A meal for the body and mind: Lunches with celebrities (Book Review)

Title: Lunch With the FT – 52 Classic Interviews; Author: Lionel Barber (editor); Publisher: Penguin; Pages: 352; Price: Rs.599

There could be no better way to understand someone, especially the people who help shape our world, than engaging with them one-to-one over a relaxed meal. Various reasons unfortunately dictate that for many of us, any such desire is fated to remain an improbable daydream. But there is a way to fulfill it – vicariously.

This book may assuage your wish, offering wide gamut of free-wheeling discussions over lunch (or occasionally other meals or at least some refreshment) with an equally wide range of celebrities and newsmakers – ranging from Angelina Jolie to Imran Khan, Jimmy Carter to Jordan’s Queen Rania, Apple’s Steve Wozniak to Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon, Donald Rumsfeld to Vaclav Havel, model Twiggy to rapper Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs and more.

All this grew out of an idea by venerable but pathbreaking British daily newspaper, the Financial Times, for its Sunday supplement. The newspaper, which in 1893 (five years after its birth) started the trend of papers focussing more on business and economics coming out on pink paper, pioneered in 1994 a new format of interview – over a leisurely lunch.

“‘Lunch with the FT’ was conceived by Max Wilkinson, a crusty, enterprising editor of the Weekend FT with an acute sense of the absurd”, says Barber, who is associated with the paper since 1985 and took over as editor in 2006.

The rules were simple – the guest/interviewee would choose the restaurant and the paper would foot the bill – and broken right on the first outing on April 23, 1994 with British celebrity chef-cum-restaurateur Marco Pierre White, who chose one of his own outlets, refusing any payment but since then mostly followed.

In its two decades and more, ‘Lunch with the FT’ has notched over 1,000 installments with the latest one (appearing on March 4) being with Ariane de Rothschild, the chief executive of Edmond de Rothschild bank. The idea of lunch has evolved too with the paper “reluctantly and occasionally” accommodating “the busy lives of the rich, powerful and self-important by agreeing to a breakfast, tea or the occasional sandwich”.

But this has not affected the quality with the interviews crafted as newspaper stories, and hence eschewing the conventional question-and-answer format for a fairly short but absorbingly, atmospheric piece that can allows us to virtually picture the informal interactions. Helping this are a caricature of the guest and a facsimile of the bill.

This book, which originally came out to mark the newspaper’s 125th anniversary, collects a year’s worth of these interviews, or 52, arranged in eight broad categories, but an eclectic and colourful mix.

Arts spans literary novelist Martin Amis to Angelina Jolie, who proves to have mastered the art of avoid attracting attention in the public and reveals she got interested in an action role in “Salt” while nursing her new-born twins, to “Asterix” co-creator Albert Uderzo, who is unfazed when the wine waiter asks him if he would like a drop of magic potion, while business has among others, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who confesses he is an omnivore and wouldn’t miss the pudding, Michael O’Leary of budget airline Ryanair who orders ultra-small lunch portions and Somali-born British businessman Mo Ibrahim.

Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness (the article coincidentally came out the day that IRA declared a ceasefire), and Colombian policeman Rosso Jose Serrano who led the fight against drug cartels and saw drug baron Pablo Escobar being gunned down appear in ‘Poachers and Gamekeepers’, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbon are among the fashionistas, Angela Merkel (before she became chancellor), Robert Mugabe’s rival Morgan Tsvangirai, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame among the politicians category and in ‘thinkers’, executed Japanese World War II leader Hideki Tojo’s daughter Yuko rubs shoulders with DNA co-founder James Watson.

You could question the selection but finalising 50 odd out of over a 1,000 will cause discontent in some quarter at least. A more valid question, but for self-introspection, would be to why no Indians are seen and if we have someone who makes the grade – emotive hyper-nationalism is no help here.

(07.03.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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