Even if you don't know the name August Escoffier you have likely experienced his culinary innovation. In the late 19th century, he revolutionized French cuisine.
Now, St. Paul writer N.M. Kelby is exploring his life, and his loves, in her new novel "White Truffles in Winter."
When Nicole Kelby lists Escoffier's achievements it is clear that although he was short in stature, he was a culinary giant. He invented dishes, devised ways of running kitchens, and created entire traditions.
"Every time you go into a restaurant and order a la carte, that's Escoffier," she said. "If you have ever heard of peaches melba, cherries jubilee. If you have ever been to McDonald's — McDonald's is Escoffier's, well, contribution to the world, because he set up the back of the kitchen — the brigade system."
The first person to commercially can tomatoes, Escoffier consulted with the Knorr brand food company, as it created its condensed soups. He also worked with hotelier Cesar Ritz to set up the famous hotel chain. Escoffier also built and staffed the kitchen on the RMS Titanic.
Kelby first came across him in her mother's kitchen, where his cookbooks, with cracked spines and food-stained pages were considered bibles.
"So when my mother died, I just as an homage to her, I just started trying to figure out who this guy was," Kelby said. "And I fell totally in love with him."
Kelby learned that Escoffier's achievements are well chronicled, but his private life is more of a mystery. He knew royalty. He often cooked for England's Queen Victoria and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, but Kelby says Escoffier knew when he should fade into the background.
"He was sort of part of their lives," Kelby said. "And yet he always recognized he was not. He was the man who cooked for them."
Escoffier also had a long and ambiguous relationship with one of the most celebrated stage performers of the 1800s, Sarah Bernhardt.
Escoffier became obsessed with Bernhardt. Every year until she died, he traveled to wherever she was on her birthday to cook her a dinner of scrambled eggs. He named dishes for her.
“...perhaps the most profound act that we do for each other, is to feed each other. That is a form of love because it continues everything in the world.”N.M. Kelby
In some chapters in "White Truffles in Winter" Kelby adopts Escoffier voice to deliver the recipes for such delicacies as 'Potage Sarah Bernhardt,' a chicken consomme with crayfish, black truffles and asparagus tips.
"This is a soup for Miss Bernhardt," Kelby reads. "It is simply as delightful as she was. I personally have served it to her on several occasions, and it is one of the many dishes she asked for repeatedly, although once it is served she will not eat it. She only requests it to make you happy."
Bernhard scandalized polite society by naming her many lovers, but never admitted to a liaison with Escoffier. Kelby's not so sure.
"They must have been quite profoundly friends with benefits," Kelby laughed. "But they must have had great respect for each other."
The fact Escoffier was married complicated matters profoundly. His wife, Delphine, endured the constant moving his career required until he went to London to create the Savoy. That's when she said enough, and returned to France.
"She was pregnant with their third child, and this is fact," Kelby said. "And they were separated for 30-odd years, but they had a close relationship."
"White Truffles in Winter" is set in the days just before World War I when Escoffier had retired and returned to Delphine. As they both look back, she desperately wants him to name a dish for her, but he's reluctant.
"And he says 'How do you summarize the complexities of love in a single plate?'" said Kelby.
Many of Kelby's readings recently, including tonight's at Golden Fig Fine Foods in St. Paul, have been in culinary establishments.
Yet, at its center, "White Truffles in Winter" is about love. Kelby talks about the transformative experience of cooking for someone you love. She said a meal is a cook's vision of the world which sustains the person who eats it.
"It becomes part of you, and you move on, and you make a difference in the world because I feed you," she said. And that is perhaps the most profound act that we do for each other, is to feed each other. That is a form of love because it continues everything in the world."
This realization was life changing for Nicole Kelby. She regularly expounds on it in her blog "At Escoffier's Table."