For the first (and possibly the last) time ever, I have discovered a book that is worse than the movie it inspired. Richard C. Morais’ novel The Hundred-Foot Journey is a picturesque ode to classical French cooking, but it lacks the heartwarming, hopeful excellence of Lasse Halstrӧm’s cinematic version.
Hassan Haji, born in India to a family of cooks and restaurateurs, has the artist’s touch when it comes to cooking. The perfect blending of flavors and spices, the just-right touch when cooking a cut of meat… these are Hassan’s passions. But when tragedy strikes his family, Hassan’s passions are set aside, and his family leaves their home for the dreary unknown of Europe.
Hassan’s family wanders Europe in a collective depression until they stumble on paradise. The little French village they discover seduces them with its crystal clear rivers, lush pastures, country charm, and above all, its food. Here, they attempt to open up a restaurant one hundred feet away from one of the most famous homes of classical French cooking: Le Saule Pleureur.
Madame Mallory, Le Saule Pleureur’s proprietor and chef, does everything in her power to destroy her new competition, but eventually gives up her war and turns to teaching Hassan. Hassan exceeds Mallory’s expectations and bursts forth as a rising star in the French culinary world.
His ascent propels him all the way to Paris, where he opens up his own restaurant. He discovers, however, that the world of fine French cooking is a dying world. All of his peers and competitors seem focused on dazzling flair and modern experimentation. Hassan is the only chef still fighting for culinary purity, and he won’t be able to save it on his own.
Morais’ novel is full of intoxicating descriptions and scenic vistas, it fails to deliver the emotional depth of the movie. The descriptions of the French countryside and French cooking are tantalizing, but the story is focused more on these things, than on the characters or their journeys.
Madame Mallory is the only character whose development is truly worth reading; her great fall and the gracious repentance that follows are beautiful to behold. But hers is the only character arc that is truly well done.
The best parts of the movie come from the meeting of cultures, the unlikely romances, the importance of home and family, and the unparalleled way that food brings people together. The book lacks most, if not all of these elements, instead focusing on food as an art form–cooking for cooking’s sake. The same ingredients are present, and yet the final product is a totally different dish.
For readers who relish colorful descriptions of landscapes and foods, and who enjoy a light-hearted read with more sparkle than substance, Morais’ novel may well be for them. But for those who can’t do without well-developed characters and meaningful story lines, they may want to pass on The Hundred-Foot Journey.