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Some Press Reports
1. 18 Jul. 2003. Mr Larry Mendonca loses the Appeal against the closure of his restaurant.

2. Sunday Age (Melbourne). January 18, 2004. Headline: In A Pickle, But Not In A Jam. By Peter Wilmoth

Sunday Age (Melbourne). January 18, 2004
Headline: In A Pickle, But Not In A Jam. By Peter Wilmoth

Full Text:

Larry Mendonca has gone from celebrity restaurant king to invalid pensioner, but don't rule out a second innings. Peter Wilmoth reports.

Larry 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.

"So 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, yes."

But 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."

Larry 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".

The 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.

Nearly 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.

For 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.

But 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".

In 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.

Larry 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."

The 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.

An 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.

An 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Since 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.

"I 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."

He 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."

He's 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."

He 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."

Larry 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."

He 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."

He 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'."

Larry 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."

He 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)'."

Instead 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 me."

He 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."

It 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 humour."

He 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'."

In 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.

"He 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."

Larry 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.

In 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."

To 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."

Larry's 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."

Larry 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."

He 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."

Helen 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."

Larry 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 school.

Larry 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.

"It 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."

One 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.

Apart 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."

As 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 lbw."

He 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."

Besides, 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."

Thompson 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.

When 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 ago.

Outside 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.

Still, 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."

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