Check out an excerpt from Mayra Cuevas’ Salty, Bitter, Sweet, a YA #ownvoices novel about complicated family dynamics, friendship, acceptance, and learning to care for yourself.
A slow-burn romance in a cutthroat kitchen! There’s more to becoming a top chef for 17-year-old Isabella Fields than just not getting chopped … especially when the chances of things heating up with an intriguing boy and becoming a food star in the kitchen are both on the chopping block.
Aspiring chef Isa’s 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 her new stepmom, Margo, in Lyon, France, where Isa feels like an outsider in her father’s new life. Isa balances her time between avoiding the awkward, “why-did-you-cheat-on-Mom” conversation with figuring out how a perpetually single woman can at least be a perpetually single chef.
The upside of Isa’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 prestigiously competitive international kitchen apprenticeship. The prize job at Chef Grattard’s renowned restaurant also represents a transformative opportunity for Isa who is desperate to get her life back in order—and desperate to prove she has what it takes to work in an haute kitchen. But Isa’s stress and repressed grief begin to unravel when the attractive, enigmatic Diego shows up unannounced with his albino dog.
How can Isa 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 things with the mysterious Diego reach a boiling point?
The Perfect Souffle
Happiness, like love, arrives through the kitchen. At least that’s what my abuela Lala used to say.
I ponder her words, feeling every bit happy in the kitchen as I wipe a cheesy smudge off my recipe book then lick my thumb.
I sigh in pleasure.
I may not know much about love, but judging by the perfect balance of Gruyère and parmesan, I definitely got the kitchen part down.
Though I can’t take the credit for this French marvel. My copy of Larousse Gastronomique is so worn I could probably taste each dish simply by licking the border of the page.
Larousse—also known as the French culinary bible—says an ideal soufflé should have a melting texture, a creamy center, and stand for two to three minutes without deflating. Currently, my deflation time is one and a half minutes—at least thirty seconds short of passable and a full minute and a half away from perfection.
“Morning, kiddo.” Papi saunters in and heads straight for the coffee maker. “Did you sleep in the kitchen?” He fills his favorite mug, one that reads I’m as corny as Kansas in August—God, he really is.
How a Cuban American born and raised in the Midwest ended up living on a cherry farm in France is beyond my comprehension. Life is so weird sometimes.
“Ah, the nectar of the gods,” he sings. The cup of black coffee he pours looks and smells like jet fuel.
“I made café con leche—it’s in that thermos if you want some.” I nod toward the tartan-print thermos, a staple in Lala’s kitchen.
Oddly enough, Lala’s thermos was part of my inheritance. My name, Isabella Fields, is written in Lala’s old-fashioned cursive on the cardboard box it came in. Under it she wrote, “For my morenita”—the sweet term of endearment she often used to celebrate my darker skin tone. Yet it’s not the color of my skin that makes me almost the mirror image of both Papi and Lala; it’s the wild, curly mane of cocoa-brown hair, my full lips and high cheekbones. This is my Latina side, the morenita me. The only feature I inherited from my fair-skinned French mother is my nose. A small, straight-edged thing that, to me, looks out of place in the mishmash that is my face—not because I prefer one nose over another, but because it’s a constant reminder I come from divergent worlds while not wholly belonging to any of them. Never Cuban enough, or French enough, or American enough—that’s me, a dissonant three-course meal.
Along with the thermos, Lala left me her cookware, baking pans, and her handwritten cookbook, which I’ve yet to unpack. Just thinking about it—with its red, tattered binding and yellowed pages full of her notes—makes my heart tighten in a way I can’t focus on now. Too many memories to untangle at once.
“I’ll have some of your cafecito later,” Papi says. “Today, I need my first cup black and straight.” He takes a long sip, idling by the kitchen counter like a puppy waiting for a treat. Papi loves to eat my food. And I love that he loves it.
He watches me as I slip my hands into heat-resistant gloves and open the oven door. The heavenly smell of melted cheese and butter envelops the kitchen. Inside, delicate clouds of pure, cheesy bliss burst from the ramekins. I instantly smile.
“Still on the soufflés, huh?” he asks, peering over my shoulder.
“They have to be perfect,” I say, removing the baking tray from the oven. “Nothing else will do.” The scalding water filling the bottom of the tray sloshes precariously as I ease it onto the kitchen counter.
This time, I tried a new method recommended in Larousse—placing the ramekins in a bain-marie before sliding them in the oven. It’s a way to steadily bring them up to temperature and keep the heat consistent. I pray it worked.
“The eggs have to be infused with the right amount of air bubbles. And the oven temperature needs to be exact.” I balance a wispy slice of honeycomb on top of each ramekin. “They’re all about precision.”
I add white chamomile flowers and a fig compote drizzled with honey to the plate. Seen from a distance they look flawless, but the real test is in the taste.
“What are these?” Papi asks, peeking into a tin of freshly baked pastries.
“Those are for Jakub.” I swat away his hand. But he still manages to steal a pastry from the tin.
“That’s nice of you.” He bites into the fruit-filled roll.
“He actually gave me a list of things I need to bake for him.” I chuckle to myself, thinking of the kid’s beaming face every time I bring him sweets. I’ve never met a five-year-old with so much spunk. “He wrote it in Polish. It took me hours to figure out what he wanted. I had to research and translate all these recipes.”
“His mom said you promised him some American cookies?” Papi asks, finishing the pastry in two bites.
“Chocolate chip.” I smile, staring at the powdered sugar on his face. “You got some on your nose,” passing him a cloth napkin so he can wipe it off. “No one told me how impossible it would be to find chocolate chips in France. I have a few leads in Lyon, but I’ve been too busy preparing for the big day tomorrow.”
“Luck favors the prepared,” he says, raising his Corny as Kansas mug in a mock toast. “So proud of you, honey.”
“Thanks, but I was lucky just to get in.”
“You beat a thousand kids for a spot in this program. That’s not luck, Isa. That’s talent.”
“You’re my dad. You’re supposed to say that.”
“Just let me know when we have to start calling you Chef Isabella. I’m buying you one of those tall hats so you can wear it around the house.” He kisses my cheek and reaches for a leftover piece of honeycomb. He slides the sweet wafer into his mouth and hums in delight. I grin in spite of myself.
Luck or talent? I guess I’m about to find out.
A little over one hundred restaurants in the entire world are decorated each year with a three Michelin star award—a title that says you are the best of the best. Or as the guide puts it, “worth a special trip.”
And only one of those restaurants, La Table de Lyon, owned by world-famous Chef Pascal Grattard, has an international apprenticeship program. They accept fifteen students each summer for a special three-week course. At the end of the course, the top student gets to stay for a year-long apprenticeship. This year, I am the only American.
When the acceptance email arrived, I couldn’t believe my crazy good luck. This is not just any job—it’s a life-changing opportunity.
Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the world. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. Past apprentices have gone on to open their own successful restaurants and win their own Michelin stars. At the very least, saying you trained under Chef Pascal Grattard and graduated from his intensive course is guaranteed to open doors at the most sought-after restaurants.
“Are you still visiting your mom next weekend?” Papi asks. The mood suddenly shifts between us.
I clear my throat. It’s been six months and we have yet to have the why-did-you-cheat-on-Mom conversation. I can’t bring myself to ask and he can’t bring himself to tell me. I love my dad, but I hate the awkwardness growing between us. Mostly, I hate what he did to Mom.
The only reason I agreed to stay with him and Margo—his new wife—is because they live thirty minutes away from Grattard’s restaurant. As much as I tried, I couldn’t come up with a good excuse to stay in the city.
If I land the apprenticeship, I’m moving out. No more feeling like an unwelcome guest around Papi’s new family. A job like that means a brand-new life—a reset button to erase everything that’s happened in the last year. To make everything I’ve sacrificed worthwhile. A redemption of sorts.
“Do we get to eat these?” Papi asks, eyeing the soufflés while pulling a stool and sitting by the kitchen island, across from me.
“I made one for Margo—is she coming down?” I ask.
“No idea.” He reaches for his plate. “Where’s my spoon?”
I open the silverware drawer and grab two spoons, then close the drawer harder than I intended.
“Do you realize she hasn’t tried any of the food I’ve made? She didn’t even taste the cassoulet last night. Or the chicken with butter and wine sauce from the night before. I thought you said it was her favorite.” The cassoulet alone took me three hours to make. I had to prepare the duck confit, the beans, and a pork ragù before assembling everything in a casserole dish.
“The smell of cooked meat makes her nauseous. I think it’s a pregnancy thing,” Papi says apologetically. “But I liked it.”
I shake my head and let out a long exhale. I’ve run out of ideas on how to connect with this woman. Why do I even bother?
“These are perfect, Isa,” Papi says of the soufflés. He takes the spoon to his mouth, closes his eyes, and hums. I wish I knew he was humming because this is the best soufflé he’s ever had, but Papi always reacts the same way no matter what I put in front of him. He’s an unreliable taster—he only likes to eat.
“Can you taste the delicate notes of thyme?” I split apart my soufflé and inspect it for air pockets and moisture.
“Oh, is that what I taste?” He’s already scarfed down his and now is moving to the one intended for Margo. “These are the best ones you’ve made so far.”
“It’s still not right.” I turn my plate toward him. “You see right here—” I point my spoon to a lumpy section, the product of too much moisture. “This should be fluffy and airy. It’s no good.” I push my plate aside and then try to do the same with the rush of disappointment that follows. I remind myself it took Julia Child at least twenty-eight tries before she perfected her strawberry soufflé. I have eight more to go.
Papi makes a second trip to the coffee maker to refill his mug. When he sits back down, I notice his deep brown eyes look tired around the edges and an overgrown beard has taken over half his face. He reminds me of the Cuban rebels photographed in a book about “La Revolución” Lala used to keep on her coffee table. The only thing missing is a beret.
“You okay?” I ask. “You look a bit . . . tired.”
He makes a face. “Are you trying to tell me I look old?”
I laugh, leaning over the kitchen island to kiss his cheek. “Never.”
“Margo didn’t get any sleep, which means I didn’t get any sleep,” he says.
“Is she feeling any better?”
Papi shrugs. “I ordered her a special pillow so she can sleep on her side. Let’s see if that helps.”
“I was thinking about making ratatouille for dinner,” I say. “It’s all vegetables.”
He stops eating. I catch an almost imperceptible wince before he looks up to meet my gaze.
“Don’t get your hopes up, honey.”
“It’s worth a try.” I shrug, adding aubergine to the market list I’ve been working on all morning. I whisper the French pronunciation a few times—ohburgene—loving the sound of the word on my tongue. It makes eggplant sound even tastier.
Papi finishes the second soufflé and pushes his plate to the side. “Loved these,” he says, licking the last of the honey drizzle off his spoon. “When are you making Mami’s apple pie? That’s two birthdays in a row you’ve forgotten.”
I swallow the knot that immediately forms in the back of my throat. I haven’t forgotten, I want to say.
“Margo got you that chocolate cake. Remember?”
He raises an inquisitive eyebrow, completely oblivious to the soul-crushing effect his pie request has on me.
“No point in having two desserts,” I say dismissively.
“Said no one ever,” he teases. But I don’t laugh. Instead, I turn around and pretend to busy myself in arranging and rearranging the pots and pans hanging from a rack next to the stove.
Lala’s apple pie is not happening. I locked that recipe in a dark corner of my heart and threw away the key. How can a source of so much love and joy become a vessel for so much grief?
I baked him the apple pie for his birthday last year, as was our tradition. Then I went to his office in the Loop—which contains Chicago’s financial district—to surprise him.
Turns out, the surprise was on me. I stood on the other side of the street holding a hot pie in my hands and watching him kiss Margo on the lips—repeatedly.
That’s how I found out about their affair.
I didn’t tell anyone, however—not Lala and definitely not Mom. I didn’t even confront him, even though I felt pure rage coursing through my bloodstream. It was too much to process.
The pie went straight into the nearest trash bin along with the childish belief my parents’ love was indestructible. I ran to the nearest L station and got on the first train heading to God knows where. I just sat inside the train car, watching the city landscape through blurry, tear-filled eyes.
After that, I enrolled in more baking classes and decided nothing existed outside the kitchen. I needed a reason to get out of our house while my parents fought their way through an excruciating divorce. It got to the point I couldn’t look either one in the face. It hurt too much.
In the kitchen, no one could harm me—hot pans aside. In that sterile, stainless steel environment, I was in complete control.
In the end, all those extra classes worked out in my favor. That focus got me into Grattard’s program. And I’m not about to let up now.
“I can make you an apple clafoutis instead. I have to practice that anyway.”
“It’s not the same,” he argues.
As my saving grace, Margo enters the kitchen.
“Bonjour,” she says, pinning her long blonde hair up in a loose bun over her head. She stops next to Papi and plants a kiss on his lips. I look away. It’s still too soon to call this normal. It may always be too soon.
“I’m so hungry,” she says, the hungry sounding like ungry.
Margo opens the fridge and peers in. It’s full of my leftovers and all the meals she hasn’t eaten. She glances over a few containers but doesn’t take any out. Finally she closes the fridge, walks over to the bread box, and takes out a loaf. “Bread and butter est all I can eat.”
Her overextended belly rubs against the counter as she spreads half a stick of butter over two slices of bread. I really hope this is a pregnancy thing.
Papi and I watch her take the bread layered with butter to her mouth, bite, and moan as if this is the best thing she’s ever tasted. No matter how hard I try, I can’t compete with French butter.
“Four more weeks,” she says, sitting on a stool and rubbing her belly in a circular motion. It’s impossible to imagine that in a month I’ll be someone’s half sister. We’ll be seventeen years apart. It’s weird.
“I’m going to the market. Can I borrow Margo’s car?” I ask Papi.
“Margo and I are heading to Lyon to get some things for the baby’s room,” he says.
“James is painting the walls a soft yellow,” Margo adds, resting her hand on Papi’s arm. He reaches for her, covering her hand with his.
“Gender neutral yellow.” Papi winks in my direction. They decided to keep the baby’s gender a surprise until it’s born, which has only added to my big-sister anxiety. It will be hard enough being the sister of a girl. But a baby boy is a whole different ball game. When I babysat for our neighbors back home in Chicago, the boys were always dirty, stinky, and messy. Boys are like ghost peppers—pain-inducing interlopers whose nature is to wreak havoc.
Papi doesn’t care about the gender as long as the baby is born “happy and healthy,” but I think Margo wants a girl. I’ve seen the starry-eyed way she beholds pink baby clothes. It’s the same way I look at designer cake stands.
“I’ll only be a minute,” I say, shuffling my notes into my market bag. “I’ll be back before you know it and you guys can leave.”
I catch the sideways glance Margo shoots at Papi. One of her eyebrows raises so high it distorts the features on half of her face. She doesn’t say anything, though; she simply walks out of the kitchen.
“I swear, I’ll be back in half an hour, tops,” I plead.
“Isa, honey, the market is like a black hole with you. It sucks you in and spits you out half a day later. Take the bike.”
“When are you getting a real car?” I ask, exasperated.
“I already have a car.”
“An old truck that is permanently hitched to a trailer doesn’t count as a car. That thing is too big to park in town.”
“It’s a great day for a bike ride. And I’m pretty sure Jakub would love to get his pastries.” He stands, kisses the side of my head as he always does, and leaves.
I watch him stroll down the hallway, his shoulders loose and his feet bare. He seems so at ease in his worn-out jeans and faded T-shirt. It’s unnerving. He’s so not the overstressed father I grew up with. I barely recognize this man. And I have no idea what to make of him.
I sling my bag over my shoulder and across my chest. Then I head outside to pull Margo’s old cruiser bike out of the garden shed, placing the tin of kołaczki cookies inside the basket between the handlebars.
Papi was right about one thing—the weather is perfect for a bike ride. The midmorning sun warms my arms as I pedal down the driveway.
I veer from the main road and take the long way to the town market, riding through the cherry orchards.
Villa des Fleurs—as Margo’s family estate is called—sits on a hill in the town of Bessenay, surrounded by acres of cherry trees.
I slow down as I pass a group of farmers dangling from high ladders. The way they almost defy gravity reminds me of circus acrobats. With the harvest at its peak, their days are consumed with collecting red fruit from the trees. The work looks grueling, but somehow they always manage to wave and smile when I pass by.
I look around, searching for Jakub or his parents. They’re a sweet family of Polish seasonal workers. Papi said they come every year to help with the harvest.
I find Jakub playing with a toy truck under the shade of a tree. I smile and wave the tin in the air for him to see.
“Isabella!” he yells, waving me over.
I rest the bike on its kickstand and sit on the blanket next to him.
“What did you bring me today?” he asks in his basic French. I don’t speak Polish and he doesn’t speak English, so we practice French on each other.
“Kołaczki,” I say, lifting the lid off the tin to reveal two dozen (minus one) perfectly assembled Polish pastries. “I made you three different flavors: blueberry, apricot, and cheese.” I point at a piece of paper taped to the lid with the three flavors translated into Polish.
He takes the tin from my hands and sets it in front of him, then stares at the pastries for a long time before finally choosing one with the blueberry filling. I wait expectantly for the verdict.
He scarfs it down, then reaches for a second. This time, he goes for the apricot.
“So?” I ask.
He shrugs, reaching into the tin for a third with his free hand. The boy is double fisting the pastries, has crumbs on the sides of his mouth, and his little fingers are covered in powdered sugar. Baking doesn’t get any better than this.
“Do you like them?” I ask.
“My mama’s are much, much better,” he says, his mouth full. “Yours are okay too.”
I laugh hard. A five-year-old just became my toughest critic.
“You promised the chocolate chips,” he reminds me.
“I know, I know,” I say apologetically. I dust off some of the powdered sugar that has covered the front of his overalls. “Next time, I promise.”
I take the tin away from him and put the lid back on. “These are for later.”
His mom won’t forgive me if I feed him so much sugar, he’s bouncing off the walls—or trees in this case.
“I have to go. I’ll see you later, okay?”
He plants a sugar-dusted kiss on my cheek, then takes the tin and runs to his parents’ side. I watch him pop the lid open and offer them a treat. They each take one and grin. I wave a hello in their direction as I get back on my bike and pedal away.
As the sun hits my face, a wave of optimism swells in my chest. Great things are about to happen, I tell myself. Nothing can ruin this perfect day.