Book Review of The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C Morais
I enjoy reading novels with a culinary theme, such as John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, Muriel Barbery’s The Gourmet, James Hamilton Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca and quite a few others.
I am not sure why so many of these books have a humorous side to them – is it that the authors see the inherent pretentiousness of devoting such copious amounts of time and effort to something so ephemeral as a meal on a plate?
Richard C Morais has added another contribution to this genre in The Hundred-Foot Journey, the story of the journey of a young Indian boy from his parents restaurant in Mumbai to becoming a renowned chef in pursuit of the coveted Michelin stars. The book is often funny and at times moving, but the overall impression is of colour, from the vibrant streets of Mumbai to the calm mellow shades of top European restaurants.
Hassan’s childhood was rich with family and food – his grandfather’s restaurant was a successful enterprise and cooking was in Hassan’s blood from early childhood. His father, Big Abbas, had developed the restaurant into a flourishing business with Hassan’s mother doing the books and various relatives working hard to help the business thrive.
The early chapters of the books give a flavoursome picture of life in a successful restaurant, with early morning visits to the markets (a riot of noise and smells), and the ordered chaos of the kitchens as the evening meals are prepared.
Tragedy hits the family however, and they leave India for good, setting up home firstly in Southall, London, where Hassan starts to experience what it is like to be a Westernised teenager. Before long they realise that London is not for them and the family embark on an eccentric journey in three Mercedes cars across Europe so that Hassan’s father can explore the national menus of the Continent.
Returning from Tuscany, the convoy suffers mechanical failure somewhere in the Jura region just north of the Alps in the (fictional?) town of Lumière, grinding to a halt outside a large mansion which just happens to be for sale. The mystically-inclined Papa sees the hand of destiny in the break-down and promptly buys the mansion, with plans to turn it into an Indian restaurant – on a grand-scale unseen before in a small French town.
Papa had not noticed when he bought the mansion that it was directly opposite a restaurant owned by the famous chef Madame Mallory, with a discerning clientele and a reputation for excellence in even the foremost Parisian restaurants. The core of the book describes the battle between the two establishments. Madame Mallory is a formidable opponent, but will she be the equal of the Mumbai-toughened Papa?
From this point on the book gets really serious about food. Richard Morais gives his readers some wonderful descriptions of even the most basic tasks of food preparation –
Madame Mallory used a heavy and sharp knife to cleanly take off the top of the artichoke, with a firm downward crunch of the blade. For a few seconds her head was down again, as she plucked some pink, immature leaves from the plant’s centre.
Picking up a new utensil, she cut at the inner artichoke and elegantly scooped out the thicket of thistle fuzz called the choke. You could see the satisfaction on her face when she finally and surgically removed the soft prize of the artichoke’s heart and set it aside in a bowl of marinade, already heaped with succulent and mushy cups.
Hassan finds the site of this a revelation, “I walked back to the Dufour estae, my heart was fluttering and filled by what I had just witnessed”, and from now, his course in life is set.
The “restaurant wars” between the two establishments rage for months. While the local population greatly respect Madame Mallory’s menu at Le Saule Pleureur, the variety offered by Indian cuisine has its appeal, and the panache and informality of the Asian way of eating is a refreshing change.
The battle is waged in various disreputable ways and lasting harm is done by some of the skirmishes. Eventually a sort of peace prevails and Madame Mallory eventually becomes a key influence in Hassan’s life, leading him to take a course in life diametrically opposed to his family’s expectations.
I enjoyed reading this book. The research is impeccable – or from reading the author’s biography, perhaps it is born of personal experience from his cosmopolitan life. While this is his first novel, he seems to have been a writer for most of his career.
My only quibble is that while the first two thirds have a larger than life, rumbustious style, towards the end of the book there is a complete change of mood and from time to time I had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction rather than a serious biography of a top chef.
I wonder whether the scope was a little too broad and whether the book wouldn’t have been better concentrating on the French village phase, perhaps as Joanne Harris did in Chocolat. However, The Hundred Foot Journey is a very fine read by anybody’s standards and held my attention throughout.
Title: The Hundred-Foot Journey
Author: Richard C Morais
Publication: Alma Books (25 June 2010), Paperback, 250 pages
James Gray has a life-long interest in politics, travel, the environment, and global affairs. He works in IT but his heart truly beats for the written word.