An Interview with N. M. Kelby
1) What attracted you to Escoffier as a subject?
White Truffles in Winter began in my mother's kitchen. She was Parisian, a Jew shot during World War II while trying to escape. She had a very difficult life. Cooking was her solace, the only thing I think she thought she had control over. And she certainly had control. She never let me near the kitchen. As a child, Escoffier's cookbooks towered over me on the top shelf over the stove, well worn, and always out of my reach. They were a great mystery.
As I grew older, I became more and more interested in this famous chef who, despite his contributions to modern dining such as the discovery of unami and the creation of Cherries Jubilee and Peach Melba, had nearly been forgotten. When I came upon the fact that he'd created hundreds of dishes for all sorts of people, but never one for his wife who (by most accounts) he was quite devoted to, I began to wonder just who this man was. But, more importantly, I started thinking about how one can define the complexity of love on a single plate.
It was at that moment that my understanding of food shifted.
2) What is your own culinary background? How did it shape the novel?
When I was fourteen years old, I lied about my age and took a job at McDonald's. Working after school and on weekends, I quickly moved up the kitchen hierarchy—from being the "fry girl" to "counter girl" in about three months. Soon bored, I went from there to Dunkin' Donuts and then moved into the world of sit-down dining. By the time I was eighteen years old, I had a small catering business that helped pay my way through college.
I find it very difficult to stay out of the kitchen. Even when I was a comedian at Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop, I could often be found cooking with the chef before my set. In that way, I've always felt a kinship to Escoffier. We were both trained in fine art—he studied sculpture with some of the most famous artists of his day, and I acquired my MFA with Nobel Laureates—and yet we both have spent a good deal of our lives channeling those artistic impulses onto a plate.
It's interesting that at about the same age, we both entered the world of commercial kitchens. Like me, Escoffier was also the youngest and worked very hard to prove his worth, although I'm pretty sure he never had to say, "Would you like fries with that?" I was also surprised to learn that he wasn't interested in eating and often forgot to eat—a trap I fall into all the time.
Of course, he was a brilliant chef who mastered the sublime sauce, and I just have a gift for gravy, but I still understand what drove him. The world of the plate is quite seductive.
When I began to write this book, I quickly moved from the idea that it was literally about Escoffier to the concept that itís really about the hunger inside all of us. It's about our need to create something beautiful, something perfect, and to share it as a way to celebrate life itself. In the end that's what cooking, like art, is all about.
3) Many of your characters express and experience emotions—love, regret, grief—through food. How is it that food can acquire such an emotional charge?
Everyone has to eat something—that's just a fact—and so we have an innate knowledge about what fuels us. If we're in tune with our bodies, we know that eating too many fried foods makes us sick because we feel sick. So we try not to eat too many fried things. Well, in theory. The snag in all of this is that because we are complicated, and somewhat bored, food is something that we experience and not just consume. It defines us.
I think that food is a powerful emotional trigger for nearly everyone. I once served a friend mac and cheese, even though I didn't think he was a hot dish sort of guy. It was so much like his mother's that he ate a third of the pan—and it was a very large pan. And while he ate he told me all about being a kid living in a beautiful house in the city, his father's untimely death, his mother's remarriage, and the family's move to the suburbs. He told me the most private details of his life, and it pained him. It was a very intimate moment. Very unexpected. The mac and cheese unraveled him.
I've come to believe that even people who say they donít care about food have a dish that will spark an emotion. It seems to be human nature. Food is fuel, not just for our bodies but also for our hearts.
4) Let's talk about the women in Escoffier's life. Delphine, Sarah, and Sabine are all thoroughly modern women, but in different ways. What were your goals for these characters? What do they represent?
These women were based on women of the time. The Victorian age repressed and adored women. We were both chattel and goddesses. So often the only response to this hothouse life was to either give in to it and become docile or kick your way out of it. Even Delphine, who represents the most traditional of the trio, had her own ideas about what being a good wife and mother meant. I would never presume to set goals for them.
I find it interesting that Sarah is the most tragic of the lot. She was born a Jew and abandoned her faith, changed her name, reinvented her past, and spread wild romantic lies about her life. She may have been the greatest actress the world has ever known, and certainly the richest, but in the end she was lost. She led an inauthentic life.
It really makes you think about your own life. What happens when you abandon your faith and identity? What happens when you lose your tribe? My Jewish mother was forced by the war to hide her religious faith and did so until I was a teenager. She always seemed to be adrift. I have to think that it was because she always felt profoundly alone. She had a very difficult life.
5) In this age of fast food and prepackaged meals, do you think our relationship to food has somehow changed or become more superficial?
Fast food poses an interesting moral and ethical issue because the experience is often not just about eating. The industry has done a brilliant job of capturing and re-creating our emotions and selling them on the dollar menu. That's why fast food is so successful and so insidious. Look at the slogans—"It's Good Mood Food"—who doesn't want to be in a good mood?
So is fast food wrong, then? Is it inherently evil? I don't think so. Most Americans, even the most hard-core foodies, have a soft spot for some chain. In-N-Out Burger, KFC—you name it. I know more chefs who would rather eat the fries at McDonald's on a regular basis than those fried in duck fat and sprinkled with truffle oil. Why? Because fast food is not about food, it's about being American.
It's about democracy, in a way. The key to fast food is that anyone can cook it and anyone can eat it. And because of this accessibility, many of us find that moments of our lives, sometimes important moments, have been played out in these well-lit temples of high-caloric splendor. Maybe our first kiss happened at Pizza Hut. Or we discovered after months of sleepless nights that a crying baby falls asleep after two sips of a vanilla Blizzard.
I remember the first holiday season my husband and I spent together. Right before Thanksgiving, we'd both lost our jobs. The day we filed for unemployment we went to McDonald's and they were having a 101 Dalmatian Christmas ornament promotion with their Happy Meals. We bought one and it felt like a luxury and so we came back each week and bought a new one. We ended up with all four and they still hang on our tree today as a reminder that things can get bad but they also get better.
To me, fast food provides nourishment that is akin to going home. For most of us, when you go home, the food is often not good, or good for you—or maybe it's so good for you that you hate it. And seated around your family table, you know you really canít go home again, but it is great to visit because it reminds you of a simpler time.
So, yes, I will have fries with that.
- If you were to create a dish for someone you love, what would it be? What elements would you include and why?
- Delphine wonders to herself "what it was like to be Sabine, so beautiful but with polio. Flawed and broken." How do you think having polio has shaped Sabine's personality and outlook?
- How are Delphine and Sarah different? Do they have any traits in common? What do you think attracts Escoffier to each of them?
- Did your opinion of Sarah change over the course of the novel? Why?
- How do you think Escoffier's Catholic faith shaped him? In light of his infidelity, were you surprised to learn how devout he was?
- Why does Delphine refuse to live with Escoffier when he relocates to London? How would you feel if you were in her position? Would you act differently?
- What role does the mysterious "Mr. Boots" play in Delphine and Escoffier's relationship?
- What motivates Escoffier to play matchmaker with Sabine and Bobo? Why does he think they are suited to each other?
- Were you surprised by how much love exists between Delphine and Escoffier despite the way their marriage was arranged and the many years they spent apart?
- How do the various characters use food to express or convey emotion? Did reading Escoffier's story make you reconsider your own relationship with food?