Review: Salty, Bitter, Sweet

Title: Salty, Bitter, Sweet
Author: Mayra Cuevas
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: Blink
Review Copy: ARC provided by publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: Seventeen-year-old aspiring chef Isabella Fields’ family life has fallen apart after the death of her Cuban abuela and the divorce of her parents. She moves in with her dad and his new wife in France, where Isabella feels like an outsider in her father’s new life, studiously avoiding the awkward, “Why did you cheat on Mom?” conversation.

The upside of Isabella’s world being turned upside down? Her father’s house is located only 30 minutes away from the restaurant of world-famous Chef Pascal Grattard, who runs a prestigious and competitive international kitchen apprenticeship. The prize job at Chef Grattard’s renowned restaurant also represents a transformative opportunity for Isabella, who is desperate to get her life back in order.

But how can Isabella expect to hold it together when she’s at the bottom of her class at the apprenticeship, her new stepmom is pregnant, she misses her abuela dearly, and a mysterious new guy and his albino dog fall into her life?

Review: [Note: This book contains references to suicide, drug addiction, and colorism.]

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the professional kitchen details in this book, but author Mayra Cuevas did a great job of drawing me into this high-stakes world (and all the sumptuous food descriptions!). She showed the highs and the lows, the immense pressure and the many ways such a competitive industry can make and break a person. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Chef Troissant and Clara as women in a male-dominated industry. They offered Isabella a closer look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the professional culinary world. (I loved the scene with the wine!) I also really enjoyed Pippa and Lucia, the only two other girls in the course with Isabella, though I wish that we had spent more time building friendships with them.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed the most about this book was Isabella’s relationship with her deceased paternal grandmother, Lala. I lost both my grandmothers last year, and I really appreciated the depiction of Isabella’s grief and love for her grandmother. I particularly enjoyed their scenes that centered on food and the warmth and comfort their time together provided.

While I felt the romance between Isabella and Diego was a bit uneven (Diego got under my skin in a not-great way in the first half), I really enjoyed how their relationship played out in the last third of the book. Isabella and Diego’s bonding over their family situations and questioning over what it was they wanted out of life and what would make them happy was a compelling part of their relationship. Watching them open up to each other was lovely, and I wish that had happened sooner in the story.

My greatest disappointment in this book was whenever Isabella dips into “not-like-other-girls” territory. In one particularly awful moment, Isabella compares herself to fresh whipped cream and the “pretty girls” as “predictable” and “Cool Whip, an artificial imitation” and “ordinary.” On the one hand, it is great foreshadowing for the backstabbing decision she makes later on during the course. And while she received pushback for that decision professionally, there was little pushback in the narrative regarding her dismissive thoughts regarding girls who don’t have the same kind of ambition she does. You can write ambitious, cut-throat girls who don’t “not-like-other-girls” the story.

I also have mixed feelings regarding the plots with Isabella’s family members. The brief inclusion of her (racist/colorist) French grandmother and her mother didn’t really seem to serve a greater purpose beyond providing Isabella with a bag of (previously disdained) makeup/skincare supplies when she needs them later on. Margo had very little screen time, and Isabella’s dad didn’t have enough to make me truly care about his relationship with his daughter or Lala.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. If you’re a fan of cooking competitions, SALTY, BITTER, SWEET should make it onto your TBR list. While there are several genuinely great things about this book, some pet peeves interfered with my enjoyment of it. The book is still worth your time if you’re interested in ambitious girls wanting to get into the professional culinary world.

Author Interview: Mayra Cuevas (+ recipe!) at Rich in Color
Spotlight on Salty, Bitter, Sweet (Mayra Cuevas), Excerpt, Plus Giveaway! ~ (US Only) at YA Books Central
Mayra Cuevas, Author of YA novel Salty, Bitter, Sweet, talks about writing and diversity in literature at Peachtree Corners Life LIVE (podcast)