Auguste Escoffier's 1903 book Le Guide Culinaire and his distinguished career as a restaurateur and chef made him the father of modern haute cuisine.
N.M. Kelby's novel White Truffles in Winter makes him one smoking hot romantic hero. Seriously, who could resist a man who courted her by artfully placing dollops of half a dozen kinds of the finest caviar on her naked body and then feeding them to her with a mother-of-pearl spoon?
As Kelby writes in her afterword, the novel is based on "the bones of facts" about Escoffier's life, but is a work of fiction that focuses mainly — voluptuously, ravenously, poignantly — on his relationships with his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis, and Sarah Bernhardt, superstar of the theater.
The book's present is 1935, at the Escoffiers' last home in Monte Carlo, where Delphine lies dying, Auguste is trying to write his memoirs and listening to ominous news from Germany on the radio, and a wild red-haired girl named Sabine is petulantly sloshing overripe tomatoes all over the staggeringly well-equipped kitchen.
Kelby tells much of the story, though, in the past, as far back as the days when Auguste won Delphine's hand — in a poker game with her father. Despite that inauspicious start, they become a love match, even though for decades they live separately — sometimes in separate countries — as he pursues his career in Paris and London and she raises their three children on the French coast.
Escoffier's relationship with Bernhardt goes back even further. Everyone who was anyone came to Le Petit Moulin Rouge, Escoffier's restaurant in Paris — to him, Edward VII was "dear Bertie" — and the Divine Sarah was most certainly somebody. Bernhardt had countless lovers, but her bond with Escoffier is something else, a friendship between two people who have endured terrible things on the way to fame.
Kelby renders Bernhardt's magnificent charisma beautifully. It's not just a matter of the copper mane of hair, the skin like cream, the lush body, the actor's sense of drama. This Sarah burns with intelligence, independence, joie de vivre and, sometimes, anger. She may be the toast of seven continents, but when a worker dies in Escoffier's kitchen, she is the one who kneels in the blood to hold his head.
These three strong people revolve around one another at the center of a novel thickly populated with historical characters, from Kaiser Wilhelm to Ho Chi Minh (who was mentored in Escoffier's kitchens). Kelby's descriptions of food are sublime, and her evocations of Paris, from artists' spare studios to restaurants' lavish dining rooms, delightful.
The horrors of war — the Siege of Paris, World War I and the specter of World War II — haunt the pages of White Truffles in Winter. But the human appetite for love, for life, for food so beautifully delicious it makes one weep — that appetite makes its stand against death, at least for a while.