The 20th century has seen some terrifying autocrats (not that the 21st is any slouch). With How to Feed a Dictator, coming from Penguin Books in April, Polish author and journalist Witold Szablowski considers these men (yes, only men... are you surprised?) through conversations with their chefs. He chose five: Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and Pol Pot. Encouraged to pursue the idea by Penguin executive editor John Siciliano, Szablowski traveled to four continents—as he notes in the book, “from a godforsaken village in the Kenyan savanna to the ruins of ancient Babylon to the Cambodian jungle where the last of the Khmer Rouge were in hiding”—to find those who fed them.
Szablowski had a “spectacular short career” as a chef in Copenhagen when he was 24 years old (he’s 40 now): “I had firsthand experience with the ‘kitchen world,’ ” he says. “I found it exciting and the chefs interesting. I always thought about them, and when I wrote Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, what I enjoyed most was talking to the people who were not the main characters—the people on the sidelines.”
Then Szablowski saw Cooking History, a documentary film about army cooks and their affect on the outcomes of battles. “I thought about how soldiers die and are injured—for money, for glory—but chefs have practical problems,” he says. “Their noses are close to the ground. They have to find the food, the chickens, the vegetables, or else. I knew I had my subject.”
For two years, Szablowski thought about his idea. Enter Siciliano, who was in Krakow in June 2015 on a fellowship for publishers to meet writers. It was at a seminar at a university that Siciliano first heard about Szablowski. “I was at a luncheon, and there he was,” Siciliano says. “I talked with Witold about his idea and thought it was a great premise. A few months later I signed a two-book deal.”
Siciliano bought Dancing Bears and contracted for what would become How to Feed a Dictator for world English rights. “I’ve been to these conferences all over the world, and this was the first time I came back to New York with a book in hand,” he says.
With the offer, Szablowski’s work was just beginning. Originally he considered dictators from Central and Eastern Europe, but once he had American interest, he thought he should expand his range. “I printed out a map of the world and marked the dictators,” he says. “One of the parameters for me was that the chefs had to be alive. But I wasn’t sure I could find the chefs; it took me four years. Saddam Hussein’s chef, for example, didn’t want to be found. He has been in hiding since the American invasion.”
Szablowski started working on the book in November 2015. Hoxha of Albania was his first dictator—a good one, Szablowski thought, “to cut his teeth on,” given Albania’s proximity to Poland. He found Hoxha’s chef running his own modest restaurant, and though he was sociable, he was also fearful and asked for anonymity. Hoxha was a vicious dictator, sending hundreds of thousands of Albanians to labor camps and executing some 6,000.
“Hoxha was diabetic,” the chef told Szablowski. “And I knew that my life depended on Hoxha’s health. If he were to die, they’d say, ‘The chef didn’t take enough care with his diet.’ ”
Idi Amin’s chef also had his share of terror, although early on he enjoyed a good salary and was given a Mercedes-Benz. He recalls one of his specialties: a whole stuffed goat served looking as though it were still alive. But Amin became increasingly erratic.
“Every year it grew worse,” Amin’s chef told Szablowski. “Everyone in the palace knew someone who had lost his life.... You ask how I could cook for such a monster? Well, I had four wives and five children. Amin had tied me to him so that I couldn’t leave.”
What Szablowski found most interesting was that, for the chefs of Amin, Hoxha, and Hussein, cooking was their job; they were professionals, whereas Castro’s and Pol Pot’s chefs began their careers as partisans. They believed in their leaders’ revolutions and had closer relationships with them.
Castro’s chef had been his bodyguard and was sent to him by Che Guevera. Castro trusted him and sent him to cooking school for three years. “I’ll always care about him, Fidel, my el Comandante,” he told Szablowski. “He’s everything to me. He’s my entire life.”
Pol Pot’s chef was a teenager when she came to cook for him; he was over 40. “He made her love him,” Szablowski says. “She is one of the last living Pol Pot–ists and, at first, was reluctant to talk, even though he’s been dead 20 years. She told me how beautiful he was, how beautiful his smile was. I kept the hardest questions for the last day, asking her if they were ever physical with each other. She said no, he never even held her hand, but she loves him to this day.”
Siciliano saw the first draft in January 2019 and, after editing that he says dealt mostly with architecture, he had a finished manuscript in June 2019. “Witold has a gift for metaphor and understanding other cultures,” Siciliano notes. “He’s not only a great storyteller, he gets great stories out of people; he has a gift for establishing rapport. And there’s his adventurous spirit. It’s reflected in his writing—a liveliness.”
An excerpt will appear in Harper’s with the title “Koftaesque.” A radio satellite tour is planned, and Szablowski has been invited to the PEN World Voices festival in New York City in May.
Szablowski says his mission is to present what he calls “a panorama of big social and political problems seen through the kitchen door.” He’s captured the personality of monstrous men through their intimates, and he thanks his guides and interpreters for making it possible to “visit each cook as if I were going to see an old friend.”