Bridging Cultures Through Food, Both on and off the Screen
The best dishes tell a story more nuanced than the list of ingredients used to prepare them. The Hundred-Foot Journey, the new movie by Chocolat director Lasse Hallström, opening Aug. 8, addresses food as a vital cultural glue—and shows that when we break bread we can mend fences. Although it’s nominally about Indian food and French food, the result, like that perfect meal, tastes of something much more.
The film tells the story of the Kadam family, who, after being displaced from their native India, settle in the picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France. Led by Papa (Om Puri), the Kadams stay true to their roots, opening an Indian restaurant, the Maison Mumbai, which presents the perfect opportunity for a fresh start in their new home.
Enter Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the chilly proprietor of Le Saule Pleureur, a nearby Michelin-starred French restaurant. Her protests against the new Indian restaurant, which sits just 100 feet from her own, escalate to an all-out battle between the two establishments. But while the feud mounts, the eldest son of the Kadam family, Hassan (Manish Dayal), is courting romance—falling both for French haute cuisine and Madame Mallory’s sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Hassan’s chops in the kitchen create culinary magic between the cultures that even Madame Mallory can’t ignore. She eventually recognizes Hassan’s gift as a talented chef and takes him under her wing.
With its Swedish director and Indian, Indian American, British, and French Canadian stars, there were plenty of unscripted culture clashes too. When the actors and crew gathered in Los Angeles last month to discuss the movie, they agreed that their diverse backgrounds helped them understand the more fraught conflict they were working to portray on camera.
“I grew up in a family of German Jews where German food was my life as a child, and I used to be quite embarrassed about that, because all of my very English friends had very English food,” said British American producer Juliet Blake. “When kids used to come to my house for dinner, I didn’t like the fact that we were different. And yet my friends always used to really appreciate it. So for me, food in that way has always been quite an interesting way of combining cultures.”
Actor Manish Dayal, who was born in South Carolina after his dad immigrated from India to the U.S., credits food with bringing his family together, much like the Kadams. “Food brings cultures together, but it is also the reason our families used get together when we were kids. My aunt and uncle would come over when my mom was making ‘this,’ or we would go over [there] when they were making ‘that,’” Dayal said. What mattered was sharing not just meals but the culture of the country they left behind.
Although her character in the film is thoroughly French, Quebec-born actor Charlotte Le Bon, who has been living in Paris for the past five years, knows something about connecting to a faraway home through food. Despite residing in a culinary capital, she still counts her grandmother’s French-Canadian dishes among her favorites.
“In the movie, Manish’s character says that ‘food is memories,’” she said. “I don’t even know today if my grandmother’s food is good or not, but for me it’s one of the best in the world.”
Le Bon believes that the film offers many important themes—about the strength found when disparate cultures come together, about passion, love, and going back to your roots.
Dame Helen Mirren, who says the movie is a “perfect soufflé of a film,” put a fine point on the message of The Hundred-Foot Journey: “Love thy neighbor. And that’s the hardest, much more difficult than ‘Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ That’s easy. Love thy neighbor is difficult. It’s the hardest, and it’s the most important,” she said.