Sadie is not having a good time. We first meet the protagonist in “Sadie on a Plate,” by Amanda Elliot (Berkley, March 2022), as she is fired from her job as a chef at a Seattle restaurant over a text message. Though we won’t find out what led to this firing until almost the end of the novel, Sadie is distraught and feels like she has been blacklisted from the entire Seattle restaurant scene.
It is hard to know if this is true because most of this book is spent inside Sadie’s head, and that can be a tough place to be. Sadie is self-critical and mentally berates herself. I’m happy to say that this eases as the plot picks up, because I found her inner voice difficult to read. Much more fun is her inner voice from her deceased grandmother, sassing her, guiding her and asking of every cute man Sadie meets, “Is he Jewish?”
Sadie may leave Seattle in disgrace, but she flees to an amazing opportunity, a chance to compete on a reality TV cooking show, “Chef Supreme,” which is essentially “Top Chef.”
On the plane to New York, she meets Luke, an attractive young chef. She’s worried that he might turn out to be a competitor on the show, but that doesn’t stop her from flirting.
After a magical and romantic dinner with Luke in a speakeasy/Korean restaurant, Sadie makes it to the contestants’ house, and finds that Luke isn’t a competitor after all.
He’s a judge.
That’s not the only complication Sadie has to deal with – a “frenemy” from her restaurant days in Seattle, Kaitlyn Avilleira, turns out to be one of her competitors. Sadie is worried that Kaitlyn will spill the details on whatever it was that happened to Sadie. Between worrying that her Seattle secret will get out and worrying that Luke will spill the beans about their previous interactions, Sadie is a bit of a mess.
Luke takes the tack of being unkind to Sadie, pretending she didn’t mean anything to him, in what is (to the reader at least) clearly an attempt to keep Sadie on the show and his conflict-of-interest secret. This takes Sadie much of the rest of the book to figure out, so while this is sort of a romantic comedy (rom-com), it doesn’t have many of the traditional elements of one, considering that the two leads are avoiding each other much of the time.
The meat of the book is in the reality TV cooking competition, and it shines when describing food. (Really, have snacks on hand if you read this!) The book explores ideas of authenticity while being filmed, the hierarchy of cuisines in the restaurant world, and the lack of women in the profession.
Each contestant specializes in a different type of food, and they all have to grapple with the expectations of what it means to cook those foods and how that intersects with their own identities. Nia is worried about being pigeonholed as a black woman from the South. One of the contestants is a black man who came up under a sushi chef and specializes in Japanese cuisine. Kel cooks upscale Appalachian food. All of them walk a tightrope as they try to get their food judged on its own merits.
Luke has his own troubles beyond his dealings with Sadie. He’s the son of a famous chef, Charles, who is a bit of a snob when it comes to any food he deems “ethnic.” Luke, who is half Korean, wants to open a restaurant that plays with Korean food and is affordable. Instead, he is following his dad’s path and running a three-star restaurant that follows a very traditional definition of “fine dining.”
The idea that the food of one’s ancestors can be transformed and modernized is what brings Luke and Sadie together again and again. As Sadie says, “That was what dishes like my matzah ball ramen were all about. That’s the fun of food, to me. I want to take things my grandma did, or my ancestors did, and make those things new and fresh and exciting. ”
Both Luke and Sadie chafe against what society has deemed “fine dining,” and ultimately, they both manage to create restaurants that honor their heritage while allowing for experimentation and play.
“Sadie on a Plate” is less of a romance between Luke and Sadie and more of a romance between all the characters and food. It grapples with issues of self-worth, kitchen culture and marginalized identities.
“I want people to know that we have thousands of years of cuisine on offer. And so many different kinds! We were part of the Diaspora for so long, living in places as diverse as India and Yemen and Italy and Poland for thousands of years, and each community developed their own cuisine, and then they all came together again in Israel and America and fused with each other, and there’s so much potential for a fine-dining restaurant.”
This book is light and fun and filled with food. Though it touches on big topics, the ideas are sprinkled throughout the book, like when Sadie replies to a judge asking about her over-reliance on pickling, “Ashkenazi food uses pickling a lot. We were frequently running for our lives, which made fresh foods inconvenient.”
The book doesn’t go into many of the issues it touches on in depth. Food is really at the heart of this novel, along with Sadie’s journey toward self-acceptance and esteem – because how can you love anyone when you don’t love yourself and your food?
SARAH GREENLEAF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the digital marketing specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.