I always love a book that I can escape into and be transported to another country. Paris is near the top of my destination wish list, so I was looking forward to Samantha Vérant‘s new novel, The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique. Set against the opening of a new Parisian bistro, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance with delicious descriptions of food and a hint of magic. Throw in some meddling mothers and a slightly uncanny cat and you have a winning book.
Special thanks to the publicists at Penguin Random House and to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!
Kate has lived in Paris for 13 years—nearly half her life—and after working her way up in the culinary world, she’s finally opening her own restaurant. But while she’s an excellent chef and a pro at planning things out, she’s plagued by bad luck, making her opening night less than stellar. Luckily, the woman who owns Kate’s building—Garrrance, a Spice Master—takes a shining to her and offers to help… as long as Kate goes along some specific stipulations. Top of the list is working with Garrance’s son, Charles, who just happens to be the downstairs neighbor that she hates. After meeting Garrance, Kate starts having strange visions, seemingly in reaction to the woman’s exotic spices. Will Kate’s restaurant finally be a success with the help of Garrance and Charles? And can love happen between two enemy coworkers, despite all their mothers’ meddling?
One of the things I loved most about The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique is how the author has infused it with insights into French culture. As an American who has lived in France for many years, she offers a perspective that I could relate to as an American who has also lived in Europe (though in my case, it was Spain). Especially early on, this novel shares Kate’s impressions of Paris after living there for the past 13 years. I enjoyed these cultural insights and the culture clashes she has with some characters. On a related note, I loved how much French is used throughout the text, and it’s often not translated. This allowed me to practice my (extremely limited) French, and in any case, most of it could be understood by context clues. Don’t let the use of French scare you off from reading it! It only adds to the sense that The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique has whisked us readers off to Paris.
While this is largely a romance—and I’ll get to that in just a moment—I also enjoy the focus on Kate as a talented chef and entrepreneur. She’s consistently shown to be skilled in the kitchen, organized, and a doer. By all accounts, her bistro’s grand opening should be a success. Alas, bad luck seems to have gotten in the way, but with a little help from some new friends, things could turn around.
Interestingly, the titular character isn’t Kate, but the woman who owns her building: Garrance. This generous, wealthy woman wants to help Kate with her sense of style, her powerful spices, and her chef son, Charles. Much of the book dives into Kate’s relationship with Garrance, her own mother, and her upstairs neighbor-turned-employee-turned-friend Oded. Kate has good people around her, and even with their quirks (new agey discussions; magical spices and scents; overly fancy and slightly creepy cat), it’s clear that they all genuinely want the best for her.
And then there’s Charles. I have to admit, his introduction did not convince me he was a suitable love interest at all. He was so rude! And immature! Of course, even while hating him, Kate can’t help but notice how handsome he is. She dubs him the Anti-Keanu until, to her dismay, she discover’s that he’s Garrance’s son… the one she has to work with now. Charles is somewhat mercurial, and after throwing out an unconvincing apology, he suddenly seems super into Kate. Despite this book being a romance, I found their love story to be the least convincing aspect of the book. If Charles had been less of a jerk at the beginning, I would have been able to better enjoy everything that came after. Indeed, most of their later love story is cute. Except the final act conflict; that was also unnecessary in my opinion.
Two other themes stand out in The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique. One is the hint of magical realism that runs throughout the novel. Thanks to Garrance’s unparalleled scents and spices, the characters have some rather dramatic reactions to the food and restaurant. What is in those spices?! Kate, in particular, imagines all kinds of salacious scenarios every time she’s anywhere near (or just thinking about) Charles. Is his mother putting a lusty spell on them? With all the sexual fantasies—and all of Kate’s mother’s spontaneous, awkward talk of sex (she’s a sex therapist)—you would think that this novel might end up being a rather spicy (pun intended) romance. And on that you’d be wrong. Kate and Charles don’t get intimate until the end, and it’s a fade-to-black scene. Not that I need all romances to have open-door scenes, but it doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the book.
The other theme, of course, is the frequent and detailed descriptions of food and cooking. From picking ingredients to coming up with recipes to tasting the final product, this book is fully immersed in the culinary world. I’m no chef, but I can appreciate good food, and this book certainly left me hungry! Luckily, the author includes several recipes at the end. I may just have to try some of them out! (Or, more likely, make my husband cook them! He’s the chef in our household.)
All in all, there’s a lot I loved about The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique: the French setting, culture, and language; the subtle magical realism; the food descriptions; the relationships between friends and family; Juju the cat. It’s only the romance that was a little lacking for me. It got off to a rocky start, but ignoring that, it was overall a sweet relationship. This is only the first book by Samantha Vérant that I’ve read, but I am eager to read more from her.
Get the Book
You can buy The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique here – it’s available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique by Samantha Vérant|
|Genre||Romance; Women’s Fiction|
|Number of Pages||352|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||December 6, 2022|
A talented chef discovers how spices and scents can transport her—and, more importantly, how self-confidence can unlock the greatest magic of all: love—in this perfectly seasoned new novel by Samantha Vérant.
Kate Jenkins doesn’t believe in fate. She believes in a clear vision, meticulous planning, and hard work in order to achieve her culinary dreams. On the cusp of opening her own Parisian restaurant, Bistro Exotique, she isn’t even concerned when her standoffish—and annoyingly sexy—neighbor dismisses her as a crazy American tourist or when she meets the wildly eccentric Garrance, the self-proclaimed Spice Master of Paris, who ominously warns her of the previous owner’s failures.
Confident and optimistic, Kate keeps calm and cooks on. Until a series of unfortunate events derail her plans and her entire staff quits.
Kate is about to throw in the kitchen towel on her lifelong dream when Garrance offers to use her mastery of scents and spices to help her, but it comes at a price: Kate must work with Garrance’s son, Charles, a world-class chef and total jerk. After Kate hesitantly concedes to the deal, she slowly learns to open her heart and mind to new concepts, not quite sure if the magic she’s experiencing comes from Garrance’s spices, from within herself, or from the growing chemistry with Charles. One thing is certain, though: her kitchen is getting increasingly hot.
About the Author
Samantha Vérant is a travel addict, a self-professed oenophile, and a determined, if occasionally unconventional, at home French chef. She lives in southwestern France, where she’s married to a sexy French rocket scientist she met in 1989 (but ignored for twenty years), a stepmom to two incredible kids, and the adoptive mother to a ridiculously adorable French cat. When she’s not trekking from Provence to the Pyrénées or embracing her inner Julia Child, Sam is making her best effort to relearn those dreaded conjugations.
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