Desert Isle Keeper
The Secret Ingredient
A fantastic, touching, charming romance with a sweet core, The Secret Ingredient is a handsome and homespun contemporary about life in small-town Maine.
Adah Campbell and her nine-year-old son Peter have just moved to North Point, Maine. Adah grew up in the Ozarks and Peter was born and raised in Ohio, so this place, and the idea of solid roots and a permanent home are new to both of them. The fundamentalist religious background, laden with emotional abuse from her minister father, in which Adah grew up did not make room for either her queerness or Peter being conceived out of wedlock, and thus her found family is her true family – it also leaves her reluctant to trust in romance. Adah is set to be the new head chef at Bella Vista, a new and fancy venture from a corporate chain, but it’s not easy getting a new kitchen together from scratch.
Baker Beth Summers is a decorated workaholic chef who runs her own bakery and restaurant, The Yellow House, having moved back home to take over the business following her mother’s passing. But she would much rather be travelling the world and indulging her wanderlust. Aside from the restaurant, her whole life is her dog, Hamlet, and trying to keep The Yellow House the success it was when her mother ran it.
Adah and Beth’s initial impressions of one another are not favorable. Beth’s rudeness at chance meeting at Beth’s restaurant turns Adah off, as does and an uncomfortable beach encounter where Adah plainly disapproves of Beth’s keeping Hamlet off his leash. The fact that they’re running competing establishments does not help, and nor does the fact that Adah’s preference for molecular gastronomy and haute cuisine clashes with Beth’s rustic home-style food and farm-to-table ethos. But Beth’s desire for Adah is strong in spite of the conflict, while Adah must be convinced, slowly. When their love affair begins to build, jealousy over past relationships and stress from their jobs might taint their burgeoning bond.
What’s most impressive about The Secret Ingredient is Fisher’s eye for detail. She has a great eye, both for life in a tiny coastal Maine resort town and the drama and disasters that take place daily in restaurant kitchens everywhere. Everything from temperamental chefs to nightmare reviews and annoying customers are addressed – along with the joys of creation and the art of forming a menu. All beautifully and accurately handled, all written with joy and verve.
Adah and Beth are interesting for their own reasons. Adah for her love of food and her son, both things tempered by a closed off nature as a result of the abuse she suffered, a nature that must slowly be cultivated to openness. Beth for her free-spirited hippie aesthetic, her love of the community, and her willingness to engage with Adah’s trauma no matter the cost.
The romance is yin and yang, butch and femme, cake and foie gras. It’s a very, very slow burner, but if you hang in there you’re going to love it.
The supporting characters are great, headed by Peter, who feels like a realistic nine-year-old. I liked Peter and Adah’s mother/son relationship, and Adah’s relationship with her best friend, Jay, who moves from Ohio to Maine after his engagement falls apart to act as Adah’s pastry chef. Vanessa, her landlord and soon Peter’s frequent babysitter, is also a fun character.
The Secret Ingredient is warm, atmospheric, and strongly written enough to make your stomach and libido growl. It’s more than worth a spot on your keeper shelf.