This is a delightful little book, consisting of 200 and something pages. It was a quick read with beautiful description. It’s a fast paced novel, with 5 years whizzing by in a paragraph. If I’m honest, there are pros and cons to that. For me I’m not sure that passing through time that quickly is as effective as it could have been. Did nothing of any importance and relevance happen in those five years? However, it spans a number of years and a few thousand miles from India to France. Overall, I really enjoyed it and for me it was a great summer read.
The novel focuses on Hassan Haji. He is born in West Bombay, the city which is now known as Mumbai. There is repeated vivid description of food and the country. It really brought the dishes and places to life. I felt as if I was there, with the food trickling down my throat. The novel begins with description of the smells of his childhood from his grandfathers restaurant downstairs. We learn a lot about his family and their passion for food. “I suspect my destiny was written from the very start, for my first sensation of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards to the cot in my parent’s room above the restaurant.”
His grandfather lives a poor life in Bombay. He sleeps on the streets and delivers lunch boxes to the workers around him. Business starts to make a profit as he cooks for the American and English soldiers based in the city. This becomes a success, so he buys property and opens an official restaurant.
Hassan’s father takes over the business, realising that he too is deeply ambitious and business minded. He moves the location of the restaurant uptown to be closer to the hustle and bustle of every day life in wealthy Mumbai. However, despite the restaurant doing well, his father’s actions cause tension between the classes. Eventually the lower class riots, breaks into the restaurant, destroys it and kills Hassan’s mother. The effects of this death are written with great feeling. There are some lovely, tender moments between Hassan and his mother within the novel.
It is obvious that they cannot stay in Mumbai. So, Papa sells the property and the family pick up and move to London, where they live with relatives. Papa struggles with what to do now. He takes a trip to Harrods, and whilst enjoying the sites, smells and sounds, he is demoralised. The failing of the new business ultimately comes down to Papa walking in on Hassan kissing his cousin. This leads to a family argument and Papa decides to pack up and travel across Europe, sampling the foods and searching for a new home.
The family settle in a tiny French town in the Alps called Lumière. The car breaks down outside an exceptionally sized property – as fate would have it! They decided to buy the property. The family decide that this will also be the place for their new restaurant. Across the road is an inn called Le Saule Pleureur. “Our Period of Mourning was officially over. It was time for the Haji family to get on with life, to start a new chapter, to finally put behind us our lost years.”
Nevertheless, more issues follow the family. They meet high-and-mighty Madame Gertrude Mallory, who owns the inn across the street. She is incredibly strong minded and traditional. She disagrees, and is disgusted at the invasion from the east that disrupts her elegant fine dining vibe across the street. The competition brings out the worse in Papa and Madame Mallory. They each try to sabotage the others business. Ultimately this has disastrous consequences as Hassan gets pushed into a stove by accident.
For me, the only time we see any compassionate feeling comes from when she tries Hassan’s food, but this is because she’s thinking of herself. After the accident Mallory decides that because of his talent and her guilt, she offers to teach Hassan to become a chef. Papa grudgingly agrees and Hassan moves across the street to Le Saule Pleureur.
For the next few years, Hassan spends his time as Mallory’s apprentice, learning everything he needs to know about a French kitchen. It was quite a nice touch that Hassan is shown to have a loving relationship with the very genuine sous chef Margaret Bonnier. Again I quite like how this part of the plot is developed, with a lovely link back to his mother. “She was like Mother. Didn’t say a lot, but when she did, my heavens, it would hit you harder than any of Papa’s tirades.”
The time comes for Hassan to take a step into the culinary world as an individual. He accepts a job working in a kitchen in Paris, leaving his lover and family behind.
Over time, Hassan climbs the French restaurant ladder with ease and he always suspects that this is down to Mallory’s help and teaching. She is adamant in her denial of this. Shortly after, he decides to open his own restaurant, Le Chien Méchant. He earns his first restaurant star and life beings to accelerate again.
His success means that Hassan is moving in circles with legendary people in the culinary world. He meets legendary restaurant and food mogul, Paul Verdun, who hears about Hassan and his food. They have the same methodology, classical old world cooking methods. There is a clever link to modern methods which are showing as arguably threatening and undervaluing tradition. “Paul really had affection only for you, Hassan. He once told me that you and he were ‘made from the same ingredients.'”
Again, there is a realistic portrayal of life as Hassan has to cope with the death of his Papa, Mallory and Paul Verdun. Hassan struggles to keep his life going and this is reflected in the emotive language used. For me, this was very poignant.
Change comes and Hassan decides that the small and petty details of the world he’s a part of is driving him mad. He gives his restaurant a total makeover and decides to go back to basic cooking to show off the best ingredients.
This makeover earns him his third star, thus enabling him to establish his continued success in the culinary world. Margaret comes back into his life towards the end of the book. There is a real sense of overcoming the trials of life in this novel. I appreciate the fact that Hassan and Margaret aren’t officially together at the end of the novel as this would have given it a fake fairy tale ending. Leaving the end as both being happy is enough to keep me satisfied.
A charming and well written book with some of the best description I’ve read. It does come with a warning, it will make you feel very hungry!
Big love x