How did you find those 1000 people, I take it they weren’t all personal acquaintances of yours?
No they’re not, but in those days, and still today to a certain extent, to have a foreign friend, was a feather in your cap. They wanted to be in such a book so that they could meet foreigners, so it was extremely easy to make those books. The only thing was that in Russia, towards the end, a few people were frightened of being on lists because if you were on a list it was easy to round you up, you know. But even there, the young people all wanted to be in the books. I remember I was in the middle of Russia and I went into a store and said, “Does anyone here speak English?” and a woman came up to me. She was an English teacher but she’d never met a native English speaker before in her life. She went into the book. They were great, those books; I loved making them. I only did five but they covered ten countries.
Are you working on any other projects like that at the moment?
Yes and no. There are a few things under way. Things never stop; you think of projects and people try to rope you into projects, and I kind of hate saying no to anybody or anything because ‘no’ limits you. With ‘yes’ anything can happen.
I said yes and now I’m talking to you, meeting you, and I hope one day we can sit down over a meal and giggle about all this. Yes-sayers are fun and no-sayers are … I don’t know, no fun I guess. I like the word yes, I try to say it a lot. It probably gets me trouble sometimes … I get invited places and I almost always say yes. I was recently invited to a film festival in Moravia in the east of the Czech Republic – the films were about the ‘60s. It was fun to go there, meet those people and see those films.
It sounds like you’ve had a fun life.
I think we only have one time around and we have to make it meaningful, we have to make it fun and we have to enjoy every minute, and I’ve certainly tried. I’ve enjoyed introducing people to people, I’ve enjoyed the travel and I’ve enjoyed the dinners … I’ve enjoyed it all, it’s been fun.
Absolutely. If you manage to eat at least one really good meal a week, as you do, in the company of friends then …
Actually, I rarely eat on Sunday nights because I’m so busy making sure everyone’s happy, meeting each other and has something to eat and drink. I don’t eat till Monday lunch. If there’re leftovers I invite a few people over. Sometimes, even on Tuesday or Wednesday I’ll have a small party with leftovers.
It’s amazing how food can bring people together like that.
It’s one of the great cement or gluing devices. To sit down over dinner with a bunch of friends is great.
And you certainly make that happen.
Well, it’s now Friday morning and I’m going to start preparing for Sunday’s dinner. It’s going to be Louisiana food this Sunday. Louisiana has a healthy culinary tradition …
Gumbo – is that Southern?
Yeah, gumbo and all those things.
So will you cook that meal?
No, I’m going to help. I can’t cook for one or for two, I can’t make myself toast, ok I can do toast, but that’s about it – but I can cook, if pushed, for 100 people. This Sunday I’ll probably be the sous chef; I’ll be the understudy.
Generally you get someone else to cook on Sunday nights don’t you?
Yes. We’ve also got a great cookbook called Throw a Great Party. Three women: Cathy Sroufe, who was the first person to cook here 33 years ago, Antonia Hoogewerf from London, and Mary Bartlett, who’s from America – together we made this cookbook of many of our recipes, and they work. If you follow them you can cook for 100 people. It’s got two columns: the left column is for 25 people and the right column is for 100.
That sounds great.
How long has Dumbo Feather been going?
Just over five years. Four issues a year. So issue 20 is printing at the moment; that felt like quite a milestone.
Not a millstone?
At times, but all that means is that I need a holiday.
Have you been to Paris?
I have, but not for a while.
I’ve got a guest bedroom if you need it. Come and stay. I’ve got two guest bedrooms and a woman from Sydney is staying in one right now. Amanda Morrow is a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald and she worked for the Guardian in London for a while. I met her on her second day in Paris at the Comedy Club and we had dinner that night. I said, “Stay in my guest bedroom until you find a place,” and she’s still there over a year later, and is a delight. She’s become a desert queen. I also have a woman staying here right now from Louisiana who wrote me an email asking if she could come to dinner. I said, “Do you by any chance cook?” and she said she did, so I said, “Don’t stay in a hotel, come and stay here and cook a Louisianan meal.”
So she’s in charge of this Sunday’s dinner?
Have you ever wanted to go back to America or are you quite happy being …
I always have a smart-arse reply to that question, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I always say, you can’t go back anywhere, you can only go forward because you change and the place changes. So, if I do, I’ll be going forward to America. People who ‘come back’ to Paris say, “Oh it’s so different,” and I say, “Well, look in the mirror and you’ll see something different.” Life is a trip through time and space and we can only go forward. I have no plans to leave Paris at all, but I had no plans to leave Edinburgh and I had no plans to leave London either. I stuck my toe into Amsterdam in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s too. I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve lived on earth. I enjoyed my teens in Venezuela, my 20s in Edinburgh, my 30s in London and I’ve now been in Paris for 40 years and I’ve enjoyed every minute here; it’s a great city.
By the sound of things it’s enjoyed you too …
I hope so, I hope I’ve contributed something to the city. One of the things people say is that the French are very difficult. They’re not difficult; it’s just big-city life. In fact, I think they’re as friendly as anyone anywhere, but one thing I’ve done through the dinners especially is introduce people to people. There are a lot of French people who I’m friends with, Australians and Americans and Brits and Scots. When you think that every week, 50 or 60 people of all ages, nationalities, religions, races and everything come here, and everyone gets along fabulously – there has never been a problem in 30-something years.
In fact, probably the opposite’s happened. I’m sure you’ve been responsible for making some amazing connections between people.
Many love affairs, friendships, babies, jobs … In fact, David Turner from Sydney that I was talking about earlier had always dreamed of spending some time in a monastery in Japan and on a Sunday night here he met a journalist from Tokyo and he talked to her about it. Her brother was a head monk in a Kyoto monastery so he went off and spent three months in this monastery. His dream had been fulfilled from a Sunday night dinner.
Do you believe in serendipity or fate? Is that what makes those connections happen?
I don’t know what makes them; it’s really unusual and totally bizarre. I don’t like to think … It’s such a mystery why things like that happen. I mean there have been evenings here where someone has met a long-lost friend they haven’t seen in years. A woman from Texas cooked once and she’d lost track of a particular person, then she went out to the garden to have a drink and there he was, having a drink in the garden. Why do those things happen? I don’t know.