LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Someone is killing the great chefs of Vancouver, and Neil Flambe is on the case. Flambe is a 14-year-old chef, runs his own restaurant, and is a super- sleuth. He's also the fictional creation of Kevin Sylvester. Sylvester is a Toronto-based broadcaster, and first wrote a 10-part radio series featuring Flambe.
Kevin Sylvester turned the programs into a trilogy of books for young adults. The first is called "Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders." And Kevin Sylvester's in the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Welcome to the program.
M: Thank you very much for having me.
HANSEN: So give us the thumbnail sketch of your character, chef Flambe. I'll just tell you, he reminds me of, you know, Doogie Howser in a toque.
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M: Very apropos, I would say, yeah. He's a funny guy. I sometimes call him an aspirational character for me. He is quite likely the greatest chef in the world - he certainly thinks that he is. And he can create almost anything out of any ingredients you throw his way, that will make your mouth water.
And part of the reason for this is that he has a super-sensitive olfactory nerve. He can smell the differences between salts, peppers, different rosemarys grown on different sides of the hill, all that sort of thing. And that also makes him an asset to the Vancouver police department when, as you mentioned, a number of chefs in the city start dying under mysterious circumstances, shall we say.
HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about the original incarnation. You were guest hosting on a CBC program called "Sounds Like Canada," and you asked listeners for contributions. What did they suggest that ended up as part of the character and the plot?
M: Well, what we tried to do was to make it an interactive part of the radio program. We wanted to have them, in some ways, vote on certain things that would become plot devices. So, we have a character who's kind of the mentor for Neil. His name is Angel Jicama, and he's a chef who burned out at a horrible underground duel. I have this whole underground world that exists for chefs, where they face off in - sort of like Old West gunfights, that sort of thing.
And so Angel had had a horrible experience and has shut himself off from the world of haute cuisine, and makes just one dish over and over and over again, searching for a kind of Zen-like perfection. So we had a whole bunch of the best chefs in Canada come on the show and nominate the dishes that we thought - what would be the one great dish.
So, we had, for example, a chef originally from Colombia who lives in Toronto, who had come up with pen a hamone(ph), which is just like a ham bread. But you know, would it be great, would it be great? The winning one was paella. Paella became the dish that Angel would make over and over again in this kind of, you know, passionate desire for absolute, Zen-like perfection. And then he said once he makes a perfect dish, he would die.
HANSEN: So, we've got this plot and these chefs, they're being poisoned by some mysterious substance that they drink, that's kind of like chai tea.
HANSEN: It is chai tea, but it's mixed up. What does that have to do with the great explorer Marco Polo?
M: Well, I am fascinated by Marco Polo. And one of the amazing things is, when you read his diaries, he is incredibly detailed about the journey from Venice to China, all the places he saw. And he says almost nothing about his return journey home, except that most of his crew died in some horrible accident.
So I said, hey, why don't I try and figure out what that horrible accident might have been, and tie it into this plot? And also, the other thing about Marco Polo is, if you like food, he talks about food all the time, although one of the things he doesn't talk about - the guy was in China - is tea. He doesn't mention it once.
So I tied all those things together to figure out if there was a way to make it a kind of Da Vinci cod, shall we say.
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HANSEN: So "The Marco Polo Murders" are the first of three Neil Flambe books. What do readers have to look forward to in the next two?
M: Well, the next one is "Neil Flambe and the Aztec Abduction." So, again, there's a historical side to this. The third book, I've actually just begun writing. It's called "Neil Flambe and the Crusader's Curse," and this involves a little bit of the history of the Flambes.
One of the things that you find out about Neil in book one, of course, is that his parents can't cook at all and aren't interested in food in the least. It turns out there's a historical reason for this. A curse placed on the Flambe family way back in the Middle Ages, and Neil has somehow emerged out of this cursed legacy to become a great chef. And that makes him a target for, you know, the knights tempura - or whatever you want to call them.
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M: They're coming to get him. They're coming to get him.
HANSEN: Kevin Sylvester is the author and illustrator of "Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders." He spoke to us from the CBC in Toronto. Thank you so much.
M: Thank you, Liane.
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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.