Anyone who has experienced the sheer edible bliss of crêpes suzette has a reason to read Life à la Henri. The Henri in question is none other than the renowned chef Henri Charpentier, the man responsible for creating such tasty works of art. Written in the 1940s and elegantly translated from the original French, much of this memoir reads more like poetry than prose: on discussing his mother's aversion to breastfeeding, he writes, "Had she nursed me, then certainly I would have grown up, if at all, to be a melancholy fellow, one nourished by tears." His adventures included years of strict kitchen training, a short stint in the army, marriage, immigration to the U.S., and having numerous friends and patrons among the famous faces of his time.
While Charpentier is a bit of a name-dropper, telling Prince Edward and Sarah Bernhardt stories throughout the book, there is mostly a sense of pride that such discriminating palates were worthy of his food, and his tales of choosing wines and creating special dishes are memorable. No matter what the topic of the chapter, his stories are generously sprinkled with specific memories of foods, spices, and scents, from the vegetable tarts that made for elegant childhood picnics to the suggestion of brandy, garlic, and onions as welcome wedding gifts. While specific recipes (onion soup, minute steak, roast duck) are included at the end of the book, nearly every chapter contains instructions on preparation of a sauce, stew, pie, or dessert. A variety of elegant alcohol is equally present, and Charpentier insists, "One of the surest ways to arouse a lively interest in cooking, either in yourself or someone else, is to place in the kitchen a full assortment of wines and liqueurs." The crêpes suzette, like many treats you serve in your own home, was an accident. But how many home kitchens have accidents that involve dessert, uncontrolled flames, and a prince? --Jill Lightner