The Desperate and the Insane: 3 Reasons Why Chefs are a Dying Breed

Part 3

Social Media and the Rise of the Amateur Critic

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“If I came to your house for dinner an hour late, then criticised all your furniture and your wife’s haircut and said all your opinions were stupid, how would you feel? People still come here and expect a three-course meal in an hour. What do they think I do? – pull rabbits out of a fucking hat? I’m not a magician.”

Marco Pierre White


In 1999, having reached the summit of gastronomic glory with 3 Michelin stars at London’s Hyde Park Hotel, and then at the Oak Room with the highest possible rating of an additional five red knives and forks, Marco Pierre White experienced an epiphany.

Legend has it, he was fishing on a day-off, sitting on the bank of a stream smoking a cigarette when the thunderbolt struck. Recited in countless articles and interviews since, it was a crucial turning point in the life and career of one of the most revered chefs of the modern era:

“I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself. I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week; I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove; or, I could give my stars back, spend time with my children and re-invent myself.”

Months later, White served his last meals at the Oak Room, surrendered his Michelin stars and retired from professional kitchens. He was 38 years old.

While few chefs will ever reach the heights of Marco’s culinary excellence or, indeed, realise such profound influence at a relatively tender age, his psychological burnout and weariness of critics is endemic in an industry that often gives far too much credit to the opinions of the obtuse and the unqualified. Michelin inspectors and professional critics are one thing, but nowadays, when every self-proclaimed expert with questionable credentials and an internet connection has the potential to make or break a restaurant based on subjective, often erroneous opinions, the rise of the amateur critic has become – for professional chefs, at least – the bitterest of pills to swallow.

Some, bless their well-meaning but ingenuous hearts, instinctively perpetuate the gushing hype of culinary artistry they all but vaguely comprehend. While others, with equal measures of naivety and bias, damage reputations with defamatory keystrokes often bordering on the delusional and the ridiculous.

Like Marco once said: What is it truly worth?

Before we go on, let’s get one thing straight. Eating out is not a right. It’s a privilege.

Fun fact: the majority of the world’s population live in what capitalists call poverty. And it’s often the people cooking, serving, and washing your dishes that are among the hardest working and the lowest paid in our civilised society. Sure, you may have the luxury to treat the family to lunch or a night out at a restaurant and expect your idea of culinary perfection, but is it okay to verbally abuse the trembling 16 year old trainee waitress at the local RSL because you had to wait 30 minutes on a busy Saturday night for your well-done steak? Is it okay to inform the maître d’hôtel, in no uncertain terms, that his London restaurant should be stripped of its 2 Michelin stars because a stool was never offered for your handbag? Is it okay to terrorise the bustling bartender of a New York City French bistro because the owners, in their unacceptable ignorance, neglected to stock your favourite Bolivian wine? Immediate and personal insults aside, is it really okay to then jump online, keyboard warrior fists flailing, and condemn an entire business, the livelihood of perhaps hundreds of low-paid, hardworking employees because you feel it your right to vent your petty grievances, one-sided tirades and deeply idiosyncratic views?

Sorry, folks, but websites such as Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google Reviews, and just about any other online rating travesty, really is democracy for the reckless. Gather a bunch of privileged, self-inflated amateur critics in a global forum and you’re destined to end up with little more than a ham-fisted, semi-literate slush pile of hyperbolic accusations, inaccurate representations and ill-informed opinions.

How could I possibly cast such a cynical, sweeping statement? Because I’m a chef. And chefs, I assure you, read customer reviews. We read customer reviews and they sometimes break our arrogant, narcissistic hearts.

Despite the impassioned opinions and unrealistic expectations of many self-styled foodies, truly terrible restaurants rarely exist. Restaurant staff, I assure you, DO NOT set out to rip you off, ruin your birthday/anniversary, insult your intelligence, appear rude or unwelcoming, or, indeed, serve up terrible food that will send you raging into the realms of cyberspace to vent your disappointments. With today’s climate of fierce competition and even fiercer amateur criticism, a restaurant pissing off more guests than they please will inevitably shut up shop faster than the semi-literate “dissgusted” reviewer takes to digest their “ineatable” main course. Restaurants, after all, are run by human beings. Mistakes will, and do happen.

Perhaps the FOH is understaffed due to the recent flu epidemic. Perhaps the line cook suffered third-degree burns while tossing your stir fry and had to be rushed to hospital for a patch-up. Perhaps the combi oven decided to break down in the middle of the Saturday night rush and Maintenance, luxuriating in their tradie status, refuse to work nights or weekends unless handsomely compensated for their specialised skills. Perhaps your waiter’s girlfriend left him last night, stole his Daewoo Lanos and headed for Mexico to elope with a Cuban trapeze artist named Lola. Perhaps the restaurant manager has cancer. Perhaps the pastry chef’s father died. Perhaps the sous hasn’t eaten for three days due to child support payments. Or, rather less dramatically, perhaps the barista is simply tired of belligerent, condescending customers who think verbal abuse is okay because they’ve shelled out $5 for coffee and cake.

To repeat. Restaurant staff are human beings. They are students, singles, mums and dads, grandparents, widowers, divorcees, sons and daughters. Some may be novices. Some may be seasoned professionals. All, I assure you, are sacrificing time with their loved ones to serve yours. (While assumptions can often prove unfounded, I’ve always believed that a person’s character can be judged by how they treat their waiter.) Like everyone else, they are tackling the complexities of life, while attempting to scrape together a modest living in an unforgiving, often cutthroat industry.

Yes, restaurant staff may serve for a living – work long and unsociable hours for ridiculously low pay – but they sure as shit ain’t servants.

There are, of course, genuine (and dare I say it, articulate) online reviews. There are, indeed, people out there who offer thoughtful, courteous and fair opinions. Kudos, dear friends. You deserve a gold star for not being a vindictive, egotistical arsehole.

You understand, I assume, that rating your experiences is all about realistic expectations. You understand that you get what you pay for, both in quality and quantity. You understand that menus are set for a reason, that prices are based on demand, market value and seasonality. You understand that you are not just paying for the pork chop or the king fish ceviche – you are, in fact, also paying for the plate, the linen, the cutlery, the glass, the table, the chair, the lighting, the gas, the electricity, the rent, the entertainment, the maintenance of equipment; not to mention the chef working a 12/14 hour day preparing and cooking all the menu items you didn’t buy, the waiter taking your order and delivering/clearing your meal, the dishwasher scrubbing pots/pans/plates and disposing of your leftovers, the cleaner mopping and brushing and deodorising the filth you leave behind in the restrooms, and the countless other wages, costs and daily expenses involved in running and maintaining a restaurant.

You understand, dear friends, that the customer is NOT always right; that you – as a dentist, a tow-truck driver, a ventriloquist, a carpenter or an accountant – may have less knowledge and practical hospitality experience than the career chef, the sommelier, the barista or the maître d’hôtel. You understand that a restaurant is a complex system of innumerable moving parts, and if, say, you throw a proverbial spanner in the works by turning up late for a booking, ordering off the menu, making unreasonable requests based on real/imaginary dietary requirements, verbally abusing staff for minor discrepancies, or sending well-executed dishes back to the kitchen simply because you misread or didn’t understand the menu, there will be delays in service – for you, and just about everyone else in the restaurant.

You understand, dear friends, that the customer must feel welcome. You understand that the customer must feel comfortable. You understand that the customer is paying for a product/service and expects value for money. You understand, also, that if mistakes occur – and they will – the customer must be appeased with reasonable solutions. You understand that a restaurant, regardless of reputation, exclusivity or quality of produce, will never please everyone. You understand that in the event of an error – be it a minor timing issue or a major mood-killer, say, of an undercooked chicken breast or a dry John Dory – no staff member has intentionally set out to ruin your life. No one has kicked your dog, kidnapped your grandmother, or, in fact, summoned a Shakespearian plague on you and your kin.

You understand, dear friends, that hospitality is a charade – a living theatre where the FOH are paid actors gritting their teeth behind practiced smiles; and the cooks, precariously clinging by a fingernail to the precipice of culinary passion, are often the antithesis of the clean-cut, effervescent and charming image most often portrayed by primetime TV and the shamelessly photo-shopped covers of the latest celebrity chef’s cookbook. In reality, many chefs in many kitchens are a pirate nation of foul-mouthed illiterates; of drug addicts, drunks, swindlers, liars, cheats, gamblers, sociopaths and transients living the rock and roll lifestyle on a working class budget. Despite reason, despite any recognisable law of nature, despite a ready arsenal of blunt, heavy, and sharp objects, cooks somehow manage to deliver service after service in a blisteringly hot and stressful environment without killing one another – or, most significantly, striding out to the dining room and beating the inconsiderate diner over the head with a meat mallet for ordering a well done steak 2 mins before closing time.

Like any creative art, culinary perfection is an unattainable goal. Sorry, again, to be the bearer of bad news, but the golden age of gastronomy has long passed. And fine dining – all that pretentious shite about white tablecloths, silver service, amuse-bouche and the like – is dead for the vast majority of diners. Current economics (and the fact that a nationwide shortage of chefs has hit critical levels) will simply not allow it. What remains today is the involuntary reflexes of past glories, the last spasmodic jerks of a classical culinary corpse.

Let’s face it. Every restaurant can’t be a Le Gavroche, a Chez Nico, a La Tante Claire or a Le Manoir – a French/British training ground for the likes of, say, a young Marco Pierre White. Nor can they be an elBulli, an Eleven Madison Park, a Fat Duck, a Noma, or an El Celler de Can Roca. (Think tweezers. Think dots on plates. Think foams, ashes, gels, and all manner of molecular manipulation. Think exorbitant prices afforded by those with expense accounts and/or meaty piles of disposable cash.) The world’s top restaurants can afford – for a time, at least – to source the very best local and international ingredients for their seasonal menus. They can demand perfection from their suppliers; purchase state of the art equipment; hire an army of skilled and experienced staff to maintain or aspire to Michelin standards; afford off-season closures to experiment with exotic produce and cutting edge techniques; set precise and non-negotiable menus; absorb restaurant losses with the celebrity chef’s TV series and/or book deal; and, accordingly, charge their fawning, cashed-up patrons for the privilege.

Sadly, most kitchens don’t have that luxury. Most chefs in most kitchens have to make do with sometimes second-rate, sometimes frozen or pre-prepared produce to piece together simple menus that will appease the common, pennywise patron. Food percentages are tight. Wages are a continuous juggling act. Equipment is poor or non-functional. Skilled and reliable staff are near impossible to find, let alone, retain. And, as an added insult, the industry is rife with dodgy owners underpaying staff, abusing liberties, and enforcing agendas with little or no practical hospitality experience beyond a profit/loss spreadsheet.

Without question, the vast majority of today’s diners simply want good food at affordable prices. People want to eat out, sure, but they don’t want to spend a lot of money. That is why pubs/clubs and casual dining establishments (despite constant and sometimes unjustified criticism for serving mediocre food) serve thousands of meals a week while the ambitious, privately-owned venue producing inventive modern cuisine often struggle to fill 60 seats beyond the weekend and high-season trade. That is why, in ever-increasing numbers, classically-trained chefs with fine dining experience are abandoning their lofty posts as high-end slaves to open food vans, burger joints, American BBQ shacks, and a google-map-chicken-pox of franchised Asian street food temples complete with cheap mismatched furniture, jam jars for drinking vessels, and gloriously apathetic waiters.

But there is, of course, a downside. How many cheap burger joints can one community sustain? How many BBQ shacks does it take to perfect the beef brisket?

Fact is, there are far too many restaurants and not enough skilled and experienced chefs to staff their kitchens. As it stands, consumers are spoiled for choice. Work in any restaurant kitchen long enough (I’m talking years) and you’ll inevitably hear the old-dog lamentations of when the place “used to pump”. Every restaurant, guaranteed, will experience the ebb and flow of clientele. There will be times of boom and there will be times of bust. The trendy new restaurants booming today will bust tomorrow. That isn’t to say that chefs are no longer producing quality food. It’s far more complex than that. A restaurant’s success or failure is determined by factors sometimes beyond the control of the chef and their kitchen staff. (Food trends. Rent hikes. Wage costs. Staff shortages. Scarcity of produce. Economic downturns. Increased competition. The list goes on.) Even sufficiently staffed, well-run restaurants serving good food at reasonable prices will suffer at the hands culinary trends, geographical location and economic climate. In terms of online ratings and rankings, a seafood restaurant with an ocean view will almost always beat the one overlooking a carpark. An intimate, inner-city, forty-seat foodie destination will trump the suburban 300+ capacity food-barn any day of the week. The chic, paddock-to-plate, organically-sourced, celebrity-chef-certified farm kitchen will outpoint the authentically rustic pub bistro by unanimous decision time after time.

But again, what does it all mean?

Doesn’t the suburban food court doner kebab serve a purpose, an occasion? As does the mid-town foie gras on toasted brioche with truffles? Surely, it’s all about realistic expectations. And surely, diners/reviewers must be held accountable for their behaviour, attitudes toward staff, and, ultimately, the online criticisms they feel it their compulsive right to share with like-minded souls the world over.

Back in the late 80’s, well before the modern epidemic of amateur online criticism, a young Marco Pierre White conceived a direct and immediate method for dealing with rude or belligerent customers. Called the Whoosh, it involved a troop of waiters swarming in on the offending table mid-service and clearing away everything, including half-filled wine glasses, in a seamlessly choreographed counterattack. The final touch was a theatrical whooshing of the tablecloth. The mortified guests didn’t have to pay, but their evening was over.

While Marco’s method of jettisoning rude and obnoxious customers may be the wet dream of just about anyone who has ever worked in hospitality, the Whoosh method has its limitations in today’s culinary climate. Times, indeed, have changed. Due to a modern saturation of the market, restaurants can no longer afford to pick and choose their clientele. Well, they can, but chastising guests – be it at the table, or later, when responding to particularly harsh and unjust online reviews – is wading in dangerous waters. Competition is so fierce, and the custom of social media so widespread and frenzied, that restaurants are more likely to kiss the arse of the belligerent diner than they are of telling them to fuck off and never come back.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the average punter felt it a privilege to eat out. They worked, saved their money, and enjoyed a rare occasion with family, friends and/or colleagues. Today, however, the average punter expects and/or demands a personalised champagne experience on a beer budget any given day of the week. Perhaps they’ve seen a few too many episodes of Master Chef, the faux-culinary apex of reality television that continues to perpetuate contrived melodrama and glamour. Or, perhaps, they are simply the product of a cynical and narcissistic modern world that thinks everyone is out there to rip them off or challenge their position as a rare and unique gift to humanity.

Don’t get me wrong. In no way do I profess to be a culinary expert – a classical master, a trendsetting superstar or a revolutionary. I’m certainly no Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Alain Ducasse or Jiro Ono. Nor do I wish to censor the opinions of the dining public. They are, after all, the reason for a chefs being.

But, as mentioned in earlier posts, I have had the privilege of working, living and travelling throughout much of the world over the course of a 20+ year career. Think soba and sushi in Tokyo; Peking duck in, well, Peking (Beijing); paella in Valencia; risotto in Milan; souvlaki in Santorini; ratatouille in Nice; haggis in Glasgow; kofte in Istanbul; fattah in Cairo; tom yum goong in Bangkok; adobo in Manila; fish amok in Siem Reap; and, perhaps the most primal and humbling, ugali (a thick maize-based porridge) and the staple raw beef, milk and blood in a traditional Maasai village in Tanzania.

I’ve cooked in some good kitchens with some talented international chefs and, of course, I’ve been a diner. Not every meal was perfect. Not every experience was outstanding. But I’m proud to say that, as a customer, I’ve NEVER once sent a meal back to the kitchen, abused a waiter, refused to pay a bill or, most significantly, manipulated social media to tear apart a restaurant and its staff with fury and condemnation.

Maybe I’ve been lucky. Maybe I’ve tried not to be an arsehole. Or maybe, it’s simply because I have a prolonged and intimate understanding of how food is prepared, cooked and served in commercial kitchens. I understand that mistakes will occur. I understand that my tastes are exactly that, my tastes. I understand that, although the entirety of my adult working life has been spent with food, I still have much to learn, experience and appreciate. I understand that the people cooking my meal – and often those who serve it – are working physically harder, longer, and for less pay than the average 8hr desk jockey enjoying their nights, weekends, public holidays and month-long vacations.

I understand that kitchens are the refuge of the desperate and the insane.

Keith Floyd – the late and legendary English celebrity cook, food writer, TV personality, traveller and restaurateur – once quipped in his famous jovial yet barbed tone:

“If the bass is good, they say nothing. If it isn’t very good, they complain like stuck pigs. It’s quite reassuring really.”

For a chef, those are perhaps the truest words ever spoken.

Get used to it, I’m afraid. Or get out of the kitchen.


The Desperate and the Insane: 3 Reasons Why Chefs are a Dying Breed

Part 2

2. Clash of the Generations


Marco Pierre White, the first British chef (and youngest chef anywhere) to win three Michelin stars, is considered by many to be the first modern-day culinary idol. Labelled by the press in the late-1980s as the “enfant terrible of haute cuisine” and the “anarchic Byron of the backburner,” he trained in the finest restaurants in England under such culinary luminaries as Albert Roux, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann and Nico Ladenis.

Subsequently, his first cookbook, White Heat, published in 1990, blew the minds of the culinary world. Part memoir, part recipe book, it details Marco’s time at Harveys, where he practiced techniques inspired by the Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse era of nouvelle cuisine. (Put simply, nouvelle cuisine is the refinement of classical dishes. Or, more accurately, classical cuisine with the concept lightened.) While the tweaking of classic dishes impressed diners and Michelin inspectors alike, White Heat became best known for its black and white photography. Shot by fashion photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, the now-iconic images depict the chaos and intensity of a high-end kitchen in full swing.

Before White Heat, most chef-inspired cookbooks were static in both content and formula. Insert some sober, explanatory text regarding the recipes; add a gloomy, still life Caravaggio shot of the grub; and, perhaps, include on the dustjacket a portrait of the chef, usually some podgy Frenchman in starched toque blanche and jacket, arms folded, looking poised, confident and strikingly regal in front of their glistening copper and polished pass.

Even today, few, if any cookbooks, match the truth and legitimacy of White Heat.

Here, in the introduction, you’ll find a terse opening paragraph from Marco that would most likely confound the readers of today’s sanitised, consumer-friendly publications, “You’re buying White Heat because you want to cook well? Because you want to cook Michelin stars? Forget it. Save your money. Go and buy a saucepan,” followed, no less, by a sermon generously seasoned with ego, humility, candour, nostalgia, chauvinism, ambition, and a healthy splash of wistful romance.

While many of the recipes and plating techniques have dated considerably in the last 27 years, it’s the whacked portraits of the chef and his crew that have remained timeless in their dishevelled, rock and roll aura.

How many cookbooks today can boast a ragged portrait of a wild-haired, hollow-cheeked chef post-service with a cigarette dangling from his mouth?

The chef, wearing a pair of runners, crouched atop the stove as he scrubs the range hood amid clouds of suds and steam?

The chef emerging from a doorway, his white t-shirt, butcher’s apron and kitchen cloth stained as he wields a cleaver like some deranged, horror movie villain?

And, in the 25th Anniversary Edition, a snap of a young cook with the back of his jacket and trousers slashed with a carving knife because he had complained about the heat in the kitchen?

Sure, almost a century before Marco – or “Boss” as he was known by his team – there was the great Escoffier, who not only simplified classic French cuisine, but popularised, among other things, (including the encouragement of women to dine in his restaurants) the a la carte menu and the kitchen brigade system we consider standard practice today.

Later came Fernand Point, and a few other notable French revolutionists, but their mastery of the trade was largely unknown to the uncultured masses. Apart from dining royalty and the social elite, (and, of course, those brigades of nameless cooks who suffered firsthand the gruelling pursuit of perfection and culinary theatre demanded by late nineteenth century aristocracy) the Great Unwashed were too busy attempting to survive the last throes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great War to give two shits about Peach Melba served on a swan sculpted from ice.

Marco, however, arriving on the scene as a restaurateur at Harveys in the late 1980s, garnered a sophisticated yet workman-like reputation as a perfectionist, a young man with exceptional skills and a volatile temper; and, thanks to the publication of White Heat, his status soon catapulted to that of a culinary rock star.

He routinely ejected diners who were rude or offensive to his staff. He banged adoring female customers in his upstairs office between courses. He treated camera crews and TV hosts with derision and hostility when they dared to encroach on the sacred rites and rituals of his inner sanctum.

And yes, he famously made Gordon Ramsey cry. Or, as Marco later corrected, Gordon, then a young sous in training, chose to cry after two years of torment and abuse.

No surprises then, that he likened his kitchen team to the SAS. In The Devil in the Kitchen, his 2006 memoir, Marco states:

“In order to achieve my dream I reckoned I needed a brigade with army-standard discipline and, as I had learned at Gavroche, discipline is borne out of fear. When you fear, you question. If you don’t fear something, you don’t question it in the same way. And if you have fear in the kitchen, you’ll never take a shortcut. If you don’t fear the boss, you’ll take shortcuts, you’ll turn up late. My brigade had to feel pain, push themselves to the limits, and only then would they know what they were capable of achieving. I was forcing them to make decisions. The ones who left, well, fine, at least they had decided a Michelin-starred kitchen was not for them.”

This militant attitude was still very much in vogue when I first entered the world of commercial cookery in Australia in the late 90s; a time when Marco, on the other side of the globe, was at the height of his creative powers, winning 3 Michelin stars and roasting 30 chickens a day just for their juices. Early experience suggested that the head chef (and the equally formidable drill sergeant of a sous chef) was every bit the volatile image Fay Maschler, the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic, once described when she wrote that Marco’s intensity could “glaze a crème brulee from ten yards.”

As I look back on a twenty-year international career spent in cafes, country pubs, steakhouses, luxury hotels, fine dining restaurants and multi-million dollar clubs, it’s the uncompromising older chefs who pushed me to what I thought was the verge of breaking point that I now recognise as true mentors.

Sure, at the time, I hated their guts. I was young. I thought anyone over the age of 30 was old and senile. Nevertheless, I copped the tantrums, the abuse and the violence. I worked sick, injured, stitched and bloodied. I turned up on time, every day, tired and/or hungover. I affirmed every order with, “Yes, Chef!” Why? Because of fear. I feared a bollocking. I feared substandard work. I feared letting the team down, the Chef down. I feared being out of work, broke and starving. I feared I wasn’t good enough.

These days, however, many ageing chefs will gripe that few young cooks and apprentices are willing to endure that “army-standard discipline” Marco and his hard-ass predecessors felt it necessary to enforce and celebrate.

The truth is, the former generation will always chastise the latter. As far back as the time of Socrates and Plato, the young have pissed off the old, when, apparently, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Far more recently, my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations fought World Wars. As very young men, they dug trenches, stormed beachheads, waded through jungles and charged machinegun fire en masse out of a deep-rooted duty to protect a way of life. For them, the individual was less important than the cause. Young men and women willingly contributed to something much larger than themselves. If that meant making the ultimate sacrifice, well, so be it.

But let’s face it, kids. Times have changed.

Naivety and innocence have long been lost. Old-world beliefs and attitudes took a serious beating in the 1960s and, bloodied and battered, staggered through the decades to drop in heap in the new millennium in some vacant lot on the edge of town amongst the rotting carcasses of VHS tapes and Nintendo 64s.

Each generation, I’m certain, vows to provide their children with a safer, easier, and more nurturing environment than the one in which they were raised. So much so, that we know live in a Western society that lauds each individual as a precious gift to an overcrowded and damaged planet. Consumed with technological advances, social media, and a chronic syndrome of cybernetic outrage that skewers even the most earnest offerings with vitriol, contempt and outright slander, the age of Me is at hand. With the rapid acceleration of digital technology comes the era of impatience, of instant gratification, of perceived privilege and ill-informed opinion.

Compassion, also, is customary – sign an online petition, filter your Facebook profile or pray for the victims of the latest international tragedy – but largely superficial. Beyond appeasing the tastes and sympathies of your closest 875 “friends”, does it actually achieve anything? Are you out there in the real world making a true difference? Even physical acts of goodwill and empathy are recorded with dubious, self-serving intentions. Sadly, in a brave new world, you haven’t truly made it unless you’ve gone viral.

All this, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that it’s little surprise that a generation of sensitive, precious and fragile Millennials are increasingly unwilling to subject themselves to the physical and mental tortures of an outdated regime of old-school commercial cookery.

Quite literally, cooks and chefs now have the world at their fingertips. It has never been easier to research a recipe, to gain ideas, to learn. Centuries of knowledge and practice are only a Google search away. (As opposed to the dark ages, when chefs either had to learn on the job through painstaking trial and error, and/or refer to a now-cumbersome, antiquated means of education called a book.)

And yet, and yet, many young cooks are slated by old-dog chefs for their blasé attitude toward the dedications and intricacies of their trade. 19 year old Zachary, they claim, with his hipster beard and ironic tattoos, is far more likely to spend his downtime on his iPhone assessing the validity of memes and choreographing his snapchat than he will researching the origins of, say, ossobuco, or perfecting a nouvelle bouillabaisse recipe that will rock the Tuesday Night Special crowd. Impatience is the problem, they cry. While today’s apprentices and young cooks often profess an eagerness to learn, many are unwilling or too impatient to nail the basics before moving on to more complex tasks.

I’m sorry, Zach, enlightens the old-dog chef, but if you can’t handle 38 hours a week in a café, club or a pub, slapping together toasted sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, and a homely array of casual restaurant staples, you sure as shit ain’t ready for the 80+ hour precision, dedication and discipline of fine dining. Piss off on your break, son. I’ll do it myself.

The old-dog chef may be an antiquated fool or a virtuosic master in exile. Zach may be a lazy wannabe or an eager novice seeking genuine guidance and inspiration.

The truth, as always, is a matter of perspective.

Twenty years in, I remain squarely on the fence. I’m old enough to be scarred by the tail-end of the militant-style kitchen era, and still young enough to help foster a change in chef culture. In many instances, I can’t help but recite the tough-as-nails mantra of old-dog chefs. And I don’t mean tough in the macho, swinging-dick kind of way.

Many of the toughest chefs I’ve worked with have been women, who, despite rampart misogyny, sexual harassment, and life choices beyond the comprehension of many of their male counterparts, are willing to turn up every day to get their arses kicked. Believe me, to see a badass, 7 month pregnant kitchen warrior working the grill, slinging pans, barking orders as she gets the job done in the 50+ degree heat of a summer kitchen, is a beautiful sight to behold.

Tough, I believe, is starting at the bottom. Tough is remaining patient. Tough is turning up early. Tough is working through your breaks. Tough is staying back late to help the kitchenhands after a brutal night on the line. Tough is fine dicing onions and peeling potatoes until you lose the will to live. Tough is making mistakes. Tough is turning up the next day with renewed energy and a pledge to improve. Tough is thinking that, no matter how many years of experience you have under your belt, no task is beneath you. Tough is contributing to the team, knowing that each and every role is essential in the running of a successful kitchen. Thinking that you are special, thinking that you are a unique and beautiful snowflake, that you are, indeed, the centre of the universe, will not cut it in most professional kitchens. Flair, artistry and creativity are valuable attributes, but if you can’t execute the basics – grill a steak, roast a chicken, poach an egg, prepare a stock or fillet a fish – with precision and consistency at any age or claim of experience, it’s time to stop pretending. Tough is expected. Tough is seldom rewarded.

Conversely, I feel that blaming younger generations for their alleged weaknesses is a crucial mistake. Logic implores that each generation is shaped by those who came before them. Surely, it is not the fault of Millennials (and the rapidly emerging iGen) that they have little or no memory of a world pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Snapchat, pre-Twitter, or any other form of social interaction that defines the idleness and superficiality of modern existence. Surely, it is the old that have thrust digital devices into the hands of the young and, essentially, made them unhappy.

How, as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, could you possibly expect resilience and determination from a generation that has never been truly tested? A generation that, crippled by isolation and depression, nurtured to the point of sterilisation and often clueless to the stark realities beyond their virtual world, are increasingly privy to the fact that there must be a smarter and easier way to make a living than sweating your guts out 60-80 hours a week in a an aggressive, hostile environment for minimum wage, or less?

The old rules, for good or ill, do not apply.

At present, I’m fortunate to work alongside several young cooks and apprentices that are genuinely interested in acquiring basic skills, knowledge and experience to further their careers. Although their formative years as chefs is a far cry from the classical tortures and brutality of former generations, their patience and willingness to learn is commendable. These eager young souls, I believe, are increasingly rare and must be encouraged. Stick with it, I implore them. I know it’s tough and the rewards are virtually non-existent, but your dedication to the trade will set you apart from many of your contemporaries.

The Desperate and the Insane: 3 Reasons Why Chefs are a Dying Breed

Part 1


We live in the age of the Celebrity Chef. Portraits of the crisp white jacket and dental-advertisement smile assail us at every turn. Bookstore shelves heave under the voguish glut of cookbooks, the covers gleaming with photo-shopped images of a foodies wet dream. Sexed-up dishes artfully manipulated by food stylists defy the imperfect genius of nature while the Chef (sometimes dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt so as not to intimidate the home cook) poses self-consciously for the camera like a slogan-chanting, baby-kissing politician on the campaign trail. Notice the healthy glow and clear complexion. Notice the lack of burns on their wrists and cuts on their hands.

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this.

They are not behind their stoves. They are not cooking.

Surely, though, you’d be a bitter naysayer to begrudge any chef’s hard-won success and wealth, if, in fact, they’ve slogged it out in award-winning kitchens for the majority of their adult lives. Writing cookbooks, shooting commercials, hosting television shows and opening restaurants is a far less brutal existence than actually cooking for a living.

Gastronomy is big business, and those who have risen proud and tall from the ramekin like a perfectly executed soufflé have reaped the rewards. Wealth, fame, and social influence await the technically-skilled and the media-savvy. Chefs, despite a reputation for foul mouths, drug habits and poor educations – and, lately, a penchant for hipster beards and forearm tattoos – have become the rock stars, the sex-symbols and cultural purveyors of our time. Once regarded as one of the lowliest of occupations (sweaty hordes of degenerates and dropouts confined to the breathless, hellish bowels of restaurant kitchens while the people with REAL jobs enjoy their nights, weekends and public holidays dining out in relative nirvana), cooking has now entered the polished and portentous realms of 21st-century pop culture.

If wealth is a measure of status, and it most often is, a cursory Google search of the net worth of the world’s top celebrity chefs will prompt even the most ardent, self-proclaimed foodie to spit their vegan quinoa bircher with almond milk across the breakfast table.

Take, for example, Jamie Oliver, the chef/author/restaurateur most often topping the celebrity rich lists. Everyone knows Jamie Oliver. He’s that theatrically chirpy, pukka English lad with the mockney accent slopping his way through an endless stream of TV specials, his crosshairs set squarely on the enthusiastic, if somewhat unskilled, home cook. According to several reputable websites (and, hey, if it’s on the internet, it MUST be true) the darling Mr Oliver is worth 400 million dollars.

Yes, you read that correctly. 400. Million. Dollars.

Why, then, have chefs become an endangered species? Why, according to the persistent wailings of industry folk and a recent smattering of media focus, is there a chronic shortage of skilled and experienced chefs? Shouldn’t they be lining up to be the next culinary god cashing in on the fact that most people these days seem to be bereft of one of the most basic skills essential to survival? Bereft, or simply too busy?

Why, as the curators of sustenance, of life, are chefs abandoning the profession in droves, downing their knives and hanging up their imitation butcher’s aprons in favour of a less glamorous occupation?


  1. Pay/Hours

This may come as a shock to the ignorant and/or the uninitiated, but the vast majority of cooks and chefs are grossly underpaid. The likes of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Mario Batali are among a select few enjoying the bountiful fruits of their seasoned labour. For every jet-setting, book-flogging, Ferrari-driving, celebrity-schmoozing, camera-crew-toting idol of the culinary arts, there are, perhaps, a quarter of a million anonymous grunts sweating it out on the line, day in, day out, for (and sometimes less than) the minimum wage. According to several online articles and statistical websites, the median full-time Australian wage for 2016 tipped the scales at the 80k mark. Compare this to the national average wage of a chef, which, according to Pay Scale, is $46, 133.

Now, getting excited about statistics is a dangerous business. Interpretations of correlated facts often lead to inaccurate assumptions. Numbers (emphasised and ignored) can be manipulated to sway a predisposed purpose. But, if almost twenty years in the cooking business has taught me anything, it’s that the 46 grand per annum is pretty much bang on. That’s a staggering discrepancy when you consider the intense physical, mental and emotional fortitude required by those who choose to cook for a living.

It’s common for chefs to work 10, 12 or 14 hour days (sometimes more in chef-owned businesses and high-end restaurants) and get paid for 7 or 8. Big deal, I hear you say. Plenty of people work overtime. And, yes, I agree. The 80-grand-Aussie will (and does) bemoan their average lot in life.

Perhaps you have an office job. Perhaps you crunch numbers, write reports, make phone calls, and seal, if you’re lucky, multi-million dollar deals. Think about that job. Then imagine doing that job, on your feet, in 40 to 50 degree heat, day after day, all year round.

Imagine a cramped, suffocating workspace with open flames, 200-degree-oven-blasts, scorching metal, scolding liquids, razor sharp knives, and cleaning products potent enough to blister your skin and vaporise your lungs. Imagine cuts and gashes, stitches and partial amputations. Imagine rashes, boils and festering lesions. Imagine bruises, burns of all degrees, and calluses on which you could extinguish cigarettes. Imagine blood. Imagine intestines, hearts, ears, tongues, livers, kidneys, bones, breasts, fat, tendons, scales, and any other part of a once-living beast staining your work surface, your hands and clothes.

Imagine sweat. Image chafe between your legs to rival that of a marathon runner. Imagine dehydration. Imagine dizziness, cramps and perpetual diarrhoea. Imagine a timeframe of precise and manifold tasks broken down into seconds and minutes rather than hours or days. Imagine noise. Imagine a relentless barrage of scrapping, slamming, shouting, buzzing, crashing and booming, military-chorus-like affirmations of, “Yes, chef!” Imagine an ingrained, foul-mouthed dialect of abuse, intimidation, cruelty, sexual innuendo and harassment shared between co-workers with casual aplomb.

Imagine no lunch breaks. Imagine coffee, sugar and nicotine, hurriedly ingested during rare lulls in the action, as your primary source of fuel and nutrition. Imagine working nights, weekends and public holidays. Imagine no social life, little or no time spent with friends and family. Imagine sick days are reserved only for the hospitalised. (Hungover? Tired? Got the flu? Fuck off. Get your arse to work.) Imagine holidays are when you either quit or get fired.

Sound enticing for 12 hour days at an average of 46 grand a year?

No, I didn’t think so.

Sure, an average is exactly that, an average. An Executive/Head Chef, perched atop the apex of the gastronomic hierarchy, will earn significantly more. But like a General in some faraway war, the Executive/Head will most likely spend more time in the relative comfort and safety of their command centre than they will engaged on the culinary battlefield.

Executives/Heads are the brains of the operation, the strategists and the pen-pushers. They’ll write the menus, the recipes, the rosters, haggle with producers and wrangle the percentages. A day in the life of an Executive/Head will, unavoidably, involve a tedious, mind-scrambling, arse-numbing, belly-swelling succession of meetings, appraisals, costings, maintenance requests, hiring and firings. Time on the ground, so to speak, is largely ceremonial. Maybe, if they’ve got a spare ten minutes between sampling a local supplier’s finger limes and quoting a price for a new Rational combi oven, they’ll emerge from the office in their starched and spotless whites to inspect the troops, taste a sauce, or ravage a trembling apprentice for taking too long to fillet 20kg of snapper. The work is hardly physical, but the pressure is immense. Submit a less than satisfactory monthly stocktake or receive a damning report from the Health Department, and the incensed Owner/General Manager will come looking for their blood. Perhaps financing that new Mitsubishi Triton wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

The sous chef, however, runs the kitchen. As second in command, the sous (meaning “under” in French), is considered to have the toughest, most demanding role in the traditional kitchen hierarchy. When the Executive/Head conceives, say, a seasonal menu or a cleaning roster, it’s up to the sous to make it happen. At once a skilled technician, manager, craftsman, artist, motivator, punisher and prep grunt, the dedicated sous has few equals in any kitchen. The best sous chefs I’ve known are the battle-hardened veterans, the infallible badass warriors with deadly knife skills, infinite culinary knowledge, superhuman stamina, and, more often than not, a hair-trigger temperament. Their mission is to ensure that every chopped onion, every julienne of carrot, every fillet of salmon, every stock, every sauce, every soup and every sprig of chervil is prepared, cooked and plated with precision and consistency. If, say, an irate customer complains that their humble Caesar salad was served without the traditional croutons, therefore ruining their lunch, their week, their life, the sous will take it as a personal insult and kick the sorry arse of the absent-minded larder chef accordingly.

The sous must be all-knowing and all-seeing. They must lead from the front, be able to outcook, outlast and outwit even the most gifted of underlings. They must know every ingredient of every recipe, every portion size and plating technique. They must coordinate prep, cleaning, stock rotation, equipment maintenance, and the gruelling, all-important service. They must teach. They must inspire. They must push. They must punish. Needless to say, they must turn up to work every day. Often working 60-80 hour weeks in top restaurants, on their feet, sweating alongside the chef de partie, commis, apprentice and dishwasher, they’ll be doing well to earn 60k a year.

This, remember, is still some 20 grand short of the median Australian salary.

Okay. Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that preparing, cooking, and plating food for a living is hardly the requisites of, say, a Victoria Cross or a Nobel Prize. Chefs are not saving lives on the operating table. Nor are we risking them on the battle field. There are plenty of tough jobs out there, and people making a true difference in the world. We are not surgeons. We are not soldiers. We are not police officers (or emergency workers), who, rather ironically, are criminally underpaid for their service to a community that far too often exposes them to unimaginable incidences of abuse, scrutiny and violence.

And, no, chefs are not discovering the cure for cancer or the molecular properties of the universe.

Chefs are, despite contemporary illusions of glamour and prestige, the quintessential exponents of the real working-class. Forget about builders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and most other labour-intensive trades. Compared to the humble chef, those lucky bastards are living like princes. Unless you make it to the bigtime, snare that Corporate Executive gig after 20+ years of torment and squalor, the comfortable, middle-class dream for the average chef is lamentably a pay bracket beyond reach.

While other tradies are buying family homes, putting in swimming pools, driving late model V8s and 4x4s and taking the kiddies for a spin in the tinnie on weekends, the average chef (ranging from the raw apprentice to the experienced sous) will be doing well to keep up the rent of a modest 2 bedroom apartment, eat a couple of nutritious, home-cooked meals a week, afford to get the brake pads replaced on their shit-box 95 Ford Laser, visit the dentist once a decade, pay the electricity bill on time, and maintain, if they’re very lucky, a lasting and intimate relationship – let alone raising children with any semblance of presence and normality.

No, now that I think about it, chefs are not working-class. That’s too generous a categorisation. They are, in many cases, the working-poor.

To put it bluntly (and with a decent measure of hyperbole aside), most chefs work exceptionally hard for shit money. And it’s even tougher in fine dining, the glorified pinnacle of the trade. Many apprentices and cooks working in the nation’s top kitchens couldn’t afford, if they had the time, to eat in their own restaurants. The privilege of their punishment is the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and an impressive name to add to their resume. Money, or the lack of it, is a neglected postscript.

To give you some perspective…

Some years ago, in my early thirties, I was sous chef at the Caxton Hotel, an iconic, family-run Brisbane venue. It was, and I hope, still is, a go-to place for a good steak, some fresh local seafood, and a few cold beers. The food was simple pub grub, granted, but high volume. The owners (two brothers) had a cold-blooded fetish for the number of meals – usually a couple of hundred – served during each dinner service.

On the busiest of nights, the General Manager was ordered to stand at the pass, permanent marker in hand, with the sole mission of tallying up the official count (breads, entrees and desserts excluded) of meals served as hand-written dockets, waiters, garnished dishes and empty plates flew in and out of the kitchen. From memory, a Tuesday night, our record for a single, 3 hour rush was 517 meals. (The reason I remember this number is because each record-breaking service was recorded for posterity in permanent marker on the metal casing of a fuse box positioned opposite one of the walk-in fridges.) Not bad, considering the feat was achieved by a team of 7 chefs. When you break it down by the numbers, that’s 7 chefs pumping out 2.8 main meals (an array of quality steaks, fish, salads and pastas cooked and plated to order) every minute. Or, if you look at it another way, 1 chef contributing 73.8 dishes to the service total.

Not your average weekend dinner party, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The daily challenge of high volume aside, the Caxton was a decent, steady gig for any chef – a place to master the basics while striving for speed, precision and efficiency. We butchered and portioned our own steaks from whole joints of beef (literally tonnes a week). We made our own salad dressings, emulsions, stocks, sauces, compound butters and marinades (none of that prepacked, bought in shit). We sourced fresh fish, bugs, prawns, oysters and scallops from local suppliers (no room for the frozen variety, as our only freezer, reserved for the thick-cut chips and miscellaneous surpluses, was the size of a large broom closet).

In essence, we prepared and cooked a simple, honest, and satisfying menu. As an added bonus, cooks and chefs were paid reasonably well, slightly above the award rate, and except for occasions during peak season, we rarely toiled beyond the 40-hour working week. Well-run, well-organised, we were a tightknit crew that often got together for a beer or six after a particularly brutal service. Put simply, it was everything a chef or cook would hope (and expect) from a casual, inner-city restaurant catering to 1000+ ravenous punters a week.

But, for some ambitious cooks, the pub scene will never be enough. We had one such apprentice (let’s call him Toby), who, at 18, dreamed of white tablecloths and culinary glory. Toby, in all fairness, was a hardworking kid. He turned up every day. He followed directions. He got things done. All, I must say, for his paltry 300-400 dollars a week.

Despite his dedication and loyalty, Toby made it unashamedly known (to me, at least) that he didn’t see a future for himself hurriedly assembling Caesar salads, half-burning Kilpatrick oysters, or slinging 300 steaks a night for a drunken, pre-game rugby crowd. What Toby wanted was precision and finesse. He wanted exceptional flavours and textures. He wanted skills and techniques that would set him apart from the average cowboy. He wanted, as it turned out, a job at Aria. Recently opened at Eagle Street Pier by a certain interstate celebrity chef, the fine dining restaurant with a lush interior and sweeping million-dollar views of the Brisbane River and Story Bridge, was said to set a new standard of elegance and sophistication in a city (and state) much-criticised for its lack of culinary flair.

Toby wanted class. And I knew what he was talking about.

Before the Caxton, in my mid-to-late twenties, I spent a handful of years in the UK and Europe. From London to Paris, Istanbul to Madrid, Florence to San Sebastian, Nice to Santorini – and just about everywhere in between – I worked, travelled, and absorbed as much of the culture and cuisine as I could. During that time, I was fortunate enough to have worked under some experienced, classically-trained chefs, who introduced me to the exotic wonders of foie gras, truffles, venison, turbot, monkfish, pigeon, caviar, and a dizzying array of French, Spanish and Italian dishes I had no clue how to pronounce correctly.

In one particular multiple AA Rosette kitchen (the rough equivalent of Chef Hats in Australia) in a Scottish 5 star hotel, we changed the menu on a daily basis. A meeting was held each morning to discuss the fresh produce we had ordered the night before. With each chef assigned a particular section, amuse-bouches, appetisers, mains, desserts and petits fours were planned for the intimate 40 pax dinner service. Creativity, as you’d imagine, was encouraged. As was the experimentation with traditional flavour combinations and presentations. It was, to say the least, a rewarding and challenging experience, especially for a young Aussie cook a world away from home.

That’s why, years later at the Caxton, I encouraged the ambitious Toby to go for the Aria job, confident that he’d learn more in six months of fine dining than he ever could in five years of pumping out tens of thousands of satisfying but imperfect meals in a casual restaurant. Albeit, I must say, with a solemn warning of immense sacrifice and discipline ahead.

As it turned out, Toby got the Aria gig. We shipped him off one night post-service at the Caxton with handshakes, well-wishes and a belly full of Bundy rum. No one heard from him for six months, until late one Monday night, when he returned for a few catch-up drinks with his former comrades. (Now, to give you the full picture, it’s important to illustrate Toby’s physical appearance. He was tall, about 6’3”, and before he’d left the Caxton, possessed, for his height, the characteristic teenage male physique: thin-limbed, underdeveloped – soft in the belly from a few too many late night munchies and gaming sessions – with shoulder-length dark hair and a plump, rosy-cheeked wholesomeness.)

As he joined our table, slumped into a chair with the weary grunt of a man three times his age, it was obvious that Toby’s six months at Aria had so far proved an ordeal. He was wacked, a late afternoon shadow of his former self. Gone was the pot belly, the shoulder-length locks, the ruddy complexion, and the dreamy glint of a doe-eyed innocent. He was gaunt-faced, head-shaven, sallow-skinned, and his once puppy-fat physique was reduced to that of a decommissioned, malnourished greyhound. Fresh burns bloomed on his arms. His hands were raw, cut and blistered.

As predicted, he had become a high-end culinary slave. Arriving at work at 7 in the morning and leaving well past midnight each day, Toby was now toiling for twice as many hours as he did at the Caxton. That’s 80 hours a week for $300. He was surviving on 2 or 3 hours sleep a night. He was working through his breaks, fuelled by a diet of energy drinks and hastily consumed scraps. He was subject to constant verbal and physical abuse, performing the most intricate and laborious of tasks while expected to produce perfection on every plate. He was threatened with instant dismissal if he turned up late or called in sick. He was, in essence, a lackey, wallowing on the lowest rung of the high-end kitchen ladder. Overworked and underpaid, he was to never question the authority of a senior chef, never offer an opinion or deviate from the status quo. He was to obey, sweat, bleed, burn, and fucking like it.

What, I hear you say, is the point of this little anecdote? A common example – or perhaps a warning – for any wannabe cook chasing the haute cuisine dream because they’ve watched a few episodes of Master Chef, seen a pretty dish on Pinterest, or wreathed their coffee table with the latest celebrity chefs’ cookbooks.

Commercial cooking, if executed with the required sum of dedication and professionalism, is not a hobby or a hyped curiosity. It’s not even a job. It’s a lifestyle. A calling. An obsession. It’s a masochistic willingness to sacrifice one’s health, sanity and relationships for half the median Australian wage so you, the diner, can enjoy your birthday, your anniversary, your business lunch or casual Sunday brunch in contrived comfort. Truth be told, many chefs earning a barely liveable wage will already be in their kitchens when you arrive at your average office job in the morning. They will be working through your lunch break. They will be working when you pick up the kids from school. They will be working during your gym session. They will be working during the 6 o’clock news. They will be working when you sit down to dinner with the family. They will be working during your Netflix chill.

And they will still be working when you retire to bed, flick absentmindedly through the day’s Facebook posts, and eventually nod off to sleep.

I Don’t Know What to Say or If I Should Hug Her


Do we read enough books by women?

Simple question. Not so simple answer.

A few months ago I was chatting with Julie Koh about The Australian Women Writers Challenge. Since the publication of last year’s Sleepers Almanac, Julie and I have kept up a steady online correspondence, often discussing our current reading lists. I mentioned Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett. No big deal, I thought. A no-brainer. Two very good books by two very talented writers. Shit, Birds won the 2014 Miles Franklin! Julie’s response, though, got me thinking.

“So great that you’re reading fiction by AUSTRALIAN WOMEN!” she said. “Not that you need a pat on the back, but here’s a pat on the back.”

Wow, I thought, thanks. But do I really deserve a pat on the back?

Scanning my bookshelves, I scribbled down a list on a blank sheet of A4.

Books by Australian women I’ve read or reread in the last year:

Monkey Grip Helen Garner

Postcards from Surfers Helen Garner

The Spare Room Helen Garner

Floundering Romy Ash

Foreign Soil Maxine Beneba Clarke

Holiday in Cambodia Laura Jean McKay

Forecast: Turbulence Janette Turner Hospital

Like a House on Fire Cate Kennedy

Past the Shallows Favel Parrett

All that I am Anna Funder

Road Story Julienne Van Loon

Only the Animals Ceridwen Dovey

Excluding the two yet-to-be-read titles, this works out to be one a month. Is that good? Or do I need to pick up my game? Should I include the one hundred or so short stories by Australian women I’ve read and admired in literary journals, magazines and anthologies?

What about online? Does that count?


The Australian Women Writers Challenge asks the question:

Are male authors more likely to have their books reviewed in influential newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors?

According to the 2012 statistics compiled by Bookseller & Publisher, well, yes, they are, or at least, they were. Men get more than their fair share, and it’s time for women to even the balance. Bloggers, far and wide, are encouraged to read books by women and share their reviews. The AWWC question is valid, no question, and deserves thoughtful debate, but as far as I’m concerned, it is but one of many avenues that require exploration.

Call me naïve – or perhaps even ignorant – but I believe the contribution of women to the contemporary literary landscape in this country far outweighs how many – or how few – are reviewed in, say, the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian.

As a fledgling Australian writer, three years into the heady rush and often lonesome heartbreak of a hobbyist grinding out short stories that most people will ignore, I’ve never once thought women to be underrepresented or undervalued. Again, maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. And I probably don’t. My literary education was a decade of cheap paperbacks, midnight cigarettes and beer. No classrooms. No lecture theatres. No professors, tutors or mentors shining the light.

Or maybe, just maybe, I rocked up to the party at the best possible time.

Women are doing incredible things in Australian literature. Nothing new, of course, but the appreciation and recognition have never been greater. Walk into a bookstore, scan the shelves. Australian women are national and international bestsellers. As well as taking out the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award for the last three years, Australian women are attracting significant attention and praise in the global market.

Authors Hannah Kent, Michelle de Kretser, Favel Parrett, Cory Taylor, Anna Funder, Brooke Davis, Ceridwen Dovey, Kate Morton, Gillian Mears, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sonya Hartnett, Evie Wyld, Kate Grenville – and a host of others – are kicking some serious literary arse.

Women, too, are thriving in the local scene. Feminine grace, intelligence and muscle, consistently fill the pages of Australian literary journals, magazines and anthologies. Sadly, annual publications – yes, real books with spines and covers and everything – like Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing and the Sleepers Almanac, never achieve the sales they deserve, but they are, without question, a showcase of our national talent. Having followed these publications with great interest for the past few years, I’ve been introduced to the work of dozens of fine short story writers, both emerging and well-established. Many have published single-author collections, novels, and won national and international awards, fellowships and residencies. They are among the best and brightest this country has to offer, and there’s never been a shortage of women.

I won’t name them all – far too many, in fact, to risk an obvious omission– but I will mention a selection of short-form writers I’ve become familiar with in the last couple of years and deserve, as far as I’m concerned, greater attention from the general reading public. And when I say general reading public, I mean readers other than creative writing scholars and freelance critics.

Cate Kennedy, Josephine Rowe, Karen Hitchcock, Paddy O’Reilly, Jenny Ackland, Eleanor Limprecht, JYL Koh, Carmel Bird, Ruth Wyer, Rebecca Howden, Krissy Kneen, Beverley Lello, Angela Meyer, Vicky Daddo, Margo Lanagan, Susan McCreery, Kate Rotherham, Michelle Wright, Tara Cartland, Brooke Dunnell, Marion Halligan, Sarah Holland-Batt, Eva Lomski, Zoe Norton Lodge, Meg Mundell, Lee Kofman, Jennifer Mills, Debra Adelaide, Leah Swann, Rebecca Giggs, Georgia Blain, Romy Ash, Laura Jean McKay, Rebecca Jessen, Ellen van Neerven, S J Finn, Eliza Henry-Jones and Claire Aman.

Again, these are just a fraction of the incredible talent at work in Australia today. Granted, writers of short fiction are rarely, if ever, household names. Only a precious few enter into the territory of popular culture. But for those of us keen on discovering grassroots literature – the type pushing boundaries, asking questions, often developing into works of greater length and depth – it’s becoming apparent that a woman’s voice is seldom ignored. Of the 23 contributors included in Best Australian Stories 2014, 17 were women.

The Queensland Literary Awards – no longer the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards due to a cut in government funding in 2012 – offers further insight into the current strength of women’s writing. In 2014, women won 7 of the 10 categories. The previous year, they won 10 of the 11 categories. By no means are these statistics a definitive representation of the contentious gender rift in Australian publishing, but they may just challenge the notion that women consistently receive, so to speak, the short end of the literary stick. Throw in the success and esteem of the Scarlett Stiletto Awards, the Stella Prize, and, for example, the fact that women took out 32 of the top 50 spots in Booktopia’s 2014 Australia’s Favourite Novelist poll, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue a lack of exposure. A pattern is emerging. No doubt about it. Don’t believe me? Check out the longlist for the 2015 Miles Franklin.

Is it any surprise that 8 of the 10 nominees are women?

Ok. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I’m just having a man-look. It happens. But in my experience, however limited, a good woman is NEVER hard to find. Not only are Australian women writing great books, winning awards and receiving due praise, but they are publishers, editors, bloggers, critics, judges, booksellers, journalists, event coordinators, librarians, campaigners, book-clubbers, mentors, tutors, manuscript appraisers, agents, marketers, designers, professors, illustrators and patrons. Perhaps most significantly, though, they are READERS.

The publishing industry simply wouldn’t exist without them.


In April last year, Louise Swinn – chairwoman of the Stella Prize and editorial director of Sleepers Publishing – wrote a playful and timely piece for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, ‘Why should men read books by women?’ The article, unsurprisingly, generated some lively debate. Read the article. Go on. And then read the comments.

How’d you go? What do you think?

In my view, some people missed the point. Did they read the same article I read? Ironically, the scattering of snide opposition only reinforced Louise’s point. Yes. All readers, male and female, have their personal literary tastes. That’s fine. That’s great. Read anything you bloody want. Just read. It keeps the industry humming and you entertained. Shit, you may also learn something. How good is that?

But I agree with Louise when she says that women tend to read a broader scope of stories. Yes, I know there a lot of men out there who read books by women and appreciate strong female characters – don’t bother rolling your eyes or planning a razor-sharp retort condemning my gross misrepresentation of an entire gender – but they are definitely in the minority. Interpret the article however you like, but I believe Louise has made a valid comment. Rather than telling men what to read, she’s simply encouraging some to expand their habitual fare.

Sure, some books by women are shit, just as some books by men are shit. Shit, as they say, happens. All writers are flawed. But if you ignore the creative work of a gender based simply on the fact that you hated reading Pride and Prejudice in Year 10 English, you’re destined to miss out on so much good stuff before and since.

How many women do you think read Hemingway, for example, hated it, and said, ‘That’s it! No more books or stories by men. Ever! No man for a hundred years will write in a different style or offer an opposing point of view. They’re all misogynist arseholes intent on primping their masculine egos!’ Okay. Maybe a few said that. But they’ve probably read The Great Gatsby – international sales of the 1926 novel spiking after the Baz Lurhmen film release starring Leo Di – and seriously flirted with some Haruki Murakami or Raymond Carver.


Just for the record, I never read a book based on an author’s gender. I buy and read books I think I will like. No more. No less. My taste – as you may have guessed from my Australian women reading list – usually falls into the genre of literary fiction. Something you also may have noticed is that I’m partial to a good short story. Yes, I’m one of a rare breed who actually buys and reads collections of stories. I know what you’re thinking. Crazy, right? Who does that? Just when a story is getting good, it ends. All very frustrating.

Seriously, though, I have to make a confession.

I didn’t always read books by women.

No doubt it has something to do with my upbringing. I grew up on Queensland’s Darling Downs, a typical country boy. I played football – Rugby League, that is – cricket, volleyball and basketball. I enjoyed camping and fishing. I rode motorbikes. I built fires and learned to shoot a rifle at ten. For pocket money, I mowed lawns on weekends, and during summer holidays, chipped cotton, drove tractors, tended vineyards, picked and packed fruit. Yes, I was athletic. I got outside. I was fit. Often sunburnt, I was lean and strong.

But it was books that started it, the idea as a teenager that there was a world waiting to be discovered beyond the Range, the red soil of Toowoomba, the ancient volcanic dust that stained bared feet and hands, clothing, streets, pavements, and everything else in town liked dried murder. Anything to do with history and war I devoured. I wanted to visit battlegrounds, the sites of revolutions. But most of all, after getting into the novelists, I wanted to see Paris, visit the Louvre, Notre Dame, and sit in the cafes on the Left Bank where the old writer’s used to sit. After The Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, and The Lord of the Flies, I read everything by Hemingway, Joyce, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.

The men in my family – like many of the characters in the books I enjoyed – were tough and hard-working, men by any man’s standards. Yes, they smoked and they drank and they brawled, but never once, as far as I know, swore in front of a woman.

My grandfather on my father’s side was a butcher and a boxer before he was killed in a road accident long before I was born. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a truck driver, a fire fighter, a soldier. Enlisted and shipped off to New Guinea to hold off the Japanese in 1942 as a twenty-one year old, he suffered the horrible jungle sufferings of Port Moresby, Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track. He told me stories when I was a boy about the things he’d seen – savage night battles, the enemy like ghosts in the scrub, the bombing of airstrips, villages burned, destroyed, the scattered bodies of the natives naked and mutilated, Japanese POWs gaunt and scared and weeping like children, the malaria sweats, the nightmares, and once, after six weeks in the jungle, removing his worn soggy boots for the first time and peeling not only his socks from his feet but several layers of flesh so that the bones shone white through the rot and the blood and the mud. I marched with my grandfather every Anzac Day, his medals hanging heavy on my small boy chest, and long before he passed at eighty-seven, still smoking and drinking and telling stories, I kept his ID tags and rising sun AIF badges as my precious things in a small wooden chest and wept proud silent tears every time I heard a bugle play the Last Post, and still do.

My father like his father was a boxer. He was a boxer before he was a small town business owner, a draper. He boxed with his brothers, my uncles. He’s shown me newspaper clippings from the local paper, yellowed and faded, announcing in the late 50s and the early 60s the emergence of the Fighting Thomas Brothers. My father was the youngest of four brothers, all Champions, but unlike his brothers, who were tall and rangy and raw-boned, my father was short, stocky. With thick forearms, powerful hands, he taught me the left jab when I was a boy, the right cross, the hook and the uppercut. On the weekends we spent together after he and my mother divorced, we sparred together in the kitchen, the lounge room, the garage. I pounded his open palms with everything I had until my fists stung and bruised. Punching my father’s hands was like trying to crack concrete with an over-ripe plum.

Yes, I come from tough country stock, an undeniable masculine influence – an image, if you will – that some urban gents may ridicule as archaic, but inanely attempt to replicate. The rugged, outdoorsman aesthetic is the costume of the modern hipster – picture a soy latte-sipping lumberjack with the hands of a concert pianist – and note the increasing numbers of heavily-tattooed, protein-fuelled gym bodies, barber shop short-back-and-sides, bushranger beards and plaid shirts worn by some city blokes who never in their lives have ridden a horse, shot a rifle or cut down a tree. Yes, city blokes are getting blokeyer, but in a stylised, comfortable, self-conscious sort of way. Perhaps in an emerging world of empowered women, many young urban men are struggling to preserve their masculinity.


Ok. So what’s this got to do with reading books by women? I don’t really know. Maybe I got a little side-tracked. It happens. But maybe, just maybe, this whole image of masculinity thing is why, for many years, I neglected women authors. I will never apologise for being born a straight, white, Australian male. It’s not like I had a choice. Like everyone else, I was born, and will spend the rest of my life working out who I am.

Still, over the years, I’ve come to realise that the true toughness I hope I’ve inherited – physical and emotional – is directly contributed to the women in my life.

My grandmother on my father’s side. Dearest Nan. A Lady. That’s how I’ll remember her. Always immaculately dressed, polite and gentle. A widow in her thirties, she raised four sons – the Fighting Thomas Brothers – only to lose two of those sons in subsequent road accidents. Still, she endured with tenderness and quiet grace. How she got through those years, I’ll never know. Cancer cut her down in her seventies, and I was too young to ask.

My grandmother on my mother’s side. 92 years old and living alone in the same house my grandfather built when he returned home from the war. She nursed my grandfather through the malaria sweats, the nightmares, the drinking, and remained his wife for the sixty-five years before his death. Raising four children in a fibro home at the end of an unlit dirt road – the nightly darkness so complete save for the stars that the end of the universe was conceivable – she cooked and cleaned and clothed in a time long before the luxuries of modern appliances. No fridges. No electric ovens. No washing machines. No dryers. A resilient, no-nonsense woman, she may have sometimes lacked the gushing affection society expects from mothers today, but she no doubt loved her children and raised them with the ingrained discipline and survival instinct of the WWII generation. Extravagances were a porcelain doll for each of her daughters and a cubby house under the tank stand. She received a BEM in 1987, honoured by the Queen for her services to the youth of the Pittsworth community. With a talent and passion for painting, cooking, arts and crafts, she won numerous local and state awards and became a mentor and inspiration for countless young people across the Darling Downs.

My mother. What can I say? Where to begin? Words are insufficient, especially words written as part of something as self-indulgent and ephemeral as a blog. The greatest mothers not only give life but carry and protect and nurture that life with selfless dedication and sacrifice. They give up their passions and dreams to foster those of their children.

Born and raised in Pittsworth in that fibro home at the end of that unlit dirt road, my mother dreamt teenage dreams of wandering springtime Parisian streets and rocking out in black leather like Suzi Quatro. But like most small-town, working-class dreams, they suffocate under the weight of reality. Sadly, Paris for the young country woman in the late 60s and early 70s is not in Europe, part of this world. It is an intangible, fairy-tale fiction. And rock n roll stardom, crackling on sacred vinyl and beaming as grainy shadows on black and white television, is reserved for rare deities with unearthly abilities. Within reach and reason was a conservative, steady job, and for most young women of the time, the duty of procuring a husband, a home, and rearing children with the least amount of egotism and complaint. These were times when Australian working women received NO superannuation, their fundamental role was to perhaps earn a bit of pocket money before retiring to the hobby of domesticity. And so my mother gave up a bank job and married – despite graduating high school with exceptional marks, old school mathematical abilities before the invent of calculators and computers, and the most beautiful handwriting you can imagine – contributed to the formation of my father’s small business, and gave birth to two sons. There were plans. There were new dreams and possibilities. Perhaps they were less glamorous than teenage fantasies, but they were attainable.

Marriage, however, as most of us know, is a delicate and complex concept. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Divorce is an ending, no question, but it’s also a beginning.

I have no recollection of my parents together. Photographs of my infancy and toddlerhood are vague artefacts of an abstract time rather than discernible retentions. My memory begins in a small Toowoomba flat, a bedroom and bunk bed shared with my younger brother, and my mother – now single and back at work to shelter, feed and clothe us – sobbing in the next room into her empty purse. Never a particularly religious woman, she once lit a prayer candle at the altar of a Toowoomba church. I was too young at the time to understand the gravity of the act, too young to comprehend her desperation. If the world beats you down, perhaps faith can lift you up.

Maybe she thought something like that. I don’t know. And maybe god had nothing to do with it. All I know is that she got us through. She was there when I learned to ride a bike.  She was there on my first day of school. She was there, two years later, to lecture the bully who punched me in the guts and stuffed my face into the dirt. She was there when I scored my first 50 in junior cricket. She was there every weekend when my club footy team was thrashed by 60 points. She was there when it was time for the dreaded sex-talk. She was there when I crashed the car a week after getting my license. She was there for my graduation. She was there, months later, when I left home and moved to Brisbane. She was there at the airport when I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and, years later, when I returned. She was there when relationships broke down. She was there when relationships began. She was there for my successes and there for my failures. She was there. And because she was there, it wasn’t until well into her middle-age, two sons raised to the cusp of manhood, that my mother remarried and finally realised her life-long dream of visiting Paris and strolling those fabled streets. Of course, there’s no way I can possibly know how she felt while she was there, but I’d like to imagine her crying a little in quiet awe.

I know she cried, years later, when I was 25 and called her from a phone box beneath the Eifel Tower.

She wasn’t upset, my mother. She was happy. Happy because I was in Paris and that I remembered to call her for her birthday.


Sure, the stories of these women, my personal heroes, may be common.

They weren’t Olympians, rock stars, writers, screen idols or feminist icons who changed the world. They didn’t have to be. They were ordinary women – strong, intelligent and hardworking – who got things done within the working-class boundaries of their respective generations. Perhaps now, in the cyber age of overt narcissism and throwaway celebrity, a little old-fashioned selflessness and humility is something worth celebrating.

Ironic, I suppose, that I present these thoughts as a blog, an exercise in shameless self-promotion. But it’s honestly why I read, and will continue to read, books by women. I’ll read them and there will be curiosity, enjoyment and inspiration. As a white Australian male in 2015, I’ll read them, not out of some obligatory gesture, but as an affirmation of a collective voice often ignored in less progressive times.

Yes, I’ll read them, these books by women.

But I’ll leave the reviews to the experts.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing


Beau Hillier, super-editor of page seventeen, kindly invited me to be a part of the blog hop. It’s a pretty good idea, I reckon. Writers answer four questions about their work and nominate others to do the same. Make sure you check out Beau’s responses here.

Next in the chain is the lovely and brilliant Julie Koh. I was lucky enough to meet Julie earlier this year in Melbourne, very briefly, at the launch of the Sleepers Almanac No. 9. That night she read an excerpt from ‘Civility Place’, an exceptional short story, and had the room in stitches while attempting to photograph the crowd from the stage.

To read Julie’s responses, visit her website.

J.Y.L. Koh is a Sydney-based writer. Her short stories appear in The Fish Anthology 2007, The Sleepers Almanac Nos. 7, 8 and 9, The Lifted Brow Digital Issue Vol. 5 No.1, Kyoto Journal Issue 80, and The Best Australian Stories 2014 (forthcoming). In 2013, she was a finalist in the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards Written Word category, longlisted for the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, commended for the Australian Society of Authors’ Ray Koppe Young Writers’ Residency, and shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers.



 What are you working on at the moment?

Home Mechanics began a couple of years ago as a collection of short stories. Set in locations as sleepy as a Darling Downs backwater, as familiar as a suburban Brisbane backyard, and as exotic as an African campsite, the stories explore relationships and modern masculinity. In 2012, the manuscript was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards, and since then, almost half the stories have been published in various literary journals across the country.

Taking the next step, however, has proven difficult. Single-author collections are rare in Australian publishing. No one reads them, apparently. With the exception of a handful of successes in recent years – Nam Le and Maxine Beneba Clarke among them – most unknown short story writers have a hard time selling their work to publishers, let alone attracting significant exposure in the literary landscape. So I’m attempting, with patience and determination, to string the stories together, work them into a novel without straying too far from my original vision. Every writer wants an audience, right? Right?

How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?

This is a tough one. Analysing your own work is near impossible. The way we see ourselves is often very different to the way others see us. Our perceptions are flawed and our objectivity lost when we lay it on the page and study the mirror.

Some writers have the gift of imagination. Sadly, I don’t. Every story I’ve ever written is based on direct, personal experience. I NEVER set out writing a piece with the intention of making a social, environmental or political statement. I don’t create characters or scenarios to comment on past or contemporary issues. Ruminations on the themes of love, loss, relationships, modern masculinity, travel and working-class struggles reoccur in my stories, but only because I’ve lived them.

For me, it’s all about honesty, recognising a conversation, a moment or a series of events that changed the course of my life, and attempting to wrangle it into some sort of cohesive narrative. Of course, this may be considered a narrow lens. But isn’t that what it’s all about? Each of us has a unique vision of the world, and in turn, a distinctive voice. Now that I think about it, the only things that make my work fiction are the patchwork of experience, the omission or alteration of details, and the inaccuracy of memory.

I aim for simplicity in my writing, clear and direct storytelling. I’m not much of a fan of linguistic flamboyance or literary tricks. Sorry, that’s just me. My early influences are both common and predictable. Hemingway lit the path. Steinbeck blew my mind. Bukowski broke my jaw. Carver broke my heart. But like any creative art, writing is subject to shifting tastes. Some say realist fiction – or whatever they call it nowadays – is waning. Contemporary, kitchen-sink-dramas were hot for a long time, but are now beginning to fall out of fashion – if they haven’t already. These days, story collections are praised for their diversity. Exercises in genre-bending and schizophrenic characterisation are the staple requirements. This, of course, takes great skill and imagination, and I’m in awe of those who manage to pull it off and make it believable. Perhaps in the future I’ll attempt a similar approach, but right now, I’m focused on a few key themes and a central, single voice. Yes. The written word must continue to evolve. It must shape-shift, expand. No doubt about it. But I reckon if you stick to your guns, write what is true for you and no one else – whatever it may be – the tastemakers will eventually come around. Write it well enough, and they’ll have to listen.

Why do you write what you write?

I write as a kind of therapy. Home Mechanics, at least I hope, explores what it means to be a modern Australian male in an emerging world of empowered women. Resisting the indolence of reducing the protagonists into hapless comic figures – a stereotype of masculinity so often portrayed in various forms of media – I want to present my characters as conflicted and confused, complex and thoughtful. Men, without question, experience powerful emotional lives, whether or not they are willing to talk at length about their feelings. Most often their emotions manifest not in wordy dialogue, but in decision and indecision, action and inaction. Sensitivities emerge from the silences, the spaces between conversation, and from the possibilities implicit in the smallest choices they make.

A couple of years ago I read a statistic relating to the suicide rate in Australia. Apparently, five Australians take their own lives every day. Four of those are men. Why? Aren’t men supposed to be the less sensitive of the sexes? I sure as hell don’t have the answers, but I’d like to ask a few questions. To think that men aren’t affected in a deeply profound way by relationships – marriage, divorce, parenthood, abortion, body-image, sexuality, social and gender-related ridicule – is absurd. At least that’s the way I see it. Just because men don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.

Masculinity isn’t what it used to be, and that’s probably a good thing. Yes. It is a good thing. But what are the consequences?

What’s your writing process and how does it work?

I don’t know if writing can be taught. I’ve never studied Creative Writing at university or anywhere else. I’ve never had a critical reader at any stage of developing a story, let alone a Mentor. Of course, this approach has its limitations – too many, in fact, to bother mentioning. When I publish a story in a journal or an anthology, it’s always intimidating to read the bios of other writers listing their impressive academic and professional credentials.

I spent my late twenties teaching myself to be a writer by typing out the stories from the books I liked to read. Sometimes I typed out short stories, and other times long passages from novels. By doing this, I reasoned, I could discover the rhythms of good writing, the secrets of the craft. I knew, of course, that to be a writer I must one day write my own stories, but I was determined to serve my apprenticeship the hard way. I’m a chef by trade, a man of practicality. I learn by doing. I cook for a living. I sweat, burn and bleed, while every other bastard with a real job is out having a good time. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the worst job in the world, certainly not the hardest, but it was the chef in me that reasoned that you must first replicate the recipes of the masters before you can truly begin to create.

Hemingway once said that writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed. I’ve always liked that. And I guess that’s how my stories have come about. I write late at night, after work, usually from about 10pm to 1am. This may seem inconceivable for other writers, but it’s the best time for me. Still amped from dinner service, my mind is at its most active. From start to finish, I usually know what’s going to happen in a story. The difficult part is filling in the gaps, finding the right words, the structure to deliver the most impact. Admittedly, it’s a slow process, a walk rather than a run. I take great care in the first draft, and edit as I go. Each word is crucial. If I can write two hundred good words in a couple of hours, I’m a happy man. Above all, writing is a compulsion. I need to do it.



Hemingway and Icebergs

Laurie Steed kindly asked me to write something for his wonderful blog. This piece explores one of my favourite short stories, Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants 


Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway has endured. For almost one hundred years his writing has been praised, imitated, mocked, dismissed, rediscovered, and praised again. Love or hate him – apparently, there’s no other option – Hemingway’s influence on modern literature is undeniable. So large looms his shadow that it takes a brave writer to attempt a simple and direct style, to construct a novel or a story with modest vocabulary, terse description and clipped dialogue.

Novels such as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea are heavyweight classics. But it’s Hemingway’s short stories that many consider the pinnacle of his talent, the distillation of his vision. A series of reflective, semi-autobiographical tales featuring Nick Adams as protagonist were written when Hemingway was in his mid-twenties and living in Paris after WWI. Later, in his thirties, came a couple of unforgettable African stories. Both set on safari and featuring American married couples, they are studies of relationships gone sour and courage under pressure.

Hills Like White Elephants falls within this ten-year purple streak. Written in 1927, it is perhaps one of the most striking examples of what Hemingway referred to as his Iceberg Theory, suggesting that the emotional weight of a story lies more in the writer’s omission of details than what we as the reader see on the surface.


The Story

An American man and his female companion – referred to as the girl, and later, Jig – wait for a train to Madrid. They sit at a table in the shadow of the station. In the distance the hills across the valley of the Ebro are long and white. It’s a hot day and they decide to have a drink, order two beers through a beaded curtain hanging across the open door of the bar. A woman answers, delivers the two beers with two felt pads and sets them on the table. The girl looks off across the brown country to the white hills in the sun.

The rest of the story is conducted almost wholly in dialogue. The girl comments that the hills look like white elephants. They discuss Anis del Toro, a liquorice-flavoured drink, and the girl decides to try one. She mentions the hills again, suggests it was a bright observation. The man agrees. They have another drink, a beer, and the man turns the conversation toward the subject of an operation. He attempts to convince the girl that everything will be fine. The operation is perfectly simple, just to let the air in. The girl isn’t convinced. She’s worried it will change things between them. Eventually, the girl refuses to talk about the operation any longer, pleads with the man to quit the conversation, and after a cap-gun parting shot rebuked by the girl, he concedes by carting their heavy bags across the tracks to where the train to Madrid is due in five minutes. When he returns, he asks the girl if she feels any better.

Why It Sticks

At first glance, the four-page narrative appears nothing more than a casual conversation between a man and a woman as they wait for a train to Madrid. No line, no passage, is particularly arresting or brilliant, at least not on the surface. The language is simple, declarative. Mild tension arises early on with a couple sarcastic jabs between the characters, builds to a heated discussion, and ends unresolved.

But this is Hemingway’s genius. Pathos is achieved by repetition and the accumulation of small, often vague details. Omission is crucial. The word abortion never appears in the text, but it’s safe to say that this is the operation the protagonists are discussing throughout the story. Sometimes the abstract idea of space in literature is a difficult concept to grasp. We want minutiae of character and setting, but if the features are painted too thickly, the portrait, as well as the landscape, can be ruined. Hills, like much of Hemingway’s best work, is all about suggestion. The vast majority of the story is dialogue, but the lack of communication between the couple rings true. They talk, but never really understand each other. No internal monologues. We know the characters from their actions, by what they say. The bones are laid bare, only the essentials exist. And if the perceptive reader wishes to construct symbols from the reportage, the conversation, they are free to do so.

There’s space to breathe in Hills. Read the story in a short sitting. Think nothing of it. And a week later, remembering it as you’re sending the kids off to school, feeding the dog, mowing the lawn, waiting for the dentist or driving home from work, it will break your heart.