PRO­FILE

TV food star Si­mon Ma­jum­dar tells Natalie Long how he went from ner­vous break­down to fine din­ing

Friday - - Contents -

Fri­day catches up with food star Si­mon Ma­jum­dar, who lives by the motto ‘go ev­ery­where, eat ev­ery­thing’.

Can food be a peace­maker in these con­tentious times? It’s a lofty ideal, but Si­mon Ma­jum­dar be­lieves in it.

‘You can’t say to some­one, “I hate you and I hate your re­li­gion and I hate your pol­i­tics but could you pass the pota­toes,”’ he tells me as we sit in a small ballroom in Abu Dhabi, where a buf­fet of dishes sits, slightly picked over by con­fer­ence guests, be­hind us.

‘You have to be civil, and it pro­motes ci­vil­ity and it en­ables dis­cus­sion.’

Food – Le­banese and In­dian cook­ery, to be ex­act – has been life-chang­ing for the TV pun­dit and author, so it might be worth hear­ing him out.

Si­mon found his call­ing to the world of food commentary rel­a­tively late. Run­ning a fail­ing busi­ness in Lon­don, he found him­self on the verge of a ner­vous break­down, steps away from a bal­cony edge.

Ten years later, he’s criss-crossed the world, eaten at the best (and worst) restau­rants to be found, writ­ten books, got mar­ried, ap­pears on TV shows that are broad­cast around the world – and turns down said TV shows if he and his wife want to con­tinue to travel the globe in­stead.

Four words changed it all for him: Go ev­ery­where, eat ev­ery­thing.

‘I was in a very dark place. Ten years ago I was on the verge of sui­cide, I had a ner­vous break­down, my mother had died, the com­pany I was run­ning was fail­ing – for lots of rea­sons, many of which were my own. And I re­ally was about to jump off my bal­cony. The Le­banese peo­ple in the apart­ment be­low had started cook­ing. I al­ways say I got more hun­gry than sui­ci­dal, so I went to cook. I cooked a red lentil dhal.’ As he cooked, the story goes, he found a note­book with his when-I-hit-40 bucket list.

‘I’d done them all – I’d run a marathon, had my teeth straight­ened, I’d had a suit made on Sav­ile Row. On the bot­tom were the words “go ev­ery­where, eat ev­ery­thing”.’

The next day he quit his job. Four weeks later he was on Bondi Beach, and in the next year he vis­ited and wrote about 31 coun­tries, met his Filipino-Amer­i­can wife Sy­bil in Brazil and moved to LA.

You’ve got to love what his life looks like now. ‘My wife and I made a life choice a few years ago when we got mar­ried – we are com­ing up to our sev­enth an­niver­sary – that we wouldn’t own things.

‘So we live in a tiny apart­ment, we drive a bat­tered old car, my clothes are prob­a­bly old things I’ve had for­ever. But what we do is ex­pe­ri­ence. It drives my man­ager nuts be­cause I turn down work all the time be­cause I go, “that’s fine, but I’m not go­ing to give up three weeks of trav­el­ling around this beau­ti­ful re­gion for the sake of go­ing on one TV show”.’

Of course there’s got to be a lot more to it than that – not ev­ery­one can just pack it all in and find blaz­ing suc­cess in a year. He’s clearly tal­ented, and well-read. Af­ter pub­lish­ing his first book, Eat My Globe, Si­mon got his break on the hit cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion Iron Chef, ap­pear­ing on the high-stakes show as one of the more in­tim­i­dat­ing judges. In per­son, the man un­der the jaunty hat is as fiercely opin­ion­ated as ex­pected – thank­fully so – but his per­sona is gen­tler. Then again, I’m not a top chef try­ing to im­press him.

‘I am a bit mean be­cause I don’t like bad meals, so I get ter­ri­bly cross and I ex­press it – heartily,’ he tells me, with a cackle.

When Fri­day spoke to him, it was Si­mon’s first trip to the Gulf (amaz­ingly, in a decade of world travel, he’s some­how missed the UAE and Oman off his list, some­thing that he rec­ti­fied with a three-week stay in the re­gion), here as a guest of the in­au­gu­ral Cul­ture Sum­mit 2017, an event bring­ing to­gether artists and phi­lan­thropists to dis­cuss the state of cul­ture in the world to­day. Si­mon hints that he was, at first, un­sure as to why he was cho­sen to ‘cu­rate’ a gala din­ner in­vok­ing the flavours of the Spice Route. ‘Cu­rate

‘You can’t say to some­one, “I HATE you and I hate your RE­LI­GION and I hate your POL­I­TICS but could you pass the POTA­TOES. You have to be CIVIL... it en­ables dis­cus­sion’

is an odd word for a meal, be­cause I al­ways think of mu­se­ums – does that mean I get to show 10 per cent of the food and 90 per cent is in a ware­house in Brook­lyn?’.

Then it hit him – the in­ter­sec­tion of food, cul­ture, art, his­tory and so­ci­ety, which phys­i­cally sits some­where in the re­gion we’re in now. ‘Each of the dishes [at the din­ner] can tell you some­thing; there are Moroc­can dishes, from the Emi­rates, Greek, from the whole of the Le­vant, then we go into In­dia. But they all came through here. There are stories of Alexan­der The Great sell­ing olive oil in this area. All food is in­formed by trade, war, im­mi­gra­tion.’

It’s hard to have an ar­gu­ment when you have a mouth­ful of ribs

Which brings us back to Si­mon’s the­o­ries about the power of food to cre­ate em­pa­thy and en­able di­a­logue. When he’s not dish­ing out di­a­tribes over dud din­ners on TV, he’s tour­ing his new home­land (he be­came a US cit­i­zen in 2014, writ­ing about it in his book Fed, White and Blue) and cook­ing for whomever will have him, hop­ing to build con­nec­tions. ‘I do a thing called “give us a bed and I’ll cook you din­ner”. Peo­ple in­vite us into their homes, their work­places – we’ve been on mil­i­tary bases. Sit­ting down and break­ing bread with peo­ple, it’s very sacra­men­tal. By sharing food you get to know them in a way you might never get to know them in any other way.’

That’s an in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant thing to do con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent at­mos­phere. A Bri­tish-In­dian im­mi­grant go­ing to the nooks and cran­nies of Amer­ica to break bread?

‘For me, food has that abil­ity that pre­cious lit­tle else does,’ says Si­mon. ‘I have a say­ing: “It’s hard to have an ar­gu­ment when you have a mouth­ful of ribs.”

‘I was down in Alabama,’ he con­tin­ues. ‘I am a very lib­eral man and Alabama is very dif­fer­ent from me. I did an event with a group of chefs down there and you know what? We had a ball. It al­lowed me to con­nect with them as hu­man be­ings. One of the prob­lems we have right now is we are so po­larised. Ev­ery­one is fear­ful of the other side.’

24

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