Soaking in sunshine and history at Taj Cape Town

T he lobby’s an unusual shade of gold. Sure it has the usual five-star accoutrements — majestic chandeliers, plush sofas and a bar tinkling with expensive crystal. But, what makes Taj Cape Town’s lobby so instantly soothing is a lot more basic — structure.

A cathedral-like space with high ceilings, a barrel-vaulted skylight and dramatic lines, it’s clearly been created with a passion that borders on the obsessive.

So, it’s hardly surprising to learn the original architect James Morris, who designed the grand old Reserve Bank that now houses the Taj lobby, was an exasperatingly pernickety man. Intent on glittering Capetonian sunshine in the main banking room through the year, he bullied the Astronomer Royal into measuring the position of shadows in the skylight for every month of 1929 so he could design the skylight appropriately. He then imported Portuguese marble columns, commissioned a sculptor to create four medallions of lions for the façade and even organised special tiles, complete with spares “in case an aircraft crashed into the building”.

Recklessly flamboyant architecture of this sort creates memorable spaces. It’s also notoriously difficult to replicate. The Taj didn’t even try.

Instead, Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, along with Eurocape (an Irish property investment company) spent two years and over $69 million, meticulously restoring the old South African Reserve Bank and neighbouring Temple Chambers buildings for their new 177-room luxury hotel. A ponderous clock from 1932, balconies for the mistrals that once entertained the public during banking hours, gates of detailed bronze… they’ve all been retained, giving the building a depth, character and gravitas that could never have been achieved by any contemporary structure, no matter how extravagant.

Recently inaugurated, this is Cape Town’s ‘oldest new hotel’. Set in the heart of the city’s historic downtown area, it’s surrounded by monuments representing much of South Africa’s turbulent history — from the Slave Lodge (now a museum) to St George’s Cathedral, from where Archbishop Desmond Tutu rallied the masses and demanded equality.

In tune with contemporary South Africa, the hotel is designed to be welcoming to one and all — hence the two main entrances, the Temple Chambers’ doors on Wale Street, and the South African Reserve Bank entry off St. George’s Mall, a pedestrian road that bustles with street artists, cafes and colour. There’s also street access to its coffee shop Mint and The Twankey, a seafood, champagne and oyster bar.

Of course, two buildings, no matter how steeped in history, aren’t ever big enough for the kind of full-scale, decadent luxury Taj hotels concentrate on. Hence, a more modern tower rises from the fabric of the heritage buildings, culminating in the gargantuan Presidential suite.

We watch the sun spilling a thousand shades of red and orange over Table Mountain, as it sinks away from the terrace of the suite, over glasses of chilled champagne and succulent smoked salmon. Then it’s time for dinner at Bombay Brasserie, where the menu balances tradition and plucky experimentation. Roasted corn soup served with fluffy turmeric popcorn. Tandoori Norwegian salmon flavoured with Bishop’s weed. Baked Alphonso mango yoghurt.

After a few days of incessant pampering, we’re getting dangerously spoilt. Our rooms, set in the heritage suite are luxuriously charming, with dignified pastel furnishing, chocolates and pillow menus.

Our 24-hour butler, who — to our delight — is called ‘Lovemore’ plies us with chamomile tea and gossip, in the Business Lounge every evening, when we stagger back after yet another party or dinner bristling with heady South African wine.

We hear Paris Hilton and her entourage occupied our rooms during the World Cup. But, don’t let that put you off. Especially if, like us, you have a fondness for drinking creamy Amarula cocktails in a lobby that glitters with cheerful South African sunshine, amid echoes of a colourful history.

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Inside a male fantasy in Bangkok


Raising the bar in Bangkok. Take 1.

Shoot in session at The Witches Tavern


I’m in the centre of a male fantasy. And I’m not quite sure about the appropriate etiquette. Hah. Grabbed your attention, haven’t I? Now, let’s start at the beginning.
Bangkok. But of course. It’s the perfect place to play out the wild and wicked, right? The day starts at the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel, where we free fall into theatrical decadence. The lobby, covered in mirrors and crystal, is outfitted with fur couches and velvet sofas so brazenly funky you could be forgiven for assuming they recently escaped from Lady Gaga’s boudoir. Very MTV.
Which could explain why the channel, which brought us here, chose this as our base.
The MTV girls, in hip gladiator sandals and shorts, join us for dim sum in the coffee shop to bring us up to speed on the issue of male fantasies. For, there’s serious work afoot amid all the talk of partying in Pattaya and shooters in Patpong. MTV India is introducing the country to a whole new genre of reality programming: Fantasy reality TV. And we’re here to watch it unfold.
A few hours later we’re in the ‘Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101Villa,’ which makes even our flashy hotel look tame. Sprawling between a rolling emerald golf course and serene artificial lake, this souped up party pad has everything MTV assumes a man could possibly want.
We walk into the living room, equipped with a bar, snooker table and – yes – PSP (that’s a play station for the non-gamers among us.) There’s an indoor basket ball court. And one huge room features a pool, flanked by a swing on which three pretty young things sit applying mascara. Beside the pool, inexplicably, there’s a bathtub.
No pretty frills, lace curtains or dainty vases. Instead there are giant speakers, flat screen TVs and martini glasses everywhere. This is clearly a villa designed by a man. Which brings me back to my original dilemma. What’s a woman to do in a masculine dream villa, tended to by 4 sizzling hot women playing chauffer, gardener, cook and maid. I try some snooker, some bar stool swivelling, some paddling in the pool.
Then it’s time to meet Aditya Swamy, Senior Vice President, MTV India. He sits cross-legged on a gigantic leather couch while explaining the concept of the show over Diet cokes. “Its heightened reality crossing over into fantasy: super models, fast cars, super bikes…” The show’s targeted at India’s young ‘gimme more’ generation, intent on being cutting edge. “Four buddies coming and living together in a pad like this – you’ll have a good time. We also looked for people who embody the spirit of young India.”
More dignified than your typical reality show, fests of obsessive back-biting, grotesque bitching and petty fights, MF 101 is more about allowing viewers to live vicariously than appealing to their inner soap opera demons.
“Typically reality shows are all about who gets out – here there’s no elimination, no tasks, no fighting. We’re moving away from the mainstay of reality TV, which is conflict,” says Aditya.
Instead there are challenges. “You want to date a supermodel? Go ahead. But can you really handle a high maintenance woman? Can you really ride a souped up bike? You want to throw a big ass bash – can you take a night club and make it the most rocking?”
We meet the four lucky men at the Witches’ Tavern, a bustling pub dominated by a large rectangular bar, which is, predictably enough, seething with skimpily clad women. They turn out to be grounded,
articulate and charming, a relief given the fact that most reality TV
contestants can be outmanoeuvred by an orangutan. They also keep trying to distract us with tequila shots. Fortunately, we’re too bust with our bright pink cocktails, stirred with miniature brooms, to get sidetracked.
So here’s the dope on them. Chatty Ankit Vengurlekar’s an anchor on a popular news channel. Harpreet Baweja is an outspoken, ambitious entrepreneur who already heads a chain of spas. There’s a model, Sahil Salathia, who’s disarmingly friendly as he tells us about his secret weapon – a software degree. Rohan Sapra, the shyest, ironically has the most rock star lifestyle, since he’s a DJ in a trendy Delhi club.
When asked to define the best part of the experience, they’re unanimous – it’s the camaraderie. And the super bikes. We gasp. Not the women? “They’re just a part of the picture,” says Sahil. But what about your sexy staff? They nod, “Yeah yeah, they’re there. But man –
you should have seen those bikes… They were awesome.”
Adrenalin junkie Harpreet, adds, “I did an incredible flat out drag race against a professional Thai racer. I hit 185. It was exhilarating.” Over the month they’ve also partied on a yacht. Relaxed on a deserted Island. Dived into the warm blue sea in the middle of nowhere and raced each other to shore. Taken over a nightclub to run it for one evening.
“Each time all four of us are taken on a journey. That’s what I like about the show. It’s Entourage, not Desperate Housewives,” grins Harpreet. “And at the end of the show we can all party,” laughs Rohan.
A dream job? Well. Apparently, it’s not always easy. “Dating a diva was tough,” says Ankit, rolling his eyes. “Here I am trying to talk to her and she’s reading Vogue. Then I suggested a boat ride? And she was like ‘Dude, I’m wearing a dress!’”
What they really enjoy, they say, is the ability to try everything. “These are experiences that you can’t have in normal life,” says Sahil. Ankit adds, “Yeah, reality will feel very bland after 30 days of such high notes.” Harpreet adds, “Waking up each morning there is a sense of adventure…”
“This is living life king size,” says Rohan. “To chill out, enjoy… do
whatever you want, try whatever you want — every single day.”
(Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101 airs on MTV India every Saturday at 10 p.m.)

Kundalini questing by the Ganga

It’s a chilly 3 a.m. Dark. Windy. Quiet. Yet, somehow, I find myself racing through a garden grouchily brandishing a frightfully pink yoga mat. I’m accompanied by nauseatingly cheerful people: A fiesta of track pants, tattoos and chic jeweled turbans.
Spiritual Rishikesh’s is not easy to love. Certainly not at first sight. Not if your mantra is materialism, at any rate. Or if your idea of a holiday involves croissants in bed at 11 a.m.
Yet, by 4 a.m. we’re meditating in cross legged silence on a stony floor, ‘awakening our chakras’. Well, some of us are. My chakras only respond to mochaccinos. Fortunately, no-one frowns on Shavasana, that deliciously languid yoga posture. So I lie down and sneakily nap till breakfast.
And a good thing too.
We’re at Parmarth Niketan, set in Rishikesh’s Swarg Ashram area on the east bank of the Ganga. Where the action never stops.
Signing up with Connect With Himalaya (see box) for a healthy holistic holiday I had pictured spa-styled rooms, languid river cafes and quirky boutiques. I quickly learnt that Gaurav Punj’s idea of rejuvenation differed vastly from mine. (In hindsight, I should have got suspicious when his packing list included an LED torch, Electral packets and running shoes, instead of eyelash curlers, body shimmer and stilettos.)
Our power-holiday begins at Parmath, where Rishikesh’s annual International Yoga Festival is in full swing. Resting at the foothills of the Himalayas, beside India’s most holy river, Rishikesh has drawn the spiritually inclined for centuries: powerful mystics seeking solitude, yogis training their bodies into lithe time-capsules, troubled truth seekers desperate for redemption.
They came quietly, setting up kutirs in caves and rocks, living lives dedicated to silence. Then in 1968, The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (now closed), and introduced Rishikesh to the Western world. Suddenly India, specifically this sleepy town, was the cure to disenchantment. Everyone from hippies, high on marijuana and music, to health junkies, touting veganism and six packs, flooded Rishikesh. And Rishikesh absorbed them all.
Today, in addition to being a serious centre for yoga and spirituality, has grown into a refuge for an eclectic collection of karma chameleons, soul searchers and bendy yogis from across the world. They arrive in droves for the festival, all impossibly toned, enviably flexible and inevitably festooned with the usual Kundalini-questing paraphernalia: jingling silver lockets, lotus tattoos and chunky rudraksha malas. Religious songs sung with nasal American twangs and guitars blare on the streets from bookstores abounding with titles such as ‘The soul of love’ and ‘Death must die.’
All this on rustic Swarg Ashram road, crammed with fiercely bearded swamis in saffron, tea stalls fragrant with ginger and beatifically rambling cows.
To be in Rishikesh is to be far away. Cut away from your world, and all its trappings. It’s both disconcerting and vaguely thrilling. Like discovering a secret garden in your backyard.
The festival brings together brilliant and quirky teachers from across the world, demonstrating how incredibly plaint yoga can be — translated into so many powerful, and relevant, versions. While there’s plenty of kooky dancing, cheerleader-style whooping and running around the garden, the most satisfying (and difficult) classes are the ones taught by yogis determined to stay true to the principles of their school – even if they do jazz things up with music and fluidly choreographed movement.
Mohan Bhandhari, for instance, co-founder of YogiYoga in China, takes classes in Hatha Yoga, aimed at strengthening the core and spine. Then there’s LA-based Marla Apt who demonstrates restorative postures using the props of Iyengar yoga. And Kishen Shah, adjunct professor at UCLA, leads students though active and static meditation, demonstrating that stillness can be just as challenging as intense movement.
Yet, it wasn’t all flexing, sweating and downward dogs. Rishikesh is the gateway to the Himalayas, about1360 feet above sea level, and Gaurav ensured we explored it, luring us out of the cafes (abounding with gooey chocolate crepes, bright mezze platters and elegant pizzas) with promises of hills carpeted in flowers and glimpses of mountains draped in snow.
Our walks take us over the delightfully wobbly Ram Jhula bridge and into the Lakshman Jhoola area, crammed with pretty handicraft stores, twinkling tea stalls and quirky cafes. We squeal across the Ganga in a boat, flashing silver with fish. We pant and gasp 2 kms uphill to Kunjapuri temple, majestically overlooking the Gangotri range.
Back at Parmath, it’s time for our last Ganga Arti, an hour filled with singing, music and lamps. As the prayers reach a crescendo, people release bobbing diyas into the inky river, where they rush away in warm circles of light.
Further upstream at Shivpuri, the final leg of our trip, the Ganga changes character, roaring impatiently at the many muddling white water rafters. The first rapid grabs and tosses us playfully, the second has us clinging to the slippery boat in terrified delight, the third forces us to dive in, screaming with the shock of icy water. In half an hour we’re ‘body surfing’ blissfully, holding a rope dangling from the boat and thinking deep thoughts. Like what’s for tea.
Crisp onion pakodas and frothy coffee, in case you’re wondering – intensely satisfying in the way only comfort food can be when you’re tired and hungry. We’re now at Ganga Riviera, run by Anil Bisht of Adventure Trails. A former mountaineer still in the midst of a love affair with the Himalayas, Anil has set his camp right by the river, but well away from the madding crowd. Access involves a half an hour walk, followed by luggage-bearing mules.
Our trek from here is on the old – and startlingly scenic – Badrinath paidal marg, cut into the cool mountains for shade. It’s so silent you can practically hear the mountains breath. Till you hear the tinkle of a rambling horse’s collar. Or run into a shepherd, carrying an adorably cuddly lamb amidst a roadblock of wooly sheep supervised seriously by shaggy sheepdogs.
At night, the sky practically bursts with stars, as we curl up by the crackling bonfire at camp and listen to chilling stories about mountain spirits. As the fire dies, we stumble towards our welcoming canvas tents, lit with flickering lanterns. Then, comfortably exhausted, we fall asleep listening to the languidly hushed murmur of the Ganga.

Connect With Himalaya
Trek to Miyar valley, land of the blue poppy. Though quaint mountain villages, lush pastures and up a theatrically coloured glacier. Get initiated into the mysteries of Ladakh. Stay with the locals in snow leopard country, mountain bike across the area’s moonscape and raft on the Indus.
Or head to the valleys of Rupin and Supin, where you traverse spectacularly high ridges, to discover a mysterious forgotten lake, Baradsaar, revered by the locals.
‘Connect With Himalaya’ (CWH) is all about exploration. The travel outfit introduces city slickers to new travel experiences by following the old rules. Run by Gaurav Punj and Rujuta Diwekar, both passionate about these mountains and their people, Two-year-old CWH encourage trekkers to experience the Himalayas the way the locals always have: Taking on the challenges of the terrain by foot, following the paths of the shepherds and sleeping under the stars. And, most importantly, by moving away from the well-trod paths of the big operators.
“Right now the tour operators show a very limited area, and it’s thoroughly exploited,” says Gaurav, explaining why his routes are refreshing. “Manali, for example, has become a hub of adventure activities and there are now more travel agents than tourists there.” He adds, “You can’t ever know everything about the Himalaya. It’s so diverse — regions, people, culture, geology.” After travelling extensively for many years, he finally realized the best information came from the locals. “I got to know, for example, whom to trust for arranging my trek in Ladakh, or my stay in Munsiyari, or my transportation in Spiti. This is when the idea of CWH was born.”
Focused on sustainable tourism, CWH works with local guides, porters and drivers, in an attempt to inject money into the poor villages. “We believe in responsible tourism, and work on understanding the culture and lifestyle of the Himalaya’s people,” he says, talking of how every trek involves them, with homestays and adventure activities.
CWH offers about 25 trips a year, of which about 60 per cent are completely new, born out of exploratory treks. Their focus is on discovering the unusual, whether it’s a café tucked into a stony cliff or a valley of flowers.
Gaurav insists that evading the coaches and finding fresh destinations is not as tough as you would imagine. “About 90 per cent of the Himalaya tourism is in 10 per cent of the region,” he says, adding with a grin, “I have trips planned for the three years, all new places.”
For these are mountains you can explore your whole life, and still not completely discover.

Talking stilletoes with Louboutin

Sure, Christian Louboutin’s a shoe maker. But to call him one seems like a gross understatement. After all, he’s turned shoes into objects of desire, symbols of empowerment and works of art. Which makes him more of a creator of fantasies. A dealer in seduction. A seller of dreams.

The individuality of his work — unapologetically sassy, flamboyantly sexy and intricately engineered — have enabled his shoes to travel the world, and in style. His client list includes practically every Hollywood A lister, from Elizabeth Taylor to Madonna. His daring designs incorporate silver python and spikes, red fishnet and black lace, bling and shiny patent leather, tempting even conservative women to take a walk on the wild side. He’s managed the seemingly impossible — creating a luxury brand that connects with rock stars and executives, WAGS and housewives, princesses and prostitutes.

“I am here to flatter women,” he smiles, pausing work to discuss the universality of stilettos. In Chennai to collaborate with Jean Francois Lesage (whose intricate embroidery adorns everything from the Louvre to scenes in the new Sex And The City movie), Louboutin is startlingly friendly. For a fashion icon, he’s even more startlingly casual, in pink Lacoste, shorts and shoes that look like – dare we say it – Crocs. “They’re Clark’s desert boots,” he grins. “I made holes in them – it makes such a difference. You get ventilation. And it’s much cooler.”

Although it’s been 28 years since he visited India last, Louboutin and
Lesage go back a long time. Just like his link with India. “I first came in 1979. Although I was born and raised in Paris, I used to watch a lot of Indian movies. Bollywood and also Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen… They made me love India.”

So he finally decided to travel here with a friend when he was 15 years old. “We went to Mumbai, then Goa. After that I came back every year for a while, till I was in my twenties.”

Louboutin also found an innovative way to sneak into Mumbai and Chennai’s film studios. “I would pretend to be a journalist. I wanted access and by posing as a writer I managed to get in and meet producers and actors.” Did he ever write about them? He chuckles, “Alors! No. But they were very nice!”

Though Louboutin dropped out of school when he was 17 years old, he learnt how to construct a perfect high heel by bouncing between music halls (where he ran errands for the high-heeled, feather-clad show girls) and internships.

When he opened his first store in Paris in 1991, his popularity exploded. Wickedly high and slashed with a distinctive red sole, Louboutin’s heels are now credited with bringing stilettos back into fashion, recreating them as a symbol of empowerment. Jennifer Lopez even released a song on Louboutin liberation. “I’m throwing on my Louboutins/ Watch these Red bottoms/ And the back of my jeans/ Watch me go, bye baby.”

“High heels gives you a body language. Your back becomes more curved. It forces a bit of attitude. It makes you feel more body conscious. To feel like a woman,” he says.

The shoes have a reputation for being flattering by making their wearer’s legs look practically endless. Louboutin says he’s overheard women in his store calling them “cheaper than a facelift,” he laughs.

This could explain why so many women scrimp and save for his shoes (They cost anything between Rs 20,000 to almost a lakh), making them far more than just the prerogative of pop stars.

“Very very high heels make a woman both fragile and sexy. In them, you almost can’t stand by yourself. You almost need support.” Yet, he states they’re empowering. “They raise women to the eye level of men. Women tell me this changes their relationships, with boyfriends. With bosses. I see it myself. I look at girls my height differently. When you’re looking down at a woman, You’re almost condescending.”

However, Louboutins are best known for being sexy. Underlining this, in 2007 he collaborated with filmmaker David Lynch for a show in Paris titled ‘Fetish.’ “I usually do the very high heels with a double platform. Because a shoe should never be more than 5 inches high. After that you can’t walk,” he says. “I did do some super super high heels for David Lynch. But they were not to be worn at all.” He shrugs, “Then Lady Gaga saw the exhibition and wanted the shoes for her video. I said, ‘Fine. But you cannot walk in them.’ So they told me, ‘She’s not intending to walk.’” He laughs and imitates an unsteady  totter, ‘She ended up trying to, though.”

Louboutin says he’s thinking of opening in India now. “India has been a huge influence on me. The jewellery, the colour, the detailing on every piece of work… You have incredible things here, all so well made.” He says his travels have had a profound impact on him. “I look at everything. Then one day it surfaces in my drawings.”

After Mika, the Lebanese American singer, asked Louboutin to design him shoes, he began thinking of a men’s line. “Right now, I’m working on something for Prince,” he states. Meanwhile Jean-Francois Lesage directs his team of artisans, all carefully constructing a line inspired by the Maharaja of Gwalior.

With their frills and fastidious detailing, Louboutin’s are special because they’re wearable art. “I don’t want to see my shoes in a museum. I want to see them being worn. I want to see them being loved. I want to see men loving them on women.” He adds with laugh. “And I know a lot of men love my shoes!”

Kylie Kwong’s China

Kylie makes cabbage look alluring. Kylie works saucepans like she’s at a DJ console. Kylie makes chopping carrots look glamorous.

Not surprisingly, her show, “Kylie Kwong: Cooking with Heart And Soul” has succeeded in inspiring couch-potatoes around the world to get their aprons on. It has deepened the all-pervasive fascination for Chinese food. And, triggered vociferously friendly Internet discussions on everything from her recipes to her chipper personality.

Reassuringly, she sounds just as chirpy over the phone, calling from Sydney, in a conversation with MetroPlus about her show “My China”, on Discovery Travel and Living.

“We wanted to create much more than a cooking show,” she says, “People respond to raw emotion.” Kylie adds that it’s easy for her to connect with the audience since she really believes in what she’s talking about. “I’m not an actor. I can’t pretend,” she says. “What I can do is get in front of the TV and tell the world how much I love Chinese food…”

Besides, she states she’s inspired when she discusses subjects she loves: “I never stop. I’d drive you mad,” she laughs.

Since most of the world has had an enduring affair with Chinese food, “My China” is a logical follow-up to “Cooking With Heart And Soul”, which showed Kylie recreating classical Chinese recipes, many learnt from her mother, in her slick kitchen. But because, she is a professional chef, her techniques are more sophisticated than rustic, and her results look like glossy advertisements from a gourmet magazine.

Her restaurant, Billy Kwong, has 60 dishes on the menu, all of which are based on traditional Chinese recipes. “The difference is in the quality of the produce I use. I use organic vegetables. No chemicals. No MSG, or oyster sauce out of a bottle. If I want plum sauce, I make it out of fresh plums.” (Following Kylie’s beliefs, Billy Kwong aims to “to leave as small and light an environmental footprint as possible, to give back to the community whenever and wherever we can, and to think globally and act locally.”)

This show includes, what Kylie calls, “travel, history and raw emotion…” since it covers her travelling through China, reconnecting with her roots. A fourth generation Australian, she’s calls herself a 29th generation Kwong. “But, I felt connected with China when I visited.”

The series opens with her visiting her family’s ancestral village in Toishan. “I’m nearly 40 now…, she says, talking of how important the homecoming was to her. “It was amazing, very emotional. I felt like I was returning to the clan… It was very primeval.”

For additional colour, there’s Kylie’s great grandfather, who seems like quite an interesting character. “My great grandfather moved to Australia during the gold rush. He had four Chinese wives, and 24 children.” Kylie’s grand return included a visit to her grandfather’s house (It’s still there!) and spending quality time with her long lost Chinese relatives. “They spoke no English, and I speak no Cantonese or Mandarin.” But, they communicated. “We cooked for each other. We laughed. We ate.”

This show’s about more than making a perfect bowl of noodles. “You can call it a cooking and travelling show. Nine episodes. Nine different provinces,” she says talking of how they have tried to show how the physical landscape and geography of each place. “The physical look of the local fare. The local market — because that is really what says everything about the local community… It’s very textured. Far more than just a pretty cooking show.”

Bourdain on Cooking and Cobras

He’s eaten the live, still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. After munching through a handful of crisp fried tree worms he likened them to “a deep-fried Twinkie. Only wormier.” He travels the world with an astonishingly open mind: whether he’s in a gun club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the menu includes a sampling of firearms, or a secret Russian fight club, where diamond draped blondes sip vodka and watch men beat each other senseless. He’s executive Chef of Les Halles, a traditional French restaurant in Manhattan. Oh, and, he’s pretty hot, with his bad boy leather jacket and attitude.

Forget delicate creativity, starchy linens and artistic flair – Anthony Bourdain’s more about kitchen machismo, fiery opinions and flamboyant food making him a sort of a culinary rock star.

With his travel show, featuring extreme cuisine, and action packed books, the chef-turned-author-turned-TV presenter, has been tripping around the world years, followed intently by a large brigade of foodies, travel buffs and – let’s be honest – breathless women.

In a telephonic interview, organised to promote his show No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living, he seems thrilled with his life, cobra hearts and all. “I am very aware of what a great job I have,” he says, “With the freedom to go where I want, when I want and say what I want. I’ve been given free reign to discover the world… It’s an extraordinary and amazing job.”

Bourdain talks of discovering India, wandering through Rajasthan, Kolkata, the Sunderbans and Mumbai. “My first impression was that India is both beautiful and frustrating. It is so big that you can’t rid yourself of the sense that you’re missing most of it.” Saying that although he and the TV crew tried to see as much as they could, he adds, “I could easily spend the rest of my life making television in just India.”

While his travels threw up a number of surprises (“Royal food in Rajasthan, and the fact that though I’m a vocal proponent of the carnivorous diet, India is possibly the only place I can eat a vegetarian meal”), he seems most excited about eating vada pav on the Mumbai streets. “I’m a big fan of the Bombay burger — potato in a bun.”

Unfortunately, Bourdain was forced to leave out south India, as another TV show was recently shot there and the producers felt it would be repetitive. “I was very frustrated about that,” he says, “I haven’t ever been there. It was one of my first choices. I’ve heard so much about the seafood…”

On his quest for the perfect meal (“I wanted the perfect meal… I wanted adventure. I wanted kicks… I wanted to see the world. And I wanted the world to be just like the movies”) Bourdain tends to concentrate on everyday food because “people are proud of their local food; it’s the purest expression of a culture”.

Categorically stating he’s not interested in fine dining (“The world is so globalised now. Fine dining chefs tend to cook like fine dining chefs, irrespective of where they live… fusion food in Mumbai isn’t too different from fusion food in Melbourne”), he says, “People from all income levels are beginning to crave the authentic. They’re less snobby about fine dining.”

Meanwhile, his forays into extreme cuisines, he insists, certainly aren’t for shock value. “People eat very differently around the world. What someone in America finds shocking is everyday food for people in Thailand. I’m interested in whatever is good.” He also believes that food and travel are inseparable. “I don’t think you can enjoy or even experience a country without a willingness to sit with the local people and eat and drink.”

His writing is equally down-to-earth. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. It’s not a priority for me to describe the entire history of the food. I come from an oral storytelling experience in the kitchen… I try to give people a sense of what things looked like and smelt like at the time.”

And when he’s not describing a desert feast with Blue-clad Berbers in Morocco, or bodysurfing beside a fishing village in Vietnam, he writes crime novels to escape. “I write about me and what happens to me all the time. So, it’s a relief to escape to a world of imagination from time to time.”

But food is clearly his first love. Discussing the world’s best chefs, he names “Thomas Keller in California and the chefs at French Laundry in Napa Valley”, and then adds “every chef who shows up at work every day and cooks well… Anybody’s mother who cooks well. I think cooking’s a noble activity.”

As for that perfect meal he’s been chasing for so long? “I’ve had so many,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t look for the perfect meal: it finds you. It might be a simple bowl of noodles soup in Vietnam, or a plate of roast bone marrow in London. It’s not about the food. It’s context that’s important. Like who’s cooking it… A Bombay burger is as much a perfect meal as dinner in Paris.”

Spurrier’s tryst with California

Paris in the mid-1970s. All wine was old world, and all labels that mattered were French. Then an Englishman came along and changed all the rules.

“I was a square peg in a round hole,” says Steven Spurrier, discussing how he became one of the wine-world’s most influential voices. Spurrier is best known for ‘The Judgment of Paris’ in 1976. At a time when French wine was considered supreme, he got the country’s most respected palates to blind-taste Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and California.

The Californian wines won in every category. “It was a huge surprise. In several cases, shock. One judge was very upset and wanted her notes back!” he chuckles, adding that he offered to make her copies instead. The French judges – secure in the superiority of their wine – had just naturally assumed they had picked the French wines. After all, they didn’t even consider the upstart new world wines contendors.

Even London, where Spurrier started his career, “was about old world wine: French, German, Italian…” It was the mid-1960s, Spurrier was straight out of college and enamoured with the business. “To be a wine merchant was a very respectable profession. When I told my father that’s what I wanted to do, all he said was, ‘Well, if you’re sure you won’t drink too much’.” Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “If I had said I wanted to be a bar tender on the hand, he probably wouldn’t have been okay with that!”

However, after learning the ropes for a year, he ended up getting married and abandoning the wine business for a stab at Hollywood style romance. He and his wife bough a crumbling mansion in the South of France “We were up in the Hills of Var. From there we could see the mountains. We could see the sea.” Over here they worked on restoring the house, and dabbling in antiques. “I had inherited a lot of money from my grandfather. I could do what I want. I was a rich kid! And I liked to do romantic things…”

However, by the mid-1970s, they realised they wanted more out of life. So Spurrier and his wife gave up on the house and moved to Paris, where he intended to get back into the wine trade.

“I bought a wine shop on Rue Royale. It was a perfect location, in the centre of everything,” smiles Spurrier. he began by catering to the local expatriate population. “I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune saying ‘Your winemaker speaks English’.”

It worked.

“I was in the forefront, and I was lucky enough to be young, energetic,” he smiles. “I was made out to be a mover and shaker. I had long hair, flared trousers and a moustache when the wine makers in Paris wore berets and jeans. I became known as ‘The Englishman who has the wine shop.’

The wine shop inspired a wine school, which is turn became a lively meeting place for tourists and wine sellers. The Californian wine makers came by with their bottles, impressing Spurrier with teh quality of their wine. Then his partner went to California and returned raving about the wine there. Hence the blind tasting.

Spurrier says all he wanted out it was to demonstrate Californian wines had potential. “I would have liked them to come in second or fourth. It didn’t even occur to me that they could win.” He adds: “That was the first crack in the wall of French supremacy. It wasn’t what I was after. And, it didn’t please me at all. I had set out to make a statement — but this was an exaggeration of what I was trying to do.”

It certainly didn’t help with fitting in. “The French were understandably very upset,” he says. Of course, the Americans were ecstatic. “In California I had become a cult hero. They should have named streets after me!”

Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “In hindsight I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.” In 1950, there were 40 wineries in California. Now, there are 4,000. “It opened the world to new-world wines.”

Thanks to this vote of confidence “from the most trusted French palates in Paris” new world wines got an incredible boost. This marked the change of the old wine industry. The Australians got into the game, making wine fruity, fun and – sacre bleu – even frivolous, with a range of quirky labels, from ‘Aussie Jeans Rock,’ a red from Margaret river, to ‘Pink,’ a chic bubbly by Yellow Glen.

How much have things changed? Even the French are making allowances for hip labels, which appeal to the young. (As well as wine newbies.), despite the fact that they blow the lid off the mystery of wine. ‘Fat Bastard’ for instance is one of the best selling wines in the USA.

And Spurrier? He became famous, inspiring the movie “Bottle Shock”, which he says is more fiction than fact and “very Hollywood”. Now, the makers of a movie titled, “Judgment Of Paris”, have asked for his approval. “So I told them, ‘I want my role played by a British actor’. They suggested Hugh Grant. But, I said, ‘He’s far too old’. Then, they said, ‘Jude Law?’ And, I said, ‘He’s far too beautiful’.”

Fudge Cake Among The Karma Chameleons

Irresistible? The Brad Pitt of the salad world.

We stumble down by torchlight.

Past wobbly wooden fences enclosing whispering gardens bright with lettuce, lemons and pumpkins. It’s windy at night by the glacial Ganga. So finally inside the cosy thatched ‘ theatre,’ featuring a stage strung with fading bed sheets, we’re intensely grateful for the offer of steaming honey-lemon-ginger tea.

This is Rishikesh’s most charming secret. An endearingly earnest attempt at ‘Supper Theatre’ by Ramana’s Garden, an orphanage run by expatriate turned India-insider Dr. Prabhavati Dwaba.

Ramana’s draws support from Rishikesh’s unique blend of international tourist truth seekers, karmic collectors and almost-worryingly bendy yogis by reeling them in with a crafty mix of inspiring eco-warrior theatre, soul-satisfying organic brown rice and wicked amounts of fudge cake. The play, a fiery treatise on how big dams suffocate ‘Ma Ganga’ is irresistibly inspiring thanks to its stars, a bevy of feisty kids unapologetically hamming it up. The orphanage uses the inevitable donations this play prompts to hire lawyers and file PILs against dam construction every year.

Then, it’s time for dinner, a triumph of vegetables so vibrant they taste of sunshine, at Ramana’s Garden Gallery Cafe. We file in, soaking up the atmosphere — low wooden tables, haphazard strings of tiny lights, warm brick walls.

Glowing with a combination of salad, fresh air and crafty lighting!

Our meal opens with the Picassos of the salad world: crinkled lettuce, deep green argula piled with delicate carrot sticks and juicy piles of grated beetroot. It’s all topped with a generous dollop of creamy avocado. The sophisticated blend of flavours, texture and colour is fascinating. Especially given the fact that it’s been dreamt up in an unpretentious kitchen, worlds away from the influence of five star chefs, fancy equipment and edgy culinary schools.

Local, vegetarian and planet-friendly, this food bursts with equal amounts of colour, virtue and nutrition. “The menu changes everyday based on what is in the garden,” says Dwaba, adding, “It tastes so good because everything you are eating was growing an hour ago.”

When Dwaba first came to India 30 years ago (seeking enlightenment in a time-honoured tradition) she says her “guru” told her to live in silence “in a cave for a year”. That’s when she noticed the malnutrition among children. “It was outrageous. It made no sense. If you drop a seed here, you get a vegetable. If you tend it you get ten,” she says, explaining why she began this project. Meanwhile we’re working our way through thick wedges of lasagne, stuffed with lush pumpkin, zucchini and mushrooms, surrounded by buttery tagliatelle and oozing with creamy cheese.

There’s also nutty brown rice, punctuated by spurts of broccoli. “We started the cafe four years ago to feed the kids,” says Dwaba, “because sometimes we’re so financially strapped we have trouble. With this restaurant we make money everyday.”

Tonight Ramana’s Café is buzzing, thanks to a flood of guests from the International Yoga Festival at Parmath Ashram. Dwaba adds with a grin, “From tonight we hope to eat for a week!” Her project includes a mountain retreat, where a lot of their produce is grown both for the orphanage and the restaurant. Apples for instance, which can be eaten fresh, in pies or in their popular apple-ginger jam.

The seasonal menu incorporates a range of English vegetables, unusual varieties (our salad for instance includes four kind of lettuce) and innovative ideas, though the food is unfailingly simple. Over the year, guests get to try stinging nettle soup, walnut-cashew pizza and plump momos, besides home-baked croissants, cakes and cookies.

Which brings us to dessert. A fudgy chocolate cake, bursting with cocoa and good intentions. The little boys who staged the play are wandering around, posing for photographs.

Our Indiana-Jones styled scientist seems to be hitting it off with the startlingly cute Germs (who dressed in evil sequins and Bwa Ha Ha-ed through the play). In an unusual twist one of the Germs offers to cut my slice for me, sawing it into mush in his enthusiasm. I’m proudly handed a pile of unsteady crumbs, accompanied by an unwieldy old spoon and a big toothy grin. Best food presentation I’ve seen so far!

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Of Yogis, Nanganess and String. Or ‘The Art Of Sudhish’

Returned from from an invigorating holiday in the Himalayas to find my blog smothered with naked sadhus thanks to six-foot-high pestilence Sudhish Kamath.
Since I’m now enlightened (hours of silent meditation in Rishikesh, aided by tying and untying your body into yoga knots helps) I understand that this is merely a manifestation of the inmost desires he spends his life desperately trying to hide. I.E. His latent – but insatiable – need to be in the company of scantily clad men.
In hindsight, we should have understood this long ago – right when he started parading around spas wearing nothing but string. (
Sudhish, don’t worry – we feel your pain.
The New and Improved Shonali

PS: My camping ground had bathrooms for your information! I even conditioned my hair. So there.

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Ian Rankin’s Trysts With Evil

Honestly? I stopped reading crime and detective fiction after the usual Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie rites of passage in school. But Rankin’s a wonderful speaker, fascinating whether you’re a fan of his genre or not. My story for the newspaper was necessarily short because of space constraints. But he was so interesting I just had to tell the whole story here. Ah, the pleasure of not having a word count! 🙂

Crime Writer Ian Rankin delves into evil with gleeful enthusiasm. Which could explain how he found himself in Rome, getting exorcised by no less the Chief Exorcist Of The Vatican. “I was interviewing him, and I asked him exactly how he does an exorcism.” Apparently, the exorcist suddenly produced a bag and busily started delving into it, after saying something to Ian in Italian. “I looked at the translator, and he said, “He says he’ll show you.” It turned out alright. “Once they got me off the ceiling and scraped the green bile from my mouth, I was fine,” Rankin says wryly, taking a sip of beer. He adds with a shrug, “I told them, for me, that’s an average evening.”
Appropriately enough Rankin — creator of the much-loved perpetually rebellious Inspector Rebus — is in conversation with Prateep V Philip, Inspector General of police. Bestselling author Rankin’s the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, with books are translated into 22 languages. Philip’s the pioneer of the internationally acclaimed Friends of Police movement.
“It’s first time in my career that I’ve been interviewed by a cop – where I’ve not been a suspect,” grins Rankin, going to talk about why he’s so fascinated by crime writing in a world where happy endings aren’t always a given. “There are readers who come to crime novels for a closure they didn’t get in real life.” While early crime fiction was all about retribution, he says people seem more realistic now. “Readers are much more open to the fact that maybe the bad guy gets away with it.”
This could explain why he’s so fascinated by the idea of one individual have so much potential for good, as well as evil. When Philip points out that he’s seems to follow a template set by Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Rankin states he was a huge influence on his writing. Stevenson in turn, he says, was inspired by Deacon Brody, a respectable tradesman and pillar of the community by day and a burglar by night.
“Frustratingly Stevenson set the novel in London. I really wanted to explore this human possibility for good, and also for evil, in Edinburgh.” Ian talks of how tourists only see a magnificent Edinburgh of cathedrals, monuments and history. “But there’s a living, breathing city just below which absolutely nobody is talking about.” He’s interested in this dichotomy, so similar to human nature: “A cultured Edinburgh and the chaos within.”
It manifests itself constantly, as far as Rankins’ concerned. “I think if you’re a writer you’re a schizophrenic personality,” he deadpans, talking of how writing is cathartic. “I’d be dangerous if I didn’t write everything down.”
Despite the writing, he seems to be having quite an effect on his neighbourhood, Writers Block, also inhabited by JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith. “Soon after I moved in, there was a phone call from a reporter. He said, there’s been a murder just around the corner, do you have a comment.” Rankin continues mournfully, “Next, there’s a knock on my door. It’s Professor McCall Smith and he says, ‘Mr Rankin, you’ve really brought the tone of the neighbourhood down. You just moved in and there’s been a murder within a week.”
Most of Rankin’s stories tend to include murder. “It’s the only crime where something is taken that cannot be replaced.” As crime becomes more devious, Philip asks if writers find it difficult to keep up, adding with a laugh. “You know what they say: The criminal’s the artist and the cop’s merely the critic.” Rankin agrees, “Crime writers have to be pretty savvy these days. We have to even keep up with technology.”
Besides readers expect more of crime-solving characters these days. “Now we don’t belive that amateurs can just stumble on a crime scene and the police say, ‘It’s ok to let Miss Marple in.’ It just doesn’t happen,” says Rankin, adding, “As readers we want our characters to be complex. It helps if they work alone.” A lot like his Inspector Rebus actually.
Talking of how Rebus is quite true to life, Rankin says, “A lot of the cops I met early in my career became enthralled by their job. It took over their life… seperations, divorce, heavy drinking — that was the culture of the 80s. Rebus is the last breed of detective that used to be the norm.” He adds thoughtfully, “But his heart is true, he’s on the side of the angels.”
One of the features that makes Rebus far more multidimensional than stock detective characters is his love for music. “It’s a good way of delineating character. The Beatles were nice boys you could take home to your mom, the Rolling Stones were rebellious. Rebus is anarchic, he like The Stones.
As for Rankin? He likes The Who. “I mentioned The Who in one of my books and I got an e-mail from the lead singer, Roger Deltrey. It was a protected address, so I couldn’t reply,” he says, adding “I mentioned it again in my next book, and he wrote to me again. So now I mention The Who in every book – it’s the only way I get an e-mail from Deltrey!”
Meanwhile Rankin’s writing lyrics for a band called ‘St Jude’s Infirmary’ “When I was 19 I was in a very unsuccesful band, where I wrote the lyrics. Suddenly 30 years later I find myself writing lyrics again,” he says, adding wryly, “Like most middle-aged crime writers, I’d rather be a rock star than an author.”

(The event was organised as part of The British Council’s Lit Sutra Festival, supported by Landmark, at the Taj Connemara Hotel.)


July 2021