That cover is incredibly gorgeous, and it actually accurately represents the main characters! Dahlia’s hair! London’s freckles! And like the cover, this book is just plain adorable. The authenticity of their feelings was such a breath of fresh air and I loved every bit.
Dahlia is still reeling from her divorce, but cooking is the one thing that makes her feel in control of her life, the one thing she’s good at. She quit her job to go on Chef’s Special, an amateur cooking reality TV show, and without the prize money, she’s not sure what she’ll do afterward. Well, to be honest, she’s not sure what she’d do with the prize money either, besides pay off debt. On the other hand, London, one of the other competitors, has vague ideas about what they’d do with the money (a non-profit for queer teens) but what they’re most worried about is coming out as nonbinary to, oh, the entire world. As the competition heats up, their relationship does, too, and before they know it they’re both having to resist the attraction between them. But is there any chance for them once they step out of the show kitchen?
“It was a valiant effort, though, right? At being angry?”
“You called me a jerk,” London affirmed.
Dahlia grinned. “See? That felt weird coming out of my mouth, but I said it anyway! Look at me.”
Their meet-cute on set is downright adorable. An anxious Dahlia literally runs into London and then babbles at them, but London’s so overwhelmed (in a grumpy way) with her hair that they can only grunt in response. Dahlia’s offended that they didn’t even accept her apology, so when she runs into them in the hotel bar later that day, she promptly calls them a jerk, then sits down and starts chatting at them. London’s bewildered and honestly not sure what to make of Dahlia, who goes from insulting her to befriending her with enough speed to make their head spin. In some ways, this is a grumpy/sunshine book, as Dahlia’s absolutely a ray of sunshine. It’s not that she’s unduly optimistic (especially about her prospects in the competition), but that she’s able to find joy in the little things. Not that everything is all roses and rainbows – Dahlia carries a lot of guilt over how her marriage ended, and she has some family strife as well. Family conflict is something London knows very well. Though they’ve been out as nonbinary for three years, her dad still constantly misgenders them. They understand how important being out as nonbinary on national TV is, but they’re also worried about the backlash.
“London wondered if Dahlia was even real. A woman who could fillet a swordfish like it was nothing, who carried a Swiss Army multitool in her bag at all times, who reveled in LA traffic. She made them sweat.”
This is a very slow burn romance. It’s one of those delightful ones where everyone both them realizes they’re flirting before they do (the COWS!), but there’s also a lot of deeper reasons for why they’re both hesitant to start something. After all, besides cooking, what do they have in common? But cooking is such an important part of Dahlia and London’s lives, so of course it’s a big part of the book as well. There’s so much delicious food, from desserts to soups to mouthwatering entrees, and I loved how their on-show interactions formed their off-show ones.
“When you were around someone who felt everything, it made you feel like you could feel everything, too. Like the depths of the world were suddenly limitless.”
One of the things about Chef’s Special, about the relationship that forms between London and Dahlia, is that they’re finally both able to extend the control they feel in cooking to other parts of their life. There’s also the realization that the bubble they’re in isn’t real life, that the rest of the world is going on without them. They’re both initially dismayed by the online reception, including all the trolls that sneer at London, but both find ways to leverage it. It’s two sides of the same coin, I think – being able to find the good amid the trash (like London focusing on the messages from queer kids overjoyed to see themselves in London) or spinning a failure into a new path.
Overall, wow. I read this book during a particularly rough week, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this book was an unbelievably bright spot during it. Highly recommended, and definitely a contender for one of my favorites of 2022!
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.