Romance Novels Are Increasingly Getting Hot and Heavy in the Kitchen

If you watch cooking content online, Chef’s Kiss, the recently released book by author TJ Alexander, might feel a little familiar. A romance between an uptight recipe developer named Simone and a chill test kitchen manager named Ray, the story — set at an established food magazine — reads like an alternate universe of a very real, very YouTube-famous test kitchen, right down to the legacy print publication that pivots to video and the affable kitchen manager who finds internet success while experimenting with fermentation.

Or let’s say you prefer your cooking content flashier and with higher stakes, just like all those cooking and baking competition shows. For Butter or Worse, the upcoming debut from author Erin La Rosa, is set in the world of food-themed reality TV with a love affair between a grumpy chef named Nina and a “cinnamon roll hero” (warm and gooey on the inside) restaurateur named Leo, who go from enemies to lovers while hosting a competition called The Next Cooking Champ!

If that doesn’t do, you’re still likely to find whatever romantic permutation you want involving a chef or cooking show contestant or food blogger, because between 2020 and this upcoming summer, major publishers will have released over two dozen food-themed romance novels in both adult and young adult categories. (And that’s not including releases set further in the future.)

As a book premise, the initial appeal of food is obvious: Authors are writing about what they like. For Great British Bake Off “armchair quarterback” TJ Alexander, Chef’s Kiss was a chance to play with foods they couldn’t execute in real life. “You get to come up with these creative ideas of how you would do it if you had the skills,” Alexander says. And while writing 2021’s Accidentally Engaged, in which an avid baker falls into a fake-dating scheme with her neighbor during a food competition, author Farah Heron was coming off a two-year sourdough obsession; accordingly, her main character is a bread enthusiast with sourdough starters named Brian, Bob, and Sue, just like Heron’s.

Beyond mirroring an author’s own hobbies, food is the perfect plot device for the kinds of moments and personal revelations that are essential for romance’s meet-cute to conflict to happy ending pipeline, and whether it’s televised competitions or dueling food trucks, the food world is a convenient setting for romance’s popular tropes and story structures. Food, like sex, is a sensual experience that fits into romance’s sense of delight. But above all is the evergreen popularity of food — there is more food to watch, read, listen to, and consume than ever, yet audiences remain interested.

“Food and romance have always paired together really well,” says Kristine Swartz, a senior editor at Berkley Publishing Group who has worked in the industry for 10 years. She was the editor behind Jackie Lau’s Donut Fall in Love, released in fall 2021, in which a baker falls for an actor after he knocks down a stack of her doughnuts. In a testament to the niche’s popularity, Julie Tieu’s Donut Trap, in which a woman falls for her college crush while working at her parents’ doughnut shop, was released two weeks later. Though food has always been prevalent in love stories, “We’re using it more in novels as a high-concept hook to get readers interested,” says Swartz.

That tracks with the bookseller’s perspective, according to Leah Koch, who co-opened the Los Angeles romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice in 2016. “I definitely have seen what feels to me like a lot [of food-themed romances] coming out in the past, let’s say, three years,” says Koch. She links this trend to the rise in Bake Off’s popularity stateside and adds that she can name “like six” that are “thinly veiled versions” of the show. (Netflix added Bake Off to American streaming in 2015, and a slew of similar shows have followed.) Where the romance novels of her youth might have featured small-town cupcake shop owners, today’s love stories trend toward fictional food stars with national-level name recognition, Koch explains.

The food TV and food-themed romance boom is indicative of how much food’s role in pop culture has evolved over the past few decades. Unlike the Snackwell’s-filled ’90s when she grew up, “food is being more openly enjoyed and discussed,” says For Butter or Worse’s Erin La Rosa. What draws her to both food shows and romance novels is the escapism — both guarantee good feelings at the end. “I feel like this foodie romance surge is helping, for lack of a better word, feed into the moment we’re having where it’s not only acceptable to enjoy food and celebrate it, but it’s expected and encouraged,” La Rosa says.

And with the rise of food-themed romance comes a welcome byproduct. Just as food shows like No Reservations and Take Out with Lisa Ling have put the spotlight on under-acknowledged histories and stories, food is helping move the needle in a genre that’s faced increased calls for diversity. Through food, a broader range of love stories is getting the backing of the publishing industry. “The other reason [for the trend] is that major publishers are trying to acquire more books written by nonwhite authors,” says Koch — who has, with her sister and co-founder Bea, published five years of independent reports on the state of racial diversity in romance publishing. “A lot of them are about food.”

Given that only 6 percent of romance releases from major publishers in 2017 were written by authors of color, according to that year’s Ripped Bodice report, the diversity of authors within the current culinary romance boom is striking, pointing to genre-wide changes. Though the Kochs didn’t write a full report in 2021, they found that the number of romance releases written by authors of color in 2021 had risen to almost 12 percent, holding 2020’s levels.

“The [food-themed romance] trend really started with a lot of stories about people of color and different cultures,” says Accidentally Engaged’s Farah Heron. In that book, Heron’s characters mirror her own background; her family is from East Africa but has Indian heritage, and she currently lives in Canada. With food so integral to immigrant communities, “it makes sense — if we want to write a story where people can see a tiny bit into our culture — that food would be at the forefront,” Heron says. As relatable as it is marketable, food is a frequent conduit for the kinds of stories mainstream media hasn’t always made space for; consider the narratives Anthony Bourdain was able to sneak into food travel.

Accidentally Engaged is anchored by Zanzibar egg curry, which the two love interests cook together in a rural Canadian farmhouse for a video. It’s a homey and culturally specific dish, Heron explains. But unsure that readers would relate to it, Heron considered featuring “the Indian food that everybody knows” instead. In the end, Heron opted to share her culture with readers, which helped ground the story in reality. “What would they really be eating? Not just tandoori chicken and naan,” Heron says.

This sense of inclusion through food extends beyond cultural background alone. Expanding romance’s queer stories are new releases like Alexander’s Chef’s Kiss (one love interest is nonbinary and the other is bisexual and cisgender), as well as Susie Dumond’s Queerly Beloved, in which a baker and bartender falls for the new engineer in town. “I wanted to introduce people who maybe haven’t thought of it this way [that] cooking and baking is queer culture,” says Alexander, who notes that one reason they like Bake Off is because they expect to see queer folks on screen, having a chance to show off their talents. “To me, [food] was a natural fit for telling this story.”

Food has always been a way to make the commonalities and the differences between cultures more legible and accessible. “Going back to the idea that food and romance are universal human needs, it’s an easy entry point for authors to show their culture or their heritage and educate their readers,” says Swartz. With the common narrative of “everybody eats,” food is also often portrayed as bridging gaps between those who might not otherwise see eye to eye, with the consumption of food sometimes conflated with a smoothing of fundamental disagreements.

Despite the role food might take on in her books, Heron clarifies that her goal is to write a comforting love story with elements that feel fresh and new, not a cookbook or “a manual about how to relate to South Asian people.” That food acts as a tool for representation and introduction is a welcome effect, but it certainly isn’t the point.

With all these similar books on the market, is it possible that we’re approaching peak food romance? For that reason, La Rosa encountered some rejection in the process of selling For Butter or Worse. “There absolutely was a saturation of foodie romances when I was even looking for agents for my book,” she says. That was followed by concerns of redundancy from publishers, and realizing there’d be so many similar books stirred a bit of worry, she recalls.

To that end, Swartz, the book editor, points out that it’s common for stories to sound the same when they’re boiled down to the highest concept, though the differences become clear upon reading. Case in point: Last year’s rivaling doughnut romances, or the fact that both Heron’s Accidentally Engaged and La Rosa’s For Butter or Worse feel different despite having similar conceits. As far as Swartz is concerned, food isn’t going anywhere as a romance subcategory. “I think that it will always be an interest for authors to write in this space and for readers to read in it,” she says.

Koch, however, hopes to see some shake-ups to the niche beyond the Bake Off premise. “I’m always the curmudgeon — by the time someone calls me about a trend, I’m like, can we do something else now?” Koch says. She’d like to see food-themed romances expand to include more stories about farmers, or people who make artisanal cider, or restaurant critics, for example.

But no matter how much the food in romance novels draws upon reality, fiction will always have an advantage. Take the indulgent chocolate trifle that’s part of a grand romantic gesture in Chef’s Kiss: “I tried to make it in real life,” says Alexander, who acknowledges that they’re successful in the kitchen “like 75 percent of the time.” Despite how well the trifle read on the page, in real life, Alexander says, “It was terrible — I couldn’t eat more than one bite of it in a single sitting.”