It is the fictional story of an Indian chef, Hassan Haji, narrated in the first person limited voice; a very emotive tale about his life and career (or rather his career which was also his entire life). Hassan, born and bred in Old Bombay, India, after a tragic death of his mother, was transplanted with his family to London and then to Lumiere, Jura, in France. He proved to be a unusually gifted chef, an artist of both Indian and French cuisine.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is about him but also about how the hundred-foot distance between a new Indian kitchen and a traditional French one can represent the gulf between different cultures and desires.
I liked so many things about this book; before I start gushing let me quote one description of a wine-tasting experience. Place: Marseille. Time of the day: early evening. Two great chefs are enjoying their meal in a famous restaurant called Chez Pierre, celebrating the second Le Guide Michelin star one of them has just been awarded.
“(..)Paul ordered a bottle of 1928 Krug champagne. We sat in reverence as the ancient vintage was opened, as the golden-colored foam rushed to the glass rim and revealed its great age. But the real surprise came when we brought the flutes to our lips. The champagne, it was as fresh and sparkly as a blushing bride, and revealed no sign at all it was near retirement age. Quite the opposite. It made me want to sing, dance, fall in love. Rather dangerous, I thought.”
Well, these exactly my feelings when I drink a glass of good champagne. Of course I’ve never drunk anything as exquisite and expensive as 1928 Krug but still…it makes me warm inside – both literally and metaphorically speaking. It makes me happy. I can’t explain it properly but how not to love a book when you find out its characters had roughly the same reaction to your favourite drink?
Now I have to start proper gushing (but I’ll try to keep it decently short). The pace of narration was great and the narrative voice rang true. Everything was told in a very interesting way, speeding up a bit near the end but then I was so enthralled, so charmed, that I didn’t mind it anymore. Overall I felt at home with this book – so much at home that I even started to cook more often while reading it. That’s what good fiction can do to you – it influences your life in a positive way.
I am so keen on watching a movie, based on it, even if I am completely sure it will be worse!
One more quote – remember than when visiting one of those ugly McDos, in France or elsewhere.
“McDonald’s meals were, for some twisted bit of political reasoning, entirely tax-free, but quality French restaurants like Le Chien Méchant had to add a 19.6 percent VAT to every customer’s bill. So in the end, dinner at my two-star restaurant, without wine but including the labor-intensive service haute cuisine is rightly famous for, cost an average 350 euros a head. The universe of customers prepared to pay that amount for a meal was, as you can imagine, rather limited and rapidly dwindling.”
A compelling story; also a must-read for any food enthusiast. I enjoyed it almost as much as a good meal, from time to time even more. A fair warning though: the book will make you very literally hungry so prepare yourself. Keeping a snack close at hand is the most sensible option, be it a Siberian ptarmigan, roasted with the tundra herbs taken from the bird’s own crop and served with caramelized pears in an Armagnac sauce, a baingan bharta ( a vegetarian dish made of minced vegetables which are grilled over charcoal or direct fire) or a simple cucumber sandwich. Anyway never, never read it on empty stomach. Also a glass of wine, accompanying your lecture, I find something simplement de rigeur.