The film opens with young Hassan being rushed through the bustling throng of a busy Mumbai market early in the morning by his sari-wearing mother in her pilgrimage towards the roadside stall of a small sea-urchin peddler with a dozen or so housewives all fighting to buy from him. The old man surveyed the eager faces and the cash in the hands surrounding him. His eyes landed on young Hassan, silently holding one sea-urchin cut in half with both his little hands, dipping his index finger into its heart, tasting it with his eyes half closed. He knew instantly who his first customer would be. Next we see the little boy snuggling close by the side of his mother in front of a huge pot over a wood fire, watching intently how his mother was preparing sea urchin soup, absorbing the smell, sprinkling first one kind of spice and then another and stirring the pot gently with her ladle and telling her son that all good food had a soul and a memory: it would remind one of the very vitality of life itself. Next we see a crowd in Mumbai celebrating a local election victory and then shortly afterwards, the restaurant of the grown up little boy's (Hassan's) family being set on fire. He lost his mother in that fire. Then the scene switches to adult Hassan (Manish Dayal) being questioned about his cooking skill by a British immigration officer and asking for papers to prove such skill. Hassan said he got not the kind of "papers" the officer was asking for but that he got some oil paper with which he wrapped his samosa and invited the officer to taste one, telling the officer that he learned all he needed to learn from his mother, the cook of the best restaurant in Mumbai. The officer declined, eyed him for a few seconds, wavering between belief and unbelief but finally stamped his visa.
In the next scene, whilst his father, old Kadam (Om Puri) was carefully putting the final touches to some Indian delicacies upon a plastic sheet over a table in the open yard of their house close to the Heathrow Airport, a giant 747 flew overhead. The current it created above sucked that flimsy plastic sheet off the table and caused everything upon it to land soundly upon the dirt on the ground. Those literally "down to earth" kisses served also as the farewell kisses of Kadam's dream of having the best Indian restaurant in the UK.
We next see the whole family driving through some country road on a second hand blue van together with all their belongings. Its brake failed. To avoid a honking tractor coming from the opposite lane, the van finally swerved into a little dirt track. A young French girl passing by stopped her car and asked if there was anything she could do to help. They asked for a rope. Then we see the whole family pushing, pushing and pushing until they reached the girl's home. She offered them some food. The girl Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) was the sous-chef of a 1-Michelin star local restaurant. They asked her why her food tasted so good and were told that all her ingredients were home grown in her own garden! Old Kadam knew that's where they'd stopped their journey, not however until he had first talked to his dead wife before buying up an abandoned restaurant just 100 feet across the street from the restaurant where Maguerite was working. They started working on the decorations of the restaurant. The big day for their grand opening was coming. Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren ) the middle-aged, prim and proper proprietress of the restaurant opposite,who presided over her team of cooks like a queen and who sold the deserted restaurant to him on behalf of its true owner, came in for a friendly chat and advised him that the local people would never accept Indian cuisine but asked if he minded letting her see his menu for the opening day, "just out of curiosity", she said. He didn't mind. The following morning, when old Kadam and Hassan went to the local market, every market stall owner told them that the ingredients they needed for their menu had all been sold out although it was plain that there were plenty of each kind still on display. They had to drive 50 kilometers to the next town to find what they wanted. The restaurant opened in time. Madame Mallory's predictions proved unfounded. She then complained to the mayor, one of her gourmet clients, first about "noise pollution" of Kadam's loud Indian music, then of the illegal building extension in their front garden and backyard, their lack of licence in raising chicken etc. all to no avail. Madame Mallory was told that he would face some pretty serious difficulties in doing so. It was obvious that he did not want to lose a single chance of spooning the spicy gravy into his mouth nor waive any right of savoring fresh water fish prepared with exquisite spices upon his first visit to that restaurant : he even asked the chef to doggy bag any leftovers!.
It became clear that the Kadams and their restaurant were likely to be a permanent "eye sore" to and a "thorn" in the side of Madam Mallory. But that is not all. The 14th July celebrations were coming and the Minister would be dining there. He would be having his favorite, young pigeon prepared with wild mushrooms sauce, Madame Mallory's trademarked dish for which she maintained the I Michelin-star for 31 years, ever since her husband died. But when she went to the market to handpick her purchases for that ritualistic occasion, all the stalls told her exactly what they told the Kadams on the eve of the opening of the Kadam's new restaurant about a year ago. "Purely out of courtesy", Hassan appeared and asked if she would like to pass his comments on his own preparation of that very dish. After some hesitation, she accepted the invitation and after taking a bite and savoring it with her very picky palate for a while, she threw it into the garbage bin, to a surprised Hassan, who had in the meantime learned everything there is to learn from the "bible" of French cooking "lent" to him by Marguerite. She then expressed her anger in front of her staff following which one of them surreptiously led one or two his friends all dressed in KKK-style capes and hoods and sprayed the words "Vive la France' on the low stone fence wall of Kadam's restaurant and then set fire to it in the dark hours of the night . But this time, the Kadams survived, not however without Hassan sustaining some burns to both his hands whilst trying to put out the fire. The following morning, Madam Mallory summoned all her staff for a special briefing during which she asked them if they knew the national anthem and in particular singled out what she thought was the prime suspect and asked him to recite its lyrics which include the words "liberty, fraternity, equality and justice" and had him fired instantly and then went across the street in the rain to wash off those offensive words splashed on her opponent's walls. Old Kadam offered her an umbrella without saying a word and then allowed her to continue her work alone.
As the film developed, we learn of how it was that Marguerite told Hassan that Madame Mallory would decide whether to hire a cook not by asking for any certificates or letters of recommendations but simply by asking the candidate to cook her an omelette, how Marguerite fell in love with Hassan, how Hassan cooked Madame Mallory an omelette the day after the fire and was hired, how old Kadam objected but eventually agreed, how Marguerite felt both happy and sad when she learned of it, how a year after Hassan arrived, Madame Mallory's restaurant gained an additional Michelin star and how from then on Hassan went on to Paris to become the cook of its most innovative 3-Michelin star restaurant, with his photo and name on the headline of one of France's most prestigious gastronomic magazines, how despite his fame and success, after tasting a home-cooked Indian dish prepared by the wife of one of the assistant cooks in his Paris restaurant in the after hours of work, tears welled up in his eyes and how he there and then decided to return to that little town in southern France and offered Marguerite a partnership in starting their own restaurant there and how upon learning that, Madame Mallory offered them her own restaurant probably with hopes of raising it from a 2 to 3 Michelin star restaurant and how in the meantime, Madame Mallory would go to the market together with old Kadam, how eventually she had become his "almost" girl friend, as old Kadam corrected himself in speaking about it.
I like the film. Whilst Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon both put in a very credible performance, the acting of Om Puri and Helen Mirren was simply superb as is also the beautifully done cinematography of Linus Sandgren. Lasse Hallström is reported to have said that his key interest in choosing scripts is character-driven stories, because there are so many stories that sacrifice character for plot. If so, he has chosen his cast and his story well. Some credit must also go to the unobtrusive music by A.R. Rahman. I like also the way Lasse Hallström created a kind of unity by shooting two parallel fires in old India and new France done for different reasons: party politics in India and a combination of racism and misguided cultural chauvinism and commercial competition in France and also the message that despite serious differences in culinary philosophies, the recipes in the East could add to the richness and spiciness to the classical French cuisine stressing balance, delicacy, subtlety and complexity of flavors and tastes instead of boldness and excesses. To me, perhaps in a good film, like in good cuisine, the ingredients must be fresh and handpicked, their different natural tastes complementary, the cooking temperature well timed and there must be a perfect blending of the traditional and the novel. If so, then Lasse Hallström deserve at least one Michelin star, if not two.