Taking A Bite Out Of The Big Apple

I suppose what I experienced that early winter’s afternoon in Manhattan was what singer-songwriter Don Henley famously described as a New York “minute.”

I’d been walking uptown looking for a particular store when I noticed a crowd being held back by police and ropes. I had learnt by then never to ignore such things as they almost always proved interesting. 

It was. 

Behind the ropes, in the backlit glow of the lights was Al Pacino, emoting. He appeared completely oblivious of the gawping crowd, seemingly in a parallel dimension of make-believe.

I suppose that’s why they pay him the big bucks. I saw the finished version back home in Kuala Lumpur. It was the quite-excellent 1989 thriller Sea of Love. 

In the fall of 1988, I was lucky enough to obtain a fellowship to Columbia.

It helped my burgeoning career no end: I’d read biochemistry in college but, here, I was exposed to economics, business and finance. It helped me become a better business reporter. 

I’d read that you would fit right in with NYC if you came equipped, that is to say, paranoid. I mean, it was said that the most popular pastime in the city in the 80s was internal bleeding.

But no, I enjoyed my year in Manhattan enormously and was treated with nothing but courtesy and kindness. 

Stewart Taggart, my colleague in B-School, loved to go jogging and he once persuaded me to go along one Sunday morning to Central Park.

Loping around near the reservoir, Stewart suddenly stopped and pointed. I couldn’t see much until the group grew nearer. Surrounded by bodyguards, Mick Jagger was jogging briskly. 

He was friendly too. He noticed us looking and he smiled and waved.

But after half an hour I got tired and thought I would head back. I took one of the exits and found myself in Harlem.

I knew Columbia was several blocks away so I didn’t panic. While walking along, what I originally took to be a bundle of rags on a side street turned out to be a homeless man.

Walter turned out to be a nice fellow who knew where Southeast Asia was: he’d served in Vietnam. More to the point, he was going my way.  

I asked him how he survived in February when temperatures could go below zero. He shrugged as if it was a stupid question: “You get by the best you can.” 

You would constantly meet interesting people there. Pamela, our program director, for example, was married to Paul Kluge, an untidy-looking novelist whose New Yorker article helped inspire the film Dog Day Afternoon.

Paul used to find me interesting and, I suppose, something of a curiosity. One evening, he asked me over dinner what our national record for the 100-metre sprint was.

I told him it was 10.3 seconds and that it was set in the 1960s by a medical student who’d trained briefly in Texas.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” breathed Paul Kluge in complete amazement. “Talk of being backward. That’s like our “white” high school times and we’re not even starting to talk black.”   

All ten Fellows were in the media and nine were American. So, when we met Donald Trump for dinner in his Trump Tower one evening, I was the only one who’d never heard of him

He stared at me: “Where are you from?”


“That’s Asia,” he said, pleased by his knowledge. 

“Bingo,” said Stewart and I thought Mr Trump might go far. 

But he bristled at their questions – about his business tactics and his recent Chapter 11 filing – and you could sense he loathed reporters.

Later, all of us including Pamela – who rarely spoke evil of anyone – agreed he was a jerk. 

If only we knew then what we know now. 

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold

The famously secretive Michelin guide in France is widely regarded as the definitive guide to haute cuisine. It awards stars to restaurants that it considers good and being awarded three stars is its highest honour, cuisine’s Nobel Prize if you like.

It is said that men who drink herbal teas seldom commit serial killings but it has been very much on Marc Veyrat’s mind these days. 

The flamboyant French chef has been railing against Michelin, demanding that his top restaurant be withdrawn from the guide. He told AFP that its inspectors had claimed he had used English Cheddar cheese in his souffle.

Sacre bleu!” exclaimed the outraged Monsieur Veyra. “I did use a different cheese but it certainly wasn’t cheddar.”

The excitable Frenchman didn’t think much of English fare, secretly thinking that its only contribution to world cuisine had been the chip. 

And it was true that he’d used a different cheese on the day the Michelin inspectors came but, Mon Dieu. It was as French as Brigitte Bardot. 

He’d had to substitute the cheese on the day in question as the shop of his local cheese supplier had burned to the ground on the very day leaving behind only de Brie.

Indeed, its lightly smoky flavour had actually enhanced the soufflé. 

Monsieur Veyrat’s La Maison des Bois restaurant in the French Alps was downgraded to two stars from the maximum three in January and he said the shock had plunged him into a six-month-long depression.

“How dare you take your chefs’ health hostage?” he seethed in a blistering letter to the guide. 

Veyrat, 69, took particular umbrage at inspectors “daring to say that I put Cheddar in our soufflé.”

“We only use the eggs from our own hens, the milk is from our own cows and we have two botanists out every morning collecting herbs,” the horrified chef declared.

“You are impostors,” he fumed, “who only want (to stir up) clashes for your own commercial reasons.”

“We are pulling our restaurant out of the Michelin,” he said.

But the iconic red guide remained unmoved and said Thursday that it would not withdraw its listing, despite Veyrat travelling to the French capital to confront its editors face to face.

The chef is a household name in France because of his culinary genius but it wasn’t always like this.

Indeed, in the beginning. Monsieur Veyrat could not cook at all and mostly left it to his wife. But her incompetence drove him crazy. He finally decided enough was enough after asking himself a simple question after one particularly unsatisfying breakfast.

Was toast supposed to contain bones? 

His rise to become one of France’s greatest chefs was inauspicious enough. Very early on, he mastered the golden rule of haute cuisine: if it looked like a chicken, walked like a chicken and talked like a chicken, it probably needed some more time in the microwave. 

And, along the way, he was bolstered by sudden flashes of genius. On a balmy spring day that made him think that God was smiling and all was well with the world, he suddenly noticed a stray hen looking at some lettuce and a tomato next to each other. 

“Chicken sees a salad,” thought Monsieur Veyrat joyfully and, lo and behold, one of the great contributions to world cuisine was born. 

Julius Caesar himself would have been proud.  

As for the Michelin inspectors, the great chef wasn’t without influence and he knew he couldn’t beat them. 

So he arranged to have them beaten. 

The Answer To Life’s Problems Isn’t Vindaloo

It wasn’t a plane and, no, it wasn’t a man with funny underwear over his tights.

But it was a funny-looking bird that looked orange and sick as it lay by the highway in Buckinghamshire in England early last week.

According to CNN, it baffled staff at a UK animal rescue centre until they realised it was just a seagull covered in curry.

“It’s a seagull covered in curry,” declared the chief vet after a judicious sniff at said gull. “How perfectly foul.”

The prudish staff at the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital were shocked: they knew that fowl was a four-letter bird.

Actually, the bird – named Vinny after vindaloo – was an insecure gull which longed to be an eagle. As gulls went, it was big and was easily big enough to be a D-Gull but not quite big enough to be an eagle.

That depressed the less-than-big bird as it contemplated the bleak and existential question that has tormented glum gulls for millennia: how could it soar like an eagle when it was surrounded by turkeys?

As it flew disconsolately over the cerulean-blue waters of the Buckinghamshire Bay, its answer came in a flash.

The answer was vindaloo.

The near-magical powers of vindaloo have been voluminously documented and chiefly revolves around its prodigious propensity to cure constipation.

History buffs will be interested to know that it was invented around the 13th Century by one Aravinda Pillai who was born in the village of Trissur in Kerala, India.

Even as a child, Aravinda was fascinated by flavours and all things spicy. At a precocious nine, he managed, one morning, to cook pancakes for breakfast. Aravinda was thrilled but his siblings were deeply upset.

Pancakes had been their favourite rabbit.

As he grew older, however, his fame as a cook rose until he was appointed as chef in the palace in Kerala’s royal capital of Trivandrum. And, one fateful day, the King himself confessed to being bored with the pedestrian fare being served up and beseeched Aravinda to come up with something original.

He was still thinking about it when his eye fell casually on some apple cider vinegar – used for washing hair – in his bathroom.

It takes true genius to recognise serendipity when it looks you in the eye but Aravinda was equal to the task.

He instinctively knew that if he simmered lamb stock and vinegar, sugar, salt and seasonal spices with choice cuts of lamb for just long enough, he would end up with a succulent, falling-off-the-bone lamb dish fit for a King.

The monarch agreed and named the dish after his Chef in a Bathroom. In short, His Majesty decreed that it should forever be called Vindaloo.

Vinny, the sad seagull, knew all about the restorative powers of the delectable dish created by Aravinda all those years ago. It also knew that when cooked perfectly, vindaloo is golden.

Which is why it seagull-dived into an industrial-sized vat of vindaloo outside the biggest curry-house in Buckinghamshire.

The bird was lucky in that the dish had been cooling for some time so it escaped being cooked.

Animal lovers will be delighted to know that Vinny has made a complete recovery.

But his vets have advised that trying to be a golden eagle may be prejudicial to its health.

Behind Every Great Fortune Is A Crime

The majority of people in Thailand are Buddhist which explains their philosophical approach to life. It’s like “treat every day as your last and one day you’ll be right.”

That sort of explains the Death Awareness Café.

The establishment is a cafe in Thailand that’s using a macabre gimmick to draw in customers – closing them in coffins after finishing coffee.

The Death Awareness Cafe in Bangkok features mortuary-inspired décor and coffins placed for customers to spend time closed inside after their purchased beverages.

A sample poster on the wall reads “Twelve remain dead in morgue shooting.” Another reads; “You should never grieve at funerals. In fact, if anyone cries at my funeral, I’ll never speak to him again.” 

Veeranut Rojanaprapa, the owner of the extraordinary café said the purpose of the cafe is to inspire customers to reflect on their lives. He said the idea was inspired by Buddhist philosophy and is aimed at encouraging people not to be driven by greed.

And he didn’t see any irony in opening the cafe for profit? Actually, the businessman was an eternal optimist. When he was a child, he persuaded his parents to buy him two goldfish. He called them One and Two so even if one died, he’d have two left.  

Be that as it may, there are as many business models as they are varied. The death motif was original and, to hear Mr Rojanaprapa explain it, it was also quintessentially Buddhist. 

“Our main goal is for the visitor to experience the death awareness,” he said. “When the lid of the coffin closes, their basic instincts will come up and they will realise that eventually they cannot take anything with them.”

The felonious fatso now not hiding out in China would have said that what they’d feel is panic. 

The Royal Malaysian Police felt panicky and wished the ostensibly Buddhist Felonious aka Jho Low would have had such self-realisation before he came up with his grand plan to defraud Malaysia that the Wall Street Journal described as the “world’s greatest heist.” 

But the smiling swindler must have known he would rise to a level of thievery that made even Bernie Madoff look like Winnie the Pooh. He knew that an MBA with a brief case and a fountain pen could steal more than a hundred men with guns. 

“Behind every great fortune is a crime,” wrote the French playwright Honore de Balzac way back in the early 19th century. But the plump pilferer who continued to haunt the dreams of the Inspector General of Police knew something that Balzac didn’t. 

Very early on, perhaps as early as his college years in Wharton, he’d realised that, in Malaysia, crime did not pay as well as politics.

So he combined the two and, if things had stayed the same, he may have gone on to become a latter day Warren Buffett.  

For isn’t it said that history is written by the victors?

He might even have commissioned Tom Wright and Bradley Hope to write his memoirs called – why not? – Billion Dollar Whale.

Alas, poor Felonious! His advice will no longer be sought by governments, he will always be looking over his shoulder  and the next book about him might conceivably be about his arrest and trial, the best-selling Billion Dollar Bail.

It doesn’t get any more Zen than that.