Sauce and Spice

"The Hundred Foot Journey" is like a very nice glass of local wine: it’s not fancy and flashy, but it’s from home and tastes right

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: (2 Michelin Stars = 4 Reels out of 5)

The Hundred Foot Journey is a simple film about good food, good people, and how to live a good life with the cards that are dealt. It harkens back to the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s, where humor came from misunderstandings and irony rather than a slew of cuss words and insults. Even enemies treat each other decently. While the film does explore moral issues, it treads lightly, not wanting to offend the viewer’s pallet yet also 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 survivors flee to France and try to open a flamboyant eatery—“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 never tries 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 the young chefs 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. 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. 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 important not to see this film on an empty stomach. It is filled with the most magnificent foods, all beautifully shot and served by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Food is one of the great joys of life and the creativity involved in cooking is 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 and a key aspect of human creativity: to celebrate God’s creation and to help reveal His presence in the world.

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 man never lets his guard down, how can anybody reach him? 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 loved ones; Papa still speaks to Mama who he believes helps guide his path. Hasan also 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.

About Nick Olszyk 87 Articles
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, CA. He has directed several short films and is the new father of the aptly named Nick Jr. He was raised on bad science movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.