By Sean Z

Is anyone doing the job they expected to do after college? Like so many people who pursue career paths totally outside of their early interests, Ben Cook, the protagonist of the new Oni Press graphic novel Chef’s Kiss, is surprised by the dichotomy between his expectations and his reality.

Chef’s Kiss follow Ben as he tries (and struggles) to get his first job out of college with a degree in English. He eventually finds himself working at a restaurant. However, to keep working there, he must continue to pass head chef Davis’s weekly challenges, while navigating his crush on Liam, another chef in the restaurant.

The book is written by Jarrett Melendez and illustrated by Danica Brine, with colors by Hank Jones and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. It features a delightful queer romance at its core, and it’s equally delightful to read. Ahead of the Chef’s Kiss release next month, The Beat spoke with Melendez and Brine via e-mail about the book and what readers can expect.

The Beat: What were your original career plans? Did you ever expect to make comics?

Danica Brine: I originally wanted to pursue a career in animation. During my college years, the focus was very technical, so I would draw every moment in between.

Our class went on a trip to Montreal and I visited shops, where I re-kindled a relationship with comics by picking up books I knew as a child and new titles I’d never seen before. It made sense for me then that I wanted to do this as a career.

Jarrett Melendez: That depends on which stage of life you ask me about! I wanted to be a doctor for the longest time as a kid and up until high school, though I always enjoyed writing and reading.

In high school, I had this weirdly specific dream of owning a hotel somewhere abroad, and I started out as a business major in college, but eventually switched to English. Although I loved comics as a kid, and then again as a college student (a rekindled love that still burns today), it wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing. And then I sort of fell into the outskirts of the comics industry and met a bunch of amazing creators, including Danica. Her art inspired me to tell the kinds of stories I wished I’d been able to read as a closeted queer kid.

The Beat: What inspired the story in Chef’s Kiss?

Brine: I’ve always liked slice-of-life type stories, where people could relate to the characters in those stories. I thought it would be fun to create and illustrate a book like this. Jarrett shares a lot of the same interests as I do stories-wise, so it made sense to create something like this together.

Boom! We created Chef’s Kiss.

Melendez: Like Danica, I love slice-of-life and character-driven stories. We have a LOT of overlapping tastes, so when we started talking about working together, this really developed organically. Just one of those conversations where one of us says, “Hey, what if we did a story about cute boys that fall in love in a kitchen?” Danica drew up some character sketches, and I wrote the entire script in a month. (It was my NaNoWriMo project that year!)

The Beat: How did you balance the story’s fantastical and realistic elements?

Brine: I think this comes purely from reading a lot of manga: the heroes/heroines often had the company of cute pets! I think there’s a little bit of that influence in Watson, Chef Davis’ expert food tasting pig. I feel he’s believably a regular pig, with a little more personality.

Melendez: I love a little bit of magical realism in otherwise grounded stories. We definitely had some influence from manga and anime where folks have pets that act a little bit human at times. It’s such a recurring theme that I couldn’t point to any one series as the main influence for a character like Watson, but the hope was to strike a nice balance.

The Beat: Ben, the protagonist, is a gay man. How did you approach that aspect of his character, and ensure he felt authentic and real?

Brine: I think Ben is a representation of where we all were, or are, at a moment in time. As a heterosexual woman in her 30s, I am still able to relate to things Ben is going through like finishing college, real world anxieties of being a young adult, careers, jobs, living out of my parent’s house, paying bills, making new friends, new relationships…I think the authenticity comes from past experiences.

Melendez: Well, I’m gay, so there’s that. Which isn’t to say that Ben is a self-insert, but yeah, lived experience is definitely a big part of how I write queer characters, along with taking inspiration from my circle of friends.

The Beat: Much of Chef’s Kiss resolves around food. How did you research Ben’s journey as a chef and the food that he makes in the story?

Brine: Jarrett poured a lot of himself into developing Ben. I helped bring him to life the best I could! (P.S. I actually love drawing food).   

Melendez: Like Danica says, there’s some of me in Ben, but there’s something universal about his struggle to find work out of college that I think will resonate with a lot of people.

I have worked in kitchens as a cook before, though Ben’s situation and Davis’ trials are not the norm in the food industry, so there’s a little more of that life experience sprinkled into the book. The recipes are all ones I developed specifically for the book. This chapter of Ben’s life takes place during autumn, so all of the food is seasonal. The hope is for future books to take place during other seasons with menus to match.

The Beat: What are you most excited for readers to discover about the book?

Brine: That they can do anything they put their minds to with a little elbow grease! I hope they can relate to the story and characters. I hope readers can laugh a little and feel lighthearted.

Melendez: My sappy answer? Danica’s artwork. She does so much heavy lifting in this book, making these characters come to life in a way that still blows my mind every time I look at a page.

My less sappy answer is that I hope they discover a new comic character crush–this book is loaded with precious, lovable idiots.

I would love for readers to take inspiration from Ben and let themselves adapt when things don’t go to plan. His parents put him on this path that he’s not even sure he wants to be on, and when things don’t pan out the way he expects, he makes the best of things and finds inspiration and love in an unexpected place.

The Beat: Do you have plans to explore more of this world?

Brine: Jarrett and I might be starting to “stew” ideas for just that as we speak!

Melendez: We absolutely do. My hope for Chef’s Kiss has always been to do a series of four books in total, one for each season. I kind of fell in love with all of these characters as Danica and I developed the book, so I’ll always be happy to play in this sweet little sandbox.

Published by Oni Press, Chef’s Kiss is currently due out in stores on Tuesday, April 12th, 2022. You can pre-order the book now.