Iraq / Basrah 1981 - 1982
We traveled across the desert in the afternoon and arrived at the shitty border check-point in Iraq. They checked everything even my wife’s tampons for bullets.
The feces from the public toilet floated up till the main road. This was due to the people who had to transit here, before crossing the border to Kuwait, using the neglected toilet system. The highway from the border to Basrah was full of pot-holes which was probably the result of heavy bombing but the taxi-driver explained to us that Basrah is a very old city. This actually did not explained the holes situation.
The Basrah Sheraton is like a palace building on a water-front of the Shatt Al Arab. This huge river joins the Euphrates and the Tigris from Turkey by the Garden of Eden, about 80 kilometers North of Basrah and finishes at the Persian Gulf. Because of the on-going Iran-Iraq war, this magnificent river changed to a dead zone with hundreds of crippled ocean-liners.
We arrived just before Sheraton’s opening. I looked at the hotel and imagined the thousands of tourist and businessmen who will be flocking here. It was the first luxury hotel and was fully owned by the Government, under President and Hotel VIP Sadam Hussain. Basrah is a populated city of 2,000,000.
"Welcome to the team," said the General Manager, Alfred Heim from Switzerland who was already used to the situation in Basrah. He introduced us to the Food and Beverage Manager, Wim Stoorevogel, the Housekeeper, Pauline Mc Gin, the Financial Controller, Kim and not forgetting, the Chief Steward, Arif. After finishing our welcome drink at about 1.00am, the General Manager briefly reminded us about the morning fire-alarm. This he cautioned, was not a drill but was set off by daily movements on earth.
He then assured us that we will eventually get use to the situation. BOOM!! (How could I describe the blast which woke my wife and me up?)
We moved as fast as our feet would allowed us to. My wife was deprived of her usual make-up session. Unknowingly, we probably had set a new sprint record in the international sport scene. We raced through the empty corridors, down to engineering Department. It was the only safe place that was without windows or outside walls - This was used as a breakfast and action centre during its pre-opening. No worries, this was a daily exercise and you get used to it.
He was right, the next day-the sound was not alarming but sounded more like a wake-up call. A good service for an unopened hotel.. After a few days, I had a problem trying to wake my wife up. She didn’t hear the bombing and was very tired from her new job as a Restaurant Manageress. We had a lot to do with training and for me, training the kitchen here was very different compared to other countries.
Pak Sadam Hussains Iraqi internship kitchen trainees
For example, you tell them "This is a tap - If you want water on, turn to the left. When you turn right - it’s off. OK?"
Ten minutes later, the cook disappeared and resigned without informing me. He was still in the cook’s uniform and the whole kitchen was full of water. All these things were very funny.
"Execuse me, I’m a new cook." I welcomed him then. "This is a soap, here is a towel and there is the shower room. Go on!" said I to him. ten minutes after that the shower door opens and the cook walks out, still dirty.
We try again. "Take your pants, shirt and all the rest off. Get into the shower, turn the tap, take the soap, rub it all over your body. Don’t forget to clean between your legs and underarms." Finally, he comes out clean. I further instructed him. "Take the towel and dry yourself. Put on your uniform and when you are ready to come to the Chef’s Office."
The nail cutting ceremony is conducted and a hair cut is given. "Are you happy, now?"
"Welcome again, you are now a cook, OK?"
"Yes Master, thank you."
The next morning, it was the "Good morning, hands out for finger-nail check and arms up for odor check." routine. Everything is okay. Have a good morning. This is how the day started. This daily checks gave me the guarantee that they are hygienic and I could taste the food without any fear of contamination.
The first Wedding Cake in Meseputanian,
my Turkish sous chef Celal right & saucier Sharma left of me!
The nice thing about this hygienic training was that it did not push down the morale of the cooks instead, they were happy that somebody showed them the correct way to live hygienically. In this antique and quaint city of Basrah, there was no water supplied to any of the houses there. The local have a different life style which is incomparable to the standards of this hotel, and our lifestyle.
The next target, was to show them how to operate the kitchen machines. For example, the butcher’s bone saw - I showed him how to position a bone for a cut. "Take your left hand and put it on the left side of the bone and then take your right hand on the right side of the bone... Keep it tight."! I switched on the blade band and he screams "Nooo...Sorry sir, but this is very dangerous."
We tried and tried and tried, and one week later I decided to remove this modern equipment to the Store and there was no more screaming. What an understanding Chef. I eventually removed the mincer, slicer, steamer and even the salad washer.
at the Sindbad
Dolly Kern , my lovely wife & restaurant manager with Egyptian waiter Sahid
Sometimes, steps like these are necessary before you start losing your entire kitchen crew.
After the one-month trial run prior to Sheraton’s opening, the hired staff from Ceylon, India, Pakistan and Nepal arrived. All had brought their tennis-rackets and had business cards stating that they were Sous Chefs. It was very interesting to have so many Sous Chef. The count - 40...
The job hunting agency in their native land had promised these guys all kinds of positions and this in turn would increase their fees. Luxury for these people was very important and worth paying the agency (the tennis court) a little more money for this jobs. I decided that all of them could start as commis and crystallized them out at a later stage.
Later, the Chef Butcher, Executive Sous Chef and Chef Gardemanger arrived from Turkey. We were then ready to implement the first A La Carte menu which had to be handwritten.
For security reasons, no printing machines or typewriters were allowed. Our F&B Manager, Wim had a problem with writing on a straight line and produced the worst menu ever seen.
But in Basrah, it was something special as it was the first menu this city ever saw. Never mind if it was lousy looking!
The training crew from Sheraton’s Head Office came to help for the official soft-typed of opening. This included a funny character or better spoken as a pain in the ass - Mr. Simson, the Area Chef.
My lovely wife, Dolly trained her mixed crew in the restaurant with her innermost effort and tried to ensure a quality output. Sometimes, a chicken is a "chicken." Their egg boiler was too modern and sophisticated and some of the waiters burned their fingers in trying to pick up the semi-boiled egg. They didn’t understand that the machine is automatic and the eggs when boiled would be lifted out automatically from the boiling water.
hotel front at the shatt al arab / graveyard for ocean liners
All in all, we ran the nice but small 200 rooms, an oasis between political conflicts, dirt and a beautiful date plantation.
The market in Basrah was very interesting and disgusting as well. Luckily, I was a smoker and had fun being a chain-smoker. This was the only way to see what kind of meats you are purchasing as swarms of flies were sitting on the meats. Everytime you blew your smoke out, you could see if it was beef, camel, horse or mutton which for a non-smokers would be difficult to identify. If you had bought 5 kilograms of meat, you had actually purchased only 3 kilograms of meat and 2 kilograms of flies.
The customers in our hotel were mostly fire-arms dealers, normal people without any problems and had a lot of money made through this booming business during the war. War had also caused problems for my cooks.
There were two Indian cooks called Sharma (they were not brothers but had the same name.) They had been sight-seeing in the market at the wrong time and when a bomb blasted directly in the market, they ran into my kitchen shouting and still under shock, "Chef, Chef..."
I held one of them in my arms when the blood prelude over his dirty face through the blasted market dust. He was full of lead. I went to the hotel’s clinic but there was no doctor around because the doctors were urgently required for the thousands of wounded soldiers from the battle.
No problem, a cook knows how to cut meat. Nevermind with what knives or what types of meats. So pants and jackets off, whishky for disinfecting and the bone knife... We managed to save Sharma.
I took out thirty-eight needle sized pieces of lead from his scalp.
The head seemed as though a cowboy had just been treated by Red Indians, like in the Western movies.
Besides, I took out four nugget size shell pieces form his legs, one very near to the bone which made it necessary to cut a bigger hole.
I managed to stitch it up with some thread from the Housekeeping. Everything was done and he was eventually saved. I did it and I am proud of this operation which I learned through my profession. I kept pieces of the lead as souvenirs.
We Chefs are not nobody’s, we are more than an artist or - naja - not a God - but okay.
Alfred Heim, my General Manager got a transfer to Alexandria in Egypt but before he left, surprised us with a trip to Bahrain for a week as a "thank you" gesture to staff. We stayed in the beautiful Bahrain Sheraton Hotel; saw fantastic hotels, palaces, horse washing establishment of the sheikh, Sheikh’s beach and the Gold Market where even the beggars are rich.
Baklawa & Kaneffa are the sweetest sweets I ever tried
On returning my F & B Manager was missing in action. I was hence promoted to Food and Beverage Manager.
The wagging war got more serious. After eight months, the front line moved directly in front of our hotel. The embassies evacuated their respective citizens out of this country. Nobody moved us because we were working for the Government and we were also not registered with the Embassy in Baghdad.
For three whole months, we lived out of the suitcase that was stored in a Land Rover given to me by one of the fire-arms dealers. He had to leave it in Basrah by running away. We managed for a year, with the bombing, rockets and flying tanks hit by the Iranian missiles.
It got really alarming. The hotel windows were shattered and the entire Japanese Construction Company with our friends, Mr. Nagamitsho and Tony left us alone. There was not much hope left.
A final letter from Alfred before his transfer was that of the procedure of evacuating the entire staff from the staff camp to the hotel. He mentioned that there ought to be only five person to a bus, otherwise we would lose too many. I didn’t want to lose any of the staff so all of them were moved into the hotel’s back rooms, not facing the front line of the war. Now our guests were local businessmen who enjoyed the monkey business with girls and food.
The hotel’s F & B Department revenue was promising. Hundreds of Filipino prostitutes and nightclub entertainers from the back lane of the hotel who had no passports were stranded. They enjoyed my Sunday Brunch spread. The single men in our hotel enjoyed the girls who had top business on both sides the puff and the hotel. Food orders placed were not items from the menu but the whole menu itself!
This comprised of forty different dishes. Likewise, the order of Black Label was done by bottles and for beer, by the dozens. Business was good and then the war broke, customers never knew when their last drink was.
They entered the bar, sober and an hour later, in a drunken stupor. The security or bell captain had to personally transport these people home. The speed at which the customers were getting drunk hit such a record that we started the C.O.D. (cash on delivery) system.
We got guests to pay in advance as it was difficult obtaining the money from them when they were drunk. That you have to understand.
My wife worked from 6.00am till midnight, without breaks. My schedule was from morning to morning.
The bar tenders from Pakistan got very organized in making extra income for their return ticket home. Soon, it was time to move all staff to the sister property in Baghdad as it was impossible to live in Basrah with its air full of flying lead.
We returned all the equipments with proper inventory to the Store Rooms. The food was also shipped in a freezer truck to Baghdad. Free of charge.
Executive Chef, Messerli must have had the lowest food cost for a few months. I’m sure it must have been about a quarter of a million dollars worth of food. But at least the foodstuff did not rot or spoil when the cooling tower got hit.
The Management, Sheraton and the owners, the Iraqi Government was anyhow still the same. Ali, the Jordanian General Manager agreed that this was the right way. All the telephones, fax machines and telex were cut off and prohibited from use. Therefore we were unable to reach our headquarters in England for advice.
Dolly and I applied for leave and waited in an empty section of the closed hotel. A week later, the exit permit arrived. We left by taxi via Kuwait with an Alitalia ticket purchased in Basrah which was not even valid. But the mess of the war, overbooking and the confusions at the airport enabled us to leave with KLM to Amsterdam and then of Frankfurt.
All ready for a holiday.
The local Recipe
I cooked a Goat for President Sadam Husain 1981 " Qusi "
FLAT LIKE BASRAH / ZUBEIDI
TAKE A POMFRET FISH AND MARINATE IT WITH SALT, LEMON JUICE AND L&P SAUCE. FOLD IN FLOUR AND PAN-FRY IN OLIVE OIL TILL GOLDEN BROWN AND COMPLETELY WELL-COOKED. SAUTE TOMATO CUBES, BLACK OLIVES, LEMON SLICES AND FRESH PARSLEY. THEN PLACE THEM ON TOP AND OVER THE FISH. SERVE WITH BOILED POTATOES AND FATUSH, A SALAD MADE WITH LETTUCE, OLIVES, FETA CHEESE, SPRING ONIONS, PARSLEY, BURGUL (BROKEN WEED) AND BROKEN PITABREAD MARINATED WITH OLIVE OIL, SALT AND LEMON JUICE.
LEMON, OLIVE OIL AND FRESH GREENS INCLUDING PARSLEY ARE THE LOCAL HIGHLIGHTS IN THIS NEVER-GREEN DESSERT.