I like how Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times describes the book: “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille.”
Hassan is a Muslim Indian who leaves his native country after tragedy hits his family. His larger than life father directs his family in a culinary journey across Europe, eventually settling in France and opening Maison Mumbai, a flamboyantly Indian restaurant in a small town in the Alps. Across the street, Madame Mallory is the proprietress and head chef at a well respected Michelin two star restaurant.
I wish the story settled here with the relationship between the young Indian man and the classically trained French chef, because the pages devoted to their relationship are the best parts of the book.
But the book follows Hassan as he climbs the French cooking ladder, gaining Michelin stars along the way, and making friends in the French food industry.
Rags to riches isn’t a bad storyline, but I think this book has so much more potential than this simple story of ascent. As the story left behind Madame Mallory, I grew more and more dissatisfied, anxious for it to return to her and the small town in the Alps. It never did, even though she’s fondly recalled throughout the story. Her reach into Hassan’s life never completely disappears.
Another peeve of mine is how Hassan abandons his rich Indian culinary heritage once he begins training in the classical French style. I was looking forward to hybrid Indian/French cuisine and instead got a return to the most classic French style possible. Hassan had so much more to offer!
There’s one powerful spiritual moment for Madame Mallory that is so poorly depicted (and understood by the author), that I was very put out. Mallory has an encounter with Jesus in a roadside chapel, but the author doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on. It’s a powerful, transforming moment that changes the entire trajectory of the book, and the author gives credit to an inspirational painting. Only Jesus is capable of that kind of transformation in someone’s life. But sadly, he doesn’t get the credit.
Despite my minor annoyances with the book, it is truly enjoyable and a great chance to dive into the world of high cuisine, with a focus on supreme quality ingredients and extravagant preparations. Read it for the relationship between an old French chef, stuck in her ways, and a young Indian boy with a unique gift for preparing food.
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