Richard C. Morais was the European Bureau Chief and Senior Editor of Forbes Magazine. He now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.
His website is http://www.richardcmorais.com. Many thanks to him for guest blogging here.
“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 friend, Ismail Merchant, passed on to me in the
summer of 1990. Ismail was the irrepressible producer behind Merchant
Ivory Productions, who, alongside director James Ivory, made some of
the era’s finest films: Shakespeare Wallah, The Bostonians, Heat
And Dust, A Room
With A View, Howards End, The Remains Of the Day.
Ismail would later, as we became friends, become the inspiration for
my novel, The
but back in the summer of 1990 I was simply writing an article for one
of Malcolm Forbes’s publications, a short-lived art 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;
oris, a methanol-looking liquid that he told me was made from a West
Bengal flower. Have no idea if this was true. “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 fettucine 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 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.”