The Chef's Secret by Crystal King
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: February 12, 2019
Giovanni’s uncle, Bartolomeo Scappi, was a celebrity in Rome. He was the private chef to three popes and the author of a wildly popular cookbook. Now he is dead and Giovanni’s life is about to turn upside down. He had been his uncle’s apprentice for 11 years and had known the man as a father figure for all of his life. When Scappi’s will is read, everything is left to Giovanni, including his much-sought-after recipes. Recipes that soon become just one mystery of the many Giovanni is left to unravel in Crystal King’s new novel, The Chef’s Secret.
King piles a lot on Gio’s plate. Not only is he responsible for his uncle’s property, including a secret trove of never-before-seen recipes, but he discovers a cache of coded journals detailing his uncle’s life from the time he began cooking. Deciphering them becomes an obsession, especially as he learns not only about his uncle’s life, but also about his own. At the same time, due to his training, he has been named the new head chef for Pope Gregory.
Through the journals, King segues to Bartolomeo as narrator in alternating chapters with Gio. While it brings to light much that was unknown, it also creates an even greater mystery—that of a woman he has loved since he was a young man. An aristocrat, far above his station, but who secretly reciprocates his feelings. Given that it was the 1500s and so little is known of Scappi in real life, it’s here that King takes the most creative license in The Chef’s Secret, making it more an action-packed novel than a study of a man and the times he lived in.
King’s research is felt throughout The Chef’s Secret. There is intimate recreation of all things related to the Vatican, from the diets of various popes to the feast celebrating the anniversary of coronation of Pius V, where over 1,000 platters of food were served, including items ranging from six butter statues, 361 bowls of candied fruits, and 12 4’ pastry castles containing live birds. These are the details that keep me reading, but they are not the main course in the novel. Instead, it is the battle for Scappi’s recipes and the mystery of his long-lost love that bridges the past with the present. Which is fine, as King writes a good mystery, but I craved less drama about illicit love and more about the cooking and kitchens of the times.