"The Hundred-Foot Journey" Is Worth Taking ... Just Watch Your Step!

all photos from Dreamworks

The end credits of this movie show that Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg were its co-producers. She plugged Richard Morais' book on which the movie is based on her TV Book Club in 2010 and it quickly became a best-seller. Spielbrg's former company, Dreamworks, is one of the production entities involved, along with Relativity Entertainment, while Disney is distributing. Steven is also a friend of the director, Lasse Halstrom. As a food and film critic, I try to see every movie concerning food, restaurants and eating. So I was already a fan of Director Hallstrom, whose delightful films, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and The Cider House Rules, were favorites of mine. (Remember the stunning Juliette Binoche seling her magical chocolates in that little shop?) And I have been enchanted with Helen Mirren, the co-star of the film, ever since she married director Taylor Hackford and I first met her. This morning I heard the 69-year old actress do a radio interview in which she said that all her life she has had the desire to be "a French actress." Well, in THE HUNDRED-YEAR JOURNEY, she finally makes it. She plays a character named Madame Mallory who cooks in her Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Saule Pieureur (the Weeping Willow), in the colorful French village of Saint Antoine-Noble-Var. Autocratic, haughty, a bit snobbish, she is a nice tyrant in the kitchen, turning out classic French cuisine (escargot, frog's legs) to patrons and even the President of France. (Though I kept thinking, where does she get enough upscale diners every night to remain open in this rural region in the south of France?) Enter the Indian contingent, led by the accomplished veteran actor, Om Puri, as Papa Kadam. We quickly view the back story where this family had a successful restaurant in Mumbai. Remember, this was the Indian city which had a terrorist attack. Their restaurant was destroyed and mother was killed, so Papa gathered his clan of four sons and daughters and escaped to Europe. He makes a brief stop in the United Kingdom but decided against staying, saying (ludicrously) "the vegetables in England have no soul, no life." (God knows what he would say about the mushy tomatoes in much of America.)

Papa with his chef son and Madame.

Madame prearingthe magical omelette with the chef.

So they end up traveling the back roads of France to an unnamed destination. Love raises its lovely head when son Hassam meets the beautiful young sous chef of Madame's restaurant, Marguerite (played nicely by Charlotte Le Bon), who happens to be bicycling by when their ancient car breaks down. She has a basketful of local produce and shares it with the Kadams; Papa tastes it and proclaims that this spot in the Midi-Pyrenees region is the place they will settle. (If he didn't, we wouldn't have a movie.) He says that he got a spirit message from his late wife: "Brakes fail for a reason." Let's get it straight - this is a charming fairy tale, though not for kids unless they are kids of a certain age like me. Papa notices an empty restaurant on a main street in the village and decrees they will open there. Only their Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai, is exactly one hundred feet across the street from Madam's high-end French eatery. Conflict ensues. As does love. You see, the eldest son Hassam Kadam (played by Manish Rayal), who is the real male lead in the film, is a master chef, and he takes over the kitchen of the raucous Indian eatery with its faux-Taj Mahal façade and twinkling lights. (The "u" on the sign is out, for reality's sake.) For some rather unbelievable reason, the French inhabitants of the area take to the spicy, colorful Indian food...and the restaurant becomes successful. (Listen, guys, I have traveled the regions of France and there is no more chauvinistic, xenophobic people on earth than these rural French natives. Eat curry? Maybe once.) As Kadam's daughter tells her father, "The French don't eat Indian food, they have a food of their own." Madame goes slightly crazy when the Indians appear. This is her town, and she has a chauffer-driven car to prove it. She raises her eyebrows and says: "Who are zees people?" Madame and Papa are quickly involved in a gastronomic war for ingredient, each wining and dining the gourmand mayor of the town (Michael Blanc) to gain political advantage. But after a racist attack almost puts Mumbai out of business, she expresses liberte, egalite, fraternite and calls a truce. She then realizes, much to her surprise, that Hassan is such a talented chef that perhaps, with his help, she can win her coveted second Michelin star.

The lovely sous chef with Madame.

The young people seem to reach an understanding, especially after Marguerite and Hassam do a midnight search for the rare cepe mushrooms. He tells his dad: "To survive here, we must adapt." And he begins to learn French cooking from his girl and adapts the dishes to his Indian sensibility. We see him trying to master the five classic French sauces, béchamel and such. (I was astonished to see them putting what looked like olive oil in the hollandaise. Not in my kitchen, you don't.) Eventually you see Hassan head to Paris and become a celebrity chef who cooks jellyfish in liquid nitrogen at a popular molecular gastronomic eatery. I learned from the LA Times that the Indian food was prepared in large part by a consulting chef whom I have reviewed many times, the brilliant Floyd Cardoz, who was joined by eight other chefs in the varied food preparation. Huffington readers may recall my rave review of his fabulous Manhattan restaurant, Tabla, some years ago. He told the newspaper that in their quest for a perfect Hollywood shot, he had to roast a wild bird (pigeon) artfully stuffed with truffles - 12 times! All of the food looks amazing, shot in slow-motion by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. A lot of reviewers have called some scenes food porn but honestly, I object to that designation. In fact, I wanted the cooking scenes to be more real, more honest, less studied. They weren't messy-juicy-sexy enough. I've spent enough time in kitchens to know the sweaty atmosphere, the tensions and the tempers. I didn't get that feeling here. (Read my Huffington review of Chef to see what I mean.) The one food scene which really worked for me was the making of a fluffy omelet, with its secret addition of coriander and cardamon. The next morning I made the same omelet with those spices and it worked beautifully.

Writer Steve Knight has in the past demonstrated an ability to show people expressing themselves in unusual ways (Dirty Pretty Things and the current Locke) and he continues here. The high-energy musical score is by Oscr-winner A.R. Rahman, who did Slumdog Millionaire. Juliet Blake was the on-site producer (lucky girl.). I saw this film on Saturday night at the Academy after reading A.O. Scott's scathing review in the New York Times. I feel sorry for him. He obviously is not a food person, so he didn't enjoy seeing so much (hah!) food porn. I exited feeling the same way I did recently after seeing the new Woody Allen movie. Despite all its flaws, and there were many, it is a rather delightful, too long (by 20 minutes) summer movie which is well worth seeing. May I suggest that you don't see this film when you're hungry!

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