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Book Review – The Hundred-Foot Journey

It was such a small journey, in feet, but it felt as if I were striding from one end of the universe to the other, the light of the Alps illuminating my way. 

This was such an oddly brilliant, yet incredibly disjointed story. 

Told as if your father had pulled a chair up to your bed to recount the many triumphs and failures of his lifetime, The Hundred-Foot Journey was right on the cusp of being undeniably great. 

The Hundred-Foot Journey spans over many decades and cities to tell the story of Hassan Haji, an Indian immigrant, who grows from boy to man, apprentice to master chef, and learns along the way the true price of following a dream.

I firmly believe this story was not meant to be fully digested. It’s the sort of incomprehensible that Grey’s Anatomy is. All the cooking talk serves as nothing more than a reminder that this story is about a chef, despite its many twists and turns into deep side-plots, and relationships. 

Most people aren’t going to know what a ptarmigan is, but when Hassan, the main character, is pulled down to the kitchen to oversee a ptarmigan delivery, you just assume it’s a vegetable or animal of some sort and move along. 

But for me, this story was too complicated to lack explanation. I already struggled with keeping track of all the unusual names (to me).

See, Richard C. Morais has a gift for writing. But the unfortunate thing about that gift is that it can perhaps come off as pretentious at times. As a journalist for some of the world’s most prestigious prints, he writes blasphemously, recklessly, obviously, and I wish his prose hadn’t felt so encumbered when it needed to be glaringly unmistakable. The characters already spoke in broken English with a few words and phrases of French mixed in, and, often without great explanation for what it was they were truly saying. I felt he left too much to the reader, thus losing my attention, as his prose was often redolent to reading a textbook. 

It was a slow burn. The pacing was off. You get little bits and pieces here or there, but the story doesn’t really reveal itself until about page seventy. I needed to be more deeply rooted in it long before that. 

The relationships and characters were strong. Hassan as a main character felt homey and down to earth. I loved him for his honesty, for his subservience and devotion to family and culture. Chef Mallory was a strong character as well–a woman who stood on her own two feet, lost in a world of men, yet still managed to redeem her prickly nature, which was a clear fault of being surrounded by a gender that has been brought up to disregard the woman, with glittering vulnerability. The two came together to form an unlikely team, their love of food bringing two different cultures together, allowing for experimentation and adventure.

I will say I enjoyed the movie more. It didn’t seem as lost in history. It felt newer, definitely more commercial.

The majority of reviews I’ve read have commented heavily on the portrayal of Indian accents, which I didn’t myself have a great issue with until the very end. I was expecting Hassan, a then 42-year-old, to be able to speak as elegantly as people described his food. But he still spoke in this odd broken English, and I had a hard time believing it. 

But I will say, it won’t bother you as much as others claim.

The food didn’t fall flat, which was the most important part of the story. The meals were well-researched, and the few cultural and political moment–the fall of the economy in France, the rise-up against “social” taxes–made this story more than just a story. It made it the tale of an underdog. Of an impossible dreamer.

“Hassan, he has the makings of a great chef, it is true, and he has talent beyond anything you and I possess. But he is like a visitor from another planet, and in some ways he is to be pitied, for the distance he has yet to travel, the hardships he has yet to endure.”

These lines hit me hard, because it is true, being in the possession of an enormous gift is a burden. It’s hard to follow your dreams, especially in these times, when faith runs low, when everyone is caught in reality and doesn’t dare allow themselves to drift. I pitied Hassan. I was shocked at how realistic his path seemed. His losses, his moments of self-doubt and second-guessing. It was perhaps the best part of this book. The dream. The impossibility of navigating one’s complicated destiny.

He learns so many lessons along the way, but the problem is each one came in the form of a heavily convoluted side-plot, which didn’t reveal its true colors until it came full circle. So Richard ends up dragging you miles off course and for so long, you lose sight of the book’s end. But then the message comes through, and you understand why he took you down this road. But it doesn’t make up for the three or four nights you spent trying to convince yourself to read through it. 

And the strange people thronging and jostling on the sidewalks–the ring-studded Goths in black leather and green Mohawks, the posh girls from private Hampstead day schools down for a bit of slumming, the winos lurching from rubbish bin to pub–all this sea of humanity reassured me that as alien as I felt, there were always others in the world far odder than I.

I am not exactly sure what happened, but the play wasn’t really about homosexuals, this I realized, but about the human soul when it has a destiny–at odds with the society around it–and how this destiny drove these Russian characters to exile.

But women–this I will never understand–they are touched byt he oddest things…

“‘Chardin believed God was to be found in the mundane life before his eyes, in the domesticity of his own kitchen. He never looked for God anywhere else, just painted again and again, the same ledge and still life in the kitchen of his home.’”

A powerful thing, destiny. 

You can’t run from it. Not in the end. 

The painting stunned me, for it made me realize only a true master could strip away all the obvious artistry and drama, to leave only the simplest and purest ingredients on the plate.

But Richard’s talents shone in his descriptions. These are only a few instances where I felt completely knocked off my feet. 

Sheep with their throats freshly cut hung from a chain of hooks at Akbar’s halal meat shop, and Bappu threaded his way between these strange trees, slapping the meaty hides.

But what Umar obviously didn’t see, and I did, was that Abhidha’s face was permanently lit by the most intriguing smile. I did not know where this mile came from, in a woman of twenty-three, but it was as if Allah had once whispered some cosmic joke into her ear, and from then on she walked through life filtering the world through this amusing take on events. 

It was the small hours, but you know, night in Paris, it’s an intoxicating affair. 

And I recall that the children’s faces were wiped of everything but the most profound and touching innocence. 

One of my favorite moments came when Hassan was describing his friend’s chicken factory in gruesome detail as the book was winding down. Because it just gave you the sense of his mind as he was sort of falling to pieces trying to understand the cruelty of the world, trying to understand why his dream seemed like such a sacrifice. And as a chef, it’s interesting to see how their morbid thoughts form in contrast to our own. And that’s something I have to commend Richard on. He put himself in a chef’s brain so perfectly. I felt blown away by the realness of it all. 

He was able to describe the vibe of a restaurant that closes between lunch and dinner, and how, sometimes, in those two off hours between, it can make you feel entirely hopeless. 

He was able to describe what it feels like to lose yourself in cooking as you would in something you love so much, and what it feels like to almost lose yourself, but not quite, and to be confused by your unusual struggle to fall into your work. It is a frustration I know intimately, and so I deeply related to that moment and am so glad he gave it to us. 

He described watching others and making their stories about you. Making everything about you. Seeing yourself in their failures. Seeing yourself as a lesser. Never allowing your life to be just your life, and not something that comes as a by-product to the life of another. 

He described the moment destiny finally pays you a visit, and how hard it is to leave that moment and step into the moment immediately after, where you don’t know what to make of yourself. Of this new thing. 

So while many say this book is about cooking. It isn’t. It’s about the great responsibility that comes with having a dream. 

If it weren’t for the pacing, I would recommend.

But I am a little torn. Because you don’t get the theme in the movie. 

So, I don’t know. I might recommend. I might. The more time I spend dissecting the story, the more I realize how brilliant it was. 

31/38

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