The Hundred Foot Journey

So despite my earlier rant about being in a reading rut and contemplating whether or not to give up on the two books I’ve been reading, I pushed on and eventually finished Richard Morais’ The Hundred Foot Journey.

Though not exactly a great piece of literature, The Hundred Foot Journey, it is, at least, not the worst book I’ve ever read.  It’s light, easy to read, and just over 200 pages long, so at least it has that going for it.

The Hundred Foot Journey is a flashback, told from the perspective of Hassan Haji, an Indian immigrant who, from his own narrative early on, hints at currently being a successful chef in Paris.  Though the novel is primarily about Hassan and how he got to his current position, he starts his story at the very beginning, when his grandfather moves to Mumbai from the province in order to make a better life for himself and his family.

Starting out as a dabba wallah, delivering tiffins or those Indian tin lunchboxes, all over the city, Hassan’s grandfather eventually earns enough to bring his wife, Hassan’s grandmother, or “Ammi,” to Mumbai, who later sets up a small restaurant to support their family income.  Because of Ammi’s talent for cooking, and the prevalence of foreign soldiers at the time due to the war, their small restaurant becomes a success, and eventually Hassan’s grandparents are able to raise a family.

According to Hassan, the second eldest of six children, he was born on the second floor of his grandparents’ restaurant, amid the spicy smells of Indian cooking, and even before he could learn to walk, it was clear that he was destined to a life in the kitchen. During his childhood days in India, Hassan’s parents mostly ran the family restaurant, with his father taking a more active role in developing and conceptualizing the menu, and his mother, overseeing the financial books and accounting.

Life in India was relatively good and their restaurant was faring well, but an unfortunate tragedy, when Hassan was just barely in his teens, threatened to tear their family apart.  Though devastated by the horrible events their family experienced, the booming real estate market, on the other hand, made it possible for them to sell their 4 acre land, and becoming millionaires overnight, they decided to move  to London, where they had family, so they could forget their past and move on with their lives.

Life in London was not as easy as they thought it would be.  Trying to make a new life for themselves, Hassan’s father tried repeatedly to come up with some money-making schemes, failing miserably each time.  Realizing that the world was much bigger than they ever imagined it to be, and they being powerless in a country unknown to them, the Haji’s each suffered from some kind of depression and a bit of lunacy.

In the meantime, Hassan, now a teenager, experiences love, drugs, sex, and other adventures for the first time, and, 2 years after arriving in London, because of his raging hormones and incestuous tendencies, the Haji’s were forced to leave the country and sever ties with their London-based relatives.

Restless, with nowhere to go (and lots of money to spend), the Hajis drive up and down Europe, tasting each location’s local cuisines.  After months of aimless driving, the family finally settle, quite by accident, in the picturesque town of Lumiere, in the Jura mountains of France.  After falling in love with the beautiful scenery, and buying a stone mansion big enough to house their family, Hassan’s father finds new purpose in life by turning their new home into the first and only Indian restaurant in the region, much to the irritation of their neighbor, Madame Mallory, a 2-star Michelin  hotelier and chef and owner of the inn across the street, La Saule Pleureur.

Courtesy forces Madame Mallory to dine at Maison Mumbai, the Haji’s new restaurant, on its opening night, where she tastes Hassan’s cooking for the first time, and to her amazement and dismay recognize in him a special talent found only in the very few – the few that go on to become great chefs.  Of course, this only causes Madame Mallory more grief and becomes more intent to sabotage Maison Mumbai’s success and to get the Haji family to leave Lumiere. The turning point in Madame Mallory’s attitude toward the family occurs shortly after an unfortunate accident befalls Hassan after one of her tirades and confrontations. Contrite and remorseful, Madame Mallory offers to hire Hassan to work in La Saule Pleureur and to teach him everything she knows about cooking.

For 2 years, Hassan slaves away at Madame Mallory’s inn, learning everything from mopping floors to the fine art of cooking.  He is soon offered a job in a well-known restaurant in Paris, which is the stepping stone to his career as a chef.  For the next 10 years or so, Hassan works in various restaurants under famous chefs, until finally, with the help of his father and sister, he opens his own restaurant in a posh location. With the opening of his new restaurant, Chef Hassan is faced with new problems and challenges, but it is also in this period of his life that he meets the man who will prove to be crucial to his success as a true Parisian chef.

Now, imagine all that (plus a lot more I didn’t mention) in a book less than 250 pages long. I guess you can imagine how very few details were included in the telling of this story.  In fact, because it is a flashback, the whole thing seems just like a summary of events in Hassan’s life up to the present.

I have a few qualms about this novel, the first of which I just mentioned; it’s lack of details.  My second problem is, though the novel spanned 3 generations, it lacked a certain direction and purpose. It lacks a certain force which propels plots to move forward.

Third, it lacked depth – both in its characters and in its plot.  The characters are one dimensional, and it’s plot quite simple.  But the main thing that bothered me about this novel was how it lacked conflict.  Despite the unfortunate accident which befell the Haji family in India, there were no hindrances to their move to London, then later, to Lumiere.  There were no serious problems with language, culture, nationality; even money wasn’t a problem, since before leaving India, they became instant millionaires. The Haji family, including Hassan, lived a generally worry-free and problem-free existence. Hassan, from his early days of training with Madame Mallory, to his move to Paris, and later in needing capital and a great location to open up his restaurant, seemed to be all the while, being watched over by a his fairy godmother.  Despite some minor bumps in the road, it’s smooth sailing from beginning to end in the life and career of Chef Hassan.  It’s a feel good novel, but it won’t really make you feel good.  In fact, it won’t really make you feel anything.

A fairy-tale is the best description I can give this novel.  Then again, a fairy-tales have conflicts brought about by nasty antagonists.  The Hundred Foot Journey lacks both. The novel is quick, easy, painless, and in the end, it wouldn’t be a spoiler if I told you that they lived happily ever after.

All in all, despite being a novel about the rich foods and cultures of India and France, The Hundred Food Journey is disappointingly bland and unpalatable.

(P.S. And the movie isn’t any better).

 ***

The Hundred Foot Journey (2010) – Richard Morais

Simon and Schuster / Pocket Books; 242 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  2/5

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