Hassan Haji's earliest memory is of the smells wafting upstairs to his cot from the restaurant his family ran in India. Is it any wonder then that food and cooking would be in his blood? His early childhood was filled with a raucous family and food. But after the death of his well-respected grandfather, an out of control mob attacked and burned the restaurant, killing Hassan's mother in the process and so the family fled. Spending two years in London, Hassan seemed poised to become another disaffected youth until the family is once again driven onward, this time to Europe, leading a peripatetic life. And then a car breaks down, depositing the Haji family in the small French town of Lumiere, where Hassan's life starts back down the path for which he was born: to become a world class chef.
Across the street from the noisy and vibrant Haji family restaurant, located on the ground floor of a gracious mansion, is a quiet, stately two-star French restaurant and its crusty owner, Madame Mallory. Declaring war on the Hajis, Mallory tries everything under the sun to get the better of Abbas Haji, Hassan's father. She is completely stricken when she discovers that Hassan, now the head chef in his family's restaurant despite his youth, has the raw talent that she herself lacks and so she ramps up her campaign to drive the outsiders out. But a near tragedy changes her mind and she offers to teach Hassan to cook traditional French food, grooming him to become what she could not, a rising star in the French culinary world.
Taking place from Bombay to London to Paris, the sights and sounds of food and cooking permeate every aspect of the novel. I salivated my way through much of it although I freely admit that I like Indian food a whole lot more than I like French food so I was a bit disappointed that Hassan didn't create a fusion of sorts between the comfort food of his childhood and the elegant French food of his chosen adult life. Morais has managed to capture the essence of the culinary profession, the life in kitchens, and the professional worries that are all part and parcel of a chef's life.
The novel is fiction but it reads like a memoir. Certain of the characters like Madame Mallory and Abbas Haji are larger than life, utterly colorful and thoroughly entertaining. The section on London addresses the issue of immigrants better than the later section set in France although there are still moments where racism realistically rears its ugly head. Hassan's character is singularly focused so much of the narrative follows him from kitchen to kitchen, losing a bit of the larger than life quirkiness that defined the Haji family and then life at Madame Mallory's. This was a novel full of joy, contentment, and destiny fulfilled. Hassan found his calling, devoted his life to it, and made the most of his amazing talent, richly rewarded with friends and accolades alike. His early life and family determined his path for him, both personally and in the kitchen, and he embraced his role.
The writing here is descriptive and frequently mouth-watering. I only wish there had been more detail, a more complete description of the people so instrumental in Hassan's life in the second half of the book. Overall, this is a book that will appeal to food afficionados, anyone who enjoys reading about the making of a chef, and those who search out books with a hint of the exotic and the vibrant. Morais was a friend of the late Ismail Merchant and this could easily be a Merchant Ivory film, lush and decadent, just as it is written.
Thanks to Inkwell Management for sending me a review copy of this book. Check back tomorrow for an interview with author Richard Morais.