Szablowski is most interested in the confounding contradictions that make us human ... 'We simply have to trust the cooks,' Szablowski writes, with the kind of analysis the book could use more of. 'Just as we would trust them if we met them and they cooked for us. We must allow them to tell their stories — and remember them just as they wish to be remembered' ... Even the book’s structure nods to the precarious existence of the cooks, as well as the relationship of food and power. Its chapters are titled 'Breakfast,' 'Lunch,' 'Snack,' etc.That seems logical in a book about food until you arrive at the last chapter and discover that the titles don’t refer to courses. Those seeming antidotes to hunger are the names of the waves of bombs the U.S. dropped on Cambodia in 1969, secretly trying to carpet-bomb it into submission.
...anecdotal and easy-going ... Szablowski is a limpid and gently brilliant storyteller ... Szablowski lets his subjects speak for themselves ... their bosses’ preferences...are curiously banal. More interesting are the behind-the-scenes glimpses of hypocrisies, capriciousness and bullying ... But while the dictators enjoy their cameos as stage villains in the stories, the unexpected heart of this book is the odysseys of the chefs themselves. Almost all were plucked by chance from a poor village and thrust into the high life, rewarded with money and privilege, and then cast out again. As they alternate between the boastful and reflective, their talent to please difficult masters frames a disquieting complicity ... Throughout, the chefs are rendered as compelling and complex characters. Szablowski’s skill is to hang back from judgment; moments of humour and honest reckoning are mixed in with the caprices of pride and success ... The book that originally sought to shed light on the private interiors of iconic dictators ends up posing more universal questions about collusion and responsibility.
... lively ... [Szablowski] doesn’t bother with recipes, but with the help of locals he meets, he does provide historical context for the worlds in which these tyrants operated and makes sure we remember how evil they were, even as we read about their fondness for grilled cheese with honey or refusal to eat dried elephant meat ... He also warns us—though only at the end of the book, after we’ve ingested what his chefs have served—that he wasn’t able to verify much of what he has been told ... What do we learn from these chefs, by way of Mr. Szabłowski, about the dictators they served? Probably not much we didn’t already suspect.