‘The Chef’s Secret’: Six Questions for Crystal King [INTERVIEW]

Crystal King's THE CHEF'S SECRET

Crystal King, author of The Chef’s Secret, dishes on her delicious new book. (Photo courtesy Crystal King, Facebook)

The history of the Catholic papacy has been long and complicated, oftentimes fraught with mystery and intrigue. In her latest novel, author Crystal King uses this backdrop to introduce us to one of her most fascinating characters yet, a man who became the world’s first celebrity chef. Recently she sat down for our insightful interview. Enjoy! —J&H


J&H: In your latest historical novel, The Chef’s Secret, you turn your sights toward Bartolomeo Scappi, the private chef to the Vatican. In this novelization, he kept secret journals that contain “the burden of his life” (page 15). While researching this man, did you find such journals? In your opinion, what purpose do diaries and journals truly serve? And do you keep one yourself?

CK: The journals were a total fabrication on my part, but that said, journaling and code were two things that were very much in vogue. Learned individuals in the Renaissance were also fantastic letter writers, and volumes of letters from that era are still available and give us great insight into people’s daily lives. I decided to tell Scappi’s story in the form of journals because I wanted it to be a mystery for Giovanni to uncover. That said, I also knew I didn’t want to do big chunks of long letters in the book because I think people tune out with letters in today’s day and age. Also, telling Scappi’s story in third person allowed me to give the reader a richer story as well. Throughout the ages journals and diaries give people the ability to chronicle their lives, either for memory later or for posterity’s sake. They also give us the chance to work out feelings and plant the seeds of our goals. I am very off and on with journals and diaries, tending to be more introspect when my life is feeling off the rails. These days I keep a bullet journal with tasks, plans and ideas, which is a bit more utilitarian than other journals I’ve kept in the past.

J&H: In many ways, The Chef’s Secret is frothing with revenge and deceit as your characters seek retribution toward one another in the wake of perceived wrongs. Do you think people during the 1500s were hotter headed than modern people? Or do you feel we still hold grudges and seek justice with similar ferocity today?

CK:Vendetta was something that was extremely important in the Italian Renaissance. It was less about being hot-head and more about the deep roots of family honor, a tradition that went very far back, all the way to ancient Rome. In medieval and Renaissance times blood feuds resulted when a family member wrongly died. The whole family would rally to seek revenge for that death, and there are a number of stories about families in a feud over a vendetta, including that of One of the most famous ongoing feuds was that of the Colonna and Orsini which arose from a roadside altercation in 1333 in which a Colonna murdered an Orsini. The resulting bloody feud between the two powerful families was only stopped by a Papal Bull in 1511. One vendetta led to another and it became an endless cycle. This could happen because there wasn’t any real sense of organized justice system and families would hire individuals to carry out the revenge.

Even today, family honor is of major import for Italians, although hopefully vendetta isn’t a part of that!

J&H: You describe the magnificent meals Bartolomeo created, like the bird-and-egg themed feast he threw for Cardinale Ippolito (page 166). What was one dish you learned about while researching this book that simply made your mouth water? And what was it about the chef’s feasts that intrigued you the most?

CK: There were SO many delicious meals that Scappi created that it’s hard to pinpoint just one. I recreated many dishes and I worked with several chefs, historians and food bloggers to recreate some of the recipes into a companion cookbook for The Chef’s Secret. You can download the cookbook for free at my website. In that cookbook you’ll find a recipe for a pumpkin tourte, which is an absolutely delicious pumpkin cheesecake pie recipe. That was incredible fun to make and I love hearing the amazement from friends when they find out that they are eating a pie from a 500 year old recipe.

J&H: I found it interesting that you included God’s name, Jehovah, in this book when it has practically been erased from modern translations of the Bible (page 167). Why did you feel this was a significant detail to include in the story or as an author? And why do you think the name is widely overlooked today?

CK: This wasn’t a conscious decision. I was looking more specifically for Biblical quotes related to fire and brimstone and the world ending that could correspond with the comet that appears in the book, and that phrase, “The breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone,” came up in searches. There were other versions of this quote from Isaiah 30:33, which tend to be in this vein: “God has made its wood pile wide and deep, fire and wood in abundance. The breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, ignites it.” I just liked the older version.

I was interested primarily in how the world of Scappi’s time would think of having a ball of fire hanging above their heads for months at a time. It must have been a mixture of fear and wonder and I hoped I conveyed that in the book.

J&H: As Giovanni tells Bartolomeo on page 246, “One pope dies, they make another.” What surprising new facts did you learn about the papacy and people’s attitudes toward the popes as individuals? And how did these details alter the plotting of this novel?

CK: That’s a famous Italian proverb. “Morto un papa, se ne fa un’altro.” That’s because the Church was both all powerful, and also in an ongoing state of transition. In Scappi’s lifetime alone there were eleven popes. Underlying this sentiment, however, is that for the everyday people, the popes were all the same. There is a similar proverb about the government. “Piove, governo ladro,” which means “It’s raining and the government is a thief.” Both sayings are about how citizens in general are against the established power, who are guilty of the worst evils, and how the system is so entrenched and will just always be, just like there will always be more rain.

In the Renaissance, the popes were a mixture of incredibly corrupt or extremely pious–vast extremes that remain the most memorable to us, whether it is the excess of Julius III or the Reformation of Pope Paul III. They were also building St. Peter’s and the Vatican as we know it today. It definitely lent itself to providing me with a rich background for my writing of The Chef’s Secret. Additionally, Scappi himself wrote a great deal about the way a papal funeral and conclave took place, which helped me to write those scenes. I felt like I was looking through his eyes when I used his descriptions to tell the story.

J&H: Finally, if you could sit down to a meal with just one character from this novel, who would it be and what one question would you most like to ask them?

CK: Of course, it would have to be Bartolomeo Scappi. I would want to know what his favorite dishes were–the last-meal-on-earth type of dinner he would make, and how he would cook such a feast. I would love to see the passion in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Thankfully, that love is still evident in his cookbook, five hundred years later!

Add to Goodreads badge

Crystal King's THE CHEF'S SECRET



A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.

When Bartolomeo Scappi dies in 1577, he leaves his vast estate—properties, money, and his position—to his nephew and apprentice Giovanni. He also gives Giovanni the keys to two strongboxes and strict instructions to burn their contents. Despite Scappi’s dire warning that the information concealed in those boxes could put Giovanni’s life and others at risk, Giovanni is compelled to learn his uncle’s secrets. He undertakes the arduous task of decoding Scappi’s journals and uncovers a history of deception, betrayal, and murder—all to protect an illicit love affair.

As Giovanni pieces together the details of Scappi’s past, he must contend with two rivals who have joined forces—his brother Cesare and Scappi’s former protégé, Domenico Romoli, who will do anything to get his hands on the late chef’s recipes.

With luscious prose that captures the full scale of the sumptuous feasts for which Scappi was known, The Chef’s Secret serves up power, intrigue, and passion, bringing Renaissance Italy to life in a delectable fashion.

Crystal King

Crystal King


Crystal King is the author of The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow. 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.

Visit her home on the Web at CrystalKing.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

By Crystal King
352 pp. Atria. $16.99

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours bannerPurchase The Chef’s Secret at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

The Chef’s Secret is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

2 Responses to ‘The Chef’s Secret’: Six Questions for Crystal King [INTERVIEW]

  1. Amy Bruno says:

    Thank you so much for hosting Crystal! Loved this interview!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: