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As far as protagonists go, Hassan's about as decent a guy as they come. And while we can totally get down with a dark and twisted main character, in Hassan's case, his steadfast good-guy status makes it's easy for us (as readers) to root for him. We never wonder whether he's worth getting behind, never second-guess our commitment to keeping our fingers crossed for his success.
So just how decent a dude is he?
Let's start with the fact that he's super respectful of everyone, from the prickly Madame Mallory to the fishmonger he visits as a kid. One of the main ways he shows this fundamental respect is through his ready fascination with other people's stories. We know he pays attention to other people because he gives us their backgrounds (mini-bios, so to speak), thereby drawing attention away from himself and onto the rest of the gang and, in doing so, making it clear that he cares about the lives of those he encounters.
So though this is Hassan's story, his consistent interest in presenting nuanced depictions of other people and letting them shine on the page makes it clear that he is humble. This is also shown, of course, through his work ethic. This isn't a guy who thinks he knows it all—it's a guy who wants to learn as much as possible, while presuming that others know things he does not and, as such, that he can learn from them. Just check out his reaction to a family cooking on the side of the road:
The smell of searing lamb's flesh and cumin and bubbling fat came to us in the wind, and the simplicity of it all—the roasting meat, the mint tea, the cheerful familiar chatter—it took my breath away. (15.74)
These aren't renowned chefs he's admiring, and yet that doesn't even seem to cross his mind. He is in awe of this family's approach to their meal, humble enough to take note of and appreciate what they are doing with food despite being a celebrated chef himself at this point in his career. Whether hoofing it for Mallory or pausing to recognize the masterful approach of a family on the side of the road, Hassan brings no ego to his culinary game. This dude isn't all about himself—he's all about the food.
Which brings us to the fact that Hassan is quite fair, and always giving people the benefit of the doubt. For example, even though Mallory is basically the reason Hassan is pushed into a burning stove, he wrestles with feelings of anger and forgiveness when she visits him in the hospital. He tells us:
I was grateful that I could still cook, yes, but all my family's troubles were because of this woman, and I could not forgive her. At least not yet. (11.11)
Emphasis on the "not yet." Even from his hospital bed, in other words, Hassan is already looking forward to a time when he might be able to forgive Mallory. Which, of course, is exactly what he does.
Hassan is like a sponge when it comes to learning, constantly watching and absorbing, and unrelentingly dedicated to acquiring knowledge and skills. This quality is critically important to his journey, especially since his openness is pretty much the key to his success. This insatiable desire to learn is perhaps best exemplified through Hassan's interest in learning from Mallory—a woman who has caused his family all sorts of trouble and heartache. Still, he defends her to his father:
"No? Hmm. Not very impressive. Perhaps she is not as good as we think."
"No, Papa. She is a great chef." (12.36)
Is Mallory a bit of a tyrant? You betcha. Is there a whole heckofa lot she can teach Hassan in the kitchen anyway? Yup. And he has the clarity to recognize this, along with the drive to let bygones be bygones in favor of learning at her hip.
When it comes to keeping his eyes on the prize, though, Hassan doesn't only look forward; he's also willing to step back and evaluate his life to see what's working and what's not. Combined with his general lack of ego, he readily admits to us when he takes a wrong turn. For instance, when he starts falling apart toward the end of the story, he writes:
I was restless, irritable, had trouble sleeping. I did not know what was going on, only that a feeling of doom was bearing down on me. And I hated it […] I have always been quite a sunny fellow. (16.8)
Not only is this matter-of-fact vulnerability kind of endearing and key to helping Hassan become the best chef he can be, but it also makes him a pretty reliable narrator. He doesn't give us just the moments he's proud of, but the ones he struggles with as well, and in doing so, we get the sense that he's trying his best to tell us the whole truth.
So does this man of goodwill and sunshine have a weakness? Nothing too serious, but there are a couple of things. Hassan may be a great guy, but that doesn't mean he's perfect.
Along these lines, he's not particularly smooth with women. In his defense, his mom is brutally murdered when he's a kid, so perhaps he has some unresolved mommy issues, but terrible evens aside, he still always walks away when things with a girl start to get serious. As he explains it:
This, then, became my lifelong pattern with women: as soon as things between us were on the verge of becoming close, I withdrew. (4.34)
Yeah, we'd say he seems a little freaked out about opening himself up to a woman. But again, this makes sense when we consider it along with the fact that his mom was tragically ripped from his life. Though it's too bad, it's also not surprisingly that he might be a little freaked out about losing a lady if he lets himself get close to one.
He's also a bit of a workaholic. And while on the one hand this helps him attain incredible heights professionally, he also starts to fall apart a bit as the world around him gets more competitive and high paced, and even runs the risk of losing sight of what really matters as he struggles to keep up his career. However, thanks to the lesson he learns from his friend Paul Verdun, he's able to catch himself before he falls too far. Though Paul's death is a major loss for Hassan, he's able to see through his sadness and learn from his friend's mistakes.
It is a long and often terribly difficult road for Hassan to become a celebrated chef, but as the book ends and he enjoys recognition for his work, we feel confident he'll be able to maintain his stamina thanks to his combination of curiosity, introspection, and hard work. We are also, for the record, pretty darn hungry.