Young culinary genius Hassam Kadam (Manish Dayal) embarks on a life-altering journey that transforms him into an internationally renowned chef in Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey. When tragedy strikes, his restaurateur family leaves their native Mumbai and settles in a quaint village in the south of France. They open a colorful Indian curry house directly across the street from Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) chic, Michelin-starred French restaurant. A heated battle ensues between the two establishments as cultures and culinary styles collide. The film also stars Charlotte Le Bon and Om Puri.
At the film’s recent press day, Dayal revealed what appealed to him about the script and its portrayal of the immigrant experience, how he prepared for the role, what he learned about the art of cooking and cuisine, the importance of food in his culture and how it can bring cultures together, what Puri’s character shares in common with Dayal’s real life father, the intimidation factor in making a film this big, the memorable moment when Mirren introduced him to frog legs, what it was like meeting producer Steven Spielberg, his directing experience with Hallström, and having the ability to embrace life’s uncertainties.
QUESTION: Mr. Dayal, I’ll start off by asking you one very simple question. Can you in fact cook worth a good God damn or are you the greatest actor alive?
MANISH DAYAL: Sadly, I can cook a little bit.
Q: You can cook a little?
DAYAL: No, I can definitely cook a little bit. I went into it not being able to, of course, understand the art of cooking and cuisine, and now I think I have a better understanding of those things.
Q: Like the whole French Escoffier, Cordon Bleu, and Michelin star-awarded restaurants?
DAYAL: Right, understanding the nature of a kitchen in France versus the nature of a kitchen in India is very different. And I think, more importantly, what I had to learn was understanding how it works, rather than how to make the food, because of course we did both, but understanding how to function in a kitchen is very important.
Q: Knife skills. It’s all about the knife skills, right?
Q: That’s the thing. If someone is playing a piano in a movie, you can tell if they can’t play the piano. You have to have the knife skills because you can tell.
DAYAL: Yes. There were some hand doubles in there. (Laughs)
Q: Isn’t it great to read a script for a movie that is predicated upon the humanity and human experience of every character in it, with no easy good people or bad people?
DAYAL: Well, that’s a good question. This movie doesn’t do that because my character is this silent observer. He’s a constant observer and he lives in his head a little bit. He has a fire up here, and I don’t think that he expresses it all the time. That’s what makes him unique in this boisterous family.
Q: What food would you serve if you wanted somebody to understand where you were from?
DAYAL: Where I was from? Fried chicken.
Q: Where are you from?
DAYAL: South Carolina. But you mean ethnically where I was from?
Q: Yes. What role does food play in your culture?
DAYAL: Huge, because just like in this movie, food brings cultures together, but it also is the reason why our families used to get together when we were kids. My aunt and uncle would come over when my mom was making this, or we would go over there when they were making that. That’s what food is. I went into the whole thing thinking that France and India are culturally the two most opposites, but what I learned through the process is that’s not the case at all. They actually both have a very unique appreciation for food, unlike any other culture that I’ve been privy to so far, specifically the French and Indian. They’re much more similar than you think.
Q: Obviously when you’re on set you can deliver things a whole bunch of different ways. Did you always find that you were playing a scene the same? Were there a lot of takes where you were playing it differently?
DAYAL: Yes. One thing that was the same was my character’s even keel nature, that I always kept, but I deviated from that a bit. Sometimes, a response to Papa or my response to someone else in the scene would deviate a little bit.
Q: Did the way you played the scene change a lot as you were doing it?
DAYAL: You mean as a character throughout the film or you mean each take?
Q: Yes, I’m talking about the takes when you were actually making it. How wide did you play the scene? Were you always aiming like this?
DAYAL: Oh no, we played it wide, because something new would happen in each take, something cool, and so I would just respond to what was happening. I remember there was this one scene where we were preparing for the opening night, and my character’s very silent, and he’s like, I’m not doing this stuff, like trying to get everything organized. There were a few takes where I was just loud as hell, and I was just screaming and trying to get everything done and coordinating with everybody. It was a much more aggressive scene for those takes. I mean, that’s not what’s in the movie, but it was just something we were trying. I think what’s in the movie works better.
Q: Years from now when you look back at the time you spent with a legend like Dame Helen, is there one moment that you think you’ll go to that’s the most memorable? Or is it kind of hard to choose?
DAYAL: My most memorable moment with Helen is actually a funny moment. I had not tried frog legs yet, and I’d gotten to France, and we were in pre-production. She said, “You haven’t tried frog legs?” She gave me a frog leg, and I was like, “Alright.” And so, it was a funny memory of her because I had just met her. She also made a lot of jokes. She cracks a lot of jokes. She’s really funny, and she’s down to earth. She really elevated my game when we were working together, just working with her and seeing what she gives.
Q: Following up on that, what’s it like working with a legendary director like Lasse Hallström? What are you looking for from a director when you’re on set?
DAYAL: Working with Lasse Hallström was like a rollercoaster, because he doesn’t have one specific vision. It changes daily or it’s always evolving. He’s not stuck to any one thing. And so, as an actor on the other end of it, it was just fun to see where we were going to go. He might give me some direction, and I’d be like, “Oh, okay, that’s different. I never thought about that. I’ll try this.” That was happening a lot, so it was always keeping me on my toes, and that’s something that I hope I get to experience again with another director. He also has this bold imagination that you can see on screen, but it’s hard to see it translate, and when working with him, you can really feel that.
Q: Back to the frog legs, aren’t those considered the fried chicken of France?
DAYAL: Basically. They taste like little chicken wings. They do. They don’t have buffalo sauce or anything, but yeah, there’s not much meat on them, so they’re very delicate. That’s another thing about French cuisine, the French are patient eaters. I mean, I’m not that way. But I can see how patiently they eat and they don’t mind.
Q: Please enjoy your quail. Let me do surgery and debone it.
DAYAL: (Laughs) Exactly. It takes 15 minutes to get one piece out for one bite.
Q: There’s such a sense of ritual with classic French cuisine — the presentation and the sauces and what have you, but is there a pleasure?
Q: Was it fun learning that? Was it also fun learning all the sillier, higher end gastronomy stuff, like the hay smoking equipment you used when you were in Paris? Was it fun learning how to use that?
DAYAL: Oh, it definitely was. I mean, that is a point in the movie where my character loses his way a little bit, and that is indicative in what he’s cooking. It’s weird. There’s no connection to him or where he comes from in that food. Technically though, it was funny, because you have to have gloves on or you freeze your hands, because my character was cooking a fish with liquid nitrogen. So basically, your hands are really cold. Your hands could freeze if you didn’t cook it right. I remember there was this one take where I poured the nitrogen in it and it splashed. Everyone had a mask on and they were like, “Oh, he’s dead,” but it was fine. You have to be very careful.
Q: It’s a potentially dangerous substance.
DAYAL: Oh very, very, very dangerous, and then all these gases. But they actually cooked a fish like this, with liquid nitrogen, and I thought that was really cool. It actually was edible too.
Q: What about the relationship between your character and his father? Does that remind you of your own father?
DAYAL: In the movie, it reminds me of mine, yes, because my dad’s also really boisterous, and he’s pushy, and he’s like this Indian dad that is so protective. I think the characters are similar because my father immigrated. Om Puri’s character immigrates, and they have such huge stakes to deal with. You’ve got four kids. You’ve got to provide for them. Your car breaks down in the middle of France. What do you do? That’s the kind of responsibility I could never relate to, and my dad had to do that when he immigrated here, and Om’s character does that. I think that it takes a certain personality to make it work. That’s where they’re the same. I have a lot of respect for that experience.
Q: When you’re making a film like this that’s all about your character essentially and his journey, is there an intimidation factor? Or is that something that you can’t let enter into it?
DAYAL: In making a movie this big?
Q: Yes, and that it’s your movie.
DAYAL: There was a little intimidation. I was intimidated because of the people involved. I mean, this is my childhood hero, Steven Spielberg; a lady who champions change, Oprah Winfrey; Helen Mirren who is this amazing actress that’s won all these awards; and Lasse is incredible. It’s an intimidating pool to be in, but what made it less intimidating for me was how much research I did on the character to understand what a genius is like, because I have no clue what that is. I really had to get that, and I was pretty thorough in that process, so it made it less intimidating going in.
Q: Did you get to meet Spielberg, and what was that first meeting like?
DAYAL: I did. Oh my God! I don’t even know how to describe it. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. It was incredible, just to sit with him, and be opposite him, and see what he would say. I didn’t talk much. I was just listening. He talked about the movie a bit, about the process of working with Lasse. He also talked about things he enjoyed that I did, and he also gave me some great compliments about the film, which was incredible. It started off I was nervous at the beginning of it, and then I became comfortable in the conversation later because he’s just talking about movies. He just loves movies and that’s what it’s about.
Q: Did you geek out about any of his movies?
DAYAL: I did. There was one thing — I didn’t want to geek out though — but I had to tell him my love for “Jurassic Park.” I had to at least say that. I did. I threw it in there as he was leaving. I did. He’s great.
Q: And you didn’t ask for a role in the new “Jurassic World”?
DAYAL: Well… just kidding. I wanted to, but I don’t think there’s anything for me in that unfortunately.
Q: When you first read the script for this to what people are seeing on screen, did a lot change?
DAYAL: Oh yeah.
Q: Is there any huge change that you can talk about? Or was it a lot of minor stuff?
DAYAL: No. One of the biggest changes was how dark the movie gets. I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but Hassan’s character gets very dark towards the third act in Paris. In the movie, it gets dark, but it doesn’t go to the places that it does in the book, like the addiction, the drugs, and all of those things which don’t happen in the movie.
Q: In the movie, he’s like, “You ruined the sea urchin.” In the book, he’s doing line after line of wicked cocaine?
DAYAL: No, but the sea urchin represents something so much bigger obviously.
Q: Is it a symbol of his platonic idea of great taste?
DAYAL: And his mom. This is a symbol of his past that’s so visceral for him that to see it in this shape and wiggle and not function properly in his restaurant is disgusting. I remember thinking about that while I was shooting that scene.
Q: When you’re making a film like this that deals with so many different cultural aspects, there’s a trap that you could easily fall into with stereotypes. Were you concerned at all about that, or did knowing that Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and people like this were involved in this project make you confident that that wouldn’t happen?
DAYAL: No, that was something that was on my mind a lot, because there are a lot of movies about the immigrant experience, about the South Asian immigrant experience. We’ve seen them before. We understand what an immigrant goes through. But in order to make it non-stereotypical, these people had to not rely on the world in which they were going into, like it’s not – I don’t know how to say this politely- maybe I shouldn’t say it at all but –
Q: Say it impolitely.
DAYAL: No, they rely on themselves for their success in the movie, and that’s true of most immigrant experiences, from what I know. In a lot of movies about a marginalized culture going into a broader one, it’s always the broader culture that’s saving them, and that’s not what happens in this movie. This is a different experience, and I was aware of that. In terms of stereotypes, I feel like the movie does a good job of avoiding them, and I’m proud of that.
Q: There’s that great throwaway line, when they’re entering Europe, and the customs officer is trying to make sure the younger sister is not being brought there for an arranged marriage, and she says, “Trust me, pal, nothing in this family’s arranged.” It’s a very 21st century line that also pokes fun at the stereotypes you’re trying to replace.
DAYAL: There’s a little bit of that in the movie, and that’s the texture of the film. Not so much in my scenes, from what I’ve noticed, except there are a few references to rat curry and things like that, but we need that in the movie in order to understand what these people are up against.
Q: There’s a bit of the rivalry going on in the film between your and Charlotte’s characters. Does the competition as well as the playfulness translate off-screen as well?
DAYAL: No, no, no. We just have fun. She’s way funnier than me so that’s fine. I know that. No, I mean, it is in the movie a little bit, but I don’t think it’s rivalry, like they’re going to war. It’s about she knows his talent. She knows what he can become, and I think that he’s treading on her territory. It’s a little bit more territorial than it is a rivalry.
Q: But good times? I mean, it sounds like you did form at least some kind of friendship out of this.
DAYAL: Yes, for sure. It was fun working with her because we never really rehearsed. We just went in there and did it.
Q: People always say if you had to choose your last meal, what would it be, but since that implies that you’re about to be killed, it’s a bit grim. So let’s just say if you could have your perfect dinner, no threat of death, what would it be?
DAYAL: I’m going to give you the real answer, which is chicken fingers. I love chicken fingers. So, chicken fingers with honey mustard sauce. It’s so bad. And fries, double crispy fries with mayonnaise.
Q: You are in fact from the South.
DAYAL: Yes, but it’s so delicious. Have you ever had it? It’s great.
Q: Fries with mayonnaise, it’s the only way to go. Your character makes such a transformation throughout the film, and obviously you are shooting it out of order. Was it difficult to know where you were at certain times as Manish becomes more aware of his abilities?
DAYAL: I was pretty thorough in my note taking, and so my script had every single thing in it. My script was under my arm the entire process, and it was just because I had to know and understand where I was physically, as you said, like how he’s standing when he’s in India, when he gets off the boat in Rotterdam, when he is in Paris. He’s different. He’s evolving. He’s going from a 17-year-old kid to a grown man with responsibilities, and there is an evolution there both physically, like you’re talking about, but also vocally, in a lot of ways. My script and my notes in that script helped me throughout that process.
Q: It was your recipe. The script, all your notes –
DAYAL: Yes, I guess so.
Q: All the ingredients were right there.
DAYAL: It was. They made fun of me for always having my script.
Q: What were the typical notes that you wrote to yourself in the script?
DAYAL: I wrote one note that I remember was so funny, because I didn’t want people to see the script, but Charlotte was walking by and she saw my note. I wrote, “Fuck Off” really big, in this big text on the script. I think at that point my character was angry or something. Anyway, that was my thought in that scene, and then she walks by and sees it, so that was one of the weirdest notes I had in my script that should probably not have been.
Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
DAYAL: That you must embrace life’s uncertainty, because that’s what this movie is all about.