It’s just about the food and booze: Chef Jess Barnes

Originally based in Melbourne, Jess Barnes is a straight-talking Antipodean who lives in the Bangkok ’burbs. After starting out as a butcher, Barnes has steadily worked his way up the food chain (and across Asia). He sat down with Aerostorie in Thailand’s bustling heart to talk about his life so far.

Jess Barnes in central Bangkok. (Jeremy Smart for Aerostorie)

Jess Barnes in central Bangkok. (Jeremy Smart for Aerostorie)

“I failed year 12. My dad told me, if I didn’t get a job, he was gonna kick me out. I had a job a couple of days a week after school cleaning up a butcher shop. So I went from being dux of my school to having a butcher's apprenticeship. It could give me time to be a teenager, run amok. I realised I’d made a bad decision, but I’m very stubborn so I decided to see it through.

I knew I wanted to be creative. I didn’t want to be tied down to a stigma of just being a butcher. All my family are musically talented — my uncle is Jimmy Barnes — so all my family are musicians and I didn’t want to be the odd one out.

I was offered a job washing dishes at the Veggie Bar on [Melbourne’s] Brunswick St. I took it because it allowed me to be... you know what the people who hang out at Veggie Bar are like. So I did that, and they asked me if I wanted to help them in the kitchen. I remember being terrified, but I also realised it was something I wanted to do.

I had never considered cooking as a vocation. I was all over the shop until that stage. I realised it was something where I could use my hands and still be creative and make things. It felt right.

I was doing some travelling at the time. I worked in a couple of dead-shit places. I spent three months in South-East Asia. This is in, like, 2003 and I wrote myself a list of goals. And one of them was to get a job in a proper restaurant. And I’d been to Grossi Florentino before, with a girl on a date, and that was one of the places I had put down. I applied for a job there. I went to the interview and they said: ‘You’re going to be at the bottom again. You’re already older than all the guys here”. I was 24, 25 at the time, but I just wanted to learn. So Guy [Grossi] took me on.

I started cooking sea urchins and peeling potatoes like everybody does. And the plan was to do another full apprenticeship, but six months in he said you don’t need to, you’ve already picked up most of the skills and the work ethic.

I went and did some work experience in Japan. It made me realise, in the grand picture of things, I didn’t know a lot. I came home, and I said ‘I have to quit, I have to see what else is out there’. At the time, Guy wanted to do what a lot of the other restaurants and chefs were doing: turning into celebrity chefs, with partnerships and franchises. He had been negotiating with the InterContinental Group, and said ‘just bide your time, I have something for you in Bangkok’.

We eventually opened a restaurant at the InterCon in 2009, and that was Grossi Trattoria. That was a huge thing for the company, and a big thing for me — my first proper head chef job, my first opportunity to run a restaurant overseas.

There was a reputation. Back then, when we opened, the celebrity chef craze, the infatuation of chefs, that type of thing hadn’t struck here yet. Grossi was the biggest name when we came here. So we made a huge impact very quickly.

It’s only over the last 10-15 years that the middle class has become more affluent, they’ve got more money, more spending potential. Italian food is easy — it’s easy to connect with, it’s easy to recognise, that’s why you’ll see that Thailand is not a third world country, it’s not a second world country. It’s a first world country, that for certain reasons… fuck it, you can put this on record: the reason this country is being held back is because of corruption. There’s plenty of money, it’s just being kept by the wrong people, and those things are slowly changing, but there’ll always be a connection between Italian and Thailand.

It was an amazing experience working at the hotel, but it wasn’t right for me. I stayed for about 12 months, and I moved on. I went back to Melbourne with my tail between my legs, feeling like I hadn’t achieved anything. I decided to come back and give it a go on my own accord, which I did, and everything changed.

I started out by opening a restaurant called Quince. What we were doing there at the time, again, nobody else was doing it. I don’t want to say revolutionary, because that makes me sound egotistic, but we were doing something pretty special and pretty different at the time.

I didn’t feel that it was the right place for me, and I left and opened my own business. That was Opposite Mess Hall. The plan for Opposite was, we just wanted to open a bar. My business partners, who approached me to set the project up, just wanted a cool bar where they could hang out. But customers saw it as a restaurant. We couldn’t just offer four or five snacks and cocktails.

It was a very intimate space. There was only seating for 30 people. I saw very quickly that it could become something a lot bigger, so we changed the concept. We turned it into a bigger venue, it wasn’t a huge venue, but still we had about 30 items coming out of the kitchen.

Fuck, it burned us all out. It was a lot of work. I had the lease for three years. I took the business over from my business partners. My wife and I, we ran it, and it always did extremely well. I have very, very good memories of Opposite Mess Hall. Apart from having to work out of that very small space, but it taught me a lot.

Now, working in Melbourne, and working in some amazing kitchens and getting to travel, and then coming here, and, again, being treated — spoilt — and then learning, when you start your own business, regardless of where it is, you’re not doing it on on other people’s money. You have to sacrifice some things. You don’t get all the creature comforts. It definitely humbled me. That was a very sobering experience, and I’m glad we went through it. It taught us how to spend money properly, not waste money.

Some of us will see or go through something, and review it, and will learn a lesson from it, and sometimes we just don’t change to reflect that. I picked up bad habits from being a butcher and then working in pretty fast kitchens, which was being an aggressive chef, and I would tear out all my staff.

It’s like when a parent starts kicking the dog, and the kid sees the parent kicking the dog, so when they get older, they start kicking the dog. It took me a long time to break out of that. HR and the personal skills, are probably the most important thing if you want to do business in South-East Asia.

My wife is Thai, I met her five-and-a-half years ago, and we’ve worked together closely running our business for a while. She really helps me look at things from another perspective, and stops me thinking the chef’s always right.

Business-wise, Opposite Mess Hall was growing and growing. We had our lease coming up at the end of 2015 and we had formed a partnership with a new group and we were planning to close Opposite Mess Hall, put it on the sideline, and go and open a new restaurant.

Basically, we spent 12 months on the new restaurant, over in Sathorn. I can’t legally talk about it, but we got into a position where we had to just walk away. So we lost everything.

“The worst thing out of it was we closed a critically and financially successful business. And two weeks after we closed, we got fucked. So it was like, ok, Opposite’s gone. So we didn’t know what to do.

We reverted back to doing residencies and pop-ups, and I focused on my consultancy business and that’s what I’ve been doing for almost the last 12 months. I’ve picked up some pretty big clients. I was working for Jamie Oliver on one of his restaurants here, Dean & Deluca in the Philippines, Cathay Pacific. It’s a different world. It has benefits; pros and cons that running a restaurant doesn’t have.

Over the last four-five months, Sasie and I have decided it’s time to get Opposite Mess Hall open again. A lot of people have been asking about it. We’ve found a space, we’ve been securing investment, working on a business plan, models and all that.

We are being careful about who we’re getting into bed with. You have to have trust. You have to have a little bit of faith, but at the same time we’re making sure we’re protecting the business and we’re protecting ourselves. We want the business to have longevity. We want it to be able to move forward without us having to constantly worry and stress about it.

I personally don’t like the word ‘dining’, going out for dinner, or ‘eating’. There’s this obsession with ‘dining’ here. You’ll see that all across Asia, and it’s all about people seeing you.

You see people eating in those big open-air things here. But once it hits the idea of ‘Western restaurant’, and everything’s like white linen and very formal, and they’re coming over and pouring the bottle of the 12-cent water, it’s like, ‘just put the water on the fucking table!’

That’s what I always wanted to strip away, and just make people realise. It’s just about the food and booze. And even for the booze, that’s important, but I don’t think food and drink should be expensive. It should be realistic about what it costs. And I think people should be aware that their food is expensive if they want to use good ingredients. But that doesn’t mean that you have to have foie gras and truffles on everything.

When I think of what I’d like to create for people, I want it to be somewhere that people can say, you know what, I’m happy to go there once or twice a week. Or a couple of times a month. Most of the places here have foie gras truffles everywhere. I think people in the West, specifically Melbourne, specifically home, they understand that these luxury items don’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be good. So, even doing things like putting hanger steak on the menu. People are going, you have to use wagyu. No, you don’t! It’s educating without trying to force things down people's throats. Nobody likes being told what to do.

For the first year I lived at the InterCon. I had no idea what Bangkok was really like. We had dogs, so we needed a house and decided to move out to the ’burbs, where there’s not a lot of Westerners. Life is pretty simple. We don’t have a super fancy house. We just have a pretty normal lifestyle. We have a semi-detached house in the ’burbs. The dogs destroy everything, and that’s it. We’d like to buy a house in the future once things get a little bit more stable.

I pay, like, AU$150 per week for a four-bedroom house. And when I say outer suburbs, I’m saying, like, 12 kilometers from here. But for Bangkokians, when I say I live in Bang Na, they’re like, ‘Oh, why do you live out there? Why don’t you live in the city?’ Because there’s parks out there. It’s away from everything. On the BTS, it takes me about 20 minutes. In traffic, two hours. It’s crazy.

I’ve never driven a car. I still have a motorbike. When the wife goes away, I go for a ride. Bangkok’s really easy to get around, as long as you don’t drive. If you drive, you’re fucked. It’s just gridlock everywhere.

I think Bangkok’s been really good to me; Thailand’s been really good to me. I still think there’s a lot more to do and learn. So for the time being we’re still here. We’ll give Opposite another go and fingers crossed things work out for the best, and the we’ll see what happens next. I’ve gone back home a few times. Melbourne’s changed a lot too. Everyone has a beard! I can’t go grow a beard!

I miss how green it is. I’m from Adelaide, but I consider Melbourne my home. I miss riding along the Yarra every day. There’s a lot of things I do miss about home, but at the same time, this has been my home for a while. I think once we get our business established, we can hopefully get some people to take the reins and we can take a step back and move to the country. But my consulting company is starting to take off, so I’d like to do the both of them.

Half of my family grew up really rich, and we were really poor. That always made me think about just trying to give something back. It’s not a medal on my chest, I just think about the times that people have helped me or helped my family and I think everybody should have some kind of fucking social conscience. It can’t just be about taking.

It’s not necessarily the same as running a restaurant, but it’s great being able to pass on the things you’ve learnt to people who are either starting out themselves, or are not sure where they’ve gone wrong or just need some improvement. It’s all positive.”