Simon Majumdar is many things to many people. Publisher, world traveler, journalist and television star are all appropriate titles. But most of us know him best as a food critic, one of toughest there is according to The Food Network.
We asked him to take a few minutes from writing his latest book, Fed, White & Blue, which covers his journey to becoming an American citizen, to talk with us about anything and everything NOT related to his most familiar topic …
We will start with an easy one … favorite course in school?
When I was at university I realized I had a talent for dead languages such as Latin and New Testament Greek. This was funny because while I was quite good at the older languages I was hopeless at the modern ones. I actually researched these while studying theology at King’s College London with the idea of becoming an Episcopalian priest. This notion, of course, ended pretty quickly at both my and church’s decision.
My favorite number is 9. This goes back to when I was a child going to football matches with my grandad and his friends who supported Chelsea. There was a striker named Peter Osgood who wore the number 9 and was my absolute hero. They were known as the “King of King’s Road” which was the hip area of the swinging 60s in London. I completely idolized him.
Keeping with that theme … in honor of the World cup, and knowing that you are from the home of the sport … is it pronounced football or soccer?
A lot of people think soccer is an Americanism but it does have a British beginning as an abbreviation for Association Football. But to my last breath I’ll always call it football, so please never call it soccer in my presence. Soccer is a game played by 8 year old girls in America, while football is the greatest sport known to mankind.
The non-food person you most admire?
Admire or fascinated by is an interested distinction … but Alexander Great is someone who truly fascinates me. In his quest to conquer the known world he simply had no understanding of limitations. And obviously not in the same way, but I often say to myself that there is no reason I can’t achieve anything I set my mind to. And I have faced a lot of criticism for it. Especially coming from Britain which is a very status driven society. To stand in the face of those saying “you can’t do that,” you have to have a certain mentality. So I am most definitely not comparing myself to Alexander the Great, but the ability of him or any truly great person to say “I am going to do this”, and then go and do it, is something I have always admired.
In America we call those nay-sayers, “haters” …
(laugh) In Britain they call it “tall poppy syndrome” … we don’t like people who get too full of themselves and the media will often build people up just to take them down.
But in the US it is a bit different as I think that entrepreneurial ability is something that is part of the American character. Not once since I moved to the US has anyone ever said to me, “You are a book publisher, why are doing that?” They just see if you are good at something, and if you are then you can do it.
Morning person or night owl?
Morning person. I drive my poor Mrs. nuts, because as soon as I wake up I have to be out and about, while she likes to gradually ease into the day. In fact I am sure lots of my previous relationships ended because I am far too perky in the morning.
On the other end I am usually down for the count before The Daily Show.
Obviously you are known as food Network’s “toughest critic” … who is your toughest critic?
Without question, my wife. And in a very good way as she challenges me at every turn. The word criticism is not necessarily a bad thing, people often take it to being mean but it is just telling people what works and what doesn’t. My wife has always been the first one to very generously say it would help to do this and not do that I am a 100% better person for it.
So she critiques your critiques?
She does. Not in terms of food, but she’ll let me know when a certain shirt doesn’t look good or to stop talking with my mouth full on camera.
This is especially helpful with my books … she’ll tell me what she likes, what chapters don’t work and what she wishes she heard more of. And her suggestions are always valid because she is one very smart woman. She is my toughest, keenest and most generous critic.
Changing speeds … favorite cartoon character?
This going way back to the Wacky Races. They showed it over and over when I was kid and the main villain was named Dick Dastardly. He was in many ways based on the rogue British actor Terry Thomas and was a kind of Victorian style villain complete with a handlebar moustache. His dog Muttley was his sneaky sidekick and they were my favorite. I always thought I’d make a great Dick Dastardly if they ever made a movie.
I even had a fulsome moustache and beard when I was young. But nowadays being bald it would just look like my head is on upside down so I stay away from facial hair.
We might try to turn one of those pics up so be prepared … Now the oddest non-food situation you have ever been in?
It’s hard because I have been in so many odd circumstances.
But one of the most random was after my first book and I arrived in Senegal. It’s a wonderful country with most wonderful people, but when I arrived at Dakar airport
around 1am it was complete chaos. People were trying to grab my bags and drag me to what they claimed were taxis, and I still remember one man who came up to me and would not stop trying to sell me something. He wouldn’t leave me alone so I finally decided to buy just to get him to go away … then I realized what he was trying to sell me was travel Scrabble.
I just remember thinking what the hell was this guy doing selling travel Scrabble on the street at one o’clock in the morning in Senegal. It sticks with me just because of how bizarre it was.
Speaking of travel … assuming time travel is possible, what historical period would you go visit?
I would love to go back to the heyday of Ancient Rome. To see the Forum in its full glory, walk down the Appian Way, see Pompeii before it was destroyed, without a doubt that would be my first stop.
Now the question we always close with … Your entire philosophy on life in one sentence?
That’s easy, and it’s the same philosophy that saved my life. But to give it a little context, before I wrote my first book I actually had a nervous breakdown. Then one night I was cooking and looking through a list of all the things I wanted to do by 40. I had done most of them, things like run a marathon, have my teeth straightened … but at the bottom of the page there were four simple words; “go everywhere, eat everything”.
Since then I have been to 70+ countries, every state in the US and continue to travel all the time. And I am very lucky that my wife shares this goal. Everything we do is so we can go to more new places and we are going to keep doing it until the good lord calls us home.