“Life has its own flavor.” Little Hassan Kadam (Rohan Chand) attends carefully to his mother’s (Juhi Chawla) lessons, delivered when she takes him to market as well as when he observes her cooking in the restaurant kitchen owned by his family. And you can see why: she’s precisely the sort of mother who would deliver “an education for all the senses”, beautiful and warm, brilliantly outfitted and ceaselessly patient. “To cook, you must kill,” she teaches him, “You cook to make ghosts.”
It’s only a few minutes into The Hundred-Foot Journey when this particular lesson turns rather literal and grim, in the sense that the Bombay Riots (1993) beset the family and Hassan’s mother is burned to death, pretty much in front of him. (“One night the education ended,” he says in voiceover, “We lost everything”)
By then a young man (Manish Dayal), Hassan is duly traumatized and then uprooted, when his father (Om Puri) moves his children to the south of France: when their car breaks down in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, he takes it as a sign from mama that this is where they must resettle (“What did mama say?” goes the refrain. “She said brakes break for a reason”). Their fate is sealed when they pass by an abandoned restaurant, with which Papa falls in love, then purchases, renames Maison Mumbai, and submits to a makeover, performed by his five kids and a few workers via a nicely shot, probably too charming montage sequence.
As it happens, the restaurant has been abandoned for a reason, namely, the other restaurant in town, located directly across the road (yes, about 100 feet across). It’s run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, again redoubtable), who determines immediately to run the Kadams out of town, partly, maybe, because she sees them as too different (“I understand you people like to keep everything in the family,” she sniffs during an early confrontation). And partly because she sees them as competition for her classical French restaurant, one-starred by Michelin back in 1975 when her husband ran it.
Snooty and autocratic in a stereotypical way, she inspires Papa to take up the challenge, leading to more charming montage sequences depicting their battles over buying ingredients at the open-air market, battles over drawing customers each even, even battles over zoning and permitting (these arbitrated, sort of, by Michel Blanc as the mayor, who does his best to guide and not take sides, most often as he’s eating at a “neutral” café, where Papa and Mme. Mallory regularly accost him.)
Clearly, the movie means to deliver more education of more senses, by way of reconciliation and mutual appreciation. This storyline is initiated when Hassan—a gifted chef, owing to innate brilliance nurtured by his mother—develops a crush on Mme. Mallory’s attractive sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and also picks her brain (and cookbook collection), allowing for what you might expect, lots of talking abut food, preparing food, eating food, and assessing food, conveyed by sensuous imagery and a lush West-East-mixing soundtrack.
Coveting a second Michelin star, Mme. Mallory devises to bring Hassan across that 100 feet stretch in order both to train and use him. This amid a subplot involving local racism directed at the Kadams. The most pronounced instance of this takes the form of setting their restaurant afire, as back in Mumbai, an event you imagine would terrify the younger siblings, at least, but is used here to move the plot for Hassan, his father, and Mme.
Mallory, as she (who is only classist, apparently, and not racist) defends the Kadams and so can be quite instantly forgiven for her previous meanness. This bit of plotting might best be described as erratic, as well as convenient, in that it frames Hassan’s continuing education, in a new sensory environment, as well as his chance to bring his mother’s ghost into the movie’s foreground, in the form of her case full of Indian spices. As he introduces cardamom, curry, and turmeric into French dishes, Mme. Mallory’s kitchen earns enhanced renown and Hassan a ticket to Paris.
That Hassan is a genius goes without saying, in the sense that when experts like Mme. Mallory or Marguerite taste his concoctions, they gasp and swoon and do their best not to praise him too much. Hassan appears undaunted by their withholding, resiliently self-assured about his cooking no matter who denies his virtuosity or for what reason. Here again, the film points to his mother’s influence, by way of the spices case. (No surprise: when he leaves that behind during the Paris sojourn, he is especially lost.) While no one mentions the violence and the politics of her loss, but instead, the idea of her serves the film’s metaphorical purposes, an invisible allusion to the wonders and rewards of culture-mixing.
Such education is the main business of The Hundred-Foot Journey. Sadly, it’s such a familiar business that Hassan’s mother’s first point, that “Life has its own flavor”, is reframed so it seems awfully bland.