Chef whips up memoir

STORY TO TELL: Former Old Library Cafe owner Jon Hellmrich has written an entertaining book about 40 years as a chef.
STORY TO TELL: Former Old Library Cafe owner Jon Hellmrich has written an entertaining book about 40 years as a chef.

Every night after work at the Old Library Cafe in Fairlie, chef Jon Hellmrich would sit at his kitchen table writing about his 40 year career, laying his soul bare.

He would finish at midnight and like everyone else after work, needed time to unwind, so would write till two, three, four in the morning.

He wrote it all out longhand in 10 exercise books and the result - six years after he started - is his newly minted book, Take One Fresh Chef.

The book chronicles his life with wife Stephanie and children, Marcus and Lain, working in restaurants in nine countries before settling in Fairlie where they have lived for the last 21 years.

The writing, he said, was the easy part. It took three years, but he spent another three years looking for a publisher, a lengthy process given a manuscript can only be sent to one publisher at a time.

After nine publishers (remembering Harry Potter received eight rejections), he had exhausted his New Zealand options so decided to self-publish through Amazon.

Boxes containing 500 copies of his book arrived in Fairlie recently and the book launch is planned for this Saturday.

It's probably a bit early to call it his magnum opus, given the success of restaurants started or revived by him and Stephanie (known to friends and family as Sue).

Besides establishing the kitchen at Noah's Hotel (latterly Rydges, by the Avon River) in 1976, where he was executive chef, he and Stephanie started award winning Tiffany's in Christchurch.

At the time it was the finest dining in Christchurch and booked up weeks ahead.

They followed that up by reviving Fairlie institution, the Rimuwhare, and opened Fairlie's Old Library Cafe which won a Hotel Association national award for service.

The book contains hospitality history, "anecdotes and downright truthfulness" along with humour and pathos Mr Hellmrich says.

He hesitated over telling some of the raw stuff, but decided he had to do it.

The book tells about the family's overseas adventures, including his time as one of the 53 chefs at Claridges of London and life in South Africa when he worked at the The President Hotel in Johannesburg.

Chefs are transitory people, he says. Once the challenges of any one position have been solved, it's time to move on to the next one.

"If you're working under a chef, you learn skills, and once you learn them you move on. The more people you work with, the more depth there is to your repertoire."

He says chefs are hard to live with.

"I don't want to sound precious but we're artists and if you throw artists into a high pressure situation ...

"I don't throw things, I'm not a scone thrower, but if someone comes in between what I'm trying to do and the end result for the customer ..."

It's not a situation where they will sit down and have a nice conversation, he says.

He also credits the culture to what used to be a male dominated profession. In fact he and Stephanie were the first in New Zealand to employ a female apprentice, in 1976. "It's the male domain mentality.

"And we probably drink too much, and smoke too much and party too much."

His book covers the good times and the bad times, "the best possible times and the worst possible times. It's soul baring stuff."

He had someone edit the book but found neither Stephanie nor himself recognised his voice in it anymore. He wanted it to read like a conversation over a beer.

He has dedicated it to his wife, because she not only pushed him to keep at it but, after reading the final manuscript, told him how much she'd enjoyed it, which, coming from his "mate, business partner and wife" really meant a lot to him.

There was also a transcriber in the process. Karen Waters of Fairlie and his daughter-in-law Heather Hellmrich typed and retyped drafts, and got the work on to computer.

Mr Hellmrich actually started the project as a family history for their now adult sons, before sensing there was a book in it.

One son, Lain, 34, owns High Country Carpentry while Marcus, 38, is a sparky in the United States.

Mr Hellmrich did try and persuade them to follow him into the family business, with romantic ideas based on Italian restaurants staying in the family for generations.

They were good at aspects of the trade, but "hopeless chefs," however that wouldn't have prevented them from being in the industry.

However, they wouldn't have a bar of it.

It was "no thank you very much, we've seen what it did to you, we're not interested."

The boys were with them on some of their overseas adventures, but when they got to the ages of 8 and 10, it was time to settle down in Fairlie, give them stability, and enjoy the country lifestyle.

They got stability, but Mr Hellmrich will never forget the day Marcus walked through the "total, full on" Rimuwhare kitchen at the age of 12 and said "Created another monster, eh Dad?"

However, eventually the time came when he knew he was ready to retire from the trade, and just before finishing his book, he sold the Old Library Cafe.

From his discovery of the magic of cooking as a boy scout, to meeting Stephanie at Mt Cook, from overseas adventure to family tragedy, at the end of the day, he has quite a story to tell. Not an easy thing to do, but as the tag line on his book says, Take One Fresh Chef, add 40 years in hospitality, and you have one hell of a story.

The public are invited to Mr Hellmrich's book launch from 1pm-3pm in the gardens at Warburton House, 31 Fairlie Tekapo Rd, Fairlie.


South Canterbury