Published by HarperTeen
Published on 7 May 2019
Genres: Adolescence, Contemporary, Young Adult
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With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.
I received a copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
This book interested me right away because of the blurb: a poor half-black half Puerto Rican single teen mother trying to complete high school and fulfil her love of the cooking. There is so much conflict just in that elevator pitch, and I think I kind of fell in love right there. I was also really attracted to the chef part because years ago my husband was a chef, and I occasionally like to bake, and I was interested in seeing Emoni’s approach to food in this novel.
I really liked the short chapters and how it often seemed like Emoni was breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to her audience. She had a very conversational style and I thought that this would make a really great adaptation into a film for this reason. I loved how she was struggling to find her identity as half-black, half Puerta Rican, living in Philadelphia with her grandmother, raising her baby.
I was delighted to see loads of current cooking TV shows mentioned that I watch too, such as Chopped. It clearly places the novel in a determined time and place, which I liked. What I liked less was that Emoni and everyone around her treated her skill with cooking like magic. Emoni kind of zones out and doesn’t really remember what she does; her hands act of their own accord when reaching for ingredients; and somehow, almost magically, with little training, experience, or education, she’s a master of spices. I don’t think that food prep is magic and I would have preferred a more analytical approach to food prep. Chefs already have superiority complexes because they work with heat and knives and sometimes (very rarely) you can become a famous one, but there’s really no magic involved. It’s actually a really shit job with long hours, intense pressure, many workplace safety hazards, and kitchen politics. My husband has horror stories of being threatened with knives, nearly losing his hand in a deep fat fryer, and to this day has never baked me a cupcake due to a wedding order of 250 cupcakes at the last minute, all individually decorated and wrapped.
While I really enjoyed this book and knew from the first few pages that I loved Emoni’s voice, her attitude sometimes irritated me – and the response from other characters to her breaking the rules. Emoni thinks that you shouldn’t have to follow a recipe if you can create something better, and has to learn that she needs to cook what patrons are expecting. She skips classes, then gets rewarded with a leadership position that elevates her far beyond her classmates, and receives the best mentor under the guise of pairing her up with her skills. She doesn’t have to work particularly hard to receive these rewards. She’s not even particularly ambitious, and has no idea if she wants to go to college after high school or not. I understand that her life is tough (she has almost no time to herself), but these opportunities just seem to fall into her lap. I would have appreciated seeing more struggle to achieve, especially since she’s not a high achiever.
I also liked the romance with the love interest. He’s so obviously into her from the start, which I think is sweet, and she’s very much pushing him away. It takes a lot for Emoni to break down the barriers she put up to protect herself after what happened with her baby’s father. The love interest isn’t pushy at all, and I find that so refreshingly sweet. I’ve never been into asshole love interests, and he’s definitely not.
Overall, I really did enjoy this book. The cooking sections were bright, Emoni’s character and the people she surrounds herself with are really lovely and fun characters who I’d love to meet and hang out with, and the diversity in this book was totally off the charts. The same book told by your typical middle-class white girl YA heroine would have been completely different. I was initially drawn to this because it reminded of the film Chef, and I really recommend it as a very strong, well-written, lovely YA book that I think everyone will enjoy.