July 26, 2020
People & Places

“Eat good food and don’t drink bad wine”

Chef Chris Jarmer, 48, hails from restaurant royalty. His parents Peter and Kathy owned Jarmer's fine dining restaurant on Kensington Road for years and today Chris has carved out his own niche in the hospitality game. Here, he talks about cooking, business, meeting a long-lost sister and marrying into another Adelaide food and wine dynasty.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Adelaide. I grew up in Paradise with all my parents’ Italian friends. Then I married an Italian girl from the western suburbs and we moved close to her family. We now live in Fulham Gardens.

Chris as a young child.

Can you paint a picture of your childhood?

I have one older brother, Peter Jnr, who works in real estate now, and one younger sister, Jessica, who lives in Perth and works in childcare. My parents are Peter and Kathy.

I also have an older half sister, Erika, who lives in Sweden. We didn’t find out about her until I was 16 and Mum and Dad told us one Sunday night.

Dad was dating a girl in Stockholm who he had recently broken up with. Then he found out she was pregnant just before he was due to come to Australia. He had made a commitment to come here to open a new restaurant and said he would send for them later.

Turned out the “restaurant” was a fish and chip shop in Port Lincoln but that is another story. So, Dad never went to Lincoln and he started work at the Feathers Hotel where he met Mum.

He told Mum about the mother and child and they agreed to help raise the child in Australia but the mother didn’t agree and severed all contact. When Erika turned 18 she looked up her father and made contact.

Tell us about meeting Erika for the first time?

Dad flew over to meet her and then six months later he flew her out to Australia to meet us.

She looks a little bit like my sister. We were excited and a bit confused at first because we always thought Dad was so serious and never did anything out of the ordinary.

When she came out to Australia it was odd being 16 and having an 18-year-old Swedish girl living with us. She got on well with my younger sister. However, I clashed with her a bit because I just treated her like a sister, not special if you know what I mean. She also did crash my new bike and I remember getting upset about that! She reminded me about that 20 years later when we met up again in Austria.

She has since had a child, Levi, with a Swedish singer but unfortunately, they broke up. So, I did have a brother-in-law who was a Swedish rockstar for a short while. Erika has been to Australia three times. I last saw her in 2011 not long after her son was born. I don’t communicate a lot besides Facebook but my Dad writes to her a lot and sends things to Levi.

Chris competing in a cooking competition.

You are a third-generation chef is that correct?  

Yes, Dad’s mum Maria was a hotel cook in Salzburg pre- and post-World War II so that would have been an interesting time. Dad was born in Vienna and grew up in Salzburg and my mum was born in Hungary and fled there during the revolution when she was young.

Your father Peter is a well-known chef, too. Did you cook with him as a kid?

I remember going to work with Dad when I was very young, following him around the kitchen, a bit like my son does with me now. My first memories are from Benjamin’s on the Torrens, where Red Ochre is now, and Dad was chef/manager. I would have been very young, stealing the after-dinner mints in the little brown bags. I loved cooking but I wasn’t allowed to cook at home unsupervised and I got into trouble trying to melt chocolate in a pan and it burnt when an adult wasn’t home.

An aspiring young chef, Chris attended TAFE to become qualified by the age of 18.

When did you first work in a restaurant?

Dad had a bistro on King William Road called Riley’s (now Parisi). My first job was peeling carrots there when I was about 10. I got one cent per carrot and that was to teach me to go fast. I would also run the dessert section at PJs Schnitzels on Gouger, which was when I was about 12.

But I don’t think it was the pocket money – I just liked going to work with dad. He was a great dad, very firm but caring at the same time. He worked a lot so that’s why I loved going to work with him, just to be with him.

My parent’s restaurant, Jarmer’s, opened in 1984 and I helped out there as well, washing dishes, as well as on the cold larder and dessert section. It took years before you were allowed anywhere near the stove.

How did you end up becoming a chef?

I got permission to leave school early and I started my apprenticeship after year nine at the age of 14 and I was a qualified chef by the time I was 18.

My grades were not the best and I guess I was a stubborn teenager who thought it would be best to leave school. Sometimes I tell my parents they should have made me stay but the future could have been much different. It’s strange, I certainly don’t have great memories of my two years at high school but I sometimes wish I had stayed until year 12 and maintained some of the friendships.

I studied at TAFE and I was lucky enough to complete an advanced certificate in patisserie during my apprenticeship as well. Dad thought it was important for a chef to be good at desserts as well.

I won apprentice of the year and represented Australia in the World Skills Olympics in 1991. I got to go to Holland and represent Australia in a four-day event. It was for tradespeople under the age of 21 and I was only 19. I finished seventh by memory and I still remember the gold medal winner from Austria working on the bench opposite me – his work was amazing and he was only 21.

Chris represented Australia in the World Skills Olympics in 1991.

Your parent’s restaurant Jarmer’s became a fine dining institution in Adelaide. What are your memories of that?

Dad made a name for himself at Riley’s. He was in a partnership but always dreamed of owning his own fine dining restaurant so he and Mum bought the property on Kensington Road, formerly Villa Sanso, an upmarket Italian restaurant. They opened Jarmer’s where Dad pioneered fine dining in Adelaide and gained an international recognition.

We went to dinner at Jarmer’s the week it opened and Mum and Dad said order anything you want. Maybe I was a little shit because I ordered the most expensive dish, lobster thermidor, but I didn’t enjoy it! The dishes I most remember are Dad’s scallop galette, salmon and potato terrine, and the beef fillet with mustard hollandaise. I remember as a young apprentice wanting to make hollandaise sauce for Dad. It’s one of the hardest things to master as a young cook.

What did you learn by watching your parent’s run a business?

I was lucky enough to get the best of both worlds from my parents. Dad would teach me about food and high standards, and Mum was more the business side saying, “you still have to make money”. Dad would say no to more bookings at Jarmer’s, but Mum would keep taking them, and they would forever argue about that. They are still happily married which is a credit to them. So many don’t make it.

Mum made me work front-of-house as well as cooking to understand that the kitchen and front-of-house need to work together. I suppose Dad was very disciplined and fussy when it came to produce and soon gained a reputation with suppliers for sending back anything that wasn’t up to his standards.

Chris’s parents Peter and Kathy taught him how to run a restaurant, from the kitchen to front-of-house.

Did any famous faces dine at Jarmer’s?

Jarmer’s was that place where you would take a first date to impress or to celebrate a special occasion and it was visited by many famous people. Prince Andrew and Fergie came for dinner one night, as her sister lived in Adelaide. I remember they booked three tables, it was around the Grand Prix time and we thought it might be the Rolling stones. There was a lot of undercover security but they sat in the middle of the restaurant on a table for two. Mum and Dad could have rung the media to get some publicity around it, but Dad would never do that to respect their privacy. Other famous guests included Sir Don Bradman. He used to come for lunch all the time but I wasn’t allowed to ask for his autograph. There were also Grand Prix drivers like Ayrton Senna. I do have his original bill signed.

Dad had a number of chefs work for him who went onto bigger and better things including Peter Clarke (Vitners), Peter Reschke (d’Arry’s Verandah), Scott Pickett (Estelle in Melbourne), just to name a few but there are so many. There are a lot of great stories about Jarmer’s – that could be a different article altogether.

How sad was it to see Jarmer’s close?

It was a strange time. I had left the family business to open my own restaurant, air, at David Jones. Mum and Dad had a bad run with a bookkeeper who stole money, so Dad lost a bit of passion and Mum didn’t want to spend money and renovate. At the time I didn’t show enough interest in taking over, and Mum and Dad were not in the position to just let me take over, so they sold the property to fund their retirement in 2004. It was a big loss because they worked so hard, but it’s an industry that takes a lot out you and unfortunately naming your restaurant after yourself and being a chef that is known through that place, it’s hard to sell that.

When Dad had three restaurants at one stage he would have customers wanting to see him all the time at all three venues. I suppose I had a little of that when I had the three businesses as well.

Chris and his father Peter giving a speech on the final night of trading for Jarmer’s on Kensington Road in 2004.

What has been your biggest challenge in business?

I had an interesting run with air, which I opened in December 2002. I was kicked out after 13 years with one month’s notice, just before the Christmas busy season, to make way for Tiffany & Co.

At the time I was lucky to have Scool in the Pier Hotel, but again I had landlord trouble and I ended up vacating. During all of this, my wife Linda was very worried, but I am a big believer in one door closes and another opens and that is when we found our current Bowden site.

I had to tender to take over the former Plant 13 restaurant and won. It had been 10 years since Jarmer’s had closed so we decide to rebirth the Jarmer name, but in a more casual way, opening Jarmer’s Kitchen in 2014, dedicating it to my father. We started out renting off the Government but now we have purchased the building, securing our future, a bit like my parents did. We renovated the back room (The Jarmer Room) where we do lots of functions, which helps to keep the restaurant going, employing more staff.

How did you meet your wife Linda?

I was working for her dad Don Totino at the time at Festival City Wines as a sales rep, as I had taken a break from cooking. I suppose it was love a first sight. Her parents asked me to cater for her 21st and she kept “losing” the menu and organising another meeting with me. To be honest, I didn’t think she would be interested in me. I made her a fortune cookie for her birthday with a pair of earrings in it, but as I was walking out of the kitchen on the night, the swinging door hit my pocket and broke the cookie! So, I had to remake it the next day and we met at Chicken Treat for lunch. We dated secretly for about four months because I was working for her father.

With Linda, I knew she was the one because she came from a hard-working family and understood the industry I was in. It is not always the easiest on relationships. I had had a couple of failed relationships with women who didn’t understand my working hours, but Linda was fully supportive of me and my industry, plus she loves good food!! Her mum Connie used to come to my cooking classes.

Chris and Linda on their wedding day. They met when Chris worked for Linda’s father Don Totino.

What do you love about her?

Linda is the life of the party, a great mother and does everything thing for me and the kids. Believe it or not, I have never used the washing machine since getting married. Occasionally Linda used to ask me to hang out the washing but I did such a bad job she stopped asking.

Does Linda work in the business too?

Yes, she does, doing the behind the scenes stuff such as payroll. She is a great waitress but she doesn’t like it. I once got her to work a function and they didn’t know she was my wife and they commented on what a great staff member she was!

What do you love about being a dad?

We have Charlotte, 13, and Tommy, 10.  I love the kids so much that I get so upset if they are asleep before I get home. Linda would tell me off for waking them up when they were younger. Charlotte is such a good girl dedicated to her schoolwork. Tommy, on the other hand, loves his sport, skateboard and gaming but apparently that’s a boy thing. We are best of buddies sharing the same passion in football team- the Crows! But the girls are Power!

Chris, on holiday with Linda, Tom and Charlotte, used to get upset if the kids were asleep before he got home from work.

Do you hope that your kids will head into the food business too?

That’s a hard one. I do want them to complete year 12 and go to university but I also want them to understand how to cook and work in the hospitality industry. It is such a great industry if you want to travel or work while you are studying.

Did ever think about going on a reality TV cooking show!

Not reality, but I did do a couple of shows such as Off The Vine and Beat the Chef. I would love to do a reality show focusing on a day in the life of a real chef. Now that would be some interesting viewing!

What do you like to do away from work?

I like golf but haven’t played a lot lately. I love to travel, spend time with the family eating out and watching bad ’80s action movies.

Linda, Chris, Tom and Charlotte at their Fulham Gardens home.

What has been your biggest loss in life?

I would probably say not working overseas, but if I did who knows where I would be now.

Do you have a life philosophy? 

Eat good food and don’t drink bad wine.

What does the future hold 

We have big plans for Jarmer’s Kitchen with a couple of new rooms we are working on and developing the car park.

My South Australian Life is a first-person series, published each Sunday. Read our previous profiles here.

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