The Hundred-Foot Journey spans way beyond a hundred feet in the sense of how far the young lad has gone to fulfill the dream. Spanning from the protagonist’s native India, to England and then France, the last leg via a tricolor caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes that chugs through much of Western Europe, it’s the story of the making of a chef. Hassa Haji, second of six children born to a poor cotton farmer family, is a Muslim boy raised on the edge of a slum in what was still called Bombay. Among putrid streams and pungent smell of charcoal fires that insinuated the shantytown, Hassan has developed a keen sense of smell and taste. He is born with the innate culinary equivalent of a perfect pitch. The sudden and short-lived real estate boom allowed his father to capitalize on his acreage.
Somewhere in the middle of the play tears began streaming down my face. I am not exactly sure what happened . . . but I realized, about the human soul when it has a destiny—at odds with the society around it—and how this destiny drove people into exile. It was all about homesick men achingly missing their mothers and comforting food from home . . . (Ch.4, p.46)
The horrific death of his mother at the hands of a Hindu mobs upends the family, sending it over to rural France by way of England (portrayed as a food wasteland). In Lumiere his father finds a mansion, converts it to a boisterous Ballywood-esque eatery, with Hassan as the chief. Directly across the street, a hundred feet away, is a celebrated country inn that is the archtype of French rustic elegance. This is, of course, where the novel really takes wing. The clash with snobbish Madame Mallory.
Did you see that placard? Hear that plinky-plinky music? Quelle horreur. Non. Non. He can’t do such a thing. Not on my street. He’s destroying the ambience. Our customers. (Ch.6, p.73)
Embittered by her failure to earn a third Michelin star, Masdame Mallory, a well-trained chef reared in generations of prestige, declares war on her foreign neighbor—over fresh grocery, over customers, and even over noise abatement. But it doesn’t help matters when she comes to dine at Maison Mumbai, ready to crow over its mediocrity and discovers that the untrained Hassan is a culinary genius. She takes him under her wing and teaches him French cooking.
The clash between Madame Mallory and Hasaan’s Papa is no doubt the best part of the book. They are both very nuanced characters. But the book somewhat sags after they drop off the pages . In a wanly sketched Paris, Hassan charts his ascent to the pantheon of top chefs as if ticking off bullets on a resume. In spite of his success he preserves a very human side, which I find very touching. He seems to be always nostalgic of his family, of Madame Mallory and the food of his home. He never forgets the humble upbringing and remembers all his mentors through culinary associations. The book is light and proceeds with a brisk pace, despite it’s not evenly written. It’s a satire of the absurdly over-the-top, style-over-substance food porn culture that Le Guide Michelin helps overblow to an incredible disproportion.
250 pp. Simon and Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]