If this book were portioned out and divided into thirds, two of the thirds would be so outstanding, so fun and awesome and interesting and innovative that I could go on for awhile on the things I enjoyed about them. The remaining portion dulls the sparkle and joy of those other two, because the flaws are contained in a character and in the structure of the tension.
Let’s start with the good parts: Edwards has created an absolutely fun new hero: the happy alpha. Adam Temple is the chef at the helm of a new restaurant, Market, specializing in locally sourced and organic high end cuisine – and he’s hot and smoking good at his job, too. Miranda Wake is a food critic with a deft and discerning palette and a snarly lexicon of words she employs when a restaurant’s food, service, or ambiance fall short. She’s at the opening party for Market with a cadre of other critics – and like everyone in the room, she’s blitzed off her stilettos, because they served a delicious cocktail but held back on the food just a bit too long. Tipsy and tottering on her heels, Miranda gets into a verbal sparring match with Adam, and before either of them realize it, they’ve publicly challenged each other: she’s going to be embedded in his kitchen to see how good cooking gets done – like, as she puts it, journalists in an army troop engaged in combat.
Edwards describes the kitchen crew as a pirate crew with Adam as their captain, and the comparison is totally charming and apt: Adam is totally the top dog in his kitchen. He’s an exceptional chef, he’s surrounded himself with people who he can depend on, who excel at their job, and who share his same goal: to relentlessly hunt and pillage fresh foods in search of innovation and perfection. He not only brings in the noise of being a star chef, he brings the funk, a side order of awesome, and badassery as well.
As Miranda discovers, Adam is, in every way, a chef of the highest caliber. And he’s not just blowing smoke or espousing a marketing gimmick in his cooking methodology. He does believe that local and organic ingredients make for better food – and in his hands, and the hands of his kitchen crew, his food is an experience. And Miranda discovers that being around Adam is an experience in and of itself, one she wasn’t prepared to like, and then crave.
Trouble arrives in several forms: Miranda’s younger brother arrives home suddenly, abandoning his studies at an Indiana University without explanation, and is transferring to NYU. Tuition? What tuition? It’s only a bazillion dollars – and Miranda’s a New York food magazine critic: she eats well and lives in a shoebox. She’s been shopping a book, a serious nonfiction examination of food and culture that receives no interest, but a proposal focused on a tell-all expose of the truth behind Adam’s kitchen doors at Market? That sells, and sells immediately.
So Miranda infiltrates the kitchen, not prepared to love the food, or like the chef, or learn to appreciate the pirate crew, who come to accept her as she sticks up for herself and refuses to back down in the face of intimidation. And Adam is indeed intimidating – when you fuck up in his kitchen, you hear about it, loud and clear. His word is the rule, and his leadership is not to be questioned. In his kitchen, he is the alpha and there’s no mistaking it.
But outside of the kitchen, and inside it, and in every aspect of his life, most of which revolve around food, he’s happy. He’s genuinely excited and joyful about his restaurant, about the possibilities of the food he’s cooking, the ingredients he can find, the creativity of his venture. He is, as I said, a happy Alpha. His joy and ebullience is palpable and reading about him is an experience to savor. He’s a wonderful, wonderful hero, one of the best heroes I’ve read this year.
And through Adam and the pirate crew in his kitchen, the other strength of this book emerges: you are behind the scenes (so seductive) in a kitchen, in a hot restaurant, and, when Adam discovers that Miranda can’t cook, in their one-on-one lessons as to the basics of cooking. You learn in slow steps, through dialogue and conversation and showing and doing and experiencing. There’s no mammoth spoonful of info that’s tossed at you unexpectedly. You learn with Miranda, with her brother, who becomes a server at the restaurant, with the rest of the crew, with every evening in the heat of the kitchen, until you as the reader are a part of all the action, from the steamy scenes to, well, the steamy scenes. There is some gifted and joyous character development at work in Adam and in his friends, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed following scenes with him, or from his point of view.
His joy at getting to know Miranda, at discovering her inability to cook and her talent with words, at translating what he’s trying to say to logic and comparison, is another element to his character that made him so strong and memorable. His role as the hero, and his position as the source of so much information that never once seemed overbearing, were, in a word, deft.
The secondary stories at work in the novel are equally powerful. Frankie, his Cockney best friend and master of the fine art of grilling meat (also wildly promiscuous and bisexual so Frankie’s adept handling of meat gave me no end of giggles) is unforgettable, as are Grant, the manager, and Devon, Adam’s former boss and celebrity chef du jour. There’s plenty of sequel bait among the men.
So what was the third that diminished the whole? The structure of the tension, and the source of that tension: Miranda. I had to try six times, and that’s not an exaggeration, to get past the opening scene, where Miranda, drunk on the cocktails at the Market launch party, is literally being held up by a brick wall and her somewhat abrasive and somewhat nebulously-established boss. She’s brash, brassy, and drunk off her ass, and comes across as a total ass. Once Adam enters the scene, things improve, but Miranda starts off at a disadvantage and it gets worse from there.
In this book, the tensions are mostly created by Miranda: what she knows, what’s she’s doing, what she isn’t doing, and what she’s said and has to regret and atone for. She fucks up constantly, then realizes and does a 180 to make up for it. Over and over and over. And over. Adam doesn’t have to grow or change much, except to include Miranda in his excitement and his world of the restaurant and trust her in his kitchen – no small feat. Miranda, on the other hand, needs to grow up and stop being suck a jackass fuckup – and it takes her a long freaking time to get there. Some of her blunders are so cringe worthy I was amazed the pages weren’t blank because all the other characters refused to speak to her. The imbalance of tension between Miranda and Adam was a drawback, because she causes it, then she has to correct it, repeat repeat repeat.
The other source of tension up and disappears after the first few scenes, and isn’t seen or heard from again, which makes no sense considering how all the characters who know her are so intimidated by her. The chief investor in the restaurant is an ex of Adam’s, and Miranda hears all sorts of scurvy rumors about their relationship – and of course she believes them, never having seen the two together, or hearing otherwise from either party. They must be true! For the sake of dramatic tension. She is stunningly and frustratingly blind to the obvious all too often, to her own great detriment. Gimme a box grater so I can clock this idiot on the head with the microplane side.
What’s so frustrating is that Miranda is exceptionally observant and possessing of very finely tuned senses, especially her palette, which is truly exceptional. But you know, her eyes, or common sense, or her brain, nah, don’t need them. Better to believe silly rumors from a dubious source. For someone whose job is to make up her own mind about restaurants and their cuisine, outside of the hype and the promotion, Miranda is stubbornly attached to the opinions of others instead of her own experience. It’s ludicrous, and it diminishes the power of the story overall.
Other small parts bothered me as well, such as the fact that madame investor disappears after the opening night, despite the successful launch of the restaurant. You’d think she’d show up at least once or twice to check up on her investment and bask in the glow of its success. Madame investor seems to exist as a source of tension in absentia, which weakens her, and weakens my belief that, to paraphrase John Sinnott, Miranda could get a clue if she danced naked in a field of horny clues wearing clue musk oil during clue mating season.
The strength of this novel is substantial, though. While the imbalance in the source of the tension between Miranda and Adam was frustrating, and Miranda herself was a liability to herself, the writing, the other characters, the setting, the nuances, and the imagery are marvelous. The food imagery is wonderful – except for one line that made me laugh so hard I got glared at on the train: “like he slipped her a surprise habanero pepper.”
Yeah, baby, slip her the pepper!
Other than the slipping pepper (wink wink nudge nudge), food and its various meanings and permutations are a fluid and discernible part of the writing in this book. It includes themes of home, heart, family, and nourishment, what people need to survive, and how the food we eat can communicate more than words can provide. More than the quote from Brillat-Savarin, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” (cue the Iron chef music!), Adam shows Miranda how the food you eat, and the food you prepare, can bring you closer to who you are. Even as she gets in her own way, it’s a marvelous pleasure to watch him escort her, teach her, and nourish them both.