Jess Barnes, 34, chef and partner at Opposite, ranked #7 in this week’s Top Tables 2014 guide, and also earned four star reviews in BK Magazine for previous restaurants Grossi and Quince, making him one of the town’s foremost chefs. As his restaurant turns one, the Southern Australian reflects on what drove him to cook and his time in Bangkok.
I’m trying to think of a nice word for my childhood… It was “busy.” A lot of our family were musicians and travelled a fair bit. There was always something going on. Food and fun. It’s why I’m such an erratic bastard.
My mother was a housewife, my father was a singer. My father’s family [which includes singer Jimmy Barnes] are considered the most famous musicians in Australia. Everyone’s a singer, everybody has a plan to make it.
I had no idea what I was going to do until 12 or 13 years ago. No aspirations. I was very confused, very angry as a teenager. I had painting. I just painted and partied.
After high school, my dad threatened to kick me out if I didn’t get a job. I fell into butchery. I hated it. My biggest fear was doing that for the rest of my life.
I moved to Melbourne when I was 20. Started backpacking through Southeast Asia when I was 22. Saw things I’d never seen while growing up in Adelaide.
While staying at a shitty hotel in Khao San after a trip, I wrote myself a list of goals. One was to learn to cook.
I applied for a job at Grossi Florentino and ate shit for the next bunch of years. It was a major challenge. I was head under the water. It was a very macho, testosterone-fuelled environment. A lot screaming and anger. Very intense. I stuck it out, year after year. And Guy [Grossi] was kind enough to let me travel, to Europe, the Middle East.
I came back around 2005 and he sat me down and asked if I was ready to step up. I thought he was talking about my uniform needing to be cleaner. But he asked me if I wanted to be a sous-chef. Out of a group of 50 boys, it was quite an accomplishment.
I’m very good at what I do. I have a better work ethic than most people. I’m quite happy to get in, to get dirty. I can be the workhorse, when I’m working for other people.
My life was alcohol and work. I worked in Japan briefly to get an idea of what it’s like to work in Asia. It was very naïve to think it would prepare me for Bangkok. I feel quite silly. We [Grossi and Barnes] didn’t research the cultural differences and it was our first hotel experience.
I knew that the product was good but it was difficult to do my own thing [at Grossi, which Jess opened at the Intercontinental Hotel, in Bangkok, in 2009]. Too much politics. It became too difficult after a while. I felt abandoned. I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. I was drinking too much and I threw in the towel.
I went back to Melbourne, did a bit of consultancy. I felt that I hadn’t really accomplished anything in Bangkok. I decided to come back because I had a girl here, she had a baby and she called and said it was mine.
Six months later, I found out it wasn’t. It affected me a lot. I moved past it and I’m glad it brought me back here.
I fell into the job, at Quince. Close friends of mine were initial investors. I was going to be a partner but I stayed an employee. Great concept. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be in control of everything and if I’m not in control of what effects the core product, I don’t want to be involved.
I had become friends with Chris [Wise] and Som [Sila], going to WTF. Had done pop-ups at Opposite. It was fun. Not many people were doing what they were in Bangkok. It reminded me of home and what I wanted to do.
Opposite was about removing the constraints of what is considering eating and letting it be about the food and the drink. When you’ve got a grumpy tattooed chef it’s a fine line between that and just doing a hipster place.
The way I look at food is different from other people. My family are working class. For me, the trimmings of luxury are not important. The way I plate, the way I want my places to look are heavily influenced by that.
There’s more of us [humans] every day, in smaller and smaller places but we’re becoming disconnected from each other. It’s making us physically and mentally sick.
Food can remind you of what you come from, it can remind you of the social and environmental impacts of the decisions that you’re making.
Each and every thing that we consume—fuel, resources—takes some kind of toll on someone or something. If more people think about that, you’ll see positive change.
After five years, I haven’t figured this city out. As I become an adult, what I’m becoming now, the city takes on a different perspective. There’s so much opportunity, financially, culturally and artistically, it’s like a clean slate.
Some really interesting things are being started here: food, art, cycling. People are coming and changing things bit by bit. It’s adding to the social fabric of the city.
I’m not a religious person, but living here has made me look at life differently, in a positive way. Thais deal with losing somebody much better than Westerners. Letting go and moving on. Nothing is permanent. That’s the one thing Bangkok has taught me.
I’m the happiest I’ve been ever. In control. Sober. I feel very grateful for what Thailand has given me.
I want to give back now. I’d like to see a group of peers, Western and Thai industry leaders, developing something to help the restaurant scene. I’d like to see chefs guide kids more, as mentors.
I’m concerned that a lot of the cooking schools are too expensive. How can we make it more accessible? I would love to spend less time at my outlet so I can try and help.
What I’d have told the 20-year-old me? Slow down. Love yourself a little bit more. Be patient. Oh and call your nana occasionally.