Title: The Hundred-Foot Journey
Author: Richard C. Morais
Crows Nest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 2010
Recommended as “Outstanding!” by Anthony Bourdain, famous TV Chef
It is the story of Hassan Haji and his Muslim family with a restaurant business from Mumbai, India.
It started with a tragedy – the death of his mother through a riot – then the subsequence relocation of the whole family to London. The father liked to build a restaurant business again, so they travelled around in Europe, tasting all the cuisine offered, and in the end, they settled down in Lumiere, a small town in alpine France, and opened their restaurant “Maison Mumbai”.
There, another tragedy was brewing, in the shape of the local celebrated chef Gertrude Mallory of Le Saule Pleureur, whose intolerance set her against the Haji family and their restaurant.
More tragedy ensued from the altercation between Hassan’s father and Gertrude, resulted in him being caught on fire at the stove. His stay in hospital caused a change of heart in Gertrude, and she drafted him in to be her apprentice.
Thus began his “hundred foot journey”, which was the distance separating his family restaurant where he was only a sef-taught chef, to the kitchen of Le Saule Pleureur, where he would be highly trained in the tradition of French Haute Cuisine.
The journey continued with many twists and turns and ended decade later in Paris, where Hassan was awarded three Michelin stars for his own restaurant Le Chien Méchant – a great honour and a huge achievement for a migrant like himself.
It’s a lovely story, with happy ending, in spite of all the tragedies involved, and told with lots of wit and humour:“Cane”, Papa informed the waiter.
“Papa! You just ordered a roast dog.”
“No. No. I didnt’t. He understood.”
“You mean carne. Carne”
“Oh, yes. Yes. Carne rosto. And un piatto di Mussolini.”
The perplexed waiter finally retired once we explained Papa wanted a plate of mussels, not the dictator on a dish.”
There are lots of interesting passages about life in Mumbai, glimpse of ethnic communities in South Hall of London, of locals living in Lumière and Paris of France. The most “tasty” parts are behind-the-scene working of a high class restaurant , the French food scene, the glamour side, the financial side and the dark side of it too.
While the ending is a happy one, somehow it is a bit disappointing to the reader: the main character, an Indian proud of his heritage, embraced totally French Cuisine. The hundred foot journey was a total cross-over: Hassan ended up being the upholder of the traditional French Haute Cuisine.
Somehow you might expect Hassan to bring something of his background to give French cuisine a twist – especially after the quote of Chef Mallory herself: “You have made me understand that good taste is not the birthright of snobs, but the gift from God sometimes found in the most unlikely places and in the unlikeliest of people”
But no, in the end Hassal is totally French, with occasional nostalgia of his roots: “But somewhere down the middle of the sloping lane of Rue Mouffetard, I stopped in my tracks. I was not quite sure at first, not quite trusting my senses. I again snuffed the moist midnight air. Could it be? But there it was, the unmistakable aroma coming down a cobblestone side passage to greet me, the smell of machli ka salan, the fish curry of home, from so long ago.” “But a nearby church bell chimed a.m. and the duties of the next day beckoned, pulling at my conscience. So I took one longing look at Madras and then unceremoniously turned on my heel, to continue on my journey down the rue Mouffetard…”
How sad! And what a waste of one’s heritage!