'How To Feed A Dictator' Spills The Beans On 5 Strongmen

Apr 26, 2020
Originally published on April 27, 2020 7:46 am

Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussien, and Pol Pot. Sure, they were ruthless leaders — but more importantly, what did they eat?

In the new book How to Feed a Dictator, journalist Witold Szablowski tracks down the chefs who served these five men, to paint intimate portraits of how they were at home and at the table.

"When I read about Pol Pot, when I was researching for the book, I read somewhere that he liked the heart of cobra," Szablowski says. "So I felt like this is the very dictatorship-ish story. But then I went to the chef and she told me that it never happened. He didn't like the snakes, like, he was eating chicken and fish."

The chefs were complex characters, he adds. "Sometimes they are very easy to like, but sometimes they are very easy to hate. Like, they are not easy characters, because it wasn't an easy job."


Interview Highlights

On Saddam Hussein's chef, Abu Ali

It was the hardest one. Firstly, to find and secondly to talk with ... he was terrified because they thought that when the American troops come to Baghdad, he was afraid of being taken to Guantanamo, tortured and maybe executed, or having some other troubles. But then hiding became part of his DNA. And even when my great Iraqi fixer managed to find him, he didn't want to talk. Like, he didn't dream about some weird guy from Poland finding him and making him speak.

On the life of a chef to someone like Saddam Hussein

I think you can say that the chefs, usually they have amazing perspective. Like, they are very close, but at the same time, they are the guys who could possibly poison the dictator. So it's a tricky position. You are a mother and an enemy at the same time. So Saddam was not good for Iraqi people and for the world, but he had this instinct to treat his personnel well ... And the chef is mentioning the expensive gifts he has got from Saddam. Gold watches, and he had new clothes. But it was always a tricky position. It was always a dangerous job.

On the dangers of being Idi Amin's chef

So once the son of Idi Amin had some stomach problems, and immediately Amin came with his pistol to the kitchen, and took the first chef that was working right after the door, put a gun into his head and said that "if the kid dies, I'm going to kill all of you." And those people were scared — like, they had very good salary and ... an access to food in the countries where there were a lot of hungry people. But at the same time, you could have been killed at any moment.

On what we can learn from these stories

I believe that, generally, it's not only a book about the recipes for dictators and for the food they like, but it's also a kind of recipe for the dictatorship. Like how exactly, step by step, is the dictatorship born and raised? Like, check how they get to power, and let's try to prevent that to happen.

This story was edited for radio by Ian Stewart and Kitty Eisele, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot - sure, they were ruthless leaders. But more importantly, what did they eat? Journalist Vitold Szablowski once trained as a chef in his native Poland. And he says he often found the best stories in the kitchen. That's what inspired him to track down the chefs who cooked for some of the world's most violent leaders. In the new book "How To Feed A Dictator," Szablowski profiles these chefs of these five dictators to paint intimate portraits of how they were at home and at the table.

VITOLD SZABLOWSKI: When I read about Pol Pot when I was researching for the book, I read somewhere that he liked the heart of cobra. So I felt like, this is the very dictatorship-ish story. But then I went to the chef. And she told me it never happened. He didn't like the snakes. Like, he was eating chicken and fish.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It took Szablowski four years to track down these chefs and get them to talk.

SZABLOWSKI: Saddam's chef, Mr. Abu Ali - he was the hardest one firstly to find and secondly to talk with. Like, first, he was terrified because they thought that when the American troops come to Baghdad - he was afraid of being - you know, taken to Guantanamo, tortured and may be executed or having some other troubles. But then hiding became part of his DNA. And even when my great Iraqi fixer managed to find him, he didn't want to talk. Like, he didn't dream about some weird guy from Poland finding him and making him speak.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). And he had amazing stories. I mean, I spent many years in Iraq. And, you know, some of these stories I really hadn't heard. Saddam's chef had real access to him in his household. Tell me a little bit about the life of a chef like that.

SZABLOWSKI: I think you can say that the chefs - usually, they have amazing perspective. Like, they are very close. But at the same time, they are the guys who could possibly poison the dictator. So it's a tricky position. You're a mother and an enemy at the same time. So Saddam was not good for Iraqi people and for the world. But he had this instinct to treat his personnel well, the people that were working with him. And the chef is mentioning the expensive gifts he has got from Saddam - gold watches. And he had new clothes. But it was always a tricky position. It was always a dangerous job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about Idi Amin, speaking of tricky jobs. I have to say Idi Amin's chef in particular seemed to have been drawn into the intrigue. I mean, he was almost killed by Amin many times, once because his son got indigestion.

SZABLOWSKI: Oh, yeah. So once, the son of Idi Amin had some stomach problems. And immediately, Amin came with his pistol to the kitchen and took the first chef that was working right after the door, put a gun into his head and said that, if the kid dies, I'm going to kill all of you. And those people were scared. Like, they had very good salary. And you had an access to food in countries where there were a lot of hungry people. But at the same time, you could have been killed at any moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But at the same time, Idi Amin's chef allowed his boss to buy women and even wives for him. Some of these people don't seem like very pleasant characters, really. They might have compromised themselves in their service.

SZABLOWSKI: Well, sometimes, they are very easy to like. But sometimes they are very easy to hate. Like, they are not easy characters because it wasn't an easy job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And many of them ultimately ended up poor and in disgrace. It was sort of striking to me how you met these people many years after they'd served these dictators. And none of them lived in luxury despite some of the wealth that had been bestowed on them.

SZABLOWSKI: Well, yeah. So Idi Amin's chef literally has no money. And he's, you know, 80-something, very sick. And then you meet this man in the middle of savanna. Then you go into his little house, and you see two beautiful suits which he used to wear when he was working for the president. At the same time, he's living in such a horrible, poor conditions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think we can learn from these stories and from what a leader eats?

SZABLOWSKI: I believe that, generally, it's not only a book about the recipes for dictators and for the food they liked. But it's also a kind of recipe for the dictatorship. Like, how exactly, step by step, is the dictatorship born and raised? Like, check how they're get to power. And let's try to prevent that to happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was journalist Vitold Szablowski, author of "How To Feed A Dictator." Thank you very much.

SZABLOWSKI: Thank you for having me.

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