Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Book 16 of my #20booksofsummer21 and review no 177
I was intrigued after reading a review of this book in the Times Literary Supplement. The author, investigative journalist (and one-time restaurant chef) Witold Szabłowski, tracked down the cooks who worked for several uncompromising (to put it blandly) dictators: Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Idi Amin in Uganda, Enver Hoxha in Albania, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Pol Pot in Cambodia. He interviewed the former chefs about their experiences, the food that they prepared for their bosses, and the way their employment with the various despots came to an end.
You do get the feeling that the chefs aren’t always as honest about their ex-employers as they could be, perhaps because of enduring (some might say misplaced) loyalties, or perhaps because of fear of reprisals.
Apparently, according to one interviewee, Pol Pot – the driving force behind the Cambodian genocide, which resulted in the deaths of up to two million people – was nicknamed “Mattress”, “because he always did his best to calm things down. He was soft.”
Abu Ali, the chef to Saddam Hussein, is also a bit of an apologist: “The only good person in the entire al-Tikriti family was Saddam. I don’t know how he survived among them.”
The book gives an unique and chilling insight into a role in which, as Idi Amin’s Chef Otonde Odera notes, “I knew from the start – my life depended on my cooking skills”. The risk of death was real and ever-present.
Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha, suffering from a combination of diabetes and heart disease, was on a calorie-restricted diet, with his nutrients monitored by a team of doctors – if the food provided to him by his chef failed to keep him healthy, that chef’s life would be in immediate peril. Keeping a man of 6ft 5 from hunger, on a diet of just 1500 calories a day, must have been a thankless task, and his chef (who insists on remaining anonymous, even though his former boss is long dead) expresses the view that Hoxha’s permanent bad mood was directly related to his persistent and unsated hunger.
The interviews are interspersed with a potted history of the regime in question from Szabłowski. An editorial flourish is the decision to lay the book out in the style of a menu, which forces the content into a particular format, and doesn’t quite work.
I found the book to be a slightly uncomfortable mix of memoir, recipe book and political history, but it kept me turning the pages.
Can you imagine what would have happened if Amin had spent all day carrying out his coup, arrived at the palace in the evening and found there was no supper waiting for him? He’d have given us hell. Out of hunger. People go mad from hunger: I’ve seen it many times.
I had cooked tilapia and goat pilaf; I remember that Amin liked it. We served it all on a fresh tablecloth, with silver service, left over from the British. Amin must have felt that he had won the coup and now he deserved a tasty meal. Tell me, what could be a better reward than excellent food served by a well-dressed cook in a good suit and shoes?