A high-strung pastry chef’s professional goals are interrupted by an unexpected career transition and the introduction of her wildly attractive nonbinary kitchen manager in this deliciously fresh and witty queer rom-com.
Simone Larkspur is a perfectionist pastry expert with a dream job at The Discerning Chef, a venerable cookbook publisher in New York City. All she wants to do is create the perfect loaf of sourdough and develop recipes, but when The Discerning Chef decides to bring their brand into the 21st century by pivoting to video, Simone is thrust into the spotlight and finds herself failing at something for the first time in her life.
To make matters worse, Simone has to deal with Ray Lyton, the new test kitchen manager, whose obnoxious cheer and outgoing personality are like oil to Simone’s water. When Ray accidentally becomes a viral YouTube sensation with a series of homebrewing videos, their eccentric editor in chief forces Simone to work alongside the chipper upstart or else risk her beloved job. But the more they work together, the more Simone realizes her heart may be softening like butter for Ray.
Things get even more complicated when Ray comes out at work as nonbinary to mixed reactions—and Simone must choose between the career she fought so hard for and the person who just might take the cake (and her heart).
Release date: May 3, 2022
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Print pages: 320
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Eight unbaked loaves of sourdough sat on the test kitchen counter, and Simone was working on the ninth.
She had come into work before the sun was up just for this: the culmination of many weeks spent perfecting her no-knead recipe. Each batch of dough had a slightly different ratio of bread flour to whole wheat, or salt to water. The doughs had risen overnight, and now they were nearly ready for the decisive bake. Simone could feel her excitement building, and in the quiet of the test kitchen, which was empty at this early hour, she allowed herself a pleased hum. She gave the ninth and final batch of sourdough its third fold-and-turn, then placed it gently in a parchment-lined bowl, where it joined the lineup. She frowned, giving the bowl a slight nudge.
There. Now all nine bowls were perfectly aligned in a neat row of stainless steel to match the rest of the sterile industrial kitchen. She jotted down a quick note to herself so she could keep them all straight—they were arranged from most bread flour to least starting on her left—and tucked the note in her apron pocket. Soon she would find out which recipe was the best of the lot. They just needed one last short rise before they went into the oven.
A glance out the window told her the sun was rising, too. Simone took a moment to sip her coffee and watch the peaceful scene unfold outside. From the top floor of the West Village office building, she could see the tiny triangular park across the street, the burbling fountain in its center lined with sleepy pigeons.
She took another drink of coffee. It was good—dark and strong. No one else on staff had the patience and know-how to coax the test kitchen’s overly complicated espresso machine into producing it. Sometimes, she mused, hard work did pay off.
Though she was young—twenty-eight years old—Simone Larkspur had been aggressive in her career as a pastry chef, working long hours in restaurants of incrementally better quality and doggedly writing freelance articles for food and wine publications until she attained her dream job: recipe developer and writer for The Discerning Chef.
Most people had never heard of The Discerning Chef. It was a hybrid publishing company that put out a series of cookbooks and an eponymous magazine “since 1952,” as their logo proudly proclaimed. Their material was aimed, supposedly, at chefs—whether professional or amateur, The Discerning Chef could never seem to decide. Simone had been working there for nearly three years, and she took such pride in her job that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Simone was considering whether she had time to cook herself some breakfast when she heard the test kitchen’s swinging door creak open. She turned, wondering who else would be there so early, and found it was Delilah, the assistant to the editor in chief.
“She wants to see you,” Delilah said in a tone that managed to be both firm and sympathetic. Her crisp shift dress and box braids were as precise as her gesture in the direction of the executive office. “You can go straight in.”
“Me? But—” Simone gazed at her row of sourdough loaves. They needed to be scored and baked in about fifteen minutes. “Can I just—?”
“She’s waiting,” Delilah said, effectively destroying Simone’s hopes of finishing up her task before facing her boss’s boss. Delilah must have noticed the despair on Simone’s face, because she added, “Everyone in Editorial is taking a turn. You just happened to be the first one here this morning—and, well, every morning. No need to worry.”
In Simone’s experience, when someone said you shouldn’t worry, you should very much worry, and in fact, should clear your schedule to do nothing but. Still, if the big boss called, she couldn’t dither. She squared her shoulders, stood at her full height (which, honestly, was not very tall), and marched to the executive office.
She tapped at the cloudy glass door and cracked it open, popping her head in to find the woman herself at her desk: Pim Gladly, editor in chief of The Discerning Chef for over thirty-five years, a giant in the culinary world. She was an occasional judge on one of those cooking shows that tortures its poor contestants with impossible, nightmarish tasks. She’d made several hardened chefs cry on camera. She was actually a popular meme, used primarily for reactions that required unimpressed judgment, though she refused to learn what a meme was.
Her eyes found Simone from behind an overly large pair of eyeglasses framed in red ovals. “Ah. Simone.” Her gaze flicked down to her desk, where she seemed to consult a slip of paper. “Have a seat.” She waved her hand toward one of the leather chairs opposite.
Simone perched on the chair and faced Pim with what she hoped was an earnest, serious look on her face and not anxiety-riddled terror.
“What did you want to speak to me about, ma’am?” she asked.
Simone had only spoken to her editor in chief a handful of times, so tacking on the “ma’am” seemed prudent. Ms. Gladly tended to stay above the day-to-day workings of The Discerning Chef’s operations, taking a more macro-level view of the business. This meant that, for the most part, Pim Gladly only came into the office two or three days a week, with the rest of her time occupied by her house in the Hamptons, her various boards of directors, her judging panels, and her seven purebred, wire-haired dachshunds.
She gazed at Simone across the expanse of her cluttered desk and said, “We’re not making any money.”
Simone blinked. “Oh.” She waited for Ms. Gladly to continue, and when she didn’t, she ventured to say, “Well, TDC has always served a niche market, and as long as we continue to provide that market with quality work—”
Gladly shook her severe pageboy-styled head. She continued, her voice lilting between a mid-Atlantic accent and a quasi-British one. “No, Simone. Actually, if we continue on as we have, we will shut down by next year. No one is buying our books. No one is subscribing to our magazine. No one cares about The Discerning Chef these days, not when they have cable television and the internet. We are a dinosaur,” she said, lifting a paperweight from her desk and holding it aloft, “and if we do not act quickly, we are not going to be able to dodge the meteor.”
She brought the glass lump of the paperweight back down with a heavy thud, making everything on her desk—and Simone—jump.
Simone stared at her. Her dream job was disintegrating like so much grated Parmesan in a hot risotto. Though her stomach hurt at the prospect, her head was already calculating who would be most likely to hire her after The Discerning Chef folded. Gourmet? TasteBuzz? That guy from culinary school who always seemed to be opening a new bistro every six months? She could make some calls. She disliked the idea of going back to work in a restaurant kitchen, where the pay was low and the nights were long, but it would cover the rent until she found something more stable.
But then the portion of her brain not occupied in revising her resumé came up with a pressing question. She decided to ask it aloud. “Why are you telling me this, ma’am?”
“Because.” Pim Gladly stood from her desk and crossed over to the window, where she could fold her hands behind her tastefully khaki-jumpsuited back and gaze out on the little park opposite the office building. “It is now the mission of the entire Discerning Chef staff to get us out of this mess.” She whirled on Simone. “You’re all supposed to be the most clever, inventive minds in the business. Well, we’re going to need every bit of it. We must pivot, and pivot hard.”
Simone’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened, then thought better of it and snapped shut again.
Ms. Gladly cocked her head. “Come on,” she said. “Speak up. You clearly have something to say.”
“Right.” Simone cleared her throat. “It’s only—I’m not sure how you’d like me to pivot. I write recipes. I think they’re very good. That’s what I know how to do, and I’m not sure I can do it any differently.”
“They might be the best recipes ever devised in the history of the electric stove, my dear,” said Pim with a snort, “but if no one reads the damn things, it doesn’t matter how good they—or you—are.”
Simone flinched. She had found herself thinking on exactly this fact many times in the last few months as TDC’s subscription numbers dwindled, but it did not make it any less painful to hear it with her own ears. If a dish is created in the forest, and there’s no one around to attempt it themselves, is it really a recipe? Of course not. A recipe is only a recipe insofar as it is cooked, and Simone’s recipes, according to the sales of The Discerning Chef’s books and magazines, were not being made in any great numbers.
“Maybe this is something you should discuss with marketing and publicity,” Simone suggested. “It’s kind of their job? They might have ideas.”
Gladly waved a hand through the air, jangling the many metal bangles on her wrist. “Oh, them? I’ve fired them.”
Simone’s mouth fell open. “You what?”
“Fired them. It was only three people—four if you count the intern—which”—she tapped a finger to her chin—“I don’t think we paid her. Maybe we should have kept her on, now that I think of it.”
The marketing and publicity department hadn’t contained any fast friends of Simone’s, but she still spared a moment to feel sad for Patty, Nadine, and Jill (plus the intern whose name she’d never quite caught), who’d been so unceremoniously tossed down the garbage chute. Spine going stick-straight, Simone cleared her throat. “Ma’am, without a team of people dedicated to marketing or publicity, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to get out of the hole.”
“Those fossils put us in this hole,” Gladly said, returning to her chair and rapping her knuckles against her desk. Simone frowned; the dinosaur metaphor was coming apart at the seams. “We don’t need any more of that kind of help, thank you. It’s time to start fresh, a clean slate. Totally overhaul The Discerning Chef as something”—she wiggled her shoulders—“hip.”
Simone’s heart sank.
“Youthful,” Pim added.
Her stomach flipped.
She shut her eyes. This wasn’t happening. Please, she prayed silently, tell me this isn’t happening. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and opened her eyes. “Ma’am, I’m not sure I know how to make TDC… all of that.”
“Nonsense.” Gladly waved a hand in Simone’s direction, indicating, perhaps, her twenty-eight-year-old, overachieving, flour-dusted self. Her sensible cardigan with the little pop of personality in the enameled orchid pinned to the collar. Her glossy brown hair pulled into its sensible half-twist. Her millennial what-have-you. “You’re just the thing.”
Simone’s discomfort grew. “The thing for what?” she asked.
“Our new direction.” Pim Gladly held her hands up, making corners with her thumbs and forefingers, a little invisible screen in front of her. “I’d like you involved in our video-content initiative, Simone.”
“Videos?” Simone floundered. “But—”
“Yes, I know, it’s a wonderful opportunity for you,” said Gladly. “Likely more responsibility than you could have hoped for, but I am certain you will rise to the occasion and make us proud.”
“But, ma’am,” Simone choked out, “I’ve never made a video. I’m not a YouTube star. I don’t even know how to use Instagram!”
Gladly’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying that perhaps you’re not up to the job?” She reached for a very expensive-looking pen on her desk and toyed with it. “That would be a shame.”
Simone imagined that pen signing a pink slip with her name on it. Would Pim Gladly really fire her over this? She’d never been fired before, not from any job, let alone her dream job. Her stomach dropped even further. She wasn’t sure she could bear that kind of shame. Her mom would be so disappointed. Her dad would probably be disappointed, too, if only to put on a united front, which had been the hallmark of her parents’ divorce.
“Of course that’s not what I’m saying,” she backtracked. “Only—this isn’t my wheelhouse. I studied at Le Cordon Bleu. I know food, and I know how to write about food. I don’t have any experience in, in”—she gestured helplessly—“video content.”
“Well, if that’s your only worry—”
Gladly kept talking as if Simone hadn’t spoken. “—then I have wonderful news. With all the money we’ve saved on marketing and publicity salaries, I was able to arrange for an expert to help train you and the rest of our video-ready chefs in the necessary particulars. He will also spearhead our rebranding and video launch.”
Simone’s brow furrowed. “But couldn’t I just—”
“No need to thank me! This is really going to put you on the fast track, my dear.” Gladly stood and held out her hand. Simone, dazed and unsure what else to do, stood and shook it. Gladly grinned. “Delilah will find some time to have you meet the new camera boy. Oh, and more importantly, our freshly minted director of social influence.”
“Social influence?” Simone echoed.
“Social. Influence.” The handshake ended with Simone’s fingers feeling rather numb. “Excellent catch-up, Simone. Thank you.”
Feeling very much like she was being dismissed, Simone walked out the door in a daze.
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