ROBERT ST. JOHN: Restaurateur weighs in on ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’

ROBERT ST. JOHN

ROBERT ST. JOHN

Movies often reflect reality. Though many times a substantial suspension of disbelief is required. Law enforcement and organized crime are the subject of many of today’s modern films. The military, various clandestine intelligence departments, Wall Street, and banking are also the center of a lot of cinematic attention.

The restaurant business gets the short end of the tenderloin when it comes to film. Even when commercial kitchens, dining rooms and the businesses behind restaurants are portrayed, they almost never reflect the reality of the business..

My favorite restaurant themed movie is “Big Night.” I haven’t seen Jon Favreau’s “Chef” yet, but I have heard great things. The movie “Diner” is one of my all-time favorites, but Barry Levinson’s early classic is set in an actual diner for only a few scenes. Ultimately, the choices are slim.

Enter Lasse Halstrom’s new film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” Halstrom (“Chocolat”), does a great job directing a story based on Richard C. Morias’ novel. Not since Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” has a movie touched me on a personal level like this one.

The film opens on a restaurant family in India. An aspiring chef, Hassan (Manish Dayal) has been taught how to cook by his mother. The father, played brilliantly by Om Puri, mans the dining room. Through an unfortunate set of circumstances the family moves from India and buys a long-forgotten restaurant property in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France, located directly across the street – 100 feet, actually – from a Michelin-starred mainstay of haute French cuisine, operated by a stern, dedicated and ruthless widow played to perfection by Helen Mirren.

The tension builds subtly as the rivalry grows between the French fine-dining establishment and the bawdy Indian joint across the street. Mirren and Puri deliver spot-on performances as restaurant rivals, but it is Dayal who steals the show.

There are several subplots and a couple of devices that build tension, but where the movie knocks it out of the park is in the kitchen and food scenes. The food photography is beautiful and the stress and dedication involved in European restaurants maintaining – and gaining more – Michelin stars is portrayed accurately.

Many European restaurants, and their chefs, live and – literally, die on stars. There have been several chefs who have committed suicide after losing a Michelin star. This film does an excellent job in portraying the anticipation leading up to the awarding or removal of a Michelin star. As one character states, “The stars are holy here.”

Ultimately this movie is about survival in the restaurant business – the survival of a resilient family, the survival of a young passionate man, and the survival of a couple of relationships. But it also addresses fusion, and in this case, the subtle fusion of Indian cuisine to classical French.

MIrren: “Why change a recipe that is 200 years old?”

Dayal: “Because maybe 200 years is long enough.”

The film does a worthwhile job of portraying the challenges of building a restaurant from scratch, the act of taking pride in what one does for a living, and dedication to one’s roots and heritage.

All levels of French food are represented well, from street-side cafes to Parisian monuments to molecular gastronomy. The food photography is spot on and the film’s musical score is paired to the food scenes like a good wine is paired to a delicate squab entree.

When speaking of the three-star Michelin system, Helen Mirren’s character states, “One is good. Two is amazing. Three is for the gods.” “The Hundred-Foot Journey” gets three stars in my book.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.