I have a passion for cooking, but I wouldn’t go near a professional kitchen. I’ve read enough to know that chefs have a lot in common with gladiators, or perhaps berserkers is more accurate: they’re lunatics with fierce aggression and good knife skills. Of course, that makes them fascinating. The great chef biographies—Heat, Kitchen Confidential, Cooking Dirty—have a place of pride on my bookshelf, cheek by jowl with The Complete Robuchon. I don’t even lend them out.
So I come to a novel that purports to be the biography of a chef with sharpened knives: if the fictional cook can’t brunoise properly, I’ll gloat over it. In fact, I started The Hundred-Foot Journey fairly convinced that, without a background in a professional kitchen, Richard C. Morais couldn’t possibly succeed (which, in retrospect, is like saying that Shakespeare was bound to flub Julius Caesar because he’d never been a dictator).
But The Hundred-Foot Journey blew my smug preconceptions to bits. Morais’s fictional biography captures the dirt, passion, and madness of a chef’s life and spices it with one extra ingredient: he can really write. The best chefs have an enthralling, if raw, intensity, and while Anthony Bourdain, for one, slings his ink with panache, most writing chefs tend to rocket through a life marked by food, sex, and drugs with the same curt bravado with which they survive nightly service; it’s often hard to discern why they chose such a brutal career. Morais, on the other hand, so deftly weaves food into the fabric of every moment that one can’t imagine his protagonist doing anything in life except cooking.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is written from the point-of-view of Hassan Haji, an inspired cook who can see in a woman’s locks, for example, “an intricate cocoon of finely spun threads, translucent in the light, as if a chef had taken a blowtorch to sugar and woven threads of candied filaments through her hair.” This is a novel in which every moment, every observation, speaks to the way food doesn’t merely nourish, but enchants.
It begins when Hassan is a young boy whose family runs a restaurant in Mumbai. They move to London and on to France, opening a modest Indian bistro across the road from a patrician temple of haute cuisine. Hassan turns his back on Indian food in order to apprentice at the cross-road rival; years later he conquers Paris with his own three-star Michelin establishment.
One of the most striking characters in the novel is Hassan’s mentor, a brilliant chef named Madame Mallory. When Hassan’s family first establishes the huge, garish Maison Mumbai across from her culinary landmark, she responds with utter fury. It’s not until her rage precipitates a terrible accident that she realizes the extent of her vanity and selfishness. That revelation comes while looking at a boar’s head on a plate: “in the depths of those glinting little eyes she sees the balance sheet of her life.” What the reader finds, through her eyes and Hassan’s, are lives whose events are accompanied by a cascade of flavors and smells. Indeed, Hassan sums up his life as the movement from one smell to the next, as here: “[I] unceremoniously turned on my heel, to continue on my journey down the Rue Mouffetard, leaving behind the intoxicating smells of machli ka salan, an olfactory wisp of who I was, fading fast into the Parisian night. “
Whether you are only an armchair chef, or even a denizen of the steamy depths of a professional kitchen, you will be enchanted by this book.