A Taste of Sage
Food is the Michelin star of Yaffa S. Santos’ début rom-com, A Taste of Sage. This enemies-to-lovers story serves up delectable culinary details and a creative magical realism premise, but it ultimately fails to satisfy. If this novel were an entrée, then it would be salmon. It looks totally appetizing, but after several bites, you’re hugely disappointed that you can’t enjoy the fishy flavor. (I might be alone in my complicated relationship with salmon. But you get the point.)
Lumi Santana is not only an adventurous Dominican fusion chef, but she is also some kind of a gustorial empath. She can discern the emotions of a person by tasting food that he or she has prepared. (This intriguing aspect of Lumi’s character is not integral to the story until much later. #bummer)
When Lumi is forced to close her New York City restaurant, she aims to rebuild her finances and eventually reopen her business. So she takes a job as a sous chef at a classic French restaurant owned by volatile celebrity chef Julien Dax. Julien’s rude, condescending tone and pompous shenanigans infuriate Lumi, who is loath to admit that her boss is extremely good-looking. As the two cook side by side, their mutual physical attraction sizzles. The beguiled Julien vows to win Lumi’s heart by proving to her that he is not the a-hole he appears to be. (Julien’s efforts appear desperate and a tad obsessive.) Unfortunately for Julien, Lumi’s pathological distrust of men poses an obstacle. As this hot-for-each-other couple heats up the kitchen (yes, there is kitchen sex), they must figure out if their love affair is just a flash in the pan.
Santos’s vivid descriptions of fresh ingredients, inventive meals, and Lumi’s trademark cooking flair bring A Taste of Sage to life in an exciting way, and the enticing aromas and palate-pleasing flavors she creates are deeply felt on the page. Santos does a good job of writing Lumi as a sympathetic and relatable character who aspires to achieving her dreams, and she is especially likeable when assuming her ‘Chef Lumi’ identity, which is incredibly confident and self-possessed. It is only when the sometimes obnoxious, sometimes enigmatic Julien is around that Lumi falls to pieces. (I often tried to ‘boo him off-stage.’)
The joining together of Lumi and Julien feels forced. Admittedly, their romantic gestures to each other deliver ‘ahh…aww’ moments, but their love feels shallow. First off, Lumi exudes more passion for cooking than she does for Julien; she is truly a better person when she is in chef mode and creating menus. Secondly, if Julien hadn’t doggedly pursued Lumi as his romantic partner, then the stubbornly resistant Lumi would have most likely moved on. For a good part of the novel, Lumi doesn’t seem terribly invested in a romantic relationship, while Julien pretty much forces himself into Lumi’s life. He apparently wears her down with his hotness, his silly smiles, and his confusing ‘dad jokes.’ And, even though Lumi never addresses it, she must have swooned over Julien’s weirdly random way of speaking like a Victorian England dandy. #supernothot Julien’s failed attempts at humor must fulfill the publisher’s “hilarious rom-com” claim because, in retrospect, A Taste of Sage is not at all funny.
Aside from reading a rom-com that doesn’t excel on either front, I was disappointed by the underutilization of Lumi’s extrasensory perception. Not only are the parameters and scope of her supernatural ability unclear and largely unexplained, but many chapters pass without any mention of her magical taste buds. Santos primarily uses Lumi’s psychic gift as an absurd contrivance that provides some direction to the otherwise meandering plot.
In my opinion, A Taste of Sage would have worked better as women’s fiction than as a romance. I would have loved for the novel to have simply focused on Lumi’s struggle to revive her defunct restaurant while dealing with the challenges of tasting other’s feelings. Regardless, Yaffa S. Santos’ novel is a pleasant enough read with great ‘food porn’ that includes recipes that will appeal to bookish foodies.