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The Kitchen Nightmares of Cooking for a Dictator

What we can learn about Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin from the people who fed them every day

When Captain Benjamin L. Willard, played by Martin Sheen in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, is ushered into a private military briefing with his superiors, it’s over lunch. The lieutenant general takes note of the local Vietnamese head-on shrimp in the middle of the dining table and tells Willard, “Captain, I don’t know how you feel about this shrimp, but if you eat it, you’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”

The key word: Courage.

Next, Willard receives an assignment to hunt down Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a disillusioned American soldier turned cult leader. “This war, things get confused out there,” the lieutenant general continues. “Power, ideals, morality and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and irrational, between good and evil, and good does not always triumph.”

In times of political tumult, Americans think from the perspective of a soldier. But what happens when seemingly benign decisions, such as what is placed on the table for lunch, are choices that could result in life or death for the chef who prepared the dish? What if the tables were turned and Apocalypse Now, instead of capturing Willard’s reaction to the shrimp, captured Kurtz’s? Would Kurtz have decapitated his chef for having provided mushy, overcooked shrimp? 

The recently published How to Feed a Dictator by Witold Szabłowski dives into this examination with the chefs who worked for five of the world’s most notorious dictators — Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot.

Szabłowski lives in Warsaw. He was in his 20s and fresh out of college when he first entered the culinary world. “That was at a time when Poland was still negotiating with the European Union,” he tells me over Zoom. “People in the West were earning triple or quadruple more than what we in Eastern Europe earned.” Szabłowski found himself working in a Mexican restaurant in Copenhagen populated with chefs from Iraq. In the book, Szabłowski details an argument with the head chef that left him on the verge of quitting, only for the chef to assure him, “We work together all day long, just the two of us, in 40 square feet. I may yell at you, but you’re the last person I want to pick a fight with.”

“Chefs are extraordinary people and they know a lot, they see a lot, they are smart, they are brave and they are hilarious, but they can be monsters at the same time,” Szabłowski explains.

Speaking of chefs and monsters, How to Feed a Dictator unfolds in an as-told-to style through the voice of each respective chef associated with the aforementioned dictators and chronicles their careers from beginning to end. One dominant theme across each is the fear they had for their bosses. “A large part of working for Saddam involved sensing if he was having a good day, and then we’d cook something he particularly liked. And on other days we’d keep out of his way,” says Abu Ali, Saddam Hussein’s chef.

“Whenever I went to my hometown to visit my mother, two agents from the Sigurimi, the secret police, always drove behind me. They followed me quite openly,” adds Mr. K, the pseudonym for Hoxha’s chef. At another point, he discovered that he had to make a fundamental change to his approach to Hoxha’s meals. “His mother was no longer alive, and I knew he missed her very much. I needed to replace her,” he tells Szabłowski. By doing so, Mr. K felt his life would be spared.

Otonde Odera, Amin’s chef, shared a similar sentiment: “Nothing excuses you from your work. They’ll arrive with empty bellies, and as long as you have something good for them to eat, there’s a chance they won’t kill you.”

All of this trauma remains with them today. “Each of them had one of two reactions — crying or shaking,” Szabłowski says of his interviews with the chefs. “Sometimes they had both. They’re just living their trauma. They all had at least one moment when they were one step from death. This feeling has never left them.”

But surprisingly, there were moments of humanity and respect as well. Hussein ordered that food for his wife’s ex-husband, who was incredibly ill, be cooked and personally delivered to him each day. Meanwhile, Yong Moeum, Pol Pot’s chef, believed not so much in Pot but in the revolution he wanted to create. “Our lives depended on him having enough to eat,” she says. “The success of our revolution depended on it.” Cooking for a despot is also the ticket to a better life. Odera, for example, explains that when Amin took over Uganda, his salary tripled.

Sometimes it’s just Stockholm syndrome, too, Szabłowski reasons. “A person who is abused creates some kind of love-hate relationship with the abuser. The other part is that these were the best years of their lives. They had a steady job. They had good payments. They were really close to the dictators, which most people could only dream of.”

Moreover, in many cases, these dictators had better intentions at the start of their reigns. “Imagine children whose bellies are swollen with hunger,” says Moeum. “And then imagine someone saying, ‘There can be enough food for everyone.’” This is a very noble cause, of course — until the revolution based on giving citizens enough to eat causes those same citizens (as in the case of Cambodia) to have to scrounge for locusts, crickets, worms, red ants, tarantulas, frogs, elephants, turtles, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, termite eggs and bats to eat.

In other words, as in Kurtz’s case, the line between earnest revolution and violent subjugation is extremely thin. “Revolution is never about democracy, it’s always about change,” Szabłowski says. “Democracy is a long and, to be honest, a boring process. Revolution gives you quick and easy solutions. The call is always a new rule and a new order. [These social changes] are only the tools, the things you use to make the new order. The new order, unfortunately, is quite often scary.”

It’s also an outcome that’s likely to continue to feast upon itself. “I think the new way for dictatorship will be the eco-dictatorship,” Szabłowski concludes. “You have dictators when humanity has a big problem and there are no tools to solve it. Then you have people claiming they have the answer. There will be wars for water. This is the biggest challenge for humanity, and this is new ground for the politicians and all of the irresponsible guys who might come with it.”