Nelson Mandela is one of the best known and most respected people in history. His accomplishments for his beloved South Africa were monumental, he, and they changed the world.
So, the other day when scanning twitter and noticing a headline that read: One from the archives…Meeting With Mandela. The link had to be clicked.
Social media is not always social, when we replied and asked for an interview with the article author, Richard Vines, he was very social, and we arranged to speak.
As Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg, we would focus on food of course, but first it was all about Nelson Mandela.
I asked how the meeting came about, and what were his impressions of the man.
Richard Vines: “He had presence and was extremely polite and well mannered. He had steely authority and was quietly confident, all traits that seemed to require no effort.
“The meeting took place in November 1990. Nine months after he had been released from 27 years in jail in South Africa, and four years before he was to become President of South Africa. It took place in his suite at the Hilton Kuala Lumpur.
“At that time I was Foreign Editor of the South China Morning Post. Months of working my Government connections in both South East Asia and South Africa I achieved the interview.
“Following our meeting I wrote about my experience in Bloomberg, here’s an excerpt.”
Nelson Mandela rose from his sofa to greet me as I entered his suite in the Hilton Kuala Lumpur. “Mr. Vines, you have some powerful friends in Malaysia,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment. He was explaining why he had reluctantly agreed to see me during a packed visit to Asia, when an ambulance followed his car between appointments.
He was 72 at the time and looked weary. It was November 1990, nine months after he had been released from 27 years in jail in South Africa. He was nearing the end of a two-week tour of six nations to raise funds for the African National Congress.
On the coffee table before him lay a card from an earlier visitor, a Japanese diplomat. A security man stood outside the door but there were just two aides with him, one of them Barbara Masekela. (The sister of Hugh, the jazz trumpeter, accompanied Mandela on the tour and later became ambassador to Washington.)
He moved slowly and I could see that rising to his feet required some effort. He was dressed in fawn trousers and a patterned batik shirt. He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and studied the list of questions that I had been required to submit in advance. The room was on a high floor and the traffic was barely audible many floors below.
Mandela’s tone was business-like. He probably didn’t want to be there, but he was to receive a $5 million pledge from the Malaysian government and had reason to meet official requests.
“The meeting took place decades ago, but it is one I will never forget.”
After the intriguing discussion hearing what meeting Nelson Mandela was like we moved onto food, chefs, and restaurants.
My first question was how did you come to move from being the Foreign Editor of the South China Morning Post, to Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg in London.
Richard laughed and explained how he ‘volunteered’ to do the job.
Richard Vines: “In 2004 Bloomberg were looking for a food critic, at the time I was reporting on financial markets. I simply put my hand up for the post and volunteered that I had covered food and dining while at the South China Morning Post. I hadn’t, but I got the job and have been grateful of it ever since.”
We discussed food and drink and various names that we both respected. Many names flowed and for Richard one London chef was emerging around the same time he got his job as Chief Food Critic, Jason Atherton.
Most memorable was Atherton’s menu of small dishes, which he began serving at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in 2005. Atherton left Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2010 to launch his own restaurant company, The Social Company and Richard followed him closely.
Due respect was paid to all members of the Roux family, and Richard reminisced fondly of recently deceased Michel Roux.
Pierre Koffmann was mentioned several times, mostly for his influence with other chefs.
I then asked the impossible question to answer, do you have one favourite all time food experience that you remember above all others, or words to that effect. Hopefully I was more succinct.
Richard didn’t think for long and the experience was at a restaurant we had already discussed as Jason Atherton had done an internship there, El Bulli.
El Bulli was a 3 Michelin star restaurant near the town of Roses, in Catalonia, Spain. Run by chef Ferran Adrià and driven by the culinary ideas of Albert Adrià.
El Bulli won the World’s Best Restaurant title five times and its final day before closing in 2011, a 48 course menu was served to mark the occasion. This was Richard’s most memorable food experience.
He was invited to attend as a guest of Albert and Ferran Adrià, and he was one of the few non Spanish guests that day.
Richard Vines: “It really was a most memorable day, and one that I treasure. Here’s part of the review I wrote:”
The menu started with pina colada, only instead of being a drink in a glass, it was cotton candy with freeze-dried pineapple and spheres of rum that exploded in your mouth.
It was followed by a mojito in the form of a baguette and then a martini glass of fizzy almond foam.
Highlights included a cookie oozing olive oil; ham and rose wonton; and a dish of “caviar” that was made from hazelnut and hazelnut paste made with caviar.
There was a macaroon that was made of parmesan, and cod that was in fact just the crispy skin.
Blackberry risotto with game-meat sauce anyone? The squeamish probably wouldn’t have wanted the glass of crimson liquid described as “hare’s blood” that was served with hare.
The sequences included seafood, truffles, game, and Japanese cuisine. (Adria said he first travelled to Japan in 2002 although diners told him his style was Japanese long before then.)
You end the meal sipping coffee or drinks on an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea, which is handy for smokers.
While the dining room was quiet, the atmosphere wasn’t reverential. Eating is about enjoyment.
At El Bulli, you are dazzled by Adria’s creativity and daring, impressed by his command of flavors and technical mastery and seduced by his spirit of adventure and fun.
The discussion was a hugely enjoyable one that I hope readers have enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed participating in. Hopefully, it won’t be our last.
Thank you Richard,
If you would like to see what the 48 course menu looked like when served at El Bulli, we found the video below.