University of Western Australia: Jess Ho’s ‘unflinching’ hospitality memoir is a Cantonese-Australian Kitchen Confidential

Raised by Wolves is like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, if it were told by a second-generation Cantonese Australian from Hong Kong, whose work in the food industry spans 15 years. Jess Ho combines a compelling, unflinching critique of the Melbourne food scene with memories of an abusive childhood.

This brilliantly written memoir discusses exploitative labour in the restaurant and bar industries, culinary appropriation – and enduring racism, sexism, alcohol abuse, depression, grief and loss.

Ho threads Chinese culture into the fabric of the book, reflecting how deeply it’s woven into who they are. “Culturally, spite was one pillar of being Chinese,” they quip at one point. And it’s intrinsic to how they experience food, for example: “the Chinese […] value silky gelatinous textures as much as we do crunchy”.

Raised by Wolves is delightful, sad, honest and funny in equal measure. Ho admits to hating themself for dumbing down ethnic cuisines to suit popular food culture, in their role at a popular Melbourne Asian restaurant frequented by hipsters. At a Chinese dinner, they castigate their white colleagues for adding soy sauce to their food at the table, threatening to “soy tax” them.

The author’s acerbic criticisms of their workplaces – and themself – shine through the pages. (And their liberal use of profanity reflects the high-octane environment of restaurant and bar work.) Interspersed with accounts of backbreaking restaurant work, Ho relives their experiences of their own dysfunctional family, including shocking physical and verbal abuse from their mother.

Chinese restaurant card 2

Childhood trauma
Ho recounts how “my mother threw a dishrack full of wet plates, knives and pots at me from across the room when she said I drank my cup of tea too loudly. I was five.” Outside the home, Ho was an anxious child, feeling “that my very flimsy grasp of the English language was going to reveal how Chinese I was to my low socio-economic, underfunded, poorly educated, racist breeding ground of a primary school”.

Hospitality provided an escape route. It was a way to earn a living from Ho’s teenage years on. In the restaurant industry, they excelled in everything they did, working in front-of-house and back-of-house. Hospitality staff often work a punishing 60 or more hours a week. The restaurant worker, having missed meals during the week, would later gorge on both food and drink, “eating like it’s your death-row meal on your day off”. Half-hour breaks at night were spent at bars, work then recommencing until sunrise.

Ho experienced discrimination as an Asian female. They have since chosen to identify as nonbinary, 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 reflected back at me until I cut all my hair off and gave myself permission to reject binary definitions.”

Ho speaks of “crass chefs intent on flexing their masculinity or flaunting their homosexuality”. And they point out “it was an industry that had abused, stalked, harassed, sexually assaulted, intimidated, belittled, gaslit, bullied, discarded and overworked me”. There was no letup, even when they owned a bar. By the time they quit the industry before turning 30, Ho’s whole body was out of whack from hard physical work and stress.

Ho’s gripping account is a sad indictment of the hospitality industry in Melbourne (likely similar to scenarios in other Australian cities).

Culinary appropriation
Ho takes issue with the cultural appropriation of dishes and “fusion” food. They disparage a Sichuan restaurant that served food that was a caricature of the region – such as potato salads with chunks of cold lap cheong, raisins and cubes of apple. However, history tells us that all cuisines are hybrids. Food historian Ken Albala says the movement of people, plants and animals – and even colonisation and slavery – has given us every classic cuisine we now seek to protect.

Ho argues that the industry promotes European cooking as superior, overlooking “the skill involved in tempering spices, nixtamalising corn, fermenting cabbages or folding soup-filled dumplings”. They add that chefs and restaurant owners, after a week’s overseas visit, often return to Australia and become gatekeepers of cuisine sampled as tourists.

Ho blames the media for enabling this, using words such as “reinvented” and “elevated” to “describe their watered-down versions of generational familial recipes that they have mutilated in the name of artistry and capitalism”.

They felt themself contributing to the problem of cultural erasure, oppression and systemic racism, and chide themself for

“censoring parts of someone else’s culture and selling the easily digestible bits to a rich, white audience. […] I’d be pushing white faces cooking Thai food and dumbing down an entire cuisine into entertainment.”

Ho recalls all the Thai chefs in one restaurant quitting en masse in response to their “national dishes being bastardised and being stripped of their voices”.

Philosopher Lisa Heldke has done extensive work on cultural colonialism, food cultural appropriation and exoticising ethnic foods. Heldke says cultural food colonialism is enacted by Western food adventurers, on a quest for “cooking and eating ethnic foods – most frequently the foods of economically dominated or ‘third world’ cultures”. Novelty, exoticism and “authenticity” are the values that frame their quest.

Significantly, Ho has given voice to Asians and their food, validating dishes and ingredients relished by Asians, without whitewashing them for a Western sensibility. When Ho seeks flavours:

“I want crisp, charred, sweet vegetables kissed by a wok. I want fermented tofu melted over morning glory. I want herbal soup with tofu skins and chicken feet. I want silken tofu with raw garlic and century egg. I want crisp and lacy banh xeo with plump-arse prawns, immaculate lettuce, herbs and nuoc mam. I want a stinky bamboo salad. I want fermented fish som tum so spicy I see through time, and sticky rice to sop it up with. I want a cauldron of kimchi stew. I never crave cheese platters, but I always crave Asian food.”

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