In 2020 cooking videos became very popular. The popularity of the test kitchen chefs at one large food magazine in particular exploded. But by the summer of 2020 the wholesome façade was shattered by revelations of decades of racial discrimination and pay disparities. Even a podcast miniseries about the scandal ended in scandal when it was revealed the podcasters were themselves perpetrators of a toxic and racist work place. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties that would arise when a company suddenly decides to pivot to video and finds that the faces that bring in the viewers aren’t the faces they are most comfortable with.
In Chef’s Kiss, Simone is very happily testing and writing recipes, not interacting with other humans and generally being happy in her grumpy cave. In one morning her happy existence all goes to hell when she finds out she’s going to have to make videos now (no extra pay), there’s a new kitchen manager, and the new kitchen manager has moved her sourdough experiment (which she should have labeled, but didn’t). The kitchen manager earns her ire by being a change she didn’t know was coming, being tall, and moving her stuff. The new video guy earned my ire by introducing himself as a visionary.
Once Simone settles into her new reality, she begins to appreciate Ray, but tries not to think about how tall and strong Ray is. She’s made it clear that she doesn’t flirt with or become friends with co-workers. In other words, Simone is the architect of this slow burn romance. Simone grudgingly gives in on becoming friendly, and then friends. She keeps feeding Ray (food is a love language). When Ray comes out to her as nonbinary, she wants to be a good friend and ally. While she comes to see Ray as a positive addition to the kitchen, it becomes clear to Simone that the company itself has some fundamental problems.
The romance itself is sweet with a growing friendship and trust before finally admitting feelings. Simone’s feelings take her by surprise. Everyone else knows how Simone feels about Ray long before Simone and Ray know. Because we only get Simone’s point of view, we see a woman (white, cis, closeted bi) wake up to the toxicity around her and have it pointed at her for the first time. Watching Simone flail trying to be an ally was certainly relatable for me.
There is a danger to taking inspiration from a real life scandal centered on a history of racial discrimination and changing the focus to the gender orientation/sexual preference of white characters. As a cis white woman, I am not the person who gets to decide how well TJ Alexander did on that front. I think they told the story they told well.
CWs: misgendering and dead naming both unintentional and intentional, homophobia/biphobia, racist microaggressions, toxic workplace, alcohol use, blood and fluids related to recovering from surgery, discussion of past child abuse.
I received an advance reader copy from Emily Bestler Books and NetGalley. My opinions are my own.