Book review, Raised By Wolves, Jess Ho

Lifting the lid on food and hospo culture.

Early on in this memoir, Jess Ho describes the decapitation of one of the family chickens. Presided over by their father, seven-year-old Ho was the reluctant one wielding the cleaver. This mise-en-scène sets the tone for Raised By Wolves, which is a brutally frank survey of the prolonged time Ho, a self-described ‘Cantonese chick with a shaved head and platinum blonde fuzz’ spent within the hospitality industry.

Despite Ho never having the intention of making a professional career in hospo, or as they drolly put it, as a ‘professional plate-pusher’ the book tracks their many roles in the bar and restaurant remit in Melbourne, including front and back of house, PR and social media, blogger and podcaster, food and drinks editor and even as judge on a short-lived reality TV series.

Fans of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential will find much that resonates in this book as Ho lets loose on clueless or cantankerous bosses, sleazy customers, and multi-skilling requirements to track orders and maintain equilibrium among a cacophony of demands. Within the rivers of booze and the pencil thin line between day and night, Ho found a camaraderie among fellow dysfunctional sessional workers.

Raised By Wolves is not just about the food industry; it’s also about relationships Ho had with their family, particularly the toxic one they had with their mother and the generally tough love dished out from Chinese parents (Ho was punished for minor infractions like turning up to the dinner table late). It’s this lack of love that partly explains Ho gravitating to their makeshift, substitute family for connection. A later, platonic relationship is imbued with so much trust, joy and co-dependency that it only serves to underline the lack of affection Ho received at home, which they left aged 15.

This debut book also adroitly explores cultural appropriation. It was after a sojourn in New York trying to find the nexus between naivety, excitement and magic that Ho came to an epiphany and realised that they were complicit in indulging in the fetishisation of ethnic food, that when they returned to Melbourne ‘I was going home to a job where I’d be pushing white faces cooking Thai food and dumbing down an entire cuisine into entertainment.’

If you’re after insider revelations, there are plenty of those in here. Ho decodes job ads so ‘hardworking and energetic staff required’ is translated to mean ‘that you’ll be required to drink three cans of any energy on the market to perform your job. If you’re burned out and say something about it you’ll be fired. More than one person will cry at the end of every shift.’

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Raised by Wolves will be appreciated most particularly by foodies (it really is a memoir with bite as its subtitle declares) but it will have widespread appeal to those curious to learn more about the messy mechanisms behind-the-velvet drapery of fine dining. Ho is a commanding narrator, their voice is never less than compelling as they go about deconstructing the morsels of gourmet whimsies that decorate your pristine white plate.

Raised by Wolves: A memoir with bite, Jess Ho
Publisher: Affirm
ISBN: 9781922806307

Format: Paperback
Pages: 288pp
Release Date: 19 July 2022
RRP: $29.99

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on