Until recently, Benjamin Stamberg ran
As I stepped off the plane, my body transformed into a wave of sweat. It was dark. I assume it was night, but the heat could have fooled me. My contact, Shivam, was hovering around the arrival gate. It was clear that this wasn’t the first sleepless night he’d spent in the past few days. Without a handshake or a word, he grabbed my bag and set off toward the parking lot.
When I asked if there was time to find a hotel and clean myself up, he responded with a laugh. It seemed that Ali Akhtar wasn’t a man who liked to be kept waiting.
I’d first heard the legend of Ali Akhtar while researching new extrusion techniques in the snacklands of Venezuela. There, the workers spoke of a man, a magician living deep in the suburbs of Noida, India. They would stay up late into the evenings telling tales of his terrifying and brilliant feats of extrusion.
Some said he could extrude a pair of men’s shoes out of the snack puff machine. Others said he could be in production for over six hours without replacing a chocolate filling cartridge. SIX!
And one man said he heard that Ali once extruded an edible rice flour-based tube eight feet long and three feet in diameter, and spent the following eleven hours filling it with jam by hand with a trowel, nearly dying of exhaustion in the process. I needed to know if this mad man was real. And if he was, I needed to find him.
Two months later, I found myself in the back of Shivam’s cab, bombing down side streets on the way to Ali’s factory. I got the impression Shivam had called in a lot of favors putting this meeting together. And if it didn’t happen on time, he would be in trouble.
We skidded to a stop outside a darkened business park. All the streetlights had been shattered. All the windows were covered with tin foil. The only sounds were the every quickening beat of my heart and Shivam’s teeth grinding as we approached the door. He knocked.
When the door opened, we were bathed in the warm glow of the nugget dryers and the rich aroma of soy-based coating tumbling over freshly extruded puffs. And there he was.
Ali Akhtar was an unassuming mad man. He wore a blue dress shirt tucked into a pair of khakis that pooled around his black wingtips. He ushered us in and quickly slammed the door behind us, first looking to see if we’d been followed.
At first, he seemed wary of me, but after I told him all the stories I’d heard, and he confirmed them all with a smile. And, to my surprise, he invited me to witness his latest experiment:
A cheese ball extruder producing 200 kilograms of balls per hour, running for as long as it’ll go. Cheese balls flying through the air in a hyper-sexual display of snack production virility. I watched for a few seconds, then I turned to Ali and simply asked: “Why?”
“We all have different paths to greatness,” he responded. “I have found mine. To deny it would be a disgrace to myself and my family. I must extrude.”
I was crying. I looked back to share the moment with Shivam, but he was long gone.
I opened my mouth. In seconds, it was filled with cheese balls. As I chewed, I made my decision.
I would be staying with Ali Akhtar.
This would be my path.