The new movie Hundred-Foot Journey, about an Indian restaurant that opens 100 feet from a Michelin-starred French restaurant, paints French cuisine as dusty and mechanical, Indian food as boisterous and soulful. The heartwarming, you-can-do-anything glaze of the film—a talented young chef, Hasan, defects from his family's Indian restaurant to the French one, and then to culinary superstardom in Paris—is no surprise, considering that two of its producers are Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. A third is Juliet Blake, a former National Geographic Channel vice president and now a content producer for TED. National Geographic talked to her about "space-age" food, her husband's cooking, and Marmite.
What was making a foodie movie like for you?
We wanted to be sure everything on set was edible. There were no food stylists.
Food stylists? You mean, like, putting wood stain on a turkey to make it look better for camera?
Exactly. We didn't do any of that. You could eat everything you saw. And a lot of the crew did [laughs].
We sometimes say "French food" as if it's just escargots and frogs' legs, or "Indian food" as if it's just saag paneer and goat biryani. But there is so much range in these cuisines. How did you pick the foods to show?
The food had to audition. It was a character. For the Indian food, for example, we wanted dishes that looked hot and spicy, very true to themselves and not pretentious.
There's a scene after Hasan starts working for the French restaurant, where his father sits down to try a bowl of boeuf bourguignon. Hasan's younger siblings ask for a taste, too.
Yes, the girl spits it out and says it doesn't taste of anything. They're used to, in India, really spicy food even at a young age. In France, there is Provençal and Parisian food, but presentation marks the difference between them, not flavor.
And in this plot, the French cuisine plays sort of the role of the villain. And the Indian food is the hero.
It's set in France, so the Indian culture is the outsider. On the opening night of the Maison Mumbai, the Indian restaurant, they say that they'll have to use wine to tenderize the meat. They're the ones who have to adapt first.
It's a movie, so there were all these visual clues—montages, lens flares, slow-motion raw eggs hitting a bowl, light hitting spices in certain ways.
There was a great one, when the Indian restaurant has its opening night and you're seeing all these colorful dishes, steam rising, using big spoons and ladles to scoop up chicken korma. And then it cut to the French restaurant. And we had cooked all these dishes, and the only one the director showed was spring vegetable mousse with chanterelle mushrooms, which was extremely minimal.
I actually laughed at that. It was comically pretentious in its presentation. More about the artistic drizzle than anything. It looked like what I called "a fromage panini," when the restaurant is too snobby to admit it's just a grilled cheese sandwich.
The director just captured the difference between the cultures so well.
Something I find so odd about food culture is that much of what we think of as normal is in fact alien. In France, the croissant came from Vienna. Egg rolls came from San Francisco, not China. You and Helen Mirren, who plays the French restaurateuse, have both said that when you're away from Britain what you miss is its Indian food.
Exactly. There are all these colonial influences, still. And food can tell a story, certainly. It has its history if you let yourself explore it.
There was also a third cuisine in the film, the molecular gastronomy in Paris, which represents a kind of third culture, the culture of the future: the cauliflower ice cream, and the crème brûlée with cardamom, the stuff of vaporizers and bellows and eyedrops. Was that hard to convey? It's so unproven.
I know it seemed a little space-age at times, but all of that really exists in real restaurants that you can really eat. The main idea there was that it had to look substantially different. There's that line, where they say Parisian food is all about innovation innovation innovation.
What kind of presence did you have on-set to validate your food choices?
We had two Indian chefs and one classical French chef. They would tell us the differences not just in the foods but in the ways of cooking, how the different cultures chop differently. Like, oh I hope I get this right, there's a red chopping board for meat, a green chopping board for vegetables or onions.
Where did you cheat?
Sea urchins—they do eat it in India, but not as commonly as in France. We liked the look of it, and the idea that it's like a lobster, it has to die while being cooked. There was that scene in the beginning of the movie where Hasan's mother tells him that to cook you have to make ghosts. And, to be honest, there's no way those spices would have survived. Anyone knows spices like that would keep for maybe six months. They're in the movie, though, not as a reality but as a psychological tool.
Generally, there was this mystical magical power of food, especially the Indian food. It seemed very personal. And then I read that your husband is a cook, and you both grow vegetables at home.
When we lived in [Washington] D.C., we grew everything: Squash, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, carrots. Now we're in Brooklyn, we have a very big herb garden, some tomatoes and kale, lettuce, aubergines.
What are your food habits?
I'm vegetarian. Well, I'll eat a bit of fish every now and then, but not really. Lasse Hallström, the director, who also did Chocolat, is vegan. He grew up in Sweden picking mushrooms.
There are all those mushroom-picking scenes in the film. I love that line "We weren't picking flowers. We were looking for mushrooms...and we found flowers." I was wondering if you deferred to any outside perspective for authentic tastemaking consensus.
A wonderful book by Adam Gopnik, who writes beautifully for The New Yorker, called The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Just brilliant.
There's also so much nostalgia with food, of course. I grew up in London and I don't crave anything organic from there. I crave 99p Flakes, Jelly Babies, and HP sauce. Is there no place for chemical, invented food for people with good taste?
I eat Marmite. We still keep Marmite in the house and I put it on toast sometimes. But I love new things, too. The other day my husband—we had people over for lunch—and he made something out of puff pastry, sour cream, sweet potatoes, pumpkin seeds, and a tomato salad. It was incredible.
Has any of this inspired you to be more daring in your culinary life?
I was in SoHo the other day and spotted this amazing Indian food truck. It was so beautiful I took a bunch of photos. But I had just eaten so I didn't really try anything. Then when I returned looking for it, it was gone.
Oh, food-truck Brigadoon is a real problem.
I know, I know.
This interview has been edited and condensed.