An Interview with N.M. Kelby

N.M. Kelby worked as a journalist, editor and educator before turning her hand to fiction. She is the critically acclaimed author of In the Company of AngelsWhale Season and the Florida Book Award winner A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Her latest novel White Truffles in Winter imagines the world of the remarkable French chef Auguste Escoffier, who changed how we eat through his legendary restaurants at the Savoy and the Ritz. A man of contradictions – kind yet imperious, food-obsessed yet rarely hungry – Escoffier was also torn between two women: the famous, beautiful, and reckless actress Sarah Bernhardt and his wife, the independent and sublime poet Delphine Daffis. In the last year of his life, he returns to Delphine, who requests a dish in her name in the same way as he has honoured Bernhardt, Queen Victoria, and many others.

Photo credit: Ann Marsden

1) Can you describe your latest book White Truffles in Winter and its inspiration?

My mother was born in Paris and so I fell in love with Escoffier as a child, although I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. I didn’t learn to cook until I was in my twenties. As I grew older, I became more and more interested in this famous chef who, despite his contributions to modern dining, 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 food to you?

This is a very complicated question. My blog At Escoffier’s Table attempts to answer this—and includes recipes.

I think that food is a powerful emotional trigger for nearly everyone. I once served a friend mac and cheese. 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 don’t 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.

3) What is your culinary background?

When I was fourteen years old, I lied about my age and took a job at McDonald’s. 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 write. I cook. I eat. I travel. I am currently traveling the world to the “perfect plate” in each country, a dish which not only defines a person but a culture.

4) What led you into writing?

Nothing. I had no choice.

5) What was your earliest career aspiration?

My first clear memory was of writing. It’s not a career; its something you’re born to.

However I find it very difficult to stay out of the kitchen. 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.

6) if you were to suggest a few questions for reading groups to discuss, what would they be?

Each group makes its own journey; it’s not my place to tell people what they should ask. They know it in their hearts.

7) Finally, what do you do to relax?

I’m a photographer.

Find out more about White Truffles in Winter

Visit N.M. Kelby’s official website and blog for new recipes and news.