Cuisine as a Bridge Between Cultures
by Kennedy Thompson
Sharing and preparing meals are activities thought to bind people together. Kitchen staffs form families, generations connect through inherited recipes, and friends reunite over scones at beloved bakeries. Unity, however, is not food’s only function in The Hundred-Foot Journey. In this film, food is a double-edged sword, first dividing and then uniting characters across cultural lines. The 2014 film portrays an Indian family that forges a path in France’s restaurant landscape. The Kadam family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, rattles the foundation upon which an esteemed restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, stands. The physical restaurants and the differences in their dishes mark the Kadam family’s “otherness” in France until a scene in which Hassan Kadam’s unparalleled culinary talents bridge the cultures.
The restaurants’ positions, an element of mise-en-scéne, perfectly align across a street, creating both proximity and division. Such a configuration evokes a battlefield formation with each restaurant in line, mere feet away, to defeat the other. This notion is in keeping with the film’s frequent war references as the restaurants battle to be the top restaurant. Recurring extreme long shots accentuate the street as a physical division and emphasize the contrasting cultures they embody. The pristine exterior of Le Saule Pleureur contrasts with that of Maison Mumbai. Fluid tracking of activity in Le Saule Pleureur’s kitchen, an elegant machine, differs from the relaxed and high-speed activity across the road. With its palace theme, cobblestone walls, whimsical gold detail, and loud music, Maison Mumbai has a great deal of flavor. Similar disparities exist in the restaurants’ approaches to food. Le Saule Pleureur’s food is simple and minimal. Madame Mallory, the owner, finds value in “certainty of flavor,” and close-ups of white plates show tiny and neat portions. Food served by Maison Mumbai, like most Indian food, brims with curry and other potent spices. Customers enjoy colorful dishes, garnished and overflowing. Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory often quibble over which approach to cooking is correct.
Aside from the romance and shared recipes between Hassan and Le Saule Pleureur’s sous chef, Marguerite, culinary techniques of the two cultures do not merge until the scene in which Hassan makes an omelet for Madame Mallory. The scene begins when Hassan approaches Madame Mallory as she scrubs the hateful words, “France for the French,” off Maison Mumbai’s wall in the rain. Her scrubbing is the first olive branch extended to the Kadans, which is reciprocated when Papa offers his umbrella. Hassan asks Madame Mallory if he may cook an omelet for her, a challenge that all Madame Mallory’s employees face. Serene music plays in the scene, which is shot in slow motion with no dialogue, as Hassan instructs Madame Mallory. (He cannot perform the task alone because his hands burned when Madame Mallory’s employee attempted to destroy Maison Mumbai.) The injury requires the scene to proceed as a sort of dance. Hassan places his hands on Madame Mallory’s shoulders to guide her after an extreme close-up of her apparently improper egg whisking. Each movement is delicate, and a warm, natural light comes from a window, adding to the tenderness of the scene. The beauty of the dance and melody are not even interrupted by diegetic sounds of cooking. Indian and French cultures physically consolidate when Madame Mallory sprinkles traditional Indian spices, the only remains of the fire that destroyed the Kadan’s original restaurant, into the omelet, a French dish. Although Madame Mallory frequently looks to Hassan with confusion and irritation, she obliges his instructions. Diegetic cooking sounds return as the omelet pours into the pan. The surreal blending of culture through cooking is complete, and the French and Indian components melt together with a sizzle.
Madame Mallory’s satisfaction with the omelet confirms her acceptance of Hassan as a chef and strengthens the transculturation achieved by food in this film. The omelet scene occurs halfway through the film, leaving the rest of the plot to reinforce harmony. Hassan even works for Madame Mallory with his father’s blessing, and it is with Hassan’s incorporation of Indian techniques that Le Saule Pleureur gains a second Michelin star. A final scene shows a joyous celebration with characters and foods from both restaurants at a shared table. While each culture maintains its essence, the final scene marks a bridging of cultures over the breaking of bread.
The Hundred-Foot Journey. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. Perf. Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte le Bon. Touchstone, 2014. DVD