Can we cook our way to salvation?
This is the question posed to Jim Hearn (researcher, filmmaker, chef and author of High Season: A Memoir of Hospitality and Heroin), and Wayne Macauley (highly acclaimed and awarded author of many titles including his most recent, The Cook) by Michaela McGuire (writer, columnist and author, Melbourne’s Women of Letters Salon host) in the Blue Marquee on the final afternoon of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.
Two very “real” authors sit facing the crowd from the stage, “real” as in honest and approachable. Jim Hearn and Wayne Macauley have a common thread in their writing; both their recent books are set inside commercial kitchens, but that is where the similarities end.
Hearn’s experiences in High Season are gritty and real-to-life. Set locally in Byron Bay, it is a memoir reflecting upon the reality of chefing and the toll it can take on one’s life. He describes the havoc on our “actual, physical body” that long hours and unforgiving schedules creanjte, the roller coaster ride of adrenalin that fast-paced service times demand, as well as the effect of this sort of career on family and relationships. He laments that “hospitality doesn’t lend itself to happy families”.
Hearn describes his work as being “raw and unapologetic, (a story) about living on the edge, addiction” – he went through a nasty heroin addiction and thankfully, a recovery – “and rites of passage”.
There are no doubt some similar experiences that Hearn may have shared with “Zac”, a troubled young man wanting to become a chef who is Macauley’s central character in The Cook. Hearn’s experiences were all very real happenings though, that he has courageously shared with readers even though they may be some of the most difficult times of his life. Macauley credits his research to a lot of reading cookbooks, foodie blogs and biographies of celebrity chefs, whereas Hearn can look back on his life and see how his own path created an amazing story to work with, despite many twists and turns.
After working for many years as a Chef, Hearn returned to university at SCU as a mature age student to complete a BA (Hons) and is currently enrolled in a Phd at the University of Sydney, demonstrating the benefits of re-educating ourselves in later years with life experience to back up the theory.
It seems Hearn is a man with the gift of retrospective clarity. He is of an age when he reflect on his life and start to see that all of the craziness and suffering might have actually been headed somewhere, not just a continual path of learning, but towards lessons he can share with others in a hope of reaching out, both on a cautionary and empathetic level.
Both men read passages from their books. Hearn reads steadily and it is easy to see the rawness of the text in relation to the person reading, which is an amazing thing to witness in a world of overly constructed writing. Macauley offers a faster paced account, with his passion for storytelling really coming alive as he speaks, almost excited to drop each word into an attentive audience. Both men are engaging on their own terms, very different in styles which creates an interesting dynamic on stage.
Michaela McGuire now turns the conversation towards how meals and eating out (and the whole Masterchef movement) have gained such power, and how they are viewed as status symbols in contemporary Australian society rather than as mere sustenance. Hearn seems slightly amused by this notion, explaining that the actuality of restaurants is more about the service and receipt of generosity than “all about the food”. He laughs off the TV perception that chefs stand around all day discussing the greatest way to create jus, also at the contrast of “working class” Australian kids getting immersed in French cooking terminology to get through their apprenticeships.
Hearn said it has definitely been part of the reason that Australian cuisine has become more sophisticated, due to a strong European influence, but that, overall, the relationship between the host and the guest is paramount to the underlying tasks of any successful food business.
There is lively debate between Macauley and Hearn over the role of service and servitude, and Macauley makes the point that sometimes it can be excruciating to pay for ten times an ingredient’s worth whilst dining out, especially in stark disproportion to the fact that we are experiencing widespread global poverty and food shortages. His socially aware stream of thought seems to echo a moment of sadness in the audience, which Hearn breaks by stating the truth of the matter, however disconcerting to hear.
“We live in a consumer-driven climate; so, no, cooking will never be a way to salvation, it is not possible.”
It seems that it is going to take more to save the world, or our souls, than a well-executed meal. Maybe true salvation may lie not in the presentation of a plate but in filling the bowls of the starving? Just a thought …
Keira Patrick is a Southern Cross University media student.