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Food is memory, Helen Mirren says

By MICHAEL ORDONA San Francisco Chronicle

This article was published August 8, 2014 at 2:07 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO -- "Chocolate," purrs Dame Helen Mirren. "I have an incredible memory of the first time I had chocolate.

"A chocolate Easter egg. I grew up in England after the Second World War, and there was no sugar. I didn't eat chocolate until I was about 7 years old. So that first taste of chocolate, I remember that very clearly."

"Food is memory" is one of the mantras of her new film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, adapted from the Richard C. Morais best-seller and directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The literal Journey is the physical distance between a new Indian restaurant in a village in the south of France and the established, Michelin-starred palace of haute cuisine across the road. Of course, the literary journey casts food as a metaphor for culture, change, challenge and, yes, memory.

But the food is also ... food. The film is full of Indian and French delicacies, then French-Indian delicacies, then nouveau metro delicacies with a touch of the sci-fi. There is much picking of mushrooms in the woods by the handsome (spicy?) young immigrant cook (Manish Dayal) and the ravishingly beautiful young sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon).

The film is seasoned with several moments of revelatory food experiences, to which Mirren is no stranger.

"The first time I tasted a really good wine," she says, with matter-of-fact relish, "especially after I'd drunk quite a lot of very bad wine up to then. Then my very first taste of really, really good red wine was unbelievable. I had no idea that that world existed. ... '57 Chateau Lafite. I have no idea how much it cost." (Such bottles currently average about $1,344 on WineSearcher.com.)

The precisely passionate Madame Mallory is a dead-serious restaurateur obsessed with adding another Michelin star to the establishment she inherited from her husband years ago. Mirren would seem a natural choice for the role. Except, of course, for not being French.

When the Swedish director of Chocolat joined the production, the Oscar-winning actress was already on board.

"I was wondering, 'OK, why stick your neck out and cast a British woman for a French part?' I worried it would be tactically ... a bad idea," admits the genial Hallstrom.

"I knew she was the perfect choice for the part, but how would a French audience or an audience of the world react to a British actress having to be imported? But having learned that she spoke French fluently, that she was so enamored of French culture, she had wanted to move from London to Paris and become a French actress ... that certainly made me think, 'OK, I think I can get away with this in the press junkets,' " he says with a laugh.

"I tried to become a French actress, but I failed miserably," Mirren confesses.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Screen Actors Guild, Emmy and Olivier winner has certainly enjoyed a melange of flavors, playing experts as varied as queens, detectives and assassins. But perhaps none of those roles was as valuable in cooking up Madame Mallory as Mirren's personal experiences.

"I lived in France for a year," she says. "The French are very obsessed with their own culture and their own Frenchness and everything that means in terms of food and wine and language and art and philosophy and history. They're very fierce about protecting their cultural identity. And Madame Mallory is a perfect manifestation of that."

Mirren's own appetites are adventurous, if not highfalutin'.

"I'm not a foodie, no. I love to eat. I'm greedy," she says without a smile. "I like to eat peasant food. I hate to pay huge amounts of money for dinner. Once in a while it's fine, a nice celebration dinner or something. I like fuel food. Soup, fries. I was just in Vienna; the best sausages on the street. I love street food."

For his part, Hallstrom turned vegan a few years ago.

"I can have this very complex meal with different kinds of vegetables and I'm excited about how they taste. I don't think I'm fooling myself," he says with a laugh. But he doesn't deny the pangs caused by all the luscious food in the production. He sprinkled the film's narrative recipe with his own personal ingredients.

"I have all kinds of wonderful memories. ... My mother and me picking mushrooms in Sweden. The mushrooms are something I added to the story.

A grin spreads across Mirren's face as she recalls a specific encounter with a chocolate cookie.

"The first time I ever tasted Tim Tam, it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever tasted," she says. "I've tried to re-create that sense since then. I've tried Tim Tam ever since and it's never been as good. I still remember that taste." Then she adds with exactness, "You see, when you first taste something, it's never quite as good again, ever."

Coming from not only one of the screen's finest actresses, but also one of its most storied objects of desire, that declaration might depress romantics.

Mirren laughs.

"Well, there's lots of different foods out there," she says. "There's always a new experience waiting for you."

MovieStyle on 08/08/2014

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