One thing Kelly agrees with Emezi on: witnessing someone who is skillful and engaged with their work is definitely a turn on. “I find it very sexy,” Kelly says. “One of my themes is competence porn, which is a trope in romance.”
Author Julie Tieu’s chef characters are much further from the limelight. In The Donut Trap, protagonist Jasmine is living with her parents after graduating from college, and helping them run the donut shop they’ve been operating since they fled Cambodia for the U.S. before she was born. The work is presented as mostly onerous and boring: the shop is open from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and they can’t afford to hire any other employees, which means at least one of her parents is basically always working.
Tieu drew on her own experiences in her family’s donut shop growing up, in part because it was familiar to her, but also because she thought it would draw readers into a world they might not be familiar with. Donuts are often seen as an American staple, but most of the shops in California, where Tieu grew up, are operated by immigrants like her parents. “It’s a different story than someone making their own food in their own restaurant; here’s this quintessentially American food that is primarily made by refugees,” she says. “I thought it was a great vehicle to have this image of a donut shop that people are so instantly attracted to because it’s sweet and brings a lot of positive memories.”
Tieu wanted to examine how these traditional mom and pop shops might deal with the digital era. “My parents retired a long time ago, but I thought to myself, ‘What would my parents do in this Instagram age, where there’s all these highly decorated, really fancy flavors that are coming out?’” She also wanted to capture a way of life that she says is disappearing as the generations turn over. “A lot of owners are getting older and are retiring,” Tieu says. “So I wanted to capture this type of story while it was still in existence.”
In all three novels, food, made professionally or personally, is central to establishing community and identity—but that doesn’t mean it’s always joyful. For Emezi, longing for certain tastes can be “a big part of homesickness.” Their own displacement served as a muse for You Made a Fool of Death, which features two queer characters falling in love. “A lot of the time with my work, I’m thinking about the ways that, for queer people who are part of the African diaspora, we can’t really go home the way that other people can because it’s illegal for us to exist there,” they say. “You end up in exile. And the loss of access to your food becomes an element of that isolation.”
In Tieu’s family, cooking signaled care. “I think food, especially for my family but I’m sure for a lot of Asian cultures, is the way we nurture each other,” she says. Tieu also remembers using donuts from her parents’ store as part of her early attempts at flirtation. “Every day that I would work, I’d ask my parents, ‘Can I take these extra donuts to school tomorrow?’” Tieu recalls. “I would take this box to school, this pink box, and everybody’s eyes just lit up. I remember thinking, ‘This is my way of breaking the ice whenever I wanted to talk to someone I have a crush on.’”
That sense of sweetness lingers in all of these books, despite the hardships. Romance is a genre defined in part by its commitment to delivering happily ever afters for its characters, and their imagined futures feel particularly enticing when we know they will include many good meals—alongside other indulgences of the flesh, of course.
They’re also all the more satisfying because they offer some bitter with that sweet, acknowledging complex realities of race, identity, and class without suggesting that any of those things are impediments to loving and being loved. “You can learn a lot about a person, their family background, their culture and their memories through the food that means the most to them,” Kelly says. “I think [food] plays into romance so well because the same can be said of love—it’s this thing that most people want, but it’s also very personal, and everybody’s personal relationships are as diverse as their palates.” ‘Chef’ is a job, but cooking, eating, and feeding one another are things we can all do every day of our lives.