Facts with a side of fantasy

A wistful biography of Escoffier leaves Nicky Pellegrino hungry and sad.

Author N.M. Kelby had to fictionalise part of her book on chef Auguste Escoffier. Photo / Supplied
Author N.M. Kelby had to fictionalise part of her book on chef Auguste Escoffier. Photo / Supplied

The trouble with writing a fictionalised account of a real person's life is the more you research, the less you're sure what really happened.

In the postscript to her new novel, White Truffles In Winter (Alma Books, $35), US writer N.M. Kelby tells of hitting this problem when she set out to turn the personal history of legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier into a novel.

Articles and biographies about her subject were wildly contradictory and often inaccurate. In the end, Kelby had to write Escoffier as she believed he might have been, filling in the gaps with fiction to bring him to life. The result is a meandering novel that will leave you hungry and sad.

Escoffier is known for being the father of modern French cuisine. In the course of his long career he originated the system still used in restaurant kitchens today. But Kelby's Escoffier is a man as obsessed with women as he is with food; and those twin passions rule him.

The story opens at the end of Escoffier's life. He has retired to Monte Carlo to write his memoirs, and he and his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis, are slowly dying. Delphine has one final desire. She wants Escoffier to create a dish and name it for her as he did for so many of the famous, most notably his alleged lover, the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Since she is mostly confined to her room, Delphine co-opts the family's new cook, Sabine, to help persuade him. Sabine bears an astonishing resemblance to the young Sarah Bernhardt and her appearance in the household raises the ghosts of old memories and regrets, all of them centred on love and food.

Delphine's recollections are of being forced into marriage by her father after he loses her to Escoffier in a poker game. And being slowly seduced in a steamy, hot kitchen by the flavours of the diminutive chef's cooking. She looks back on her husband's betrayals and the long years when his great successes forced them apart.

Meanwhile, Escoffier writes of the dishes he has devised, the glories and disgraces of his career, and the best way to kill crayfish (cover them in champagne - Moet - to make them drowsy).

Sabine is the thread that holds the two sets of memories together. She becomes Escoffier's final protege and gradually her own life is transformed by food and love.

Much of White Truffles In Winter is given over to luscious descriptions of food: from Escoffier's complex creations to Sabine's robust peasant food. Passage upon passage of mouthwatering prose richly sauces the story. Lashings of foie gras, pungent truffles, sweet briny langoustines; this is not a book to read if there's nothing to eat in the house.

If you're a foodie this novel will satisfy - it is beautifully composed and a fascinating portion of history.

As a love story it is more frustrating. Escoffier, while passionate about cooking, had little appetite to actually eat and Kelby portrays him as having much the same approach to love.

Still this is her interpretation, a fiction rather than pure fact, and she holds true to it throughout this poignant, gentle read.

- Herald on Sunday

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