Forever Employable Stories: Simon Majumdar, chef, writer, podcaster, television personality

My kids have grown up watching Simon Majumdar on Food Network. You can imagine then when I told them that he agreed to an interview with me for an episode of Forever Employable Stories the excitement level was pretty high. We know Simon to be a judge on many of Food Network’s most successful cooking competitions but he’s also a writer, podcaster and, of course, a chef as well.

What I found so compelling about Simon’s story is that up until around the time he was 40 he’d been working professionally as a book publisher without a clear indication that he would do anything different. After a personal tragedy Simon was pushed to the edge, quite literally, where he discovered his true passion for food. Pursuing that dream started with an around the world trip that ended up with a publishing deal and tv shoot on a beach next to Alton Brown.

There’s so much more to this story, I can’t wait for you to watch it.

Transcript

JEFF:    Welcome back to another episode of Forever Employable Stories. I’m super excited. I’m having a bit of a fan boy moment for this episode’s guest. Today is author, podcaster, chef, TV cooking show judge, food expert, Simon Majumdar. Simon, thanks so  much for joining me today.

SIMON:           Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to chat with you.

JEFF:    It’s not just me. It’s my entire family that’s literally thrilled that you’re here. The kids grew up on Food Network and they know all the faces there. They were super excited I’d be speaking with you today. I gave you a brief intro there. Fill in the gaps for us. Tell the folks a little bit about who you are and what you’re doing these days.        

SIMON:           Originally, as you probably can tell from my accent, I’m from the UK. Originally, brought up in the north of England in Sheffield; in fact, a town called Rotherham outside of Sheffield. Moved down to London in the 80s to study theology. Very different career to what I’m doing now with the aim to become an Anglican priest which didn’t happen. Ended up in publishing and had a very successful publishing career which kind of faded because of some of my own mistakes and lots of other things. Then at the age of 40, I quit, and decided I’d go in to fulfill my life’s ambition which is what I still sign in every book. Go everywhere. Eat everything. Which took me around the world to 31 countries in a year. It really changed my life in many ways because I ended up writing a book based on that journey called Eat My Globe. Ended up meeting my wife on that journey who is an American. I ended up moving to where I am now. We’re speaking from Los Angeles. Ended up having someone from the Food Network read that book and kind of morphed into this position of what I do now which is what I kind of call myself a food boffin in that sense. Not the scientific sense but more in the sense that I’m passionate about food history, sharing food knowledge, eating around the world. That’s been difficult more recently but my aim is still to go everywhere, eat everything. I’ve got a wonderful wife who loves to do that with me.

I’ve gone through these number of journeys over my life. I call them journeys at different stages. What’s wonderful is what I’m doing now is it keeps changing even though I’m slightly older now. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m now doing this food history podcast that’s doing very well. I’m now being asked to write for some people. I’m a restaurant reviewer here in Los Angeles for TimeOut. All these kinds of things keep coming to me because I think I’ve created expertise that people want to dip into. That’s a very compressed version of what I do. Hopefully it shows people you can go on these number of journeys that are really useful in life and you don’t need to get too despondent at certain ages if everything is not going the way it should.

JEFF:    That’s amazing. In Forever Employable, the book, I talk about how I decided, on the day that I turned 35, that I was going to reconfigure everything moving forward. I was going to take back control of my future instead of putting it in other people’s hands and continue to look for work. It kind of shifted. Your transformation out of regular working happened when you were 40. Up until that point, you had been in publishing for a long time. Around that time, what happened and how did it impact your life and career moving forward from there?

SIMON:           I think in a lot of cases it’s a number of things coming together. We talk about that tipping point where a lot of things come and you kind of have a choice. Mine was quite a bleak one. I had a successful career in publishing but I’d started out in my early 20s or mid-20s thinking I was going to run a big company and all these ambitions we all have at that age where we think we’re immortal and nothing can stop us. By the time I was coming to 40, I realized that was slightly less likely to happen. Publishing was great and lucrative but I wasn’t going to achieve all the things I wanted. At the same time, the publishing company, which I helped to run, began to fail. One of the things about that – a lot of the reasons it failed or some of the reasons were mistakes that I made as well. You begin to question some of your own ability.  You don’t think you’re right about everything which is a hard thing for most people to realize. You realize that it’s going to impact other people’s livelihoods and jobs of people who are now younger than you. On top of that, I began to suffer from really serious depression and that’s because of the death of my mother who died of leukemia at far to young of age. What happened was this kind of configuration of all the things coming together. I could have carried on. I live and I still have a beautiful apartment in the center of London. I could have carried on making good money, gone to another job. I had other offers. It became much bigger than that. It needed a [0:06:00 factures?] with that life.

One day, I was actually standing on the apartment of my balcony getting ready to jump off. I always make a joke about it because below where I was standing was a very famous cemetery where John Bunyon and Daniel Defoe  and William Blake are buried. I always remember thinking to myself, “Well, if I jump off, it’s a cemetery. So, there’s no middleman.” Which is one of those kind of horrible, bleak things that go through your head when you’re at the end of something rather dark. Luckily, for me, the people, in the apartment below, opened their apartment and they were cooking. I think they were Lebanese. They were cooking this beautiful food that came up. I always say I got more hungry than suicidal. I went back in and decided to cook. While I was cooking, I was looking at all my recipe books. I pulled out a notebook and I did one of these Tony Robbins courses. I got some stuff out of it but one of the things was a gold setting thing. On that goal list were things like running a marathon. I had suit made in Savile Row. I had my teeth straightened. All these kind of odd things. At the bottom, I had written four words. Go everywhere. Eat everything. I decided there and then. It really was that kind of lightbulb go on moment that you see in cartoons. I said, “That’s it.” The next day, I went to speak to the woman who ran the company, who owned the company that I was helping to run and said, “I’m off.” A few weeks later, I was on Bondi Beach at the beginning of a start of a journey to 31 countries.

It came out of real darkness but I think one of the important things about that is when I look back at it now and obviously, it’s always interesting to look back. I’d obviously been preparing because I’d set up this kind of slush fund or rain fund or whatever you want to call it that was considerable but not for retirement, not for looking way ahead. I had built up this ability to do this financially because I must have known it was coming. I ended up with X thousand pounds in the bank ready to jump on a plane and go. That actually facilitated me doing it for the next 1 ½ years.

JEFF:    It’s almost like you knew it was coming. One way or another, something had to change and you were building up to that change.

SIMON:           I think what happens is a lot of the time, if we’re unhappy in a job – I’ve had many  jobs that you kind of press down some of the things that are less happy about them because you’re making great salaries or you’re getting profits or people recognize you for what you’re doing. Underneath, when you look back, it was building up. It just got to that point where I was standing on the balcony where it was either I left or I wasn’t going to be here anymore. I’d built up that fund to allow me to do that. I think that’s quite an important thing for me. Without me saving that money, I’d have still been there or doing something like that now. Just giving myself the opportunity to do other things without having to worry about paying the mortgage or all of those things was great.

JEFF:    For a lot of folks, 40 feels like the end of the road not the beginning of something new. It feels at this point, there’s so much sunk cost. I’ve put in 20 years into a profession. I’ve put in 10 years at a company, 15 years here and there. Even if you’ve got that financial cushion that will give you runway for a year or 1 ½ years, at some point, that runs out and you’ve got to figure out what’s next. That’s terrifying for a lot of people. How did you overcome the fears of starting over?

SIMON:           I think part of it is as you develop in one aspect of your career, whether it’s tech or writing or whatever it is, it’s really important to have other elements in your life that aren’t related to that career, that build you up as a person anyway. It gives you other opportunities. One of the things that came out of while I was in book publishing is that I love to write. I had a few people come to me and go, “Could you write a few little bits for this bathroom reader I’m doing on history?” Because I loved history and it paid a few hundred pounds here or not even.  I just did it for fun. At the same time, I also had people – and this is obviously the food element of our life. I had people coming to me and asking me to be a secret reviewer of great restaurants. I’d go in and write things and make a lot of notes and then I’d get to pay some money for that. Long before I kind of set off on this journey, one of the very early food blogs with my brother, Robin, which is called Dos Hermanos. It was one of the early food blogs. There weren’t many of them around. Now there are hundreds of thousands. We were two older guys. We were in our late 30s, early 40s, and we started reviewing restaurants in London. We came at it from a very different angle from a lot of the blogs because we were older. We had eaten around the world. We were probably a little wealthier than some of the young bloggers who were just starting out and writing about their cooking at home; all of which was wonderful, but we were the ones able to go, “Well, we’ve gone to Paris. We’ve gone to this restaurant. We ate across…” We started writing reviews that started getting picked up by the reviewers in London and being quoted alongside the big – quoted along Jay Rayner and a lot of these really well known – A.A. Gill – really well known writers. We built up this other area of influence that was completely separate from my career. For me, it happened to be food because that’s a passion in our family. It’s an obsession even now.

Before I started talking to you, my family in England were texting me pictures on WhatsApp or whatever we’re using this days and it’s constant. I think building up areas outside of your traditional career that really give you just joy but also show you that you’ve got other aspects. You’re not as dependent on going, “Did I have a good day in the office? Did my boss shout at me? Did this meeting go well?” Because you’ve got other things that give you pleasure and in the end, turned out to become the next stage of my journey.

JEFF:    Amazing. There’s a Japanese concept called ikigai and there’s a bastardized western version of that that I’ve been using and sharing a lot with folks. Basically, it asks you to answer four questions. The four questions are: What do you love? What are you good at? What does the world need? What can you get paid for? The purpose of answering those four questions is to try to find something or some things that fall in the middle of that four circle, venn diagram that tick all four boxes. Most folks will focus on the professional part of their life, the professional career. What I love about this is and what I’ve heard you saying is that you were looking much more broadly than just, “I know book publishing. But I also like writing and I also love food.” All of a sudden, “the world always needs food. I could potentially get paid for this.” There’s an opportunity to grow who you are, what you do, how you make a living with all the facets of your life. I think your story illustrates that really well.

As you were starting to head down this particular path to build an audience to start writing, blogging, etc., what did you try and what worked well and what failed along the way to help you  build that audience and that following and some recognition?

SIMON:           What I found is when I was actively going out to try and build a bigger audience, I would put things on the blog that I worked with a company to do an offer or I’d do – maybe I’d do an interview with someone or things that I thought, “Oh, well, this will get me more noticed,” it never really worked. What I found more than anything was – and I think this holds true hopefully now where one of the reasons I hope people like me when they watch me on the Food Network or they read what I write is I decided that once I was kind of authentic, for better or for worse, about who I was, which was a middle-aged man doing what I do, people gravitated towards that because they saw that I am who I am and I wasn’t trying to compete with some young influencer on Instagram. I was being me. That was very important. If I just wrote, “This is me going into this and I’m unapologetic about it. I’m unapologetic about what I wrote about people as long as it’s not offensive but it’s fair. I’m unapologetic about the things that excite me.” The other thing that I found really interesting is that you can take your work very seriously. I’m very serious about food. I’m serious about the meals I want. I’m serious about writing about food history. I work for months and months when I’m writing new series in my food history podcast which is called Eat My Globe. I’m just about to go record a new season tomorrow, season six. I found if I was very serious about my work but a lot less serious about me and I didn’t take myself terribly seriously and answer questions, that also helped grow my audience. By that, I mean I’m very approachable. If you go onto Twitter or any of the social media, I am my people. Apart from my lovely wife here who organizes all my calendar because half the time I don’t know what day it is, it’s me that answers the questions. It’s me tweeting along shows when they’re live on Food Network. I found that worked really well because people are often surprised. They see me as this slightly [0:17:37 communciantly?] old man on TV shows which I won’t lie that I sometimes do kind of gravitate towards that. At the same time, I’m the one who goes on Cutthroat Kitchen and one time dressed up as Princess Leia because no one else would. I thought, why not? If someone once in my life asked me if I’ll dress up as Princess Leia on a TV show, why would you say no?

I think those are the two aspects of it. I think the authenticity. Just being yourself and behind that working really hard to build up the knowledge. So, you’re not like a big, bright red balloon that’s easy to pop.

JEFF:    We emailed you and asked if you’d like to speak with us and you said, “Absolutely” which was amazing and rare. It’s not easy especially with folks who are on television, etc. It becomes a big more difficult. I love this comment about authenticity. I talk about this all the time with folks. People ask, “What am I going to talk about? So many people are out there talking about this already.” Well, talk about what you know and talk about it in the way that you are and be yourself. Tell your story. It resonates because it humanizes the story. It makes your human experience different than the 10,000 other food podcasters that are out there as well. How did you end up on television?

SIMON:           I’m also a great believer in serendipity. I think if you’re a person of faith, which I am, but if you say to someone, “You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” One of those old jokes. There are lots of things that happen to me that I go, “I have no idea how that happened but they were very fortunate.” In fact, I was coming to the U.S. on a book tour for my first book. It was a great period of my life. I arrived in New York and I’d just written an article for The Guardian on sandwiches, of all things, which had gone viral in the early days of things going viral. Then I got picked up by the BBC World Service, which I love so much, to do an interview. I did an interview about sandwiches on the BBC World Service. My now manager, who is here in Los Angeles, heard me talking as he drove to work and thought, “We should have some food people on our roster.” He emailed me and said, “By the way, if you’re ever in Los Angeles, we’d love to talk to you to see if we could work together.” It so happened, of course, that my book tour ended in Los Angeles where my  now wife lives and where I live now. We met and that was the beginning of that friendship and still going on. We have a handshake agreement that has lasted all that time and continues to last and thrive and prosper and brings into it that element of trust. Someone you really believe has interest in your best which I do. Then what happened was he worked really hard to get me in front of some people, general meetings, the kind of Hollywood things that I’d never done before. Then one day not long before I got married, I got a call from him saying that the people at this show called The Next Iron Chef would like to talk to me. I was like, “Oh okay.” I will admit now – it’s kind of a dozen years on, that I had no idea what this show was because I was from Britain. We had our own shows. I went to Google and this turned out to be the biggest show in the network. It’s amazing. Even though I’ve been on it, I can still say that.

The next thing I know, they’re interviewing me kind of generally at the production company. Go away on honeymoon, come back, and the next thing I know, I’m standing on a beach next to Alton Brown and I’m on the Food Network. I think part of that was I thought, “Well, this is great. It might help some stuff. I hope I get to do some more with him.” But I never thought to myself of having a TV career. Here I am a dozen years later and I’ve done X hundred number of shows for them and there’s a big show where I went and taught a bunch of champions with Guy Fieri that’s airing now that’s the biggest show on the network. I’m still doing it. I kind of always think I’m still getting away with it. That’s how it happened.


Here’s the key with that. I think, for me, I turn up on time and do my job as well as I possibly can every time. I’m low maintenance which I think is a big thing. I refuse to be a diva; apart from asking them sometimes to get me a cup of English  breakfast tea in the morning. I’m English and if I don’t have that, it will be good for nobody. Then I leave. I think there might be people who are much better than me but they might be more difficult to deal with. They know I’ll turn up, do my job really well, and then get out of their way. For whatever reason, they’ve kept me around and I adore doing it. I adore my work on the Food Network. It gives me the impetus for all the other areas of my life because people like you, you’ve seen me on there and gets me to do things like this which is what I also love.

JEFF:    The low maintenance part of it resonated with me. It reminded me of years ago, in the summer of 1994, I worked an internship in a recording studio in New York City. I was going to go into audio production. That was going to be my career. There were all these up and coming rap stars. Did a lot of rap music in that studio in the evenings. A lot of the younger ones were super high maintenance. They came in with an entourage and it’d cost the studio money. They’d order food. Every now and again, LL Cool J would come in and in 1994, he was already a mega celebrity. He came in by himself. He walked into the studio with his producer, recorded his tracks, and went home. There was a reason why people liked to work with him. Not only did he do great work and he was phenomenally talented, but he was a pro and low maintenance. That’s an interesting aspect that I hadn’t considered before.

SIMON:           I will say the greatest compliment that I ever get from anybody and I’ve been lucky enough to receive it from a few, is that just go, “You’re a real professional.” This goes right back to being a child and it’s obviously resonated with me. Hearing an interview from the then manager of my lowly soccer team, Rotherham United – we were never terribly good and still aren’t. I follow them every week. One of the managers said about a player who had been there for 20 years at this point, “Good, solid professional.” He said, “He turns up to training. He trains harder than anybody.” This guy was then in his mid-30s which back when I was a kid was quite late to be playing. He said, “He turns up. He trains harder than anyone including the apprentices. He does his job. I never hear anything else from him. He goes home to his family. Goes home and does everything else.”


That resonates with me. In many ways, it’s great to be a meteorite and shine brightly for a while. We’ll remember a lot of those but that’s not always a great way to sustain life. I always think of myself sometimes in terms of Food Network, I’m like the character actor. That guy and that thing. You have people who are a lot brighter and sharper and huge personalities on the screen but then they can always bring me in to do that thing.

JEFF:    There’s a beauty in that consistency and that reliability and that professionalism that helps people rise to the top which is amazing. There’s a quote I found from an interview you did online and it said, “I’m absolute proof that when you’re in your darkest moments, you can have some of the most amazing things happen to you.” Particularly now, it’s super important for people to hear this as we start, as we hopefully are turning the corner on this pandemic, and we’re starting to climb out of this thing hopefully. When times are tough, what should people lean on to push them to the next thing? Especially if they’re considering leaning into a passion or a next step or a career shift.

SIMON:           There’s a couple of sides here. One is the emotional side. To have people who give you great support in the right way. By that, I mean people go, “You’re doing this and it’s not really that great.” Or people who come up to you, “You know, you kind of need to watch your behavior. I don’t mean in an off kind of way but like in that meeting you weren’t particularly great to everyone. You were exuding all your problems and none of the good side.” I think listening to people who give you a good, solid response to who you are.

The other side comes from yourself. The one thing I always do is I am dedicated to increasing knowledge. I’m obsessed about it. That can be in lots of fields. I’ve done it this morning. I’ve been for a long 7-mile walk and it’s only about 9:30 here. I do a 7-mile walk. I listen to podcasts on politics, on history, on mathematics. I listen to as much as I possibly can. Build up knowledge. Through this pandemic, one of the things I’ve done is I’ve absolutely been obsessed with building up knowledge that can help me as a person whether it’s my food history podcast, whether it’s learning more about how television works or whatever it is. I think, in these dark times, find areas that really give you passion and really dive into the depth about the knowledge of them. You come out feeling like you’ve got building blocks that you’re standing on. Right now, during the pandemic – and I’m a freelancer, when you think about it – it’s like you’re a house built on sand. Just by building up those kinds of blocks knowledge, it gives you something firm to stand on. That’s been really important for me.

Whenever you’re in that dark period, find something that’s going to give you consistency and reliability and help you stabilize.

JEFF:    If I was to say the phrase “shave my head with a cheese grater” could you name which TV show that quote came from?

SIMON:           I’m going to guess it was someone serving – if it came from me, it was probably, “I’d rather shave my own head with a cheese grater than eat a dish on Next Iron Chef.” I did say on Next Iron Chef once that I’d rather cut out my own liver with a rusty spoon that eat a dish on Next Iron Chef again which didn’t go down terribly well with the chef who’s never spoken to me since. I won’t name them.

JEFF:    It’s a quote from The Larry Sanders Show. There was something I saw online that said that was one of your favorite shows.

SIMON:           Well, because of Larry Sanders and before that, my old time great show was the Gary Shandling show.

JEFF:    He was amazing. I was a big fan of The Larry Sanders Show as well. That’s one of the quotes in there. I won’t tell you the second half of that quote because I’m trying to keep this PG-rated. Thank you so much for your generosity and the time and sharing your knowledge. It was a pleasure speaking with you and a pleasure getting to know you a little bit.

SIMON:           It’s been my real great pleasure. I just adore having these conversations. Being able to share what I know with people and also being able to find out from other people. I’ll take away that Japanese notion that you shared with me earlier. That’s just building up those blocks of knowledge. Hopefully we both got something out of this.

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