Hassan Haji, a middle-aged chef, recounts his life from his boyhood in India to his current fame in the Parisian restaurant world. While fictional, this reads as a food memoir, and also discusses discrimination and conflict of heritage.
It’s hard for me to know how to review this. One the one hand, it’s well-written. On the other hand, it’s not at all what I expected, and the parts that weren’t what I expected disappointed me. I would hate to discourage others from reading it, though, based on this, so I want to give specific examples of how my expectations varied from what the book gave and why I wasn’t able to appreciate it as much as another person would. Let me stress that this is not a bad book. It just wasn’t necessarily the right book for me, despite what I thought when I agreed to review it.
What I knew about The Hundred-Foot Journey in advance was that it was the story of a man who grew up in India and later moved to France. He was a chef and made his way up through the restaurant world. He also had to deal with the conflict of his heritage and assimilation in a new country. From this description, I expected the following:
- much food talk, particularly focused on Indian food
- a lot of discussion about the hardships Hassan faced as an immigrant and a foreigner
- the conflict of leaving one’s home and forming a new home in a new place
- learning to accept one’s heritage even while in a new culture, and finding a balance between the two
Instead, the book took a different path than I was expecting. It focused far more on Hassan’s climb within the restaurant world. It discussed Indian food at the beginning, but most of the book focused on French cuisine. There is some discussion about discrimination and the hardships of being an immigrant, but Hassan mostly assimilates and leaves his old culture behind as he delves into French living.
So let me explain why this was disappointing to me, and hopefully you can see why it might not be disappointing to you.
First, I do not like to cook. At all. In fact, I loathe cooking. I knew there was going to be a lot of focus on food – I do love food! – but I didn’t realize how much was going to be on the process of making food. I have to admit, as a non-cook myself, I couldn’t get into these parts. I was never confused, but I got a bit bored during those parts because I had no mental or practical application to connect them.
Second, I do not like much French food, particularly French high cuisine. While the sections about Indian food in the beginning practically made me salivate, hearing about all the French foods (liver, partridge, oysters, fois gras…) made me shudder just a little. There were very few dishes that sounded even remotely appealing to me, and I kept wishing that Hassan would go back to cooking Indian food! Of course, those who love French food would probably salivate over those parts as much as I did over the Indian food parts.
Third, I was disappointed by the fact that Hassan seemed to simply leave his culture and heritage behind, rather than keeping it with him as he journeyed upwards. This is a realistic choice, of course, but it still rather saddened me, particularly because I very much like the culture he came from. I loved his family and was disappointed when they stopped being so much in the book.
Fourth, I had a hard time connecting to Hassan personally because he and I have very different personalities. One of my faults is that I am a very stubborn person that will hold grudges, and Hassan wasn’t that way at all. While I consider that a good trait of his, sometimes I think it went too far, to the other extreme. This came up particularly in a situation which I will address next.
Fifth, there was a character named Madame Mallory that I absolutely hated. To me, she was the villain of this book. When Hassan’s family moves across the street from her, she’s biased against them and tries to pressure them out of town so her own restaurant can thrive without competition. She’s an elderly lady who is so selfish that she’s not above blackmail, threats, violence, spying, thievery, and assault to get what she wants. Now I have to say, the parts of the book where Madame Mallory faces off against the Haji family were probably my most favorite, but I still didn’t like her. I definitely wanted the Haji family to beat her down!
What I couldn’t get past here was the fact that Hassan, after Madame Mallory causes him to get badly burned all over his body, would leave his family behind and willingly go with her to learn how to cook. I don’t understand how he could have possibly let her get her way or how he could have wanted anything to do with her. I can’t fathom why Hassan’s father didn’t charge her with trespassing and assault when he called his lawyer out for everything else she did. I didn’t get why she never offered to make reparations or call off her reign of terror in exchange for Hassan coming to work for her. No. In the end, she just got everything she wanted without ever having to give anything up herself. That really bothered me. I know it happens in real life, but ugh I wanted to reach through the pages and strangle that woman! And strangle Hassan for going along with it!
But you might see, then, that the book was apparently evocative enough for me to hate this character, rather than just being meh about her. When a book is badly written, I can’t care about the characters, but this one I definitely cared about. The book might not have been my type of book in the end, because of all the things I mentioned above, but I won’t deny that I formed a weird sort of connection with it. I imagine that, had I been a slightly different person with slightly different tastes, I might have loved it.