TV food star Simon Majumdar tells Natalie Long how he went from nervous breakdown to fine dining
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.’
The best of meals, the worst of meals: Both Mugaritz (top) and Asador Etxebarri scored in this year’s 50 best restaurants list