"The key to cooking is your attitude. It's like film production. You must have complete confidence that whatever you do will be wonderful. If you are overwhelmed, you will fail."
That was one of the valuable bits of advice that my late friend, Ismail Merchant, passed on to me in the summer of 1990. I am thinking of Ismail today because yesterday I was on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR to talk about my novel The Hundred-Foot Journey, and one of the first questions was how I came to write a book in the voice of an Indian chef of Muslim descent. It was because of Ismail.
Ismail Merchant was the irrepressible producer behind Merchant Ivory Productions, who, alongside director James Ivory, made some of the finest films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: The Bostonians, Heat And Dust, A Room With A View, Howards End, The Remains Of the Day. Ismail would later, as we became friends, morph into the inspiration for my novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, but back in the summer of 1990 I was simply writing an article for one of Malcolm Forbes's publications, a short-lived cultural magazine called Egg, and we were cooking together in his flat in Portman Square, London.
That memorable meal actually started earlier in the day, when we raced through London's Soho in a mad shopping spree. At Lina, an Italian store, we bought enough white fettuccine for 10; at a halal butcher, a leg of mutton, cubed. The narrow alleys of London's red-light district were crammed with pussycat lounges and blinking porn shops, but we were panting after the goodies in the farmer's market: four pounds of tomatoes, two pounds of French beans, all the available octopus mushrooms. From an Indian store we purchased split red lentils, dried chickpeas, and the fine dried salt fish, called Bombay Duck, that is a staple of Indian cooking. The most curious item; orris, a methanol-looking liquid that he told me was made from a West Bengal flower. Have no idea if this was true; he was, film producer-style, always embellishing his stories. (Years later I discovered orris was made from the root of irises.) Never mind. "We are going to make an Italian-Indian dinner tonight," Ismail said.
Back at his Portman Square flat, an elegant old-world apartment with high ceilings, we retreated into the yellow kitchen with the fantastic 1930s-style phone hanging from the wall - a movie prop. In no time the blender was whirring, pots bubbling with Ismail's famous lemon-lentils, the lamb and ginger roasting in the oven. Ismail cranked up the sound system - Pavarotti singing Verdi and Puccini.
The guests arrived. The actress Helena Bonham-Carter - with her famously big eyes and china-white skin - was followed by film critic John Pym and his wife, Hope. The next doorbell ring produced the bearded actor, James Wilby, best-known to international audiences as the star of Merchant Ivory's adaptation of E.M. Forster's Maurice. Also there: Paul Bradley, Ismail's associate producer; Anna Kythreotis, a witty arts journalist who would eventually become one of my closest friends in London; and Rita Mangat, an Indian travel consultant fiercely loyal to Ismail in a strange relationship none of us could quite figure out.
The first dish, I recall, was the fettuccine in a rosé-tomato sauce, the garlic and basil piqued by shaved chilies. As we ate, John Pym told me how A Room With A View was partly filmed in his ancestral home; Merchant Ivory had left some very expensive drapes at the house after they finished filming, which pleased the film critic no end.
On the Islamic-green plates used in Heat And Dust, now Ismail's household china, we dolled out generous portions of the lamb roasted with ginger, garlic and the tangy caps of octopus mushrooms. Lip-smacking good. The lamb was served alongside a hot French bean salad in mustard-vinaigrette. Then, a simple bowl of raspberries, laced with the mysterious oris. After the salty mutton, the raspberries infused with the essence of the Bengali wildflowers was just right, a kind of natural palate cleanser. A truly memorable meal, not least because Helena Bonham-Carter, as the dinner drew to a close, climbed under the table to photograph our ankles. But most of all the meal is, in my memory, infused with Ismail's personal charm and creativity.
"What is interesting about food," Ismail said, leaning in for our final tête-à-tête of the evening, "it's not that you can follow a recipe. It's not that. It's a question of imagination. You just go. Whatever your imagination wants to do and create, just do it. Don't think about it - is it going to be right, is it going to be wrong. Or not good. Throw that fear or attitude out of the window."
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