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A tribute to Jack Simonian, one of Kenya’s best all round Sportsman in the sixties

by Dil Bahra
28 November 2019

John Levon (Jack) Simonian who was the East African motor cycling, motor rally and track Champion and who represented Kenya at hockey at three Olympic Games passed away in Sydney, Australia on Monday 23 December 2019. He was aged 84.

Jack, who resided in the UK since 1978, had gone to Sydney, Australia earlier this month and celebrated his 84th Birthday only last week. Replying to his friend, George Brink's greetings of Happy Birthday, Jack wrote "Yes, thoroughly spoilt by Family and Friends from all over. California, Canada, Kenya, England, Australia, New Zealand, Sardinia and last but not least South Africa!! Great day and taken out to dinner this evening!! Life is Always Great!! However WE are all leaves on a tree, some fall off and others stay on for a while!! Wish All of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy new year with all Blessings, Health, Happiness and Prosperity. I do miss all your company, but memories will have to suffice. Such is The Precious Life that we are gifted!! Anyway, enough of all that!! Totsiens for now"

Jack was born on 15 December 1935 in Wad Madani, Sudan. His parents had emigrated from Armenia to Egypt and then to Sudan and in 1948 the family moved to and settled in Kenya.

After his primary school education in Sudan, he studied at St Mary's School in Nairobi, Kenya. He was a very good tennis player at St Mary's and played hockey and tennis for his school team.

After schooling, he joined East African Airways as an apprentice Aircraft Engineer.

Jack enlisted in the Kenya Regiment on 30 September 1955 (National Service) and he then underwent basic training at the Kenya Regiment Training Centre at Lanet near Nakuru from 3 October to 10 December 1955. He was awarded the Africa General Service Medal in 1956. He played hockey for the Regiment.

After completing his two year's National Service, he re-joined East African Airways and qualified as an Aeronautic Engineer. He took up motor cycling racing, grass track motor cycle races being his first love. He played hockey for East African Airways hockey team.

He joined Parklands Sports Club in Nairobi and played hockey in the Kenya European Sports Hockey Association League. He was a member of Parklands Sports Club that won the Craig Cup in 1960 against Nakuru Athletic Club. He represented Parklands at hockey, tennis and snooker.

He fondly recalled that one Saturday afternoon in 1959, the Chairman of his Club, Ron Cooper, who was vice President of Nairobi Hockey Association at the time, asked him what he was doing that afternoon. He invited him to play in goal for Nairobi X1 in a match that afternoon in a couple of hours' time. That day was 1 August 1959 and the match was against the visiting Indian Hockey Team.  The Nairobi X1, which was captained by Chris Wevill of Impala Sports Club, included Kirpal Singh Bhardwaj, Krishan Aggarwal, Silu Fernandes, Edgar Fernandes, Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), and Egbert Fernandes who all went on to represent Kenya at Rome 1960 Olympic Games. The Indian team in that match also included seven players who went on to represent India at Rome Olympics.

It was hockey's good fortune that Jack did not have a motor cycle racing event that afternoon. That match started his international exposure in hockey and he never looked back. But he kept his motorsport going on at the same time which is a remarkable feat. He progressed to Motor Rallying and track racing which ran side by side with his hockey feats.

Only two Europeans were considered to be of possible Olympic standard in Kenya when the trials for the Olympic squad started. One was Jack Simonian of Parklands and the other was Impala's Chris Wevill. He was the only European selected for Kenya's team for Rome 1960 Olympic Games. By this time he was already Kenya's top racing motor cyclist.

He made his international debut in hockey against Italy on 1 September 1960 in Rome, a match which Kenya won 7 - 0. From that moment he became a regular member of Kenya squad.

He toured Rhodesia with the Kenya team in August 1961 and played against South Africa and Rhodesia at the international Hockey Festival in Bulawayo.

In 1962, he joined Sikh Union Nairobi, a Club with a rich history of hockey. He told me, during one of our many chats over the years, that Tari (Avtar Singh Sohal)  and Sindh (Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr)) were a big influence on him joining Sikh Union. He added "We have a lot in common. My best friends are Sikhs".

He played for Sikh Union Nairobi for over a decade, helping the Club win the M R D'Souza Gold Cup; Laton Brothers Cup; Asian Sports Association Cup; Golden Jubilee Kenya Cup; Desmesh Cup; Ujjager Singh Cup; Kishen Singh Cup; Joseph and Sons Shield; Karam Singh/Hira Singh Cup and Nairobi League Championship.  During this golden period, Sikh Union Nairobi won nearly all the competitions.

He was a member of the Club's team that won the M R D'Souza Gold Cup seven times. The Gold Cup was the Blue Riband of East African Hockey and played in Nairobi during the Easter weekend.  With winning the Gold Cup went the title of unofficial East African Champions. At the same time during Easter, another sporting event - The East African Safari Rally used to take place and Jack had to juggle the two sports. There are many stories of Jack managing to play in both these sports during the Easter weekend.

He was a member of the Kenya tour of Pakistan in 1962 and tour of India in 1964. Last month (17 November 2019) at a gathering of Kenyan Olympians in London to celebrate the life of his late Olympic colleague Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), Jack recalled the match in Jabalpur, India  when Kenya defeated India 0 - 3 in their backyard and the conversation he had with the umpire in the clubhouse about disallowing two of Kenya's goals. Needless to say the conversation was very interesting. Six months later, India won the Gold in Tokyo.

Jack went on to play his second Olympic Games in Tokyo with Kenya finishing sixth, her best position at Olympic Games.

Jack was a member of Kenya team that toured Europe in 1966 and played in the 12 Nations Hamburg Tournament. Three months later Kenya had a tour of Zambia and Jack was unable to go due to work commitments. His employers were rightly concerned about the time being taken off, having recently returned from a six week tour. It so happened that Kenya's selected goalkeeper, Ahmed Hassan Sharman, got injured in the first test match and Jack was flown to Zambia in a private plane to play in the 2nd and 3rd test matches.

Jack went on Kenya's tour of Pakistan for the Pre-Olympic Tournament in Lahore in January 1968 and following a successful East African Championship in Kampala in August 1968 and India's tour of Kenya, Jack was selected for his third Olympic Games -Mexico 1968.

At Mexico Olympic Games, despite losing their captain and full back Avtar Singh Sohal through injury after only two matches, Kenya needed only to draw in their last pool match against Pakistan to proceed to the semi-finals. They lost 1 - 2 and had to play Australia in a pool playoff match which they lost 2 - 3. Kenya finished 8th. Jack was awarded the best goalkeeper at Mexico Olympic Games.

Following a lengthy break from international hockey, during which he set up his own business, a Caltex petrol station, participated in the RAC Rally in the UK and the East African Safari Rallies, Jack was recalled for the match against West Germany in Nairobi on 18 March 1972. The Kenyan Management wanted a commitment for a three weeks training at the BAT high altitude Athletics Training Camp in Kijanjo along with other fitness camps prior to selection for the Munich Olympic Games. Jack was not prepared to take so much time away from business and thus ended Jack's international hockey playing career.

There are many others, who I am sure will chart the motorsport career of this accomplished motor cyclist, rally and track driver which ran side by side with hockey.

Jack emigrated to the UK in 1978.

I had the pleasure of having many interactions with Jack for over three decades that I have known him personally and have chatted over many hockey stories. He would always attend a hockey function anywhere and only last month he attended the "Celebrating Life of Sindh" function in London, driving his car down from Rugby. He was our main speaker. And he was the last one to leave the function room with Surjit Rihal and me. The three of us walked down the stairs at Indian Gymkhana Sports Club in Osterley, and had a long chat by his car before he got into his car and drove off - happy memories!

TRIBUTES

Avtar Singh Sohal (Tari), Kenya's  captain from 1962 - 1972 said "We were both very close friends and played together for many years for Sikh Union Club and for Kenya. It was time when competition was too tight to get selected for Kenya team. Jack use to rush to my house  near  Sikh Union Club on his bike with pads on and carrying a bag full of balls for me to take hits to get him good practice. Sessions were one hour to two hours Individual training. We worked many hours together which helped both us. After training it was China's restaurant spring rolls to galore and of course chilled beers. We were allowed entry to the Chinese with sweat all over the place. Those were unforgettable days. Full of memories. Will miss Jack of all trades. Condolences to friends and family"

Surjit Singh Rihal, Kenya's captain from 1973 - 81 paid this tribute "It was an honour to have played  hockey along with Jack for Sikh Union Nairobi for a few years when l came back from India in 1969. He was a very down to earth dedicated sportsman. He was a very daring goalkeeper and we had a lot of confidence in him when ever the ball reached him in the circle that he will prevent the opposition from scoring. A few days before he left for Australia, a number of players including Jack got together to pay tribute to Surjit Singh Panesar (Jn). This was the last time when l met Jack who was in his usual jovial mood. May God give eternal peace to his soul. We will always miss you Jack. RIP"

Dr Joginder Singh Dhillon, Melbourne 1956 Kenyan Olympian, paid this tribute "Jack was undoubtedly a legendary and giant of goalkeeper. I would have loved to keep goal behind me during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. On the hockey field Jack was sharp as a tack and did everything he did to keep a clean sheet. When I first met Jack  on my last visit to Kenya we had a round of golf. I found him to be a gentleman oozing with warm friendship who will be missed by his family and friends"

Ajmal Malik, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Islamabad, Pakistan said "With Jack in the goal you were always sure to have a ‘rock' in the last line of defence! He was quick in anticipation and swift to thwart opponent's attack. From his vantage position as a goal keeper he was quick to anticipate opponent's moves and provide valuable and timely call to his defence players. Jack's sporting activities went beyond field hockey. He was a successful car rally driver participating in the famous East African Safari Rally and also in the motorcycle track racing. A humble person who was always ready to help. Once we were in Moshi to play East African Championship; my host was in a transport business and was having a problem with one of his vehicle for quite some time and could ill afford to have it off the road. Knowing Jack's expertise with cars, during practice time I mentioned to Jack about my hosts predicament. As soon as our practice was over he came to me and said ‘let's go'. He spent two hours working with my host's mechanic until the fault was identified and rectified. There was no fuss: he simply left saying ‘see you at the ground for the match"

Norman Dacosta, former hockey correspondent of Daily Nation (Kenya). Now residing in Canada paid this tribute "For hockey lovers Jack Simonian was one If not the best goalkeepers to represent Kenya. Apart from playing several internationals around the world, Jack who passed away whilst vacationing in Sydney, Australia, wore his country's colours  in three Olympics - 1960 in Rome, 1964 in Toyko and in Mexico City in 1968. On the local scene Jack, who I not only played against for the Railway Goan Institute and also wrote about for the Daily Nation , was a man who played hard and off the field was one who loved to have fun like the rest of that great Sikh Union club. Jack also made his mark as a top-flight Safari Rally driver and also a first rate motorcycle rider where he was almost unbeatable on the tracks in Nakuru, Embakasi, Sikh Union and also in Kampala. It's sad to see this great leave the scene a month after his Sikh Union and Kenya teammate Surjeet Panesar left us last month. A couple of weeks ago another rally driver and organizer par excelleance Bharat Bardwaj bid us farewell. Too bad"

Edgar Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Melbourne, Australia paid this tribute "It was a pleasure to play with Jack in Rome and Tokyo. He was an outstanding goal keeper. It was like trying to get through a brick wall. He knew no fear, and had fantastic reflexes. As a person he was most friendly, courteous and helpful. As a motor cyclist he was a champion. The story goes that once Jack was riding on a Highway and a policeman parked at a  corner with his motor bike, on seeing Jack, ran to his bike and started it, but as he looked up to see where Jack was, he was nowhere in sight. The policeman gave up his intention of chasing Jack. When my brother passed away he rang me to express his sympathy and told me he had a daughter in Sydney who he visited from time to time. I said that if he visited Melbourne I would catch up with him. Alas it never happened .Please convey my deepest sympathy to his daughter and family"

 
 
 
 

Sports Legend Jack Simonian leads tributes to Sindh

by Dil Bahra
18 November 2019

The commemoration event started with a minute's silence, remembering Sindh who passed away in Kenya on 6 November 2019. Jack Simonian, now 83, Kenya's triple Olympian, Kenya's former Motor Cycle and Rally Champion and dashing goal-keeper paid a glowing tribute to Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), fondly known as Sindh, at the event held at Indian Gymkhana Club London on Sunday, 17 November 2019.

Jack recalled when he was first selected to represent Nairobi X1 in a match against India in 1959. His team mate in that match was Sindh and since that day he formed a lasting friendship. He recalled how he ended up joining Sikh Union Nairobi Club (He was formally with Parklands Sports Club) where his friendship with Sindh really grew. He recalled how they played in three Olympic Games and the many tours they went on together. He described with pride how they beat India 3 - 0 in Jabalpur on their tour of India in 1964.

Jack finished his tribute by saying "As we celebrated Guru Nanak's 550th anniversary, it is fitting that Sindh joins his maker. Wahe Guru Wahe Guru Wahe"

A power-point presentation, by sikhsinhockey.com, comprising 110 slides featuring the various teams Sindh played in, both Nationally and at Club level was shown with a lot of interaction from the Olympians attending.  The photographs sparked a cascade of anecdotes, with each Olympian sharing their own treasured memories of playing with Sindh.

The Olympians present were Jack Simonian (Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Mexico 1968); Davinder Singh Deegan (Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972); Amarjeet Singh Marwa (Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972); Jagmel Singh Rooprai (Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972); Surjit Singh Rihal (Munich 1972); Brajinder Daved (Munich 1972 and Los Angeles 1984); Harvinder Singh Sibia (Munich 1972).

Sindh's sister Sukwinder Kaur Bahra and brother Karnal Singh Panesar both attended the commemoration event. Sukwinder thanked everyone for the love and affection shown by everyone and said she will keep these fond memories with her forever.

Former Kenyan captain Surjit Singh Rihal concluded with a toast saying "Raise your glasses, this is how Sindh would have finished the day's proceeding".

 
 
 
 

Surjeet Singh Panesar, Kenya’s four-time Olympian passes away

by Dil Bahra
8 November 2019

Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr),  affectionately known as Sindh, who represented Kenya at four Olympic Games, died in Nairobi, Kenya on Wednesday 6 November 2019 following a short illness. He was aged 81.

Sindh was born on 24 June 1938 in Nairobi, Kenya. His parents had emigrated to Kenya from India in 1919.

He studied at Duke of Gloucester School in Nairobi and went to India for further studies in 1954. He studied at Maharaja Patiala Public School and Patiala University. He played hockey for his school and university teams and during school holidays he played for Mohindra College. Harbail Singh, the legendary Indian Team Coach, who had coached India's Gold Medal winning teams at Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games and who was his college coach, took him under his wings and had a big influence in his hockey. He also played football at school and university.

On returning to Kenya in 1957, he joined Sikh Union Nairobi, a Club which his father, Mr Balwant Singh Lalton, a very active sportsman, had a very deep association with - he was one of the founders of Khalsa Club which later became Sikh Union Club.

Sindh represented Sikh Union Nairobi from 1957 to 1980, winning the Ujjager Singh Rai Cup; Kesar Singh Cup; Siri Guru Gobind Singh Cup and Aggarwal Cup in the 1957 - 58 season. He was a member of the Club's team that won the M R D'Souza Gold Cup for a record thirteen times.

He represented the Asian Sports Association and was a member of the team that won the Kenya Cup in 1958.

He was selected to represent Nairobi X1 against England at City Park Stadium, Nairobi on 19 September 1958 and the following year he continued representing Nairobi X1 as a centre forward in the matches against India in Kenya.

He was selected to represent Kenya National team at the East African Championships (Rahim Jivraj Trophy) in Nairobi in May 1960 and earned his first international cap when he played against Uganda on 29 May 1960. Playing as a centre forward, he scored two goals on his debut, in Kenya's 4 - 0 win and helped his team win the Championship for the second year running.

From that moment he became a regular for the National team, playing as a centre forward and was selected for Rome 1960 Olympic Games. He played in the 3 Test match series against Pakistan in Nairobi on the way to the Olympics.

Following the East African Championships held in Zanzibar in 1962 and retirement of Surjeet Singh Deol (Sr), Sindh took over the pivotal position of centre half and this is the position where he excelled. He played at Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games and started as a centre half at Mexico 1968 Olympic Games. An injury to the left back and captain of the Kenya team after only two matches at Mexico forced Sindh to take up the position of left full back for the rest of these Games.

He was selected to represent Kenya at the first Hockey World Cup in Barcelona in 1971 where Kenya reached the semi-finals.

At Munich 1972 Olympic Games, Sindh played as right back.  He retired from playing international hockey after these Games. At the Munich Olympics he became the first player to have played 31 matches, a record he held until 1988 when he was joined by Australia's Richard Charlesworth. They both held this record until the London Olympic Games. The Rules of Hockey have changed over the years. The Substitutes rule only came into existence in 1972 and now the rolling subs rule is in play.

He was one of three Kenyans to have played at four Olympic Games - Alu Mendonca and Avtar Singh Sohal being the others.

TRIBUTES

Avtar Singh Sohal (Tari), Kenya's  captain from 1962 - 1972 said "We were both very close friends and played together for many years for Sikh Union Club and for Kenya and both of us  groomed many youngsters for the  club. We were one in hockey and I will personally miss him as my very good friend and great hockey colleague. Condolences to our dear family"

Surjit Singh Rihal, Kenya's captain from 1973 - 81 paid this tribute "It was an honour to have played along with a great legend who inspired a lot of youngsters, including me, with his graceful stick work in Kenya to play and love hockey. I admired and learned his style of scooping the ball. In 1969 l came back to Kenya after studying in India and joined the famous Sikh Union Club Nairobi so that l could play along with him. I took his position as centre half and he moved to right back position. Playing here at Sikh Union gave me a chance to learn more from his knowledge of hockey. We then played together for Sikh Union and Kenya in the 1971 World Cup and 1972 Munich Olympic Games. I admire him for his love for sports especially hockey and the respect he showed to all, both young and old people. I met him for the last time last year here in London along with many other Sikh Union players who had played together in the World Cup and Olympic Games with him. We will miss him but he will stay in the hearts of everyone" 

Raphael Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian who now lives in Canada paid this tribute "Sindh was an Officer & a Gentleman - very soft spoken - and a Handsome Personality with a dynamic International Etiquette and a Stylish Dress code! He was always the main attraction on the field - as he portrayed his Love / Discipline / Respect for the sport - with his Mastery / Brilliance / Skill / Experience / Expertise & Sportsmanship! He was my mentor and he always referred to me as "My Son" who has the longest strides with exhibition stick-work - but in reality I learned all the Golden Rules from the Master himself - and always tried to portray him!"

Davinder Singh Deegan, former Kenyan Olympian said "When I joined Sikh Union Club in 1965, Sindhi was the one who used to encourage me all the time. He was my pillar of strength when I started playing for Kenya. We played for Sikh Union and Kenya from 1965 to 1978. Throughout this time we were very close. He was a very honest and helpful gentleman should go out of his way to help anyone. We were roommates on many occasions on our tours and he was a fantastic roommate. He was a unique player who could play in any position"

Cyprian Fernandes, journalist and author, who now lives in Australia, paid this tribute " When I saw Junior player for the first time, at centre-half for the Sikh Union I was like a stunned mullet. I had watched the visiting Indian, Pakistani and other visiting teams but I had never seen anyone take total command of a game as the supremo Junior did. He played hockey like he was weaving with a pair of knitting  needles, he weaved between players, around players, found tiny crevasses in a closely packed defensive line and a flicked pass to the right or left or straight through the middle, especially to the right to Hilary Fernandes, and the move breached the defensive wall and Kenya was once again close to the D and poise dangerously for a goal. The very famous Hardial Singh once told me that the players were the ones that bent over and played close to the ground and yet had the ability to spring and watch what was happening in front of them or on either side. Junior was close to the ground, very close to the ground. I always marvelled at watching Junior in action"

Ajmal Malik, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Islamabad, Pakistan said "Sindh was not only a great hockey player, but also a great colleague and friend. He was always there to help and provide guidance and advice on improving your hockey skills. During overseas tours he was always concerned about the well-being of his fellow players. He was a thorough gentleman with subtle sense of humour which always kept our spirits high" 

Hilary Fernandes former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Toronto, Canada said "We were team mates in the Kenya National team for almost 13 years, representing the Country in almost all the matches that Kenya played during this period, at home and abroad. We played three Olympic Games together. What a pleasure it was playing alongside a very talented and gifted young hockey player. He made life easy for all of us on the field with his support and encouragement. He was capable of playing in any position if called upon, but was a star when he played in his preferred position as centre-half. He was in the driver's seat and feared no opposition. I also had the privilege and pleasure of playing with him from 1965 - 1969 for one of the best hockey teams in the country - Sikh Union Club Nairobi. He was a well-groomed guy who wouldn't take any nonsense from anyone when he was on the field, he was in command and full of confidence"

Silu Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Toronto, Canada had this to say "My friend and team mate Surjeet Jr. dazzled the world of hockey, both on and off the field at the Olympics in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich and Test matches in India, Pakistan and at home in Kenya. Showmanship and style were the undiluted essence of his life on and off the field and puts him right up there on the ranking of the world's top sportsmen ...most certainly on mine ! Our team mates, here in Toronto, Hillary, Raphael and Leo Fernandes, Norman da Costa and I were very fortunate to meet up with the Maestro during his short visit in April of last year"

Amarjeet Singh Marwa, former Kenyan Olympian said " I joined Sikh Union & the Kenya National Hockey teams in 1965 & met Surjeet  for the first time. I was immediately captivated by his dedication, fitness & skill. He was a master class playmaker & during my playing career, Sikh Union, we lost only one game out of hundreds we played sweeping all the tournaments, thanks to Surjeet & Avtar's help in defence. It was the same with the National team in world cups & Olympic Games. Surjeet was our guiding light for the young players &  he was always helpful on & off the field. I am greatly honoured to have played with him. In the summer of 2018, in London, I with some of my Olympic colleagues had the opportunity of meeting him for the last time when we talked about our hockey conquests ! We all  will miss him greatly"

Harvinder Singh Sibia, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in the UK said "Surjeet Panesar - An amazing player with captivating skills, immense technical know - how with a gentle and polite demeanour to all those who came into contact with him. I had the opportunity to play alongside him and found his tips and encouragement very illuminating.  A great player who stood among the best in the world."

Jack Simonian, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in the UK paid this tribute: "Sindhi, as he was popularly known, was a good friend of mine throughout my long period at Sikh / Simba Union in Nairobi. I am proud to describe him as a well-meaning character who would never have a negative word to say about anyone!  "Rare at any time". At Hockey, he was a "Gentle Wizard" with his stick work and distribution of the ball to penetrative movements. He really understood the meaning of "The Craft of Hockey" by listening to people like our Mahan Singh and others from India who were on hand to advise in his maturing ages. To have listened and accepted the advice given shows, in my opinion, "Humbleness". I am proud to have known him and will miss his presence."

Edgar Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Melbourne, Australia paid this tribute: "Sindhi as he was affectionately known, was in my opinion, the greatest centre-half of his era, in the world. He was a player of great distinction, dedicated, determined, and it was a pleasure to play with him in my time, including the Rome and Tokyo Olympics. But as a person he exuded an air of confidence, was always impeccably dressed, had a great sense of humour, very friendly, courteous, and extremely helpful. He will always be remembered for not only his exceptional ability in Hockey but also his outstanding personality. He was one of the greatest hockey players of Kenya."

Norman Dacosta, former hockey correspondent of Daily Nation (Kenya), now residing in Canada, had this to say: "Sindhi was a field hockey icon and I had the unique opportunity of playing against him for the Railway Goan Institute and also reporting on, who in my opinion was one of the greatest centre-halves of his era that included some extraordinary Indians and Pakistanis. Off the field he was a dapper individual with a sense of good clothing and an immaculate beard and turban. I was fortunate enough to meet Surjeet in Toronto and later in Nairobi in 2018 and visit his beautiful home that he designed. And his garden was something to behold. Apart from his exploits on the field, Surjeet was a great cook and his chicken koroga was out of this world."