We know that dictators are picky and even paranoid about their food, that’s why their chefs have a unique position of trust in their coterie. Polish journalist Witold Szablowski has published a book in which he talks to chefs who worked for five of the world’s most notorious dictators: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot.
Cooking for world leaders can be stressful work at the best of times, but when your customer is a megalomaniacal, homicidal despot, there’s a whole other level of anxiety in jumping through culinary hoops.
The book called ‘How to Feed a Dictator’, published by Penguin, investigates the chefs behind some frightening dictators. Their culinary preferences, however, are not the most eye-opening thing about the anecdotes contained within, but rather the highly intense conditions these chefs toiled under.
Pol Pot liked roast chicken, Castro adored ice cream – ‘he could eat ten scoops or more with his dinner’ – Saddam liked fish soup, and Albania’s Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, had a sweet tooth.
The dictators, as it turns out, seem to have had no wild or out-of-the-ordinary food preferences. The rumour that Idi Amin was a cannibal has long been debunked. Instead, he relished whole roast goat.
Amin’s chef Otonde Odera describes how the dish was prepared in the book: “We’d remove its innards, cut off its beard, stuff it with rice, potatoes, carrots, parsley, peas and some herbs and spices – naturally, all mixed with goat meat cut into small pieces. We’d roast it in the oven and colour it a bit, and as a finishing touch, we’d stick its beard back on. It would be brought to the table in a standing position as if it were alive. Everyone was surprised to see a goat looking as if it had come straight from the pasture but which was ready to eat in minutes."
Amin did have some strange requests when it came to those who prepared his food, requesting that cooks be circumcised - something Odera was happy to do. "The procedure took less than a minute," he says.
If Amin was especially pleased with a meal, he could reward a cook with an envelope full of money, a new car or even a woman. Odera himself gained three wives in this manner. Although staff were constantly on tenterhooks as the famously erratic leader could also turn on anyone without warning.
Working for a madman
“We palace staff knew we were working for a madman who might get up in the morning and have us killed,” says Odera, recounting a close encounter he had when the dictator’s son wolfed down too much rice pudding and ended up with severe bellyache. Amin was convinced the boy had been poisoned and raged “If something happens to him, I’ll kill you all!”
Odera made a dash for the hospital with the boy and had him examined by the dictator’s physician. The chef took the chance to phone the palace. "Everyone was convinced I really had poisoned Moses Amin and then run away, and they were all going to die because of me. So when the chief of administration heard my voice, he immediately handed the receiver to the president. Later I found out that Amin had been holding the phone in his left hand while putting a pistol to the head of one of the cooks with his right.
"Meanwhile, the doctor was still pressing the boy’s belly, until finally the boy let out a tremendous fart. 'I feel much better,' he said."
The despot eventually saw the funny side and continued to taunt Odera about it. The cook, however, knows how close he came to real danger. "If I hadn’t kept my cool and taken Moses to the hospital, I could have lost my life," he says.
Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha’s chef feared for his life as two of his predecessors had died in mysterious circumstances. He armed himself with the best knowledge he could to protect himself. Realising the despot was a mother’s boy he convinced his sister to hand over all their mother’s recipes. “I replaced his mother, then he couldn’t kill me,” he says. “We all cheer up if we eat something from childhood, don’t we? … Quite often he’d sit down at the table feeling agitated and get up in a good mood, joking even. Who knows how many lives I saved that way?”
Saddam Hussein and family, pre 1995, Wikicommons
Chef Abu Ali took over Saddam Hussein’s kitchen and was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It was made clear to the chef that if he broke it he would be hanged. He was paid handsomely, however, and regularly rewarded with a new car, no questions asked.
The Iraqi dictator fancied himself as something of a cook too, and would hold publicity ops cooking for his troops. The dishes would be pre-prepared by his chef, but Abu Ali says Saddam would often spoil the food, talking incessantly while pouring a kilo of salt into the pot. “And then he’d serve the burned or over-salted rice to the soldiers. They had to eat it; after all, the president had cooked it for them.”