Down the rabbit hole with Gerald Diffey

Down the rabbit hole with Gerald Diffey
Carol Saffer

The ephemera in Gerald’s Bar in Rathdowne St, Carlton, furniture and everything on the walls and the shelves, has a back story.

When his customers started asking about various things, he started writing about them 10 years ago.

He found his stories, all written by hand, soon burst out of the bar to include tales about his life, travels, childhood and his family.

Max Allen, a good friend and wine writer, took his pile of scrapbooks to edit and structure his many pages into a book titled Beggars Belief, Stories from Gerald’s Bar, released in December 2021.

It is nothing like celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all book Kitchen Confidential.

Gerald describes it as gentle stories about hospitality, food, drink, travel and experiences.

“It’s no expose,” he said.

He wrote in the evenings after work for many years.

Behind all those words lies a raconteur; people who have read the book tell him it reads like he is just having a conversation with them.

For example, on page 53, “I like coffee fast. That’s why I hate coffee art: in the time it takes to render a version of the Sistine Chapel on my caffe cortado, I could have travelled halfway to Rome to see it myself.”

He said the book was not rooted in food and drink and appealed to a wide readership.

“My attitude to hospitality is what is called the three Cs – connectivity, conviviality and community,” he said.

“Food and wine is the glue that holds the book together, but it’s about my experiences, places in time and food memory.”

Mr Diffey writes about his earliest food memory on page 13 of the book, involving a bowl of “lovely thick cold vanilla custard the size of a cowpat.”

It is the type of book that does not need reading in one go.

At 25,000 words, it is a slim book.

He describes it as perfect for the toilet; easy to hold with stories, in most cases, no more than two pages long.

He was born into hospitality as his grandparents had a pub for a hundred years in Suffolk in East Anglia in the UK.

He started working in the bar when he was about 11 years old and began pouring pints at 15 and has never done anything else.

He has no formal training in cooking or preparing food.

However, he worked in the bar’s kitchen for three years and has cooked at the overseas version of Gerald’s Bar at San Sebastian in Spain.

“With 40 years of experience in the industry, you sort of learn [to cook] by osmosis,” he said.

He confesses to a great love of art and music, which is evident by what is hanging on the walls and the stack of vinyl LPs lined up behind the bar.

He’s been buying and collecting records for 45 years.

“There is something beautiful about vinyl records, with the sleeve notes and the artwork,” he said.

“They are delicate and precious, and you need to look after them.”

He claims to remember pretty much where he bought each one of them.

Mr Diffey said Beggars Belief is not a cookbook.

“But it is a book full of ingredients, such as the music, art, trinkets, food and wine, and everything in between.”

It sells for $35 a copy and is available at Gerald’s Bar and “all good book shops” including Readings and Dymocks.

Mr Diffey wrote his stories the way he thinks, so he didn’t find it difficult and pays tribute to Mr Allen for his editorial skills.

If he is having a lousy day, Mr Diffey will pick up the book, read a short chapter or two, and feel better afterwards.

His tale on page 87 describes how his Nan and Granddad grew and pickled beetroot – “Cupboards were full of dark jars, like the Ravens in the Tower. If we ran out of beetroot England would fall.”

“Quite a lot of the titles of the chapters are expressions my grandmother used to say,” he said.

“There is a lot of her language in the book, so when I reread it, she comes back to me, which is nice.”

“The book is really about love; it’s between the lines.”

Mr Diffey is heading to Beechworth, Canberra, Sydney, and Newcastle to promote the book in February •

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