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White Truffles in Winter

An opulent novel based on the life of Auguste Escoffier, the 'king of chefs and chef of kings.'

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 "White Truffles in Winter" opens during Escoffier's last summer. He and his wife are both dying in their grand stone manor house, La Villa Fernand, on the Cote d'Azur. After a lifetime of bad business decisions, they are broke. The chef is madly working on his memoir, "The Complete Escoffier: A Memoir in Meals," chapters of which punctuate the novel.

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Meanwhile, the rapidly declining, bedridden Delphine frets that her husband has never created a dish in her honor – a fact that particularly grates because, in addition to inventing his famous Peach Melba for the diva Nellie Melba, he immortalized Bernhardt with several fabulous dishes, including Potage Sarah Bernhardt, a chicken consommé with crayfish quenelles and a julienne of black truffles and asparagus tips. Delphine enlists the help of their insolent young cook, Sabine, a dead ringer for Bernhardt – and presumably a wholly fictional creation – to try to wring a new recipe out of "the old goat." Escoffier, for his part, has other plans: to teach Sabine the difference between cooks and chefs, and between ordinary and sublime cuisine.

Kelby deftly weaves back and forth through time, propelled by her couple's meandering memories. Delphine dreams of "the first days of their marriage," when Escoffier commanded her to close her eyes – because "Food demands complete submission" – before placing "a perfect scallop in her mouth" and asking her, "Do you taste the sea?" Escoffier's mind wanders back to his first meeting with "the eighth wonder of the world, the Divine Sarah Bernhardt," and to less happy memories of private feasts cooked for France's once and future enemy, Emperor Wilhelm II.

The portrait that emerges of this master chef who coined the word "deliciousness" for the fifth taste (later labeled by Japanese chemists as "umami") is broad enough to encompass his various charities, his shady dealings with suppliers, his spinelessless with national enemies, and his considerable charm. But it's recipes for dishes like Crayfish Mousse – which requires drowning the crayfish in Moët before proceeding with ingredients that include a melted fish jelly "made with the finest Persian caviar and a dry white champagne of unquestionable quality, such as the Moët, but do not use the same Moët that you have used to take the life of the crayfish, as their tears add too much salt" – that make "White Truffles in Winter" such a satiating read.

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to Christian Science Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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