospitality Jess found their new family, a bunch of outsiders who shared their lust for life and appetite for destruction. As the Australian food scene exploded, fuelled by a thirst for the sort of ‘exotic’ foods they’d grown up on, Jess thrived, helping to create iconic venues and becoming one of the most influential voices in Australia’s bar and restaurant scene. But over time they realised that the industry they loved had its own dysfunctions: greed, ego, sexual harassment, exploitation and a never-ending festishisation of Asian food culture. And Jess wasn’t one to hold their tongue.

Fierce, funny and razor-sharp, Raised by Wolves is a potent coming of age story from a savage new voice.

Review

Having worked in hospitality since they were 15 years old, Jess Ho has extensive knowledge of Melbourne’s food scene and its evolution over the last two decades. In high school, they did the usual shifts at a fast-food grease pit. During university, they waited at an inner-city gastropub. They’ve worked front of house and ran marketing for an instantly recognisable – though tantalisingly unnamed – Melbourne CBD restaurant. They’ve been a reviewer, editor and co-host of a TV show. They also have a biting wit and a BS-meter calibrated with a psychological precision honed through years of wrangling the public, so don’t be surprised if, like me, you absolutely tear through Raised by Wolves, fully absorbed in every excoriating takedown and juicy anecdote (note to self: never dine at a restaurant’s opening night).

For a while, it felt like every food memoir on the shelves was a no-holds-barred account of a brilliant male chef’s life, so it’s refreshing to see a voice like Jess Ho’s take the mic – a Cantonese Australian child of immigrants detailing the reality of the industry’s punishing physical demands, cultural blindspots, stratospheric expectations, unchecked sexual harassment and extreme recreational behaviour. Far from being just a critique, Ho’s memoir also creates a palpable sense of the industry’s allure, the magnetic pull of being in a small team, facing an onslaught of diners together. And, of course, there’s the love of food. It’s no coincidence that Ho saves their most mouthwatering prose to describe dishes rooted in community and place: sharing warm, buttery roti in a New York blizzard with a Trinidadian friend who says it reminds him of home; heading to an unassuming suburban strip for roast duck so lacquered, its skin ‘shatters like glass’.

Alongside its incisive commentary about fine dining’s unspoken cultural hegemony, Raised by Wolves also dives into intensely personal moments in Ho’s life. Though it’s all told with a matter-of-fact steadiness, Ho’s childhood abuse at their mother’s hand is stomach-churning to read, and the death of a beloved friend is equally visceral and heartbreaking. There is a force of will to Ho’s prose – a bold and unafraid tone, a fast, propulsive pace – that pulls the reader through and keeps this book bracingly honest.

Raised by Wolves is for anyone who wants a behind-the-scenes peek at the culinary industry and wants to think more deeply about food. It’s for anyone who’s ever watched an unqualified cook butcher a dish from their culture, or who’s worked in a high-risk, high-pressure environment trying to keep it all together through gritted teeth. Ho is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and I look forward to reading their opinions for a long time to come.


Jackie Tang is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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