‘I do an incredible baked beans on toast’

Her latest film is about a clash of cultures and cuisines. Helen Mirren, along with her fellow cast members, speaks to Melonie Clarke about Marmite, memories and how food unites us
Waiting to chat to the cast of The Hundred-Foot Journey, I look around the London base of Le Cordon Bleu. It’s the perfect place to hold a press conference for this much-anticipated new film. Starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri and Manish Dayal, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a celebration of cuisine. Classic French and Indian cuisine, to be precise.

Mirren plays Madame Mallory, owner of a Michelin- starred restaurant in a picturesque French village, while Puri and Dayal play Papa and Hassan, new to the area with a grand plan to open an Indian just 100 feet away. A war of foods quickly ensues.

Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg and directed by Lasse Hallström, this feast for the eyes is an uplifting tale of two cultures.

For Mirren, the chance to film in France was a major draw. ‘I thought it was a charming story, and I loved the fact that it was going to be shot in France. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a French actress, so it gave me the opportunity to pretend to be a French actress as well as a French woman,’ she says.

Helen-Mirren-Sept26-01-590Helen Mirren and Om Puri add spice to a tale of clashing cultures

‘I got that classic phone call of: “It’s Steven Spielberg on the line for you”. Whenever an actor is lucky enough to receive that call, you never believe it; you think, “Who’s having me on?” But I did get that phone call, and when you do, you obviously listen.’

Hallström says of Mirren’s performance: ‘Helen is just brilliant on so many levels, and she’s perfectly French, even though she’s half Russian and half English.’

Given the film is all about food, it’s perhaps no wonder that Puri, who has starred in many British and Indian films, used it to help bring the cast together. ‘I must say [helping a cast bond] comes to me naturally. We tried it earlier in East Is East. I had a big family in East Is East, and one day before filming I was staying in an apartment in Holland Park, so I said: “Let’s all meet at my place and we’ll go out shopping to cook.” Somebody went to buy vegetables, somebody went to buy fruit, somebody went to buy wine, everybody went shopping separately, then we all got together and we cooked the meal. We spent the entire day till 12 at night, and we gelled and banded together. It was wonderful.’

Says Mirren, ‘He ended up cooking for all of us. He would bring bowls of this fantastic food that he had prepared the night before for all of us, so Om really was the glue that held us all together. He was the head of our film family.’

With the principal cast all having a relationship with food in the film, how good are their cooking skills in real life?

‘I think I am the senior for cooking,’ Puri admits. ‘I have been cooking from the age of 14. In school I was a Boy Scout and one of the activities was cooking, and there used to be competitions – I had a flair for that. If we went to anyone’s house and there was a dish we had, I would ask them how they prepared it, what they put in it. I find it relaxing; it’s like doing yoga for me.’

By contrast, Mirren is apparently not such a dab hand. ‘I do an incredible baked beans on toast – really amazing. Marmite on toast, marmalade on toast, cheese on toast. My cheese on toast is excellent… No, I’m not much of a cook,’ she laughs.

‘I love food, I love to eat, but I’ve never been a great cook, so I was very grateful for Om and Manish in France and our incredible French catering.’

‘Food is memories’ is one of the resounding messages of the film. ‘When you think of your mother, who may no longer be there, and when you talk about a certain dish… it takes you back in a kind of flashback,’ says Puri. ‘You just think, “That was delicious”.’

Helen-Mirren-Sept26-02-590Left: Helen Mirren’s Madame Mallory tastes a dish cooked by Manish Dayal’s character Hassan, while Chef Jean- Pierre (Clement Sibony) looks on

Dayal says: ‘“Food is memories” is an interesting line. There is something about a taste and a flavour that will bring you back to a memory; nothing is more visceral than that. For me it’s my mum’s rice and dhal she made when I was growing up. It was very simple. She put a little too much sugar and too few peanuts in it, and that flavour is something that makes me think of her.’

‘It is extraordinary,’ says Mirren. ‘They say the sense of smell and taste is by far the strongest marker for memory, much more powerful than anything else. For me it’s the smell of chocolate. I was a post- Second World War young child and there was still rationing, so there was no sugar. I didn’t taste it until I was about four or five, so the first time I tasted chocolate was just an incredible experience. ‘I’m not a chocoholic at all, but just occasionally I get the smell of chocolate and it takes me right back to being four years old and experiencing chocolate for the first time.

‘Every single one of us sitting in this room I’m sure has a particular smell that brings them back to a particular time in their youth, whether it’s something their mother cooked or the first time they had fish and chips. Whatever it is, it is a very powerful thing.’

The merging of French and Indian cuisine in The Hundred-Foot Journey mirrors the way in which Indian food has become an integral part of the British diet. ‘Now when I go abroad I crave Indian food,’ says Mirren. ‘I’ve never been to India so I’ve never had it there, but Indian food, good Indian food, is very difficult to find, in my experience, in any other country except Britain. Indian food has become British food and has become the marker of my home, my country, my culture, which is so interesting. I think that’s true for a lot of British people now.’

The Hundred-Foot Journey is on general release.