Published by W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date: November 7th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Nothing speaks more accurately to the complexity of life than food.
Whether you seldom eat in a restaurant or consider yourself to be a foodie, your life has been impacted by Auguste Escoffier, one of the most renowned chefs in the culinary world. His reign occurred during the mid-to-late 1800s when he oversaw the creation and management of the fine dining restaurants and kitchens at The Savoy Hotel and later, The Ritz. His method of kitchen management, known as the brigade system, changed professional kitchens everywhere, he was the first to serve meals one course at a time instead of bringing all the food to the table at once, and his genius with ingredients led to the creation of dishes now considered to be classics.
What a pleasure then to read this fictionalized account of his life. Author N.M. Kelby goes beyond the profession trials and success and looks at the man and his long-standing marriage to Delphine Daffis and his ongoing affair with Sarah Bernhardt, an artist in her own field. White Truffles in Winter is a rich, spicy stew about a man who used food as the very expression of his soul. Even at times of extreme deprivation, such as during the War of 1870, Escoffier found ways to make palatable meals out of things most would not consider eating. More importantly, his memories and emotions are all expressed in terms of food. Kelby captures these depths of the man but also the tenderness and humor found in his marriage, despite his infidelity.
At the heart of White Truffles is Escoffier’s love for his wife Delphine but inability to curb his desire for another woman. He woos Sarah with food and meals that are both delicate and sumptuous and names numerous creations after her and yet, much to Delphine’s dismay refuses to create a dish for her. As she nears the end of her life this becomes an obsession, as she feels without it she will have no place in her husband’s history. For him the matter is simple
Escoffier to Delphine:
“And you are unbearably difficult to love: a trial that would tempt Job.”
“And you, the great Escoffier, cannot put that on a plate?”
“That is the core of the issue.”
Much of the book takes place the final summer of Escoffier’s life, when he has returned to the family’s home in Monte Carlo. Despite his cookbooks, his food products, and his decades of hard work the expense of maintaining multiple homes and an extended family has left him impoverished and reliant for gifts from the many purveyors he used when still working. His time is now spent writing his memoirs, immersed in memories. Memories of sending his trained staff off to work on the Titanic, preparing dinner for Kaiser Wilhelm II on the eve of World War I, training a young Vietnamese chef who later changes his name to Ho Chi Minh, and traveling to America where he found “the menu was just bits and pieces of things to eat” when for him the menu “should be how the chef, an artist in his own right, sees the world” . While Escoffier writes, a new cook is introduced to the family and the fact that she bears a striking resemblance to Bernhardt does not go unnoticed. Sabine is a reluctant cook and finds most of her duties to be tedious but as the story progresses her role in the final summer of the Escoffiers becomes integral.
Escoffier’s passion for food is all-consuming but would have no voice without Kelby’s ability to write about it in such a way that the reader is both mesmerized and ravenous. This sentence in the first paragraph
Thunderstorms were canned along with plum jam
tantalizes. Like the first bite of a special meal—when it’s that tempting and perfectly crafted there are untold delights to follow. And like any memorable meal, White Truffles in Winter will leave you satisfied but wanting more.