The cheeky smile and confident swagger that greets guests at a humble, little cottage in the back streets of Northam could only belong to one person… Warren Mead.
And this Warren Mead is perfectly relaxed as he offers a warm welcome into his $130,000 weatherboard protected by a heavy security screen door. The setting is a far cry from the luxurious surroundings and the glamorous lifestyle that turned Mead into a household name and the darling of Perth’s A-listers for over 25 years as a highflying restaurateur, before fleeing to Bali in 2009 when his hospitality empire collapsed.
His 12-year idyll in tropical paradise building a new life with his Indonesian wife Rani, mother of his 10th child – came to an abrupt end last year when Covid and health problems caused another dramatic twist to his colourful story.
After quietly sliding back to WA looking 10 years younger than his 76 years, he offers a characteristically candid insight into what he has been up to since his spectacular fall from grace.
Since moving to Northam last year, he has flown under the social radar, preferring to eke out a simple country town life with Rani, their eight-year-old daughter, Florence, and 17 chooks which roam through the backyard vegie garden among bales of hay. He spends a lot of time in his kitchen cooking his signature dishes of simple, honest recipes for friends and family. But no seafood for the former maestro of chowder and grilled snapper.
“It’s pretty hard to source seafood up here,” says the man who was once known as Perth’s Oyster King. “I just do simple things, nothing too complicated.”
If there’s one word that Mead knows the meaning of, it’s complicated. Is this the Mead, known for having been married six times (or was it seven?) And 10 children?
“I lose track of where they are,” he jokes.
Is this the Mead who had a stable of riverside restaurants that were the go-to hot ticket for long, boozy Friday lunches? He of Jessica’s at the Hyatt, Coco’s, the Esplanade in Freo, The Oyster Bar in South Perth, Mead’s Mosman Bay and Black Tom’s?
Intrigued Northam locals are asking the same questions as they spot the familiar rotund figure (who famously had gastric bypass surgery) shopping at Aldi. He admits he knew no one when he arrived, but in true Mead style, he has established a network of contacts through his hobby, catering for friends, family, and business associates.
“I guess my brand is still quite strong,” he laughs. “I realised a long time ago no one really gives a shit about anyone else. At the end of the day, it’s every man for himself.”
He’s obviously lost none of the prize fighter spirit – he came to Australia from New Zealand in 1964 as a sparring partner for an Irish boxer. This enabled him to cope when, in 2008, receivers were appointed to sell The Oyster Bar, Black Tom’s Bar and Mead’s Mosman Bay.
St George Bank also ordered the sale of his luxury cruiser Moonlight Express to recoup a multi-million-dollar debt. And he also lost his house and his car.
But now, with plenty of time to reflect as he sits on his front porch, is he happy to be in Northam? Mead says he’s just happy to be alive.
“When Covid hit I started thinking about medical facilities in Bali which are behind the eight ball and very expensive,” he says.
“I had a heart rate issue which had been picked up earlier in Perth. I had a very low heart rate and I had to have a pacemaker put in. And I thought if I did get the virus, Bali wouldn’t be a great place to be. So, I came back to Perth. Rani and Florence came later.
And why Northam?
“A hundred people have asked me what I am doing in Northam,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of money and borrowed money from my brother and son. I wanted to buy a house, so I went to Toodyay and York. I couldn’t afford to buy in Perth. Here I’ve got 600 squares. I grow beans, pumpkins, make pumpkin soup. I work in the garden, pulling up weeds. It’s a very simple life and I am enjoying it.”
He’s living a low carb diet regime, saying he must lose 20kg and he’s taking stem cell therapy for knee and hip problems. He says he doesn’t miss his old life and still catches up with loyal friends who have stuck by him from his A-lister days on his weekly trips to Perth.
Mead’s life has now turned full circle. When he first came to Australia at 19, he scored a job at Quairading working for a tyre agency.
From there he carved out a career in hospitality and the rest is history.
But, says Mead, there is still another chapter to be written.
“I’m writing a book,” he says. “It will have some sealed sections. Open them if you dare. If you have still got your marbles and, I have, I’m looking at another 10 years. I’m not looking at going to work every day.
“I never thought about being old and not having any money so that’s why it was very important for me to have a house with a small mortgage. I’m happy with this house. It’s a cute little cottage. And it’s an hour from Perth. And it’s not unlike the house I grew up in.”
And with that, he swaggers off to feed his chooks. Watch this space.