Jarrett Melendez writer
Danica Brine artist
Hank Jones colorist
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou letterer
Sarah Rockwell book designer
Chef’s Kiss is a recently released graphic novel by writer Jarrett Melendez, artist Danica Brine, colorist Hank Jones, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. I’ve been waiting for this graphic novel since first seeing the whimsical cover art in last November’s Previews catalog and I’m happy to say the story is a delightful one.
Chef’s Kiss is full of heart, humor, and most certainly romance! Its premise revolves around Ben Cook who’s sharing a new apartment with friends Rachel, Tom, and Liz. Now that Ben’s graduated college with an English degree he’s looking for work related to his passion for writing and reading and becoming a little frustrated after being told in interview after interview that he doesn’t have experience. After his last rejection Ben stumbles across a “Help Wanted No Experience” sign in a restaurant window. Ben has some culinary chops but can he keep his cool while crushing hard on the hot sous chef Liam?
Turning the first few pages I found myself easily drawn into the story as the personalities began to shine through with Ben and his friends. Rachel can’t seem to quit college and thanks to being a new theater major talks in Elizabethan English to immerse herself in a play. Don’t worry – Melendez has a light touch with this quirk so it isn’t annoying to read. She likes to watch guys kiss and is just a bit naughty. Tom, a new hire working an app developer, is laid back. He loves free food and “Vlad the Inhaler.” Liz is a yoga instructor and she and Ben have been best friends since grade school.
Of course the big draw is Ben and Liam. Bespectacled Ben is adorkable for his book loving alone while his awkward shyness that can give way to enthusiasm makes him all the more endearing and a perfect fit for Liam’s encouraging and supportive nature. Liam being a tall, sweet, sexy, tatted hunk with a disarming smile certainly doesn’t hurt one little bit. Relating to Ben’s character through his bumbling nature was so very easy to me and that made me root for him all the more throughout his “is he gay or isn’t he?” predicament as Melendez, Brine, and Jones teasingly begin to unfold a relationship between these two cuties. Melendez doesn’t treat Ben too preciously so he ratchets up the pressure on another front. The help wanted sign said “no experience” but Ben has to impress the very grumpy owner/ chef Davis but most importantly Watson the porcine taste tester if he wants to keep this job. The stress Ben feels because of this spills out into his friendships, particularly with Liz, in a very convincing fashion for which Melendez wrote a healthy resolution addressing the hurt and honoring the relationship.
Speaking of conflict…Chef Davis’ character is gruff, brash, aloof, and a bit dismissive. He came off as the type of person in real life who you think could be homophobic without saying a word so I was prepared to hate him till in a very heartwarming way Melendez dashed my assumptions to bits. Kudos to the art team for creating some visual tension with the character by making Davis a hot ginger bear that a lot of guys would` lust after.
Watson the taste testing pig is a bit of magical realism inserted into the story. The cute little porker adds a little more levity to scenes and his importance brings some absurdity to Chef Davis’ demands. Melendez, Brine, and Jones have some fun when Ben asks the Chef about Watson by riffing on several well known superhero origin stories.
A script with such a strong emphasis on relationships and character interactions greatly benefits from an artist’s ability to convey the everyday experience that engages the reader’s eye. Danica Brine and Hank Jones made a great team to bring Melendez’s script to four color life on the page. Her deceptively simple line work creates figures animated with gestures and a wide range of expressions and emotions. Panel compositions show a cinematic eye that engages readers with its shifting view points and angles while grounding the cast in a world made all the more inviting by Jones’ polished technique with color rendering using a cheerful palette and subtle lighting. This stylistic approach nicely accents Brine’s distinct character designs. The color range Jones gives to Ben’s abundant blushing incidents may seem trivial but I like to think it shows attention to detail. Letterers often go unmentioned for their contribution to a work. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering is clear and concise as lettering should be but in a couple instances he also has fun with it. Otsmane-Elhaou puts Ben’s thoughts and the cute imaginary commentary by Liz into pink cury cloud like thought bubbles. The other example is with sound effects that’s better just shown. Forgive the scan’s blurry edge. The book doesn’t lay completely flat like hard covers often do.
With so much of the story set inside the Cochon D’Ore to say that cooking is a big component is as obvious as saying coq au vin was important to Julia Child. My initial concern that cooking would be treated as merely a backdrop but that low expectation ramped up immediately after learning several weeks before the book’s release that Melendez is a food writer and is certainly no slouch in the kitchen. While ricotta stuffed squash blossoms will probably never be in my repetoire the ricotta mushroom tart is the perfect excuse to turn on my oven. The challenge with food and cooking playing such a big role is to have it look interesting. Brine and Jones easily accomplish that by treating the cooking sequences in the same artistic manner as any other scene.
Sarah Rockwell’s book design work adds nice touches such as a Watson themed motif for the interior cover pages and page numbers which may seem trivial to most readers. Bonus material includes mouth watering illustrated recipes for the mushroom ricotta tart and butternut squash soup which Ben makes in the story. There’s a meet the characters section, a peek into the process, bonus art including a piece from Kevin Wada and a cute Watson pin up!
All in all I immensely enjoyed Chef’s Kiss. Both times I’ve read the story I found myself in the predicament of wanting to read through in one sitting and spread it out a chapter at a time and even now I get lost in different scenes just looking through the book. Chef’s Kiss ends on a positive, upbeat note that left me wanting to read more stories about Ben and Liam and I really hope the creative team will have that opportunity!
Chef’s Kiss should appeal to readers who enjoy character driven, slice of life stories. Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau immediately springs to mind as does Fumi Yoshinaga’s long running manga What Did You Eat Yesterday. The feel good romance of Chef’s Kiss evokes other queer love stories like Cheer Up Love and Pompoms! and Heartstoppers.
Look for Chef’s Kiss at your local comic shop (Diamond order code NOV211574) or bookstore. Ask for it to be ordered with the ISBN 978-1-620-904-5. Comicshoplocator can help you find a comic shop. Indiebound and Bookshop are good sources for indy bookstores. You can also purchase direct from Oni and if all else fails, the book is available on Amazon.