Szablowski has a new book on how Russia uses food to further its power. It is out later this year and Prigozhin features briefly, though much more could be added now. But if Prigozhin’s ambition was startling, Szablowski wouldn’t be surprised that chefs thrive in such chaos. His first book, ‘How to Feed a Dictator’ looked at five chefs who survived by keeping their murderous masters well-fed.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin
Fear of poisoning forces dictators and their chefs into close relationships. Chefs must be trusted and that can have unexpected consequences. Enver Hoxha’s paranoid politics isolated Albania and killed thousands, but he was also a diabetic with a very restricted diet. His chef, a man still so scared he won’t let Szablowski use any name for him, saw how hunger worsened his moods, so he made him happier with sugar-free treats: “Who knows how many people’s lives I saved that way?” Being at the heart of a dictator’s court forces chefs to be resourceful.
The day Idi Amin took power in Uganda, Otonde Odera, the presidential chef, made sure that, amid all the killings, he had a meal ready: “Once they’ve carried out their putsch, 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.” The main adjustment he had to make came from Amin’s insistence that all his staff get circumcised.
Learning a dictator’s family recipes helps. Hoxha’s chef gets the dictator’s sister to teach him their mother’s recipes. Abu Ali, Saddam Hussein’s chef, learns a recipe called ‘thieves fish soup’ from Saddam’s wife. Saddam is pleased enough to take him along with him on trips to Russia, where he must cook with Russian chefs who compete for kitchen space: “It occurred to me that that’s just how wars erupt: Each side wants his pots closer to the fire.”It helps the chefs that most dictators are interested in food because they know their rule depends on delivering it for their people. Fidel Castro was obsessed with dairying and celebrated the achievement of a Cuban cow that broke records for milk production. His chefs revere him, pointing to the positives of his rule compared to the venality of the US-supported Batista regime he overthrew.Yong Mouen, Pol Pot’s cook, also is still loyal to him, refusing to engage with questions about the vast numbers of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge. For the regime, food matters less than hunger, deployed as a tool to control people. Mouen knows she could have been killed any moment, but says she would have accepted it without protest. It is, perhaps, another way to live with dictators.
Where chefs have more agency, as Prigozhin enjoyed in the years when his fortunes grew with Putin’s.
The chefs Szablowski interviews operated in tightly-controlled regimes. Where chefs have more agency, as Prigozhin enjoyed in the years when his fortunes grew with Putin’s, another reason for their success might be the monetary opportunities of restaurants. This is a world that often runs on cash and unaccountability. Some of its most prized products, like truffles and caviar, come from informal networks of foragers, who accept cash only. The rarer a product, the more it is valued, and if overharvesting makes it rarer, it simply means they can charge more.
Just as illegal immigrants often end up working in restaurants, ex-prisoners too gravitate to kitchens, with many having honed their skills cooking behind bars. After Prigozhin left prison, he sold hot dogs, and then moved into restaurants. From there to marching on Moscow is a major leap, but there is something to be said for learning to thrive in the controlled chaos of kitchens.