The 100 feet in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” — a fairy tale-like film that examines cultural differences through food — is the physical distance between an Indian restaurant opened by new immigrants in a tiny town in the south of France and a well-established Michelin-starred dining room across the street. The distance initially seems insurmountable.
All films that center on food elicit strong reactions from people in the food industry, so we brought together a French chef, French-born university lecturer, anthropologists, a francophile, and Indian-Americans to watch and share their thoughts: Jacky Robert, chef and co-owner of the Petit Robert Bistro restaurants; Thierry Gustave, French lecturer at University of Massachusetts Boston; Merry White, professor of anthropology at Boston University; Gus Rancatore, owner of Toscanini’s Ice Cream in Cambridge; Tulasi Srinivas, associate professor of anthropology at Emerson College; and artist Rani Sarin.
The group agreed that the film was less about food and more about family, connections, identity, and memories. And though sometimes clichéd and unrealistic, with food scenes that were not quite right (such as a spice box that miraculously makes it through customs from India to England, then through Europe, with the jars still full of spices that are apparently “fresh”), the film left these viewers with a good feeling. “The movie was cheesy,” says White. “But it was the kind of cheese that works: melts in your mouth and not too smelly.”
“I was attracted to the concept of food bringing people together,” director Lasse Hallstrom says on the phone from the West Coast. “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, among others, and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, does succeed in that concept, the group agreed. “Food in this movie initially divides, then brings people together,” says Srinivas.
The film portrays the clash when the head of the Kadam family, Papa (Om Puri), opens Maison Mumbai across from the fancy Le Saule Pleureur (literally “the weeping willow”), owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) in the idyllic French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.
In an opening scene, Mummy, Papa’s wife, is racing after a food vendor in a bustling Mumbai market, her young son, Hassan (later played by Manish Dayal), in tow. The shot captures the chaos and color of India but Srinivas saw something that would never happen. “No Indian woman will run around like that, arms flailing. They will hold themselves in, gliding through spaces.”
Son Hassan shows an extraordinary talent for cooking at a young age. His culinary school is the family restaurant, his teacher is Mummy. The sense of destiny and spirituality fundamental to India are obvious throughout the film, particularly in a scene where Mummy tells Hassan, “When you cook you make ghosts,” by which she means memories.
‘The French kitchen is about stability and hierarchy, whereas the Indian kitchen is about creativity, pitching in, ad-hoc cooking.’
When Mummy perishes in a fire during postelection rioting, the Kadam family comes unhinged. Papa and the five children (ages about 10 to mid-20s) leave India and wander through England and Europe, searching for a place to open a restaurant, finally settling, accidentally, in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. “They are looking to connect through memories,” Gustave says. “Memories of food.”
The one food throughout the film that seems to remind Hassan of India is sea urchin, an ingredient in a seafood soup that Mummy cooked while explaining, “To cook you must kill.” In fact, the sea urchin is rarely used in Indian cooking, Sarin says, and in a country where vegetarianism prevails, most people would dispute the cook-and-kill statement.
Before they decide where to land, Papa’s car brakes fail near Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame Mallory's sous chef, rescues the family and brings them to her house. Marguerite offers them food — tomatoes, cheeses, cold cuts — and the Kadams are beguiled by the lushness and flavors. Papa remarks, “I think my family is afraid they have died and gone to heaven.”
“That was a great scene,” White says. “The family at first was a bit shy about accepting food, then really enjoyed it, reaching all at once with their hands. Very natural and the food was simple and beautiful, even without ‘beauty shots.’ ”
White adds she thought it was curious that there was pork roast, considering that the Indian family is Muslim, and that they all tasted some.
One of director Hallstrom's main concerns was avoiding commercial-like food shots and he achieved that, said the group. The food scenes are used to set up and resolve clashes between the two establishments. Madame Mallory's initial disparagement of Indian food is obvious when she asks, “A curry is a curry is it not?” But later she embraces Hassan's Indian touches to French classics. When he adds cumin and mustard seeds to boeuf Bourguignon, Madame Mallory touts it as boeuf Bourguignon a la Hassan.
Papa, against his children’s advice, buys a dilapidated building across from Le Saule Pleureur to start an Indian restaurant. His son, Mansur, cautions, “The French don’t know Indian food. They have their own food and it is famous throughout the world.” Chef Robert said the scene made him smile. “The French do have their own food and are conservative about it,” he said.
Madame Mallory considers Maison Mumbai's garish Taj Mahal-like entrance cheap decor, and its loud music distasteful. She tells Papa, “If your food is anything like your music, I suggest you turn it down.”
“I will turn the music down, but I will turn the heat up,” the gruff, outspoken Papa responds, staking out his territory.
Srinivas says the divide here is typical of each culture. “The French kitchen is about stability and hierarchy, whereas the Indian kitchen is about creativity, pitching in, ad-hoc cooking,” she says.
The escalation of the restaurant-war is offset by a blossoming romance between Marguerite and Hassan. Marguerite gives him French cookbooks and shows him how to forage for wild mushrooms. After a series of well-worn plot turns, Hassan even tries to win Madame Mallory over by making her an omelet.
We watch Madame Mallory from the back as she takes her first bite of omelet in the Mumbai kitchen. Her back stiffens, then we see her face softening. Hassan's omelet has Indian aromatics. Madame Mallory is enticed by the mix of sensations, the heat of red chiles, the coolness of cilantro. “If there is a sexual moment in the film, it is this,” Rancatore says. “The range of emotions she displays.”
Chef Robert says that his own chef at Maison Robert asked him to make an omelet when he first went to that kitchen. Making an omelet right is a test of technique, though the chef admits he might not hire someone who makes an omelet Hassan's way, with cream. “You don’t put cream in an omelet,” he says. “That is a shortcut used when someone doesn’t know how to make an omelet.”
Hassan goes on to study French classics under Madame Mallory. The young chef experiments, combining French techniques with Indian flourishes — cumin in boeuf Bourguignon, garam masala in another entree, saffron in a sauce. Madame Mallory asks Hassan why he must change a 200-year-old French recipe. “Because 200 years is long enough,” he replies. While he runs her kitchen, Le Saule Pleureur earns a second Michelin star.
When Hassan moves to Paris to work in a top-rated restaurant, his success is marred by loneliness, this time for the French village and the young woman who taught him about wild mushrooms.
Late one night, he sees the food porter, a South Asian man, eating food the porter’s wife prepared. Hassan is offered a bite and becomes emotional. “Every bite takes you home,” he says.
And that is essentially at the heart of the film. Home, says New Delhi native Sarin, “is where your family is, where your kitchen is.”