What ingredients go into a movie that’s part foodie pic and part heartwarming ode to family? A dash of Steven Spielberg, a soupcon of Oprah Winfrey, and a heaping helping of actors — including Helen Mirren and Om Puri. Stirring the batter are director Lasse Hallstrom, who last lovingly shot French pastries in “Chocolat,” and first-time feature producer Juliet Blake, who, up to now, has been more accustomed to working with crocodiles and Muppets.
A producer at National Geographic who was formerly president of Jim Henson Television, Blake hadn’t ever produced a theatrical feature when she came across the novel “Hundred-Foot Journey” when it was still in galleys and was inspired to option it. The 2010 Richard Morais novel about the culinary rivalry between a staid French restaurant and a boisterous Indian establishment across the road was inspired by the author’s friendship with the late producer Ismail Merchant, an accomplished chef and cookbook author.
“Ismail and he used to cook together,” says Blake of the author, who earlier published the book in shorter form in India. “It really spoke to me.”
Blake’s family had members affected by the Holocaust, and Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” has long been an important film for her. So when she was finally able to present the project to DreamWorks after trying other backers, “I felt like I’d entered the gates of heaven,” she says.
The book gained steam when it was made a summer reading pick in Oprah magazine and Winfrey came on board as a producer. Participant’s Jeff Skoll is also an exec producer.
“Top Chef Masters” winner Floyd Cardoz helped consult on culinary matters. “This book could have been about my life,” he told Blake. Like the promising young chef in the movie, Cardoz’s life was changed when he went to a restaurant with his mother in Mumbai. He went on to cook at the influential New York restaurant Tabla. Along with a team of other chefs — but no movie food stylists — Cardoz cooked the food seen in numerous shots of sumptuous meals in the film.
“In India, cuisine is passed down from generation to generation. The comfort food comes from what your mother cooked,” says Blake. In some food movies, the audience’s growing appetite can distract from the story. But Blake says that the food in “Hundred-Foot Journey” is meant as a metaphor for family: what matters in life, when everybody is brought together for celebration.
While food is often said to be a character in movies with culinary themes, Blake says that in “Journey” the appetizing dishes represent three characters: The elegant French cuisine is like classical music; the Indian food is about warmth and the molecular gastronomy is “very cold in some ways. “As the chef’s confidence grows, he sprinkles on a bit more of his past.” For these part, Cardoz came up with dishes like an omelet spiced with coriander and boeuf bourguignon with ginger, Aleppo pepper and cumin.
The shoot in quaint St. Antonin le Val, France, was a gastronomic experience in itself. Star Om Puri cooked for the cast some nights, and “we had location caterers like no one else,” says Blake. “I have hundreds of photographs of the amazing food we ate.”
Spielberg echoed her sentiment in a chat he did for fans on Winfrey’s Facebook page. “I would like people to see the film with a understanding that sometimes an apparent abyss between cultures can easily be remedied over a wonderful meal. Food and fusion of cultures and ideas are better accomplished in a very relaxed state of mind that can literally take place with breaking bread. In this case French bread. With a little tandoori thrown in.”
“Hundred-Foot Journey” opens Friday from Disney on the same weekend as similarly-targeted films including “Eat Pray Love” and “Julie and Julia.” To get the word out, DreamWorks has hosted screenings and even cooking lessons for food bloggers. Oprah’s 10 million-fan strong Facebook page has been promoting the film to fans of the book, while the Indian community in North America was also targeted with ads on local television shows. Meanwhile, World Market, which also capitalized on the exotic locales in “Eat Pray Love,” ran a sweepstakes awarding a trip to cooking school in Paris.