High Season: A Memoir of Heroin and Hospitality
By Jim Hearn
BOURDAIN, Blumenthal, Bocuse; the huge names in cooking. If it takes a few moments to think of the equally huge female names, Jim Hearn's book, High Season: A Memoir of Heroin and Hospitality, helps to explain why. Life in the restaurant kitchen gives a fresh gloss on the term ''rough trade''. Like the bush, the professional kitchen is perhaps no place for a woman.
Jim Hearn is a scriptwriter - he helped pen the film Chopper - and has a PhD in creative writing. His style, a fusion of the theatrical and observational, resembles a speedy conversation. Interesting writing is all about voice and Hearn, just hitting middle age, has one because he's taken the time to find out who he is. His memoir is both explanation and reckoning of his life so far.
The second child of six, Hearn's parents divorced when he was 14, and a year later he was an apprentice chef at an ordinary restaurant in either Mt Isa or Townsville. Wherever it was, it was life at a different pitch from that lived by most 15-year-olds. He was a child: ''I had no comprehension of what was required of an apprentice chef and little understanding of the future implications of being there.'' Those years could have come from Dickens, whose mother also thought she was right in placing her 11-year-old son in a blacking factory.
Hearn's life of adult work hours and responsibilities in a world with no one to look out for him took him down a path of drink and drugs. In his 20s he was a functioning heroin addict in Sydney. Functioning? Holding down a job until his habit catches him out. Heroin makes the nicest people repugnant and Hearn doesn't pretend he was anything else when he was chasing a hit. He would even rob street prostitutes.
Hearn fell into the world of heroin so easily he says he might have been ''born'' into it. He's good on these details but is at his most enlightening with his insights into kitchens high and low. Cooking for Paris Hilton and her acolytes at an exclusive hotel restaurant in Byron Bay gives a second thread to his story. (It is a relief to hear Paris Hilton in real life is ''classy''.) His clips about everyday joints are more penetrating because they are not about the dreams or aspirations of the ever-fancy and getting fancier cucina. This is the ordinary stuff, one bowl of pasta after another. (More relief to hear people are obsessed with cleanliness.)
Hearn also has some original reflections about the place of hospitality in our lives. He sees it as ''a transitional space'', affording him a way to make a living by catering to other people's dreams. Hearn's background certainly plays a formidable part in his need for transitional, or creative, space. His mother, after having six children and faithfully attending church every Sunday, got tired of the whole thing and left one day to find work as a prostitute.
His mother hovers in the background throughout the story, but there is no mention of his father other than an early comment that he was an idealist who tried to live out his ideals. One of these was selling the family home and land when Hearn was six and giving everything away to those who needed it more. The consequences for Hearn and his siblings included eight schools before Hearn was 14. What the carefully neutral Hearn has learnt from such unusual parenting is reflected in his own desire to be central to his wife, Alice, and their two sons.
Hearn makes acute social observations but at times the voice sounds fictionalised, as if he were writing his own script and assuming the voice of the wise-cracking, world-weary ex-junkie. This swagger doesn't always harmonise with the more authentic story of Hearn's remarkable turnaround in life. But I could be wrong; perhaps the hysteria of kitchens filled with difficult and borderline people is caught with precision.
Hearn stands at his six-burner and starts to cook, and by cooking he can order the intimate hell of a particular kitchen. His progression from chaos to order, largely by his own fortitude and intelligence, is a beautiful, sustained metaphor throughout this absorbing - and forgiving - book.