“You Cook to Make Ghosts”: Why You Should See “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” No Matter What the Critics or Your BFF Say

Critics are rarely kind. The very nature of their calling requires them to find axes to grind. And grind them they do, as they wield sharp words, hacking away at books, films, art, food.

The release of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”unleashed a firestorm of criticism that reveals a lot about the critics. The film, directed by Lasse Hallström of “Chocolat” fame, is based on Steven Knight’s adaptation of Richard C. Morais’s novel of the same name. We live in a world obsessed with food. Like many obsessions, it’s not necessarily a healthy one. We also live in a world obsessed with celebrity chefs.  Most of the critics thus have reacted to this film from the point of view of food and chefs and restaurants. They’ve given the film every “F” they can come up with:

Fairy tale

Fable

Faux

False

Fake

Frivolous

The thing is, the story DOES have a bit of the fable, the fairy tale about it. Last I heard, fairy tales and fables came about because these stories portray reality in a way that makes it palatable, no pun intended. Because fairy tales and fables are so strongly associated with children’s literature in our culture, applying those labels means something pejorative.

First of all, a few words about the film, for those who have not yet seen it.

Let’s look at the story of the Kadam family for a moment, newly arrived immigrants in France. The family’s matriarch died when hooligans set fire to the family’s restaurant in a frenzy of political violence. Ironically, it was she who said, in a voice-over at the beginning of the film, “To cook you must kill. You cook to make ghosts,” the implication being that the essence of those lives remains in what is cooked. The Kadams open an Indian restaurant – Maison Mumbai – in a small village –  St. Antonin-Noble-Val – directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, with its one Michelin star.  The issue of immigration is a tremendously volatile point now in France, and indeed everywhere in the world. In France, the issue is manifested by what the miscreants spray painted on the wall of the Kadams’ restaurant, “La France aux Françaises,” “France for the French.” But just who is French? What does it mean to be French? The film makes it clear that the so-called original inhabitants of a place usually have no idea what hell these newcomers might have gone through in their former lives or why they suddenly appear in the midst of long-established (and xenophobic) communities.

Critics of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” focus on the cooking, the impossibility of a so-called untrained cook achieving what Hassan did. This, to me, indicates a tremendous snobbery, grounded in the French tradition. It ignores the very real fact that someone from another culture could be trained in that culture’s cuisine and, like learning a third language, could learn another cuisine fairly easily.* That the young Indian chef learned cooking from his mother suggests a tie to the French tradition of cuisine grandmère, honored by many French chefs like Marc Meneau. The film does commit the sin of stereotyping Indian culture, flirting with what prompted Edward Said to write Orientalism. Tradition plays a large role in Indian culture, as it does in French culture. There are also stereotypes of French cooking, French chefs, and French culinary tradition, as when Madame Mallory questions the changes Hassan makes in Boeuf Bourguignon. She remarks that the recipe has been done just so for 200 years and Hassan replies, “Maybe 200 years is enough.” Signs of changes in food show up everywhere in France, on restaurant menu boards, in open-air markets, in Monoprix,  in frozen-food emporiums such as Picard. And women don’t fare well, either, but given the inherent chauvinism of both French and Indian culture, this point is not completely off-base.

Looking at the cooking scenes, I found the following instances where the film failed to live up to the reality of home and professional kitchens:

1. One small scene where olive oil was used in hollandaise instead of butter – could it be because of the difficulty of filming liquid butter?

2. The question of chefs’ knives – there’s a scene where Hassan uses sous chef’s Marguerite’s knife, she objects strenuously, and so he then seeks another knife at a table behind him.

3. Indian spices are usually ground fresh for each dish, so the little suitcase filled with Hassan’s dead mother’s spices didn’t ring quite right, getting a bit long in the tooth as ground spices are wont to do.

4. Helen Mirren does not speak French with an impeccable accent. In fact, the wonky accents of most of the actors probably need some work.

But the film is not really about food, chefs, or even restaurants, in spite of all the critics and their negativity toward the film. No, there’s something else at work here, subtle, maybe even subconscious. That’s where the fairy tale or fable label fits perfectly, but in a positive way. Thinking about it, is it not true that fairy tales and fables often stereotype their characters in order to get their points across?

Filming the movie in St. Antonin-Noble-Val, France seems very apt, because Benedictine monks settled the area early on, bringing with them the Benedictine charism of hospitality to all comers, strangers and foes. Hospitality in this case means not only preparing and serving food; it really means being open, welcoming, accepting. This hospitality, I feel, is really the metaphor around which this story revolves. Becoming hospitable in this sense requires journeying toward greater understanding and achieving humility, something very rare in these days. I believe we see this humility in many of the main characters at the end of the film, especially in Hassan when he realizes that success does not necessarily hinge on another Michelin star.

As with any art form, film lends itself to various interpretations, depending upon the viewer’s experience, knowledge, and mood. “The Hundred-Foot Journey” tells a story that occurs globally nowadays, a tale of human migration and assimilation. It looks like a pretty story, but the reality behind human migration is often not too terribly gorgeous. But viewers need to see positive outcomes, which occurs in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” not “more of the messy juices of life flowing through its veins,” as NPR critic Kenneth Turan said in his analysis of the film. There’s enough of that flooding our Twitter and Facebook feeds 24/7.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” deserves an F, yes, but one that mean “Fantastic” and/or “Fabulous.” “The Hundred-Foot Journey” leaves us with hope that, someday, there just might be peace in the world. And that peace just might begin with sharing food with each other.

Beef Bourguignon à la Hassan

by Chef Floyd Cardoz
Serves 6-8

2 ½ lbs. boneless beef short ribs cut into 1”-2” inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup flour
4 Tbsp. canola oil
6 oz. applewood-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4” strips
18 small pearl onions, peeled
18 baby carrots, peeled, larger ones halved
18 baby turnips, peeled and halved
½ lb. chanterelle mushrooms, halved
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
4 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 onions, diced
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
1½ Tbsp. ginger, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp. freshly ground cumin
1 Tbsp. ground brown mustard seed
½ tsp. Aleppo pepper
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 750-ml bottle red Burgundy wine
1 quart beef stock
4 sprigs thyme
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
¼ cup parsley leaves
¼ cup chervil leaves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Season beef with salt and pepper and lightly coat with flour, reserving the extra. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large stew pot, heat canola oil over moderate heat. Add bacon and cook until fat is rendered, about 5-10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

In the same pot, sear the short ribs until lightly browned on all sides. Remove the beef and reserve. Add pearl onions cook for 2-3 minutes, until translucent and warmed through. Remove the onions and reserve. Repeat this process with the carrots and turnips. Add the chanterelles and sauté for 1 minute, then remove and reserve.

Add butter, cloves, and bay leaves and cook for 1 minute. Add minced onion, garlic and ginger cook for 4-5 minutes. Add cumin. mustard seed, and Aleppo pepper and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the leftover flour and the tomato paste and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes.

Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the ban. Add the beef stock and bring that to a boil, also.

Add the bacon and the short ribs to the pan, bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the heat. Add thyme, cover the pot, and place it in the oven. Cook for approximately 2 hours. Add the carrots, turnips and pearl onions and cook in the oven for 30 minutes more.

Remove the cloves and bay leaves. Add the chanterelles and brown sugar. Season with salt. Garnish with fresh parsley and chervil.

 *The film showed Hassan using Jules Gouffé’s Le Livre de Cuisine as textbook. You may see an English translation HERE, as The Royal Cookery Book (1869); the French original is HERE.

 

Turkish food Aix
Turkish and Lebanese food, Aix-en-Provence, France (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen, 2011)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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14 comments

  • Thanks for the link to BNF, Gouffe. I was just now saying to someone how rare professional cookbooks are in English. The context was Jamie Oliver’s excellent books for people who never learned (and perhaps had little interest in) cooking. Jamie could have done a Ferran Adria:The Family Meal, but chose not to. My favourite bookshop Gibert Jeune is the only one I have seen with a section for Pro cook books. Gouffe is a serious Pro. And less terse than Adria.

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  • Cynthia! Finally found your comments box. This format is harder to decipher than your last (though always so rempli of good info. I saw the Hundred Foot Journey, and came home hungry. Your points and critique are well taken. NO ONE MENTIONED THE PERSON (S) WHO PREPARED THE FOOD. I stayed until the very very very end (great music) to read the credits for food styling, and they were nowhere to be read. “SHOOMA” as we say in my part of the world. Helen Mirren was terribly miscast and her accent “abominable”. I mean, couldn’t they find a REAL French woman to take her place?

    A part ça, yes, I am well aware of the issues, and the premise of the film. “La France aux Français,” though unfortunately real, was a bit heavy handed in that context.

    Merci!

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  • Cindy, if you haven’t seen today’s W. Post Food section, take a look. A great article on food in film that praises “The 100 Foot Journey.” You’ll feel vindicated. :)

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  • Nancy, thank you for your comments, all “right on,” as the saying goes. Loved the remark abut the man laughing when the spice box came out! And thank Jim for me, OK?

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  • Well, Cindy, it is a charming, visually stunning film with a cast that gives its all. Basically, it’s a “feel-good” movie, but certainly not something about which we would spend hours in meaningful conversation. Your comment about Hassan’s mother’s spice box, lovingly bestowed upon him by his father as the family begins again rang true for us, as it must have done for a man in the audience who laughed loudly whenever Hassan opened the box to extract a spice that would serve to create a special dish. That box had been through fire and disruption as the family moved from one location to another — more than likely, the spices it contained were little more than dust by the time Hassan began to use them.

    All that aside, I don’t know why the critics have given the movie such harsh reviews. Not having had the luxury of long periods in France in which I could experience the culture, I more than likely am missing something those “in the know” are aware of. But put that aside and enjoy the movie for what it is — a delightful show that encourages the viewer to relax and vicariously savor foods from two different cultures.

    And by the way, my husband savors your writing — says it’s superb.

    Like

  • Yes, Tony, France (and much of Europe and the USA, too) has an immigration problem, it’s not a simple matter, and hopefully the French government (and the rest) will start remedying some of the more serious issues.

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  • France has a real difficulty with immigrants who don’t blend in. They want immigrants to be French first. French-Vietnamese, French-Tunisiens, French-Irish. French first.

    Islamic people (and Indian)have a very very stable culture. They are not great at blending in. The French Vietnamese do not seem to me less Vietnamese because they have adopted some French ways. Sean McBride (the European Jurist) did not seem to me less Irish because he adopted some French ways.
    The riots last year were in “Arabe” sububurbs. The Bidonvilles (squatta camps) were still there last week beside the RER from CDG to Chatelet. Immigration is a big problem, and it doesn’t seem to be being addressed.

    But then again, the Economy is a big problem, also not being addressed.

    I’m not so sure as I was, that I want to retire to France.

    Like

  • The film hasn’t started yet here in Australia, but so looking forward to seeing it. The book sounds good too, thanks for the recommendation LadyRedSpecs.

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  • I’ve read the book , but not seen the movie yet. The book dies not for one minute take itself seriously. It’s a tale of education conquering ignorance, sudden change challenging tradition, the rollicking loud and colourful aesthetic clashing with the staid and restrained French. I loved every minute of the read and frequently laughed out loud. It is definitely a fable.

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  • We were going to see this yesterday, but our schedule was disrupted. Now have it set for this afternoon and your column convinces us that it’s a “must see.” We’d already decided that anything with Helen Mirren has to be good. I’ll let you know our reaction post-movie.

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