N.M. Kelby (W.W. Norton, $24.95)

If the next best thing to living and dining in 17th-century France is reading about it, then "White Truffles in Winter," by St. Paul writer N.M. Kelby, is a feast. Its central character, August Escoffier, the legendary chef of the 1800s, comes to life in all his lusty, refined glory. A visionary who modernized professional restaurant kitchens, he is best known for his dazzling work as head chef of the Savoy in London and the Ritz in Paris.

He was a man of contradictions, imperious yet empathetic, food-obsessed yet he seldom ate. He was torn between two brilliant, strong women: his wife, the independent and sublime poet Delphine Daffis, who refused to leave their home in Monte Carlo for Paris or London; and his mistress, the famous, gorgeous and reckless actress Sarah Bernhardt.

"White Truffles in Winter" opens in Monte Carlo, at the Escoffier home where he has returned to write his memoirs and Delphine is suffering from a fatal illness. Her last request is that he create a dish in her name so that she, like Queen Victoria and Sarah Bernhardt, may claim her place in culinary history.

Along with these vividly wrought and fascinating women, we meet Escoffier's friends, business partners, war companions and, most memorably, the young, beautiful and earthy housekeeper Sabine, who challenges and inspires Escoffier as he retells his life. Seasoned with culinary history, kitchen squabbles, lust, music, poetry, food, sex, love and longing, "White Truffles" is also sprinkled with bon mots. My favorite: "Happiness is the best revenge."

Layers of flavor

This is a book to be savored slowly, one to pause over; each turn of phrase a delight. Like a fine sauce, its prose builds on itself, layering the story, memorable as much for what this writer tells as what she leaves out.

N.M. (Nicole Marie) Kelby -- a journalist, playwright, poet and author of several novels -- says the genesis for "White Truffles" dates back to her mother's kitchen. A Parisian Jew who was shot as she escaped during World War II, her mother found solace in cooking and Escoffier's books loomed large in that kitchen. After her mother's death, Kelby dove into the chef's works, memoirs and letters, and was surprised by how little had been written about him.

She began to imagine this great man's mysterious life and creates the one that plays out on these pages. Now that the book is out, Kelby continues the conversation with her blog, At Escoffier's Table, which covers food, cooking and dining as this chef might have, with attention and joy. Find it at nmkelby.com.

BETH DOOLEY, freelancer