Review: Chef's Kiss

SPL Book Bingo 2022, Book 4

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2022 Book Bingo. It fills the LGBTQ+ love story square on the bingo card, but it could also fit the Debut author square since it’s writer Jarrett Melendez’s first graphic novel.

Chef’s Kiss is a cute graphic novel about a college graduate, Ben, who ends up working as a chef in a restaurant after trying and failing to find a writing job. He develops a powerful crush on Liam, one of the restaurant’s other chefs, and ultimately has to make a tough decision about what he really wants in life.

I thought Chef’s Kiss was fine. The plot felt like I’d seen it, or all its various components, before, so it sinks or swims on the strength of its execution, which I found to be a mixed bag. Ben is a bit naïve and emotionally immature, which is fine and wholly to be expected since he’s fresh out of college, but stories whose main characters make a lot of unforced errors need something to make the wincingSome might refer to this as “cringe,” but that term has been ruined by the Internet, so that it now often refers to expressions of unselfconscious joy or enthusiasm. I am referring here to the wince of sympathy (and, possibly, recognition) that comes with seeing someone make a decision you know is bad.

go down easier.

Giant Days had plenty of college students making questionable choices too, but for me, it got away with it by moving on quickly and making good jokes. Chef’s Kiss’s humor too often fell flat for me: notably, a sequence where Ben’s roommate gets drunk and speaks in Shakespeare quotes for several pages just didn’t land at all. The humor, and the art, feel very manga-esque, and the somewhat over-the-top nature of it all clashed with the very down-to-earth struggle of trying to find a job after college. But Giant Days got away with some cartoonishness in a similar setting, so it probably just comes down to my liking the writing there more.

The book picks up in its second half, when it settles into Ben’s attempts to impress the restaurant’s gruff head chef (or more precisely, the chef’s pet pig, the final arbiter of which dishes make the menu). In one of the most manga-y elements of the book, the head chef gives Ben three challenges that he has to pass in order to get the job. Ben’s proficiency at cooking is never really in question; more interesting is how his obsession with passing the challenges causes conflicts with his best friend and with his intention to get a job writing. The resolutions won’t come as any particular surprise, but Ben’s character growth is convincing and the character beats work.

Chef’s Kiss is good enough to justify the 30 or 40 minutes it will take you to read it. The art is quite good and the writing gets the job done, and it has some charming moments along the way. Some of the execution didn’t work for me, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from finishing and ultimately enjoying it. I can see someone with a different sense of humor really loving it.