From cleaning shrimps in Sri Lanka to running award-winning restaurants in the Northern Territory, Jimmy Shu has risen to the top of his game. By Kerryn Ramsey
Born and raised in Sri Lanka of Chinese parents, Jimmy Shu arrived in Australia in 1972 with $50 in his pocket. As a child in Colombo, Shu attended school all day then came home and worked in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant, cleaning shrimps. He also helped out in his father’s soybean sauce factory and was put in charge of the first noodle machine imported into Sri Lanka.
On arrival in Australia, Shu spent seven years working for Wattie Pict in Notting Hill, Victoria, processing frozen vegetables. He also had part-time jobs, cooking in kitchens and washing dishes until eventually becoming a waiter, and then a manager of the Chinese Noodle Shop in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne.
Over the next three years, Shu opened and ran three successful restaurants around Melbourne—Shakahari, Monsoon and Isthmus of Kra. He took a trip to Darwin in 1992 to hunt down Billy Boustead, the man who farmed the best silver barramundi in Australia.
Boustead took Shu to a restaurant that served the best chilli bugs Shu had ever tasted—and that was that. Shu opened the first Hanuman restaurant in Darwin in 1992 then in 2020, he won the Lifetime Achiever Award at the Restaurant & Catering QLD/NT R&CA Hostplus Awards for Excellence.
Your restaurants, Hanuman Darwin and Hanuman Alice Springs, are Northern Territory institutions. What types of cuisine do they serve?
The first Hanuman served Thai food but I was later inspired by the Nyonya fusion concept—Malay food with a Chinese influence. I joke that I started a Thai restaurant using the roots of the fresh coriander. Years later, instead of throwing out the tops, leaves and stems, I added Indian cuisine to the mix. Everyone in Darwin was already familiar with vindaloo and green curry, so Hanuman’s offering became popular almost immediately. Thirteen years later, I opened another Hanuman in Alice Springs.
How did your restaurants fare during the lockdown?
COVID-19 had a huge impact on everybody. We tightened our belts and simplified our lifestyle. I had to get down from my pedestal and at 71 years of age, be an Uber driver, delivering the food from our kitchen. We rely heavily on tourists in Darwin, but thankfully the locals kept supporting us. I’m also very grateful to the Federal Government for JobKeeper. That allowed us to stay open for the first three months until we were able to trade above 30 per cent of sales. Right now, both restaurants are doing pretty well.
Is it important to give back to the community?
Yes absolutely. Community is everything to me and is the reason why I call Australia, and in particular, Darwin, home. For seven years I’ve been cooking and raising funds for Variety Australia, an organisation that helps less fortunate children. I also organise special dinners for local arts festivals and showcased Darwin for Tourism NT.
What is Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory?
It’s an eight-part TV series, showcasing the diverse landscape of the NT’s food scene. I’m proud to see the under-represented Northern Territory being celebrated for all its colourful glory. The show is about people, history and our relationship with nature. The series screened in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic and has helped lift the profile of the Northern Territory, my business and many others. I had no previous on-screen experience but we had an amazing director, Naina Sen, who guided me during the four months of filming.
How did you feel winning R&C’s Lifetime Achiever Award last year?
I was very surprised. As a kid washing dishes in Sri Lanka, I never dreamt of this. It’s like the Australian dream come true. I just did my thing, followed my passion and enjoyed sharing and serving. I’m honoured to be acknowledged and to do my bit in raising the culinary profile of the Northern Territory.
To what do you attribute your longevity and success?
Perseverance and being humble. Refusing to give in and keep going forward while maintaining the passion for what I do. Obviously, longevity and success don’t come without challenges. At present, the biggest hurdle I’m facing is that an English language test is now an immigration requirement. I’ve brought in over 22 chefs to Australia and all had little English but assimilated well into the country and lifestyle. It’s thanks to immigration that we have such a rich culture but if people are denied entry to Australia based on their lack of English skills, the pot for diversity will thin.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own restaurant?
There are three important things. Firstly, whether you’re a chef or an owner, you have to understand food, flavours and taste. Your restaurant needs a point of difference with its menu. Secondly, it’s absolutely critical that you understand your costings. Every item must be costed and charged accordingly. Remember, that money in the till is not yours; you only get five or 10 per cent. So, a knowledge of finances and a knowledge of food are the first two steps. Communicating and delegating are also paramount. Finally, you must be passionate about serving. You should enjoy people and enjoy serving. That’s it.