You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Cover Story

JIMMY SHU – Putting fun into food

Hospitality is one of the most brutal trades in the world – more than 90 percent of restaurants go bust within three years of opening.

Jimmy Shu’s flagship Hanuman in Darwin has been going for 30 years. The likeable bloke who arrived in Australia with just $50 in his pocket as a young man is clearly doing something right. Jimmy, whose recipe for success in the restaurant business is simply “good food, good service and fair price”, has long been respected in the Northern Territory.

But he now has a national fan club following the success of the eight-part Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory, which aired on SBS from late April. The series, which was supported by the Northern Territory Government’s Screen Territory, followed Jimmy around restaurants, produce providers, markets and Indigenous communities. It was a tremendous advertisement for the Territory. “People down south don’t realise that the NT is a fascinating place, very different from the rest of Australia,” Jimmy says. “We truly are a happy melting pot. “I love the Territory and love promoting it. Anything that thrills me, I want to share.”

He enjoys watching celebrity chefs and food-related television programs. “Gordon Ramsey with his F this and F that. That’s not my style, but there seems to be a market for it.” Jimmy was born in Sri Lanka in 1949, the eldest of four children of Chinaborn parents Tso Hien Shu and Sun Fung Ying. His father was a farmer’s son and had no formal education; he started life in Sri Lanka cycling around Colombo peddling silk and saved enough money to open a restaurant. “My father was an incredible man,” says Jimmy. “He ran a successful restaurant for more than 38 years. “He pioneered many foods, such as the manufacturing of soybean sauce and egg noodles. He was also well known for growing orchids. Not bad for a man who never went to school.” 

His father was an old-fashioned disciplinarian. “To be honest, my childhood wasn’t very happy. My father made me follow a very rigid regime – up before first light and down to the markets to buy supplies. “There was no going to cinemas, discos, parties… “And I didn’t get paid either. All the money went into a family pool and you only got what you needed to survive, “But my father taught me discipline and the need to work hard to succeed.”

After finishing school, Jimmy applied to enter university, but failed the Sinhalese language exam – twice – and was put to work in the restaurant full-time. He says his siblings “got all the brains” – his brother Bochin is a nuclear physicist, his sister Kathleen a paediatrician and his sister Nina a successful business woman.

At the tender age of 21, Jimmy followed his heart and travelled to Australia with $50 in his pocket. He started working in a food processing factory; it was gruelling work – but he knew from the very first day in Australia that he wanted to stay forever. “I had to shovel beans for hours on end. I remember my first ‘smoko’ – a word I had never heard before – and how I was so tired that I couldn’t even raise my arms to make myself a cup of tea.

I had always used my hands to make food in a wok, not shovel beans in nearly 40-degree heat.” But Jimmy stuck it out and rapidly rose to become assistant foreman. He worked three jobs at once for seven years – cooking at a Chinese fast food operation, his day-time job at the food processing factory and office cleaning late at night. And he even took in ironing at $5 a basket. “I dislike ironing.” When Jimmy’s six-month visa expired, he was told to leave the country by the immigration authorities.

He used every legal manoeuvre he could afford to stay and couldn’t believe his luck when the then future Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced an amnesty for everyone who had overstayed their visa. He applied for permanent residency and then took out Australian citizenship. In the meantime, he rekindled an old friendship with Selina, a Singaporean who had migrated to Melbourne to study.

The couple shared a passion for food – and each other – and married. Jimmy started working full-time as a dishwasher at Melbourne’s first noodle bar, the Chinese Noodle Shop. He later cooked at Shakahari vegetarian restaurant and eventually bought into the business. Two more restaurants, the Isthmus of Kra and Monsoon, were added to the stable.

Jimmy then made a decision that would change his life – he flew to Darwin to meet fish farmer Billy Boustead to discuss the supply of top-quality “silver” barramundi to the Melbourne restaurants. He instantly recognised that there was an opening for a good Thai restaurant in the city centre. Jimmy did his research by eating at the three existing Thai restaurants then operating in Darwin and decided to open Hanuman with Christo Phillipou. “We lost money for the first two and a half years and thought about closing several times.”

Jimmy is glad he kept at it – he is now the sole owner of Hanuman and the restaurant is thriving, although the coronavirus lockdown had a devastating effect on the bottom line. “When you open a restaurant, you need money not just to open the place, but to survive for at least a year.”

Jimmy spends much of his time in Darwin while his wife maintains a family home in Melbourne; he appreciates her patience and understanding of his lifestyle. They have two children: Samantha, who is an oncology nurse at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, and Bianca, who is a graphic artist and lives in Berlin with her Swedish husband.

The man who arrived in Australia with a few bucks and a willingness to get stuck in is now 71 years old. But he’s still hands-on at work, even delivering takeaways meals to people’s homes during the pandemic lockdown. “My father always used to say that hard work won’t kill you. And he was right.”