When Ismail Merchant brings back souvenirs from his many travels, he doesn’t put up them up on his drawing room shelves but in the refrigerator. For Merchant is at once a gastronome, a citizen of the world, a film-buff and a film-maker. His varied interests show up as much in the spread he lays out for a party as in the guests at his table, the ingredients he uses and the images in his films.
As the nuts and bolts man of the Merchant-Ivory team, Ismail Merchant is well-known in the movie world for his tightly-run budgets. His charm and powers of persuasion are by-words in the industry, and they revolve around his central skill: cooking. “I’ve been fascinated with food for as long as I can remember,” he says. It’s a fascination that has been put to good use — cooking memorable meals for his crew have served the twin purposes of controlling cots as well as providing the perfect ambience for bonding.
“All my friends are good cooks,” beams Merchant happily, “except for the late Jennifer Kendal. Neither is Ruth Jhabwala, though her husband is a superb one.” James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala have lived on different floors of the same building on 52nd Street, New York for years, and have traditionally met for breakfast every morning at Jhabwala’s flat. Recently, Ivory and Merchant have bought a rambling mansion in upstate New York, complete with vegetable garden.
“We have the luxury of picking our ingredients out of the ground ten minutes before the meal,” twinkles Merchant. It’s a luxury he revels on visits to friends in Tuscany where he stocks up on supplies like olive oil. In fact, Merchant is much in, demand as a cook for various; friends, a role that he enjoys to the hilt. “Most people confine their cooking to their own kitchen. Not me. I don’t suffer from angst about not being able to get used to unfamiliar utensils and kitchen layouts.” It’s another matter that hosts are prone to anxiety attacks when Merchant is the visiting cook due to his unnerving habit of starting on dinner around the time that the first guests are walking in. “This requires both courage and gall, qualities Ismail has in abundance,” writes fellow foodie Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey’s own cooking is meticulous just as Merchant’s is unplanned.
If this larger-than-life character combines Dijon mustard with ginger in many of his Indian dishes, he cooks tomato sauce for pasta with a dash of cumin. The wonder of it is that there’s nothing but applause, even from purists.