Sauce and Spice

Romantic and culinary love in Hundred Foot Journey
“Sauce and Spice”
A Review of The Hundred Foot Journey by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
Reel Rating, 2 Michelin Stars = 4 Reels

            The Hundred Foot Journey is a simple film about good food, good people, and how to live a pleasant life with the cards that are dealt. It harkens back to the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, where humor came from misunderstandings and irony rather than a slew of cuss words and insults. Even enemies treated each other decently. While the film does explore moral issues, it treads lightly, not wanting to offend its customers’ pallet yet not afraid to allow its characters to make mistakes and deal with the consequences. Perhaps this cute little dessert is not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny its impeccable taste.
            Thousands of miles from the nearest Michelin star establishment, a family headed by a man only referred to as “Papa’ (Om Puri) runs a quaint little restaurant in rural Bombay. His son Hasan (Manish Dayal) cooks the food, mentored by his elegant and loving Mama. Suddenly, the family is attacked during a riot that burns down the building, killing Mama in the process. The family flees to France and tries to open a flamboyant eatery called Maison Mumbai with loud music and even louder spices. “People here do not eat Indian food,” one son complains. “They have never tried it,” Papa insists. One person who certainly will never try Papa’s food is Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a widow who lives for classical French cuisine. She runs Le Saule Pleureur, a restaurant frequented by the Prime Minister. Only a hundred feet away and directly facing Mumbai, Pleureur does have a Michelin star and Mallory has been trying for thirty years to achieve another. What Pleureur does not have is Hasan, who cooks with love, passion, and intense curiosity. He strikes up a romance with Mallory’s souse chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who introduces him to French techniques. While Romeo & Juliet carry on, Papa and Mallory try to outdo one another in crazy and often hilarious attempts to shut down the other’s business.
            Papa and Mallory represent a classic clash of culture, not full blown xenophobia (yet) but a subtle war of smirks, glances, and snide remarks. “What’s that noise over there,” one customer asks. “The death of good taste,” Mallory sneers. “Be careful,” the town’s mayor tells her. “You don’t want to be caught in sympathy with [racists].” “I would never be caught in sympathy with anyone,” she responds. Yet the bad feelings from both sides build to a boiling point when Mallory’s chef and his friends deface and attempt to burn down Mumbai. After firing him, Mallory and Papa realize their actions have helped this happen and start a hesitant friendship. Mallory even offers Hasan a position in her kitchen, which leads to a competition and estrangement between him and Marguerite. Hundred Foot isn’t preachy or overly sentimental, yet it effectively argues the importance of being open to new ideas, possibilities, and people. If a person never lets his guard down, how can anybody reach him? The French are known for their sauces, the Indians for their spices. Together, it’s a perfect marriage.
            Like Chef and Julie & Julia, it’s importance not to see this film on an empty stomach. It is filled with the most magnificent foods, all beautifully sown into the story by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. While Marguerite has the proper training, Hasan has the passion, which comes from his mother. Hasan is wise, meaning he properly understands not just the content of food but its purpose. Food is one of the great joys of life and a distinctly human feature. Cooking takes a purely physical need and turns it into an aesthetic experience that has spiritual qualities. This is the essence of the arts – to celebrate God’s creation by helping humans see His presence in the world.
            Ultimately, Hundred Foot is about family and that inescapable comfort people call “home.” Mallory and Papa are hurt by the past and missing their lost love ones; Papa still speaks to Mama who he believes helps guide his path. Hasan too experiences this pain. After becoming a famous chef, he goes to Paris to train in an extremely pretentious, high tech kitchen that would make even Gordon Ramsey blush. “Foods release enzymes that activate specific areas of the brain,” his boss tells Hasan. Um…what? Hasan rises in popularity and celebrity but feels depressed and uninspired. One night, he encounters another Indian working late alone, munching on his wife’s home cooking. Hasan tries only a few bites and bursts into tears. No food is as good as food cooked by your family. “Food is memories,” he contemplates. Indeed, eating is more than food – it is fellowship. This is why Jesus describes Heaven as a wedding banquet and why I still hold out hope that there will be bacon wrapped shrimp in the afterlife.

            The Hundred Foot Journey is like a very nice glass of local wine. No, it’s not a 50 year old French vintage that costs thousands of dollars, but it’s from home. It’s not the best picture of the year, but it doesn’t try to be. It wants only to give you a hug bear hug, comfortable and warm. Like Pleureur, that deserves at least two stars.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 12th, 2014.