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August 15, 2010

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Culinary farce to be savored

DON'T let the title fool you. A lot of ground is covered in Richard C. Morais' first novel, "The Hundred-Foot Journey." Close to 25 million feet, by my count, from India to England and then France, the last leg via a tricolor caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes that chugs through much of western Europe.

This is to say nothing of the psychological distance traversed by the narrator, Hassan Haji, a Muslim boy born on the edge of a slum in what was still called Bombay and then catapulted to Paris's temples of haute cuisine.

One moment he's stirring a cauldron of curried fish heads, the next he is feeding Siberian ptarmigan - roasted with herbs cut out of the bird's own crop - to the likes of Christian Lacroix.

The pace is brisk. Hassan's Bombay childhood, including the horrific death of his mother at the hands of a Hindu mob, is dispatched in 30 pages, his coming-of-age in London (first love, first egg salad sandwich) in another 20.

His father then whisks the family off on a tour of Europe by motorcade, stopping only when one of the cars breaks down in rural France - conveniently in front of a mansion for sale, which Papa immediately decides to convert into a boisterous, Bollywood-esque eatery, with Hassan as its chef.

The problem is, just across the street (a hundred feet away, to be exact) stands a celebrated country inn, an archetype of French rustic elegance, complete with a "battered-black" Citroen in the driveway and Satie piped into the dining room. The proprietor, Madame Mallory, embittered by her failure to earn a third Michelin star, gives Hassan his first exposure to that "uniquely Gallic look of nuclear contempt for one's inferiors."

It doesn't help matters when she comes to dine at Maison Mumbai, ready to crow over its mediocrity, and discovers that the untrained Hassan is a culinary genius. She weeps into her napkin, then declares war.

Morais, formerly a senior editor and foreign correspondent at Forbes, has done his research. The novel is seeded with delightful arcana, like a recipe for rat from an old edition of Larousse Gastronomique, which advises using a specimen found in a wine cellar ("so much more flavorful").

A chef dabbling in postmodern gastronomy concocts a dish from crushed cough drops. And one character is clearly inspired by the chef Bernard Loiseau, who committed suicide in 2003 when he was said to be on the verge of losing his third Michelin star.

Certain readers will want to skip ahead to the descriptions of food, as others do to sex scenes.

A pan seethes with "prattling onions and furiously spitting lemon grass;" an artichoke appears as a "spiky hand grenade." Dining in Marseille, Hassan is served tiny clams "no bigger than babies' fingernails," which, in the kind of detail that makes foodies swoon, are "grown in the restaurant's own grotto under the pounding cliff face."

The novel's charm lies in its improbability: it's "Slumdog Millionaire" meets "Ratatouille."

Accordingly, everything is drawn in broad strokes. Hassan's father is Falstaffian in physique, Napoleonic in ambition. His archenemy, Mallory, who ultimately becomes Hassan's mentor, spends her days pulverizing the self-esteem of her staff and resurrecting "challenging" dishes (eg, the testicles of young bulls, stuffed with powdered fennel seed and pine nuts) from her hoard of ancient cookbooks. Even a fishmonger with Tourette's pops up.

The latter part of the novel sags a little, bereft of the colorful Papa and Mallory. In a wanly sketched Paris, Hassan charts his ascent to the top ranks of chefs as if ticking off bullet points on a resume.

There is something absurdly over the top about the food world - the kitchens awash in testosterone, the flaunting of knives and burns, the lives laid waste in pursuit of a fleeting sensual pleasure.

It's a setting ripe for farce, and Morais is at his best when he delivers that.


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