BUCKSPORT — Food, whether it’s fajitas or Italy’s Neapolitan Easter cake, has been a constant in Jarrett Melendez’s life and career. The 2004 Bucksport High School graduate spoke about his career as a food writer and graphic novelist in a virtual conversation during Pride Month at the Buck Memorial Library earlier this summer.
From his home in Boston, Melendez spoke about his literary career and his latest book, Chef’s Kiss (2022, Oni Press). He has teamed up with Canadian comic artist/illustrator and friend Danica Brine to produce the one-star graphic novel by Publishers’ Weekly.
“It’s going really well critically,” Melendez said. “We’re thrilled with how people are responding. We ended up on many recommendation lists. Comic Book Resources listed it as one of their Pride Picks.”
Neither Melendez nor Brine have ever had much to do with comics.
“From the start,” he said, “they wanted it to be a queer romance, and with my background in food, we wanted it to be some kind of kitchen environment.”
It was important to them to set a bright tone.
“None of us wanted to create anything that was about queer trauma,” said the 36-year-old author. “Those types of stories are incredibly important – but we really wanted them to be normalized.”
So Melendez got to work writing his first comic book script when he wasn’t submitting articles for Bon Appetit magazine or online cooking site Food52.
“I learned how to write a comic script and how to format it,” he said. “I wrote between four and six pages every day until it was finished. Danica made some example graphics and we presented them together.”
Three publishers were interested in Chef’s Kiss, but an independent publisher in Portland, Oregon, Oni Press, settled on the publishing rights. Oni Press also owns a production company that made the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which was initially a comic book.
“Bon Appétit collaborator Jarrett Melendez combines his culinary skills and talent for fiction in this charming graphic novel, creating the perfect blend of romance and self-discovery,” wrote Publishers Weekly. “Ben Cook has just graduated from college and dreams of getting a publishing job but has absolutely no career prospects, a secret he keeps from his helicopter parents.”
Melendez says writing a comic book script is “a different monster than writing a film or television script. There’s a lot to consider because unlike camera turns, we have to rely on page turns for disclosures.”
“When you have a big reveal, you don’t want it to be on the right page, you want them to turn the page,” he explained. In Chef’s Kiss, the characters go on a date and the location is a surprise for the protagonist. “So the reader sees what he sees almost simultaneously.”
Born in Miami, Melendez moved to Bucksport with his family when he was 9 years old.
“It wasn’t super easy because I’m Latino. Bucksport was predominantly white at the time,” he recalls. “I think there were three or four other black people in high school while I was there. It wasn’t easy being in the closet either.”
“I was afraid of coming out,” he continued. “But at the same time I found my people, people I’m friends with to this day. I will never forget the people who made life easier for me during this difficult time in my life. They were the people I felt I could most be myself with. One of the big themes in “Chef’s Kiss” is family. There are people who are a part of your life forever, even if you don’t see them all the time.”
Melendez also began this year as co-editor of Epicurious, an award-winning food website.
“With COVID, I had to make a switch,” he said. “A lot of my income came from comic conventions. They have been closed.”
The writer saw Bon Appetit looking for pitches and eventually became a freelancer for the magazine as well as Food52. All of that work led to a position at Epicurious.
While Melendez is a food writer, he’s definitely more of a writer than a chef, although he enjoys being in the kitchen.
“I was always in the kitchen with my mom when she was cooking,” he said. “It just took off from there. When I was a teenager I worked at the grill. I learned some of our family recipes. It never really interested me professionally, I really didn’t want to work in the kitchen. I ended up working in the kitchen, but I wasn’t interested in a career in cooking or anything like that.”
“I’m Mexican, among other things – French, Italian, Spanish too,” he said. “My mom used to make pasta and lots of Mexican rice and frijoles. Fajitas were another common dish.”
Melendez is in the midst of a handful of projects, including completing a graphic memoir.
“I’ve just signed on to write a queer sci-fi love story with Steve Orlando,” said an American comic book writer.
Melendez is also working on details for a sequel to Chef’s Kiss.