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:
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.
by Chef Floyd Cardoz
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
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.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen