From Kelby (Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, 2008, etc.), a fictional biography of the pioneering French chef Auguste Escoffier full of luscious details about his methods, both of cooking and seduction.
In the mid-1930s, after 30 years of separation, the aged and ailing Escoffier has returned to his wife Delphine, a poet. Sixty years ago he wooed her through his cooking—the sensuality of his food-centered seductions beats even the famous scene from Tom Jones—and their early marriage was joyful. But when he moved to London as chef at the Savoy, she refused to uproot the family to follow him. Lonely, he rekindled his earlier friendship with Sarah Bernhardt and also dallied with the English chef and hotelier Rosa Lewis. But his alter ego Mr. Boots courted Delphine from afar, sending her delicacies like figs. Eventually he realized that his heart truly lay with Delphine. By then their youngest son had died as a World War I soldier, a grief heightened by the fact that Escoffier had cooked a meal for Kaiser Wilhelm months before war was declared. Now Escoffier begins a memoir that captures the true stories behind his recipes and is full of sex and early-20th-century celebrity sightings. Her own health failing, Delphine hires a young woman named Sabine to cook for the extended family that gathers at their Monte Carlo home. Delphine, a local girl, has no idea how to prepare Escoffier’s sophisticated fare, but not coincidentally, she’s a dead ringer for the young Sarah Bernhardt. Both Delphine and Escoffier give Sabine lessons, and her evolution as a cook and as a woman offset the story of the ailing Escoffiers. Delphine desperately wants Escoffier to create a dish in her name as he has for his other famous patrons, but he resists. The complexity of their relationship almost defies even his ability to combine ingredients.
Kelby’s prose fits her subject, lusciously rich as the truffles and foie gras that dominate Escoffier’s recipes, but sensory overload eventually sets in.