By Haley Houseman
The Hundred-Foot Journey is as much about the homes we carry with us, as it is about the food and culture that make us who we are. Adapted from the 2010 novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, it is the story of an immigrant family driven from their home (and restaurant) in Mumbai by political upheaval and an incident of firebombing. Guided by the widowed and ceaselessly stubborn Papa, the Kadam family moves to London and eventually France, where the clash of cultures produces plenty of drama and an eventual melding.
The scenes of Indian life and food are rich, transporting the audience as much as the treasured spice cabinet eldest son Hassan inherits from his mother. The riots that cost the family everything, including their mother, are evocative of the unrest that has become common fare on the nightly news. Moving to London, which should be easiest in cultural terms, is not a good fit for the culinary family. The move to France, while unexpected, makes sense. The landscape surrounding the village receives the same loving treatment as the Indian scenes that open the story. There are wonderful comic touches, as well, which add levity and a lightness of tone unexpected with a beginning so tragic.
After an auto accident strands the family outside a small village, the kindness of local chef Marguerite saves the day and holds the family fast. Hassan is immediately impressed by her passion for terroir (taste of the earth) and the generosity she exhibits intervening on his family’s behalf. Food, so central to the family’s life, is lovingly treated by both chefs.
In the village, the father comes across a restaurant location that carries echoes of home, despite its terrible condition. He stubbornly rents the property knowing the town’s only restaurant — with a Michelin star to boot — is just across the street. Devoted and delusional, with only Hassan’s exceptional cooking to rely on, the family get the doors of their new restaurant open. The energy, determination and love the family brings to the table is contrasted distinctly with the xenophobic reception of the village, especially the owner of the rival restaurant, Madame Mallory.
Hassan is fascinated by French food and technique, happy to be in a place that adores food the way he does. His friendship with Marguerite blossoms, though she is a chef in the opposing restaurant. She is also obsessed with food quality and terroir, and teaches him as much as she can. Despite sabotage and tricks between Hassan’s father and Madame Mallory, the narrative is ultimately a love story — between people, and between people and food. It is a love of food for its own sake, of food shared and of food as a repository for culture, including the loving way French and Indian cuisines are fused together in Hassan’s passion and his creations.
“Food is memories,” Hassan’s mother tells him in the opening, and these words hold the logic behind the initial xenophobia and the eventual assimilation of the family into the village.
The motivating event that changes Madame Mallory’s mind is topical in the wake of the recent attacks in France. On Bastille Day, the restaurant is firebombed, much like the opening scene that drives the family from Mumbai. After the fire, Madame Mallory calls her staff together and notes there is more than one way to be French. Being French, she says, lies in the familiar cry of the French Revolution that inspired the American: liberty, fraternity, equality. As the relationship between Madame Mallory and the Kadam family develops, it is clear that the dialogue initiated is beneficial for everyone.
The relationship to food and place is one intrinsically linked to identity and culture. Changing what is on the plate can appear as difficult as changing who you think you are. The characters of The Hundred-Foot Journey each take steps toward a new combination of ingredients, with promising results. If only the culture clashes of the world could be similarly solved with tikka masala and roast pigeon.