An Interview with Crystal King, Author of The Chef’s Secret

Crystal King’s newest novel, The Chef’s Secret, is just out (Atria Books, 2019) and it is as delicious as her first novel, Feast of Sorrow (Atria Books, 2017). Already being called a “sumptuous buffet” and “perfectly paced,” King shines with her astounding knowledge of Renaissance Italian life, submerging her readers in an expertly crafted blend of fact and fiction. Her fans will find the vibrant depictions of a chef’s life that they’ve come to crave and the mouthwatering detailed menus they love. Anyone who adores Italy, history and elaborate banquets must read this book. Not to mention the suspense of two love stories, a murder and a mystery as thick and heavy as Michelangelo’s sugar sculptures.

Read this book because you want to feel like you’re walking through Rome and Venice in the 1500s, because you want to rub shoulders with the great Chigi family and because you want an adventure that will take you through unexpected twists and turns that will keep you up late into the night reading.

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Crystal, are you a pantser or an outliner?

A bit of both, but more of an outliner. As someone who is writing historical fiction, I have to be. I start with specific timelines of events that are happening in the world, how old characters are in certain timeframes, and what is happening with secondary (but likely more historically true) characters. I have to get those details right. And then I pants when I fill in all the gaps.

You make your readers feel like we’re in Italy with your characters – which we take to mean you do a lot of research. Do you find most of your background information in books or by walking the streets of the cities you depict? And how do you know when to turn to this experiential research versus fact checking tomes in the library?

I start with books because that’s where the history is most fleshed out. That’s where the germ of an idea has been for the books themselves, usually a factoid or mention of a person that grabs me. It’s SO much easier now than it was when I first started working on Feast of Sorrow, back in 2006. Now I can parse through books online, I can access databases of information, explore museums and cities in Google Earth. I can write most of my books with just the information I can find online or in libraries near me. But for me I want to make sure that I really embody the places and can bring to life the characters most accurately, which means a trip to Italy is crucial. For both Feast of Sorrow and for The Chef’s Secret I went to Italy after I had written a lot of the book and then I cleaned it up based on my new knowledge. For the third book I’m working on, I was able to go to certain places before I began writing on the book. I think that makes a huge difference, especially since some of the locations are small towns and information is a little harder to come by. Also, it’s hard to capture the grandeur of a place like Bormarzo’s Monster Park or the beauty of the Farnesina in Rome without having seen them firsthand. I want to be able to accurately describe how long it took someone to walk from place to place, and the proximity of certain buildings to where events took place. That’s much easier to do when you have been in those places yourself.

I do research all the way through the writing, but I learned early on not to get bogged down by research which is super easy to do when writing historical fiction. I can’t stop every time I want to describe a certain bird but am not sure if the species was in Italy at that time, or when I want to use a monument in a scene but am not sure if it had been built by the time of my story. So I put big XX FILL THIS IN LATER types of marks in my manuscript and just push forward, going back later to add in the details. That helps me to keep writing rather than having my time broken up by a rat hole of research.

So many of your readers are drawn to your books because they share your love of food and adore the machinations of historic kitchens, banquets and cooking. So, I have to ask: How many of the dishes that you describe do you actually cook?

For The Chef’s Secret, I dive into the life of Bartolomeo Scappi who left behind a cookbook that was published in 1570 that has over 1000 recipes. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) cook them all! But I did try several dozen, some with more success than others. Same with the Apicius recipes for Feast of Sorrow. Since I’m writing about food, I feel that it’s very important to understand the flavors and cooking methods of the time. In Ancient Rome garum and silphium were the main ingredients in dishes of the time, and they became plot devices in my first novel. In Renaissance Rome, the wealthy showed status with spices, and with sugar. So of course, I have a lot of sugar sculptures in the book—one of the scenes about these sculptures even involves Michelangelo.

Sticking with this theme, I want to know: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book? Any cooking or baking tips for the novice if we, say, we wanted to try cooking a recipe made in 1570?

There are several recipes that I had a great time with. Fried chicken (just like we make it today but with cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander and cloves!) was an especially fun recipe. Ciambelle are also fun to make—they were essentially the precursors to bagels of today. One of my very favorite dishes, however, is a dish that Scappi used to make for the sick. Sops. A sop is simply a savory or sweet sauce of some sort served on toasted bread. There are dozens of sops recipes that Scappi offers, but his cherry sops recipe is my favorite. Here is the link to the recipe!

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing The Chef’s Secret?

I made a big change to the first chapter. As it is now, Bartolomeo Scappi has already died and his family and friends are dealing with their loss. Originally, I had a chapter before that with Scappi on his deathbed, but still alive, giving instructions to his nephew and apprentice, Giovanni. We scrapped that and started the book a chapter later, with those instructions conveyed more indirectly to Giovanni, which gives him a little more agency to make a decision on what to do with the journals and letters his uncle has left behind.

You are a very talented writer, drawn to create novels based on real-life, historical chefs. What is it about this older cuisine and time period that you find so intoxicating?  

I am so inspired by these amazing culinary figures and how their love of food was at the center of their ambition. Their stories are what I find to be addicting—there are so many amazing food figures in history that people know so little about. I also love learning and discovering the world of the past, and these stories give me the opportunity to open up a door into another place and time that I can learn about.

What drew you to Bartolomeo Scappi in particular?

It was his cookbook, which I bought after I read a little about him when I was researching Apicius for my first novel. Scappi was mentioned time and again as someone influential in Italian cooking. I picked up the cookbook on a whim and was smitten from the first few pages. Who was this man who left us such an amazing tome of recipes? The book is a fascinating glimpse into pieces of his life, and I loved the idea of digging deeper to understand him.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I read a lot of ARCs and just finished Erica Ferencik’s Into the Jungle, which totally sucked me in. It was so well done. Randy Susan Meyers’ Waisted is another upcoming book that I also really enjoyed. 2019 is the year for GrubStreet writers, that’s for sure! There are SO many of us publishing!

This year I’m also working my way through all the Italo Calvino books I have not read yet. He’s my favorite Italian author and his book INVISIBLE CITIES is one of my favorite. Next on my list from him to read is his OUR ANCESTORS trilogy.

About Crystal King: Crystal King is the author of The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow. She is a culinary enthusiast and social media professional. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and a passion for the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught classes in writing, creativity and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet, one of the leading creative writing centers in the US. A Pushcart-nominated poet and former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her M.A. in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in medias res. She resides in Boston.

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