Ali Merchant, Founder & Director, Triton Communications talks of his romance with the culinary world
Those were the halcyon days of the Royalty. My maternal grandfather, a proud Maratha Kshatriya was the deputy to His Royal Highness of Gwalior, while my maternal grandmother was an Iraqi. It was at the age of eight that I arrived in this opulent palace in Gwalior, clutching tightly to my mother and grandmother’s hands. That was the beginning of my romance with the wonders of the culinary world.
Visiting the Gwalior palace often amidst the heady, distinctive flavours of Iraqi, Arabic, Indian and Continental cuisine, I was fascinated by the infinite range and versatility of gourmet cooking. Perched on a Queen Anne stool in the cavernous halls of the royal kitchen, I became an avid pupil, learning from the best of the best – 8 cooks; nine of whom were from various states in India, four from the Middle East and yet another five from other parts of the world.
From that young and impressionable age, I was initiated into a mind-boggling variety of gourmet dishes: Kubba (Kibbeh), Dolma, Koozi (barbequed goat with chicken and pulav stuffing), Baamiya, five types of Biryani, Yakhani Pulav, Smoked Shammi Kebab, Rafat Ki Tang, Bihari Kebab, Pomfret Rolls stuffed with chutney in a specially made tomato sauce. Then, of course, there was Khichda, Haleem, Lassan and Husma (Bohri meat dishes) and Chicken Roast with stuffing, plus 12 types of Dal and at least another 200 dishes, plus desserts. Little wonder that I not only grew up to be a recognized connoisseur of food, but dabbled at cooking up some rare delicacies, as well. According to friends, the aromas of exotic food wafted ahead of me, even before I could enter the room! And certainly, while my parents were still alive, our ‘Merchant’ residence was famous for its food among the social circles in Mumbai. People just had to be on our guest list!
Over time, my passionate love for gourmet cuisine became one of the most important parts of my life. And it still is! My mother passed away at a very young age. In some way, that perhaps egged me on to continue with my passion for fine cooking. Over the years, I learnt most of the recipes from my childhood, and compiled a notebook of rare and littleknown dishes. As my friends will vouch for, I continued the grand tradition of the ‘Merchant flavor’. Fortunately, I got married to a woman who also loves good food and she has encouraged me to continue my interest in cooking and experimenting with new dishes .
I got into Advertising in 1971. And like everyone else in the industry, I read my first book ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ by David Ogilvy. Imagine my delight when I discovered that this doyen’s first job was also in the culinary field – as a chef at the Majestic Hotel in Paris. I immediately wrote to him about the interest I shared with him. And he wrote back, asking me to meet Mani Ayer, then Head of O&M in India. So I met Mani, who offered me a job after a gruelling interview. A little annoyed, perhaps, that I did not know how to cook any Tamil dishes! However, I finally chose to work with McCann because of one man, Subroto Sen Gupta – but that’s another story.
Time passed. I now have three beautiful children – one daughter and two sons. None of them pursued the same career path as me. However, all of them, I repeat, all of them, share my passion for food. Eating, cooking and hosting gourmet parties flows in their blood too. But, that’s their story now.
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