It’s the chance of a lifetime! For Dahlia Woodson, being a contestant on Chef’s Special means getting out of her own head — a head too cluttered with her recent divorce, the strained relationship with her mother, her bills, her student loans and, oh yes, the lack of a job. A job she quit in order to be on TV. Now she can just cook, with ingredients she’d never have the budget for, and gets to be in the same room with other chefs, to live and breathe and eat food. Good food, great food, amazing food! But Dahlia’s mood is soured when, on the first day of taping, one of the other contestants gives her a death glare for no good reason!
London Parker is the show’s first openly nonbinary contestant. Announcing their pronouns in front of a group of strangers is hard enough, but one of them — Lizzie — had to make an issue of it. To top it off, another contestant didn’t even bother to show up for the group meet and greet, which means London has to come out, again. Full of nerves, they’re not ready to have the person in front of them with the glorious mane of hair tell them about wetting their tights in the fourth grade before scurrying off to her own station. Is it any wonder London is less than impressed?
London and Dahlia go from sniping at one another, to drinking together, to being friends. Well, friendly, at least. But somehow, Dahlia manages to get under London’s skin in the very best way. Is it possible to fall in love on television, with an audience of thousands watching and judging your every move? As the weeks go by, contestant after contestant is kicked off the show until, during the grand finale, only two will remain. As hot as things get in the kitchen, the passion between London and Dahlia blazes hotter, but will it be enough?
Dahlia is peppy. Annoyingly peppy. One of those cheerful people who are great at parties, but you also want to strangle because they’re up at 6:30 am and ready to take on the world. She’s a bubbly, sweet person, and enthusiastic about everything; unfailingly loyal, she’d take on an army for the people she loves, like her transgender brother, or London. Not because she thinks London can’t defend themself, but because Dahlia can’t stand to see injustice and refuses to sit down and let someone be hurt by cruel, thoughtless words, regardless of the consequences.
London is reserved, quiet, and analytical. London had a plan, and Dahlia wasn’t part of it. London is drawn to the way Dahlia puts her hair up into a bun, the shape of her neck — which London can see from their station — the sound of her laugh. By the time the two of them are waking up in bed, London is already half-planning their life in Nashville, where London lives. Because surely Dahlia would be happier where London is. But for all the things London says when falling in love with Dahlia, it’s the words they don’t say that are the most important.
This story showcases the importance of representation, as London’s determination to be who they are, bigots be damned, reaches through the television and into the lives of those who watch. There’s the young kid struggling with identity a state away; an older person wondering how many of their generation were unable to be themselves the way London is; transgender, nonbinary people, even cis people learning compassion through their attachment to London. And not just London. London is only half of the London/Dahlia ship that the television producers have been showcasing, inspiring fans and, more importantly, ratings.
But through all this — through falling in love, and trying to figure out what it means for them individually and together — are cameras. When Dahlia is made aware, as she ought to have been, that their flirtation, the shy touches, the lingering looks, have been recorded, cut, edited, and broadcast, it affects her confidence and her cooking. She’s recently divorced and her confidence has taken a major blow. This … all of this, may not be what she needs. Or what she wants.
As someone who is a longtime fan of reality cooking shows, I knew I wanted to read this book. London, Dahlia, and the food they cook are a marvelous triangle and you can feel the passion and the love that fills the story. While I really doubt that a reality show is going to let contestants just run around the city, keep their cell phones, or even leave the hotel (let alone the hotel rooms), I’m willing to turn a blind eye to the factual issues in favor of the romance. Because the romance is there and strong, easily supported and carried along by skillful writing and tight pacing.
This is very much a feel good book, though it will make you hungry. So be prepared with snacks!