Mendonca has gone from celebrity restaurant king to invalid
pensioner, but don't rule out a second innings. Peter Wilmoth
Mendonca is a storyteller and even at their lowest moments
storytellers cannot help but tell stories. "I first
met Imran Khan in 1976," he says. "There was a
party here (at the restaurant) and I said to Imran, 'Why
don't you mix around and dance?' He said, 'I can't really
dance.' I told him, 'Women are not really interested in
cricket, they're interested in cricketers.' I took him into
the kitchen and showed him the samba steps. Hands on the
shoulder, one, two.
I taught Imran Khan to dance. Then I said, 'Now you can
just go round and sort of wriggle.' And then he went on
to become the darling of the disco set in London. He became
a chick magnet." And you helped? "Unwittingly,
wait, there's more. Larry remembers a curious tennis superbrat
coming in one night. "John McEnroe said he couldn't
understand how in cricket it took five days to get a result.
I told him, 'Cricket is a philosophy that happens to be
a game.' He said, 'I can't understand this effing lbw.'
So I got some pads and put them on him and tried to explain
how the umpire calls it. He was bundled out of the Australian
Open the next day for code violation and he said it was
like being given lbw. I felt proud of the fact that I had
explained it to him."
is sitting in the Rajah Sahib Tavern and Tandoori Grill
amid tables covered with pieces of material, files and books.
There hasn't been a meal served here for a year, and it's
become his research room for the book he's writing. Upstairs
is his "lair" - accommodation now that he and
his wife's 30-year marriage is over. He won't show it to
me because he's "living like a bachelor".
restaurant is where generations of cricketers and celebrities
came to eat and have their pictures taken - with Larry,
that is. The decor is Larry Land itself, a monument to the
sort of self-esteem that would have brought a blush to the
face of Elvis Presley during his pants-suit days.
every photograph on the walls has Larry in it: Larry with
Shane Warne, Elton John, the Williams sisters, Graham Gooch,
Ian Botham, Hanse Cronje, Bryan Ferry, Cher - anyone who
ever strapped on a pair of pads, picked up a racquet or
toured the greatest-hits hotel circuit.
three decades, no cricketer or showbiz personality who walked
into his restaurant in Bank Place (and later Queen Street)
was safe from having a pith helmet shoved at them and a
photo snapped. Next day, Larry would ring journalists with
whimsical or witty anecdotes to accompany the photographs,
and on quiet news days they would often find their way into
a grateful sports writer's column. He was a publicity-seeker
of staggering energy, rivalled for dial-a-quote ubiquity
only by Bruce Ruxton.
Larry's gone quiet now. The days of smiles and yarns and
friendly headlines using dreadful puns based on the word
"curry" are over. When the Melbourne City Council
refused to renew his kitchen licence because of convictions
for poor food standards, Larry went from the sports pages
to the news pages, which meant a whole new set of headlines.
In the good times it was "Larry still currying favour".
Now it's "Last vindaloo for curry king".
court, his lawyer David Ross, QC, said worldwide publicity
would make the restaurant almost impossible to revive. He
added that Larry Mendonca's marriage had collapsed, his
health had deteriorated and he was now an invalid pensioner
with no assets or income.
might be forgiven for packing up and quitting the hospitality
industry. But that would underestimate his powers of positive
thinking. "I've had calls from England, from Pakistan,
India, Sri Lanka, Nairobi, South Africa, asking me to come
there to open businesses," he says. "I've had
the offers from cricketers and cricket lovers." Which
cricketers? "I can't name them. Well-known ones."
He might even do it one day, he says. But there are lots
of opportunities closer to home. "I'm not a broken
down old man yet."
famous Larry smile faded quickly in March 2002 when health
inspectors arrived and found, the court heard, slimy chicken
pieces, jars of mouldy chutney, and rotten fruit and wine.
Melbourne City Council environmental health officer Brendan
Garrett told the court he found vinegar-fly larvae in a
jar of mouldy chutney and ants eating hot chilli chutney.
eight-year-old jar of pickled limes sat alongside a block
of instant chocolate powder which had tunnels dug by beetles.
Moths were found in a bag of lentils and chicken pieces
encrusted with mould were stored in a coolroom which, the
court heard, had mouldy walls. Mouse droppings were found
on the floor of the food pantries.
order was made to clean up the mess, but a later inspection
uncovered a container of mouldy chillies and mouldy beetroot
salad dressing. In April 2002 the restaurant was closed
by the Department of Human Services on the grounds that
it was a "serious and immediate danger to public health"
- it re-opened three weeks later.
even though it plugged away serving food until February
last year, the smiles for the camera were half-hearted and
the restaurant, operated for more than 30 years, was effectively
no more. In May last year in the Magistrates Court, Larry
Mendonca and his family company, Candolim, which owns the
restaurant, were convicted and fined almost $40,000 for
breaching the Food Act by storing and handling unfit food.
Of 20 charges, 12 were dismissed. In his finding, the magistrate,
Julian Fitz-Gerald, stressed the food was not being sold
to the public.
County Court upheld the magistrate's decision on appeal,
but the fine was reduced to $21,000. The court found eight
charges against Larry Mendonca proven, including handling
food in a manner to render it unusable, and found proven
seven charges against Candolim and its director, Larry's
83-year-old mother, Deonisia.
serving its final meal, Larry says, the restaurant has operated
sporadically as a bar or bottle shop. He can re-open with
someone else running the kitchen element of the business,
but says this is unlikely.
didn't want to put anyone in because it would have seemed
as though the food sold here was unsafe," he says.
"And people are very conscious of what they eat. It's
a perception, it would have been an admission of defeat.
To me it was a matter of principle."
invites me into what may be Melbourne's most famous kitchen.
Even with just the two of us in there and no hotplates burning,
it's small. Stepping back, I bang my head on a pan on the
hanging rail. There are signs of cooking activity. "At
the moment I cook in here," Larry says. "For myself."
not a trained chef. "But I have been on What's Cooking
on Channel Nine and on Gabriel Gate's show. My father said,
'Actors, idiots and cooks are born, not made.' I can hold
my own against any chef in Indian cuisine."
invites me into the coolroom in the courtyard outside. This
is where the mouldy chutney was found. Larry points out
the exact shelf from which it was retrieved. He explains
it was marked to be thrown out the very day the inspectors
arrived. The off food in the coolroom was never destined
for customers' tables, he says. "For goodness sake,
you don't sell food which has gone off."
is not ashamed or embarrassed. "I haven't done anything
wrong. I've never served a bad meal to anybody in all these
years. I'm quite proud of the fact that I've put Indian
cooking on the map in Australia," he says. "In
all these 33 years there has not been a single incident
of food poisoning, not a single incident of selling bad
food or whatever."
denies his reputation is damaged and claims "senior
judges" and politicians "of all shades" have
rung offering support. "The Lord Mayor (John So) had
a restaurant in Bank Place opposite me, a Chinese restaurant,
he was the manager. I know him but I didn't go to him for
help or anything. I could have I wanted to fight for justice."
doesn't think it's the end for him. "If I didn't go
on my principles I could have opened a week afterwards.
I was being a bit stubborn like Mahatma Gandhi. I'm not
comparing myself to Mahatma Gandhi by any means, but Mahatma
Gandhi said: 'If a cat chases a mouse, there's no way in
the world a mouse will declare a ceasefire'."
Mendonca was born in 1942 into a privileged family in Goa,
on India's west coast, when it was still a Portuguese enclave.
At age one, his family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), where
his father had five restaurants. "As a kid, while most
of my friends would go and play cricket, I was a sort of
relief manager during my holidays. I was 12. In India if
you are the boss's son, people listen to you. I got my training
in that way."
wanted to go into journalism or law but his father said
"lawyers are ambulance chasers and journalists in India
are paid a pittance". He did a bachelor of commerce
at the University of Bombay after which his father wanted
him to go to Oxford. "I got involved with fellow travellers
in London. Tariq Ali, the writer, was one of them. He said
to me, 'Oxford is for the bourgeois, come to the LSE (London
School of Economics)'."
of the LSE, at age 20 Larry took a job at Air India. He
worked in London, Moscow, Tehran, Nairobi, Mauritius, Hong
Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Larry's job was to schmooze and
soothe. "There are always problems with the airlines,
they are late or there's a crash or something. You have
to be a troubleshooter. I suppose it's second nature to
wound up in in the "special handling unit" based
at Bombay airport. "My job was to entertain celebrities
when the flights were delayed," he says. "When
celebrities travel you had to go on the plane to see that
everything is OK."
was the beginning of Larry's enduring love affair with famous
people. With his command of 11 languages and his self-image
as a public relations renaissance man, Larry was front-of-house
from the start. "I flew with the Dalai Lama from Calcutta
(now Kolkata) to Tokyo in 1968 and flew with Pope Paul VI
from Rome to Bombay. I had a great time with the Pope because
I could speak to him in Italian. He had a great sense of
knew John Lennon quite well. "John Lennon flew to India
to stay with the maharishi, to learn yoga. I warned him
against associating with maharishis who had helicopters.
He said, 'Well, I will find out myself.' I said, 'Well,
the best of British luck to you.' He was a fantastic guy.
Then when the maharishi tried to race off a female member
of their troupe the Beatles came back. John Lennon said
to me, 'Larry, you were right.' I said, 'Well, I hate to
say I told you so'."
Moscow in 1967 during the 50th anniversary of the Russian
revolution he says, "I was down in the international
bar of the Metropole Hotel having a quiet drink and a middle-aged
gentleman in a trench coat tapped me on the shoulder. 'I
say, old chap, which part of India do you come from?' I
said, 'Bombay'. He said, 'I know it jolly well, I was born
in India, in Ambala.' We got talking. I said I was going
to London the next day, and going through Moscow in a fortnight
on my way to Bombay. He said, 'Can you do us a favour? Can
you get me fish and chips wrapped up in a Times newspaper
and a can of Tetley's (English bitter)?' I said, 'No problem.'
He said, 'Philby's the name. Kim Philby, actually.' And
I nearly fell off my stool.
defected in 1963, the master spy, there's a price on his
head and he's asking me to get him fish and chips. I thought,
'Is there a hidden agenda?' I thought nothing of it afterwards.
I didn't mention it to anyone because we were not allowed
to do any smuggling or espionage."
brought the fish and chips over in the plane's fridge. Philby
was grateful. "There were tears in his eyes and he
said, 'You know, I miss England very much. I'd like to die
in England.' I said jokingly, 'That can be arranged. When
you're ready to die, tell me. I'll get in touch with MI5.'"
Larry chuckles. The memories are important.
the late '60s he was transferred to Melbourne where, in
1969, his father opened the Rajah Sahib in Bank Place. Larry
decided to again work in restaurants, this time front-of-house.
"That was the year Rain Lover was on a hat-trick, Rod
Laver won the Grand Slam and Neil Armstrong stepped on the
moon. So it was quite an auspicious year."
make it even more auspicious, Larry needed celebrities at
the opening. "John Lennon was living in Los Angeles,
he had split up from Yoko Ono. I wrote to him and asked
him to come to the opening. He rang us from LA saying although
he couldn't come himself he was planning a world tour and
said he would visit, but that he would send a lot of his
musician friends. He recommended us to Elton John, who was
the godfather of his son Sean."
on fire with the name-dropping. "Elton John always
eats here when he's in Melbourne. There's a picture taken
of him on the night John Lennon was assassinated."
It was an emotional night. "Elton was drinking schnapps
and beer and sort of crying and singing Imagine. I knew
them both. Once you get to know them and speak to them you
get a little bit sentimental."
also turned his hand to writing copy for the cartoonist
Weg's ads for the Rajah Sahib, which would appear on the
sports pages of The Age. "Weg did the illustrations,
I provided the gags. And it worked out very well."
brings out one. It's a drawing of a man saying "Howzat"
and Shane Warne saying, "I can feel a curry coming
on", a play on the ad "I can feel a XXXX coming
on". Ever the playful wordsmith, Larry is not too proud
to stretch the definition of the word "gag". "If
I was at the MCG or listening to the cricket I used to get
this muse and I immediately wrote down the gag and would
immediately ring Weg and tell him the concept."
Lay, a friend and regular at the Rajah Sahib, remembers
Larry moving around the restaurant quoting Shelley, Keats
and Wordsworth. "He's very poetic. He's got lots of
stories. I think he would have a lot of books in him."
has four children - a daughter in fashion design in England,
a son working as a rodeo rider in Oklahoma, another son
studying marketing in Melbourne and a daughter still at
is not a defeated man. Rent is not a problem because his
family owns the Queen Street building, he says. He draws
on history for solace. "For 33 years the Rajah Sahib
has been in business. It's an ominous age. Jesus Christ
was crucified at 33. Alexander the Great met his maker at
33. Our friend Mark Taylor made a declaration at 334, same
as Bradman. I have an inclination to draw stumps for the
Rajah Sahib. It does not mean that I won't open another
business. It's great to make a declaration at 33.
does not mean that if I kept the Rajah Sahib going it would
not succeed. Just like Mark Taylor could have gone on to
make 700 runs. He declared, using Bradman. I'm using Jesus
Christ and Alexander the Great."
book he feels he does have in him is "From the Yamuna
to the Yarra: Cricket, Curries and Carryings-On" (the
Yamuna is a principle tributary of the Ganges in India).
Writing it has been therapeutic. It's a mix of sport, food
and reminiscences, quite likely in the unreconstructed male
voice. "The men would like the cricket part of it and
the recipes would appeal to the women," he says.
from chilling historical coincidences, he's learnt something
from his loss. "A fakir (a Muslim mendicant or beggar)
accosted me on the banks of the Yamuna, read my horoscope
and he gave me a sage piece of advice. He said, 'If you
live on the bank of the Yamuna, keep peace with the crocodile.'
I thought whether it's the Yamuna or the Yarra, the predatory
proclivities of the crocodile are the same."
are the predatory proclivities of cricket metaphors. "I
feel I've been given an lbw by the MCC. MCC in this case
is the Melbourne City Council, not the Marylebone Cricket
Club In cricket terminology I was not bowled, it was an
feels some sections of the media "had it in for me".
But he can't get too upset. "I have had a dream run
with them for the past 33 years and they are doing a job
I don't believe in biting the hand that fed me."
it meant he got his name in the paper even more. "He'd
rather people were talking about him one way or another
than not at all," says his friend, botanist Andrew
Thompson. "Any sort of press is better than none."
remembers many evenings in the restaurant watching Larry
making sure everyone was happy, introducing people from
different tables. While the photos on the wall are "very
self-indulgent", Larry is, he says, the ultimate host.
times went bad it was, according to friend Helen Lay, his
"internal toughness" which pulled him through.
"His father started (the restaurant) and that's obviously
hurt him quite deeply," she says. "I wouldn't
have been able to cope in a similar situation, but he seems
to be calm and philosophical." His father died 15 years
his restaurant there is a sign: "It wouldn't be cricket
if visiting cricketers failed to drop in for tucker at the
Rajah Sahib." But the Indian team didn't come this
year. "I'm only sorry they missed out on a jolly good
meal," he says. And Larry missed a few new photo opportunities.
there are plenty of celebrity photos shining through ghost-like
from behind their glass frames. Except one. "There's
a picture of Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and myself, autographed
by both, which was stolen I was very hurt because I could
get another picture of either of them, but not the two of
them together. That to me was more hurtful than this (court
decision). I can never get the two of them together, but
I can open the Rajah Sahib anywhere."