Madame Mallory has wished upon a star. A second Michelin star, to be exact.
For 30 years, Madame Mallory’s swanky restaurant has worn its single Michelin star rating as a badge of honor, as well it should. Michelin does not readily dole out its stars. As Madame’s sous chef Marguerite says, one star means the food is good. Two stands for great. “Three is only for the gods.”
The acquisition of those stars requires talent, hard work and single-minded dedication. They do not fall unbidden. And they do not stumble into town along with a pack of loud, uncouth vagabonds. Madame is quite certain of that.
The vagabonds, a certain displaced Indian family—Papa and his grown sons Hassan and Mansur, along with Mansur’s wife and kids—has indeed seen better days. Their restaurant in Mumbai was burned to the ground. Their stay in London was unfruitfully damp. They came to the Continent looking for a fresh start—a chance to open another restaurant and introduce new friends to the spicy, sublime pleasures of Indian cuisine.
France wasn’t initially a contender. They all know that the French have their own food, and it’s said to be pretty good. But when the brakes go out on their dump of a vehicle (just outside Madame Mallory’s village) and Papa stumbles upon a property just perfect for a restaurant (just across the street from Madame Mallory’s fine dining establishment), he sees it as fate. And so, quicker than Madame can crack eggs for a nice hollandaise, she has boisterous new neighbors—and competitors to boot.
Well. For Madame and her perpetual quest for a second star, this new Indian restaurant is the stuff of nightmare. Its garish decor clashes with her refined sensibility. Indian music now blares over her violin-drenched ambiance. The odor of curry and cardamom overwhelm the subtle scents of her kitchen. She launches a cold war before Papa even opens his restaurant—waged through fish and pigeons and formal complaints to the village leaders.
As Papa and Madame battle and bully each other, Hassan humbly cooks his extraordinary Indian food for guests. Then he retreats to his room and combs through French cookbooks, absorbing the secrets of continental cuisine page by page.
Madame has her eyes fixed on a second Michelin star, but searching for it has blinded her to the quiet culinary light across the street.
As Hassan’s father and his entrenched French rival escalate their gastronomical disagreement, Hassan tries to turn down the flame. He gives Madame a menu as a friendly gesture (which she uses as a guide to stripping the local market of all the ingredients they need). When Papa strikes back by snapping up the pigeons Madame needs for a special dish for a special guest, Hassan cooks one himself and brings it over as a peace offering. (Madame tastes it and throws it in the trash.) And when he and his family are subjected to racist attacks, Hassan doesn’t get angry or vengeful. He’s single-minded, it would seem, on his quest to bring new tastes to light—and his idea that food can bring people together. (Note that the film is flecked with hints of racism for the purpose of showing the trials Papa and his family must suffer through—and to show us how wrongheaded it all is.)
Food does bring Hassan together with Marguerite. Even though she jokes that Hassan’s now “the enemy,” she helps him hone his talents—loaning him books, giving him tips and tasting his creations. Indeed, it’s her kindness that’s partly to blame for Papa staying in town, having helped tow their car and serving them some pretty amazing local food.
Madame herself proves to be a kinder person than we initially see. When Papa’s restaurant is attacked by vandals who set fire to the building and scrawl racist slogans across the front wall, Madame takes steps to literally mend fences. She fires a culprit who works for her (“You are a chef—I do not pay you to burn things”) and trudges out in the rain to scrub the vile slogans off Papa’s wall.
Madame’s actions lead to a thaw in relations, and we eventually come to see that Hassan was only partly right: Yes, food helped bring these two disparate parties together. But it also took good will, trust and respect—a good recipe for us all to follow.
Papa and his family are not presented as being overtly religious, certainly not in a traditional Indian sense. Hassan’s mother hints at the spiritual while teaching him to cook, saying the things he must kill to create the cuisine become ghosts in the stew, as it were. After this matriarch dies, Papa admits that he still talks with her. He believes his late wife wants (in the present tense) to settle down in the French village and buy the for-sale restaurant. “She says brakes break for a reason,” he tells one of his sons, and later gives Hassan his mother’s spices, saying, “She wants you to have it.” He and others briefly talk about praying and/or heaven.
As mentioned, the Michelin stars are several times casually linked to “gods.” When Hassan seeks Marguerite’s “blessing” for a new culinary adventure, Marguerite snaps that she’s not a saint. “Neither am I,” Hassan says.
Hassan and Marguerite are rivals, friends and sometimes more. Hassan steals a smooch when they hunt for mushrooms. Later, the two share a passionate kiss in the kitchen. Then the two retreat to another room and emerge a bit later looking a little ruffled.
Madame Mallory holds up a limp asparagus spear to illustrate what her restaurant will not put up with: “Food is not an old, tired marriage,” she says. “It is a passionate affair of the heart.”
We see rioters invading Papa’s restaurant in Mumbai, overturning tables and setting the place on fire. Papa’s wife is caught in the blaze, and we see her surrounded by flames. She dies in the inferno.
In France, racist attackers again try to set Papa’s place ablaze, throwing Molotov cocktails into the building. Papa and the rest extinguish the flames, but not before Hassan’s hands are badly burned and his pant leg catches on fire. An out-of-control car nearly crashes. A bicyclist smashes into a truck. Recited lyrics from the French national anthem reference slit throats and blood flowing in the fields.
One s-word. One “h—.” Several uses of “bloody.” God’s name is misused a handful of times.
Wine and champagne are integral parts of classic French cuisine, and we see most of these characters drink. When Hassan goes to Paris, he seems to drink more than usual—swallowing wine as he cooks and downing what appears to be a beer after hours. (These particular indulgences are intended to make a statement about Hassan growing more distant from his roots and the things he loves.)
Papa is sometimes not treated with the greatest respect. “I am still head of this family!” he reminds his brood. A kitchen porter is bribed.
Food has always been a unifying agent. We bond over bacon, swap stories over sarsaparilla. When I want to talk with someone about business, we do lunch. If my wife and I want to get together with friends we’ve not seen for a while, we invite ’em for dinner. Almost every social experience I can think of, be it the Super Bowl or Thanksgiving, is at least partly about the food.
Food brings us together.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is about a clash of cultures in which the food becomes a metaphor. Madame Mallory is a picture of elegant cuisine, boasting polished presentation and restrained, subtle vitality. Papa is an embodiment of his beloved Indian tastes—full of forceful flavors and boisterous life. Hassan, in melding these two different gastronomical delights, brings disparate cultures closer together. Both are still distinct and unique. But we realize that each has merit and, when blended, can create a taste heretofore unimagined.
The Hundred-Foot Journey, based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, is a sweet and savory treat of a film with only hints of content-derived sourness—a love story ragoût of romance, family and food. It stresses the importance of all those things, while suggesting that fame and fortune and even Michelin stars aren’t that filling after all.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.