Already something of a celebrity, Chef Baldwin Powell thought he was within spitting distance of becoming the star chef of the next Big Thing in New York’s cutthroat restaurant business. Instead, his boss accused him of losing his passion, of being boring, and cut Baldwin loose. It was as devastating a blow as it was unexpected. It isn’t until he returns to his childhood home in Vermont months later that Baldwin finally recaptures a hint of his excitement about eating and making food. And when he deigns to try a simple wrap from a food truck, Baldwin is stunned to discover the outwardly simple dish explodes with complex, layered flavors. It doesn’t hurt that the man behind the truck is drop-dead gorgeous as well.
Everyone in the food biz knows everyone in the food biz—maybe not on a first name basis, but that suits Murphy “Murph” Haynes just fine. It’s not like he actually believes he’ll ever capture the attention of culinary royalty like Chef Powell from the back of a food truck, no matter how successful it is. Until the day Baldwin actually comes to Murph’s truck and tries a wrap. Even better, their interaction doesn’t end when Baldwin leaves, wrap in hand.. Through the magic of social media and a bit of cunning route planning, Murph accidentally-on-purpose runs into Baldwin a few more times. And every time they meet, both chefs get lost in endless discussions about food. Before long, Murph’s wistful daydreams of dating Baldwin become a reality. The chemistry between the two is like a roiling boil, but their dissimilar work experiences and professional aspirations threaten to keep them from taking their relationship to the next stage. Throw in some family complications and only time will tell if Murph and Baldwin can overcome external factors to find their happy ending.
Chef in the Wild is the first book in M.J. O’Shea’s series Sizzle in the Kitchen series; it has been previously released and features a contemporary get-together. Our main characters are two professionally trained chefs seemingly at opposite ends of the career scale. I really enjoyed how the story feels intensely immersive in the world of professional cooking, even though we barely set foot in any restaurant kitchen. While we only see enough of Baldwin in his kitchen to get fired, there are several scenes in and around Murph’s food truck. I appreciated little details, like how Murph’s food truck apparently does not spend the night in Murph’s garage, but has a dedicated (probably city coded?) garage. The discussions Baldwin and Murph have about food also really helped me get a sense for how in-tune they were with each other. Sure, Baldwin immediately notes that he finds Murph physically attractive, but it is Murph’s food that really gets Baldwin to pay attention. Having two romantic leads with such markedly different levels of awareness about the other gave the get together a fun twist. We get to see Baldwin’s initial misgivings about everything food truck quickly give way to appreciation, then love. Conversely, it was a lot of fun to have Murph bring a touch of hero-worship/celebrity crush to the mix.
The chemistry between Murph and Baldwin is immediate and engrossing. It only deepens the more Baldwin learns about Murph (noting, again, that Murph already has a built-in reason to be interested in Baldwin). As the big conflict between Murph and Baldwin is building, we get to see glimmers of some of the stressors Murph experiences as a food truck owner who went to culinary school. He’s busier and busier and trying to do everything himself. The way Baldwin couches the idea of getting Murph help sends Murph over the edge, largely because Murph is projecting other people’s criticisms (about owning a food truck instead of being in a restaurant) onto Baldwin. The big blow up happens later, when Baldwin makes a big financial commitment on the spur of the moment and only tells Murph later. Both times, Murph runs away and gives Baldwin the silent treatment. I was fascinated by this response, but didn’t feel like it got well discussed on page by the characters. Still, Murph comes through with a grand gesture that lets the characters move on to a happily ever after.
Overall, I liked the balance between the two characters and their lives, but it did feel like it was harder to get into/be sympathetic to Murph’s reactions. I think this is simply due to the structure of the story. The reader is right there in Baldwin’s living room as he copes with his depression and the realization that, perhaps, his former boss was right about him. Murph’s situation felt less clear cut to me. He seems like such a positive character, I didn’t really pick up on the way Murph thought Baldwin as being critical of Murph’s choices in a way that Murph had already slammed up against with others (i.e. why would Murph want to settle for a truck when he’s likely good enough for a Michelin-starred restaurant?). That disparity really hit home when Murph ends up ghosting on Baldwin twice because of Murph’s projecting. On the one hand, of course there was a great bit of angst over if and how they would patch things up. But Baldwin hits it on the head when Murph tries to explain he doesn’t usually do that…only to have Baldwin point out that splitting when the going gets tough is the only way Baldwin’s seen Murph react.
I very much enjoyed the pacing of the story. Sure, it felt a bit nebulous at times with regard to exactly how much time was passing. But that aside, the way the character introduction builds up both Baldwin’s and Murph’s lives individually before pairing them up made them feel more three dimensional. Both have on-page families that we get to spend a little time with, helping flesh out the non-chef parts of their lives. The gentle slide into them dating and the initial honeymoon period were great. After that, I thought there was this great, comfortable stretch of seeing these two falling deeper into their relationship. Their passion for each other, their food and company, remained consistent. There was a smattering of on-page intimacy (like, actual insert tab A into slot B) and the rest just felt like a cozy allusion to a firmly established relationship. Waking up together, welcoming Murph home after a hard day in the truck, cooking together.
Overall, this was just an extremely satisfying read. I really enjoyed the two MCs, and the way their individual family lives push and pull at the edges of their personal and professional lives. Baldwin especially goes through a self-discovery phase where he ultimately comes to understand being fired was probably the best thing for him. Murph changes over the book, but his “growth” feels more like he’s reacting to negative stressors and what he believes are other people’s expectations—as mentioned above, it drives him to lash out at the people closest to him, which is often Baldwin. I think the way Baldwin’s experience in the high-end restaurant business and Murph’s starting up his own food truck lends a terrific “opposite side of the tracks” quality to the romance/story that balances out the fantastically satisfying romance.