BUCKSPORT – Food, whether it’s fajitas or the Italian Neapolitan Easter cake, has been a constant in Jarrett Melendez’s life and career. The 2004 Bucksport High School graduate recently opened up about his career as a food writer and graphic novelist in a virtual chat during Pride Month at the Buck Memorial Library.
Speaking from his home in Boston, Melendez opened up about his literary career and his latest book, “Chef’s Kiss” (2022, Oni Press). He teamed up with Canadian comic book artist/illustrator and friend Danica Brine to produce the graphic novel, which earned a star-studded review from Publishers’ Weekly.
“Basically, it works really well,” Melendez said. “We are thrilled with how it resonates with people. We ended up on many recommendation lists. Comic Book Resources listed it as one of their Pride Picks.
Neither Melendez nor Brine had ever done much in 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 a kind of cooking environment.”
Setting a light tone was important to them.
“None of us wanted to create anything centered around queer trauma,” the 36-year-old writer said. “These types of stories are incredibly important – but we really wanted them to be normalized.”
So, Melendez got to work writing his first comic script while not submitting articles to Bon Appetit magazine or the online cooking site Food52.
“I learned how to write a comic script and how to format it,” he said. “I did between four and six pages a day until it was done. Danica did some sample art and we presented it together.
Three publishers were interested in “Chef’s Kiss”, but an independent Portland, Oregon publisher, Oni Press, ended up with the publishing rights. Oni Press also owns a production company, which created the 2010 movie “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”, which was a comic book first.
“Bon Appétit contributor Jarrett Melendez blends his culinary skills and flair for fiction with the perfect blend of romance and self-discovery in this charming graphic novel,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “Ben Cook has just graduated from college with the dream of landing a job in publishing, but has absolutely no career prospects, a secret he hides from his helicopter parents.”
Melendez says writing a comic book script is “a different monster than writing a movie or TV script. There’s a lot to consider because, unlike camera turns, we have to rely on page turns for reveals.
“If you have a big reveal, you don’t want it to be on the right page, you want them to move on,” he explained. In “Chef’s Kiss”, the characters have a date and the place is a surprise for the protagonist. “So the reader can see what he sees almost at the same time he sees it.”
Born in Miami, Melendez and his family moved to Bucksport when he was 9 years old.
“It wasn’t super easy because I’m Latino. At the time, Bucksport was predominantly white,” he recalls. “I think there were three or four other kids of color in high school while I was there. Being locked up wasn’t easy either.
“I was terrified of going out,” he continued. “But at the same time, I found my people, people I’m still friends with to this day. I’ll never forget the people who made my life easier during that difficult time in my life. They were the people I felt I could be the most myself with. One of the big themes of “Chef’s Kiss” is family. There are people who are a part of your life forever even if you don’t see them not all the time.
Melendez also started work this year as associate editor of Epicurious, an award-winning food website.
“With COVID, I had to pivot,” he said. “A lot of my income came from comic book conventions. They have been closed.
The writer saw that Bon Appetit was looking for pitches and ended up freelancing 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 cook, although he enjoys being in the kitchen.
“I always hung out with my mom in the kitchen when she was cooking,” he said. “It just took off from there. When I was a teenager, I worked on the grill. I was learning a lot of our family recipes. It never really interested me as a job, I didn’t really want to work in the kitchens. I ended up working in kitchens, but I wasn’t interested in a culinary career or anything like that.
“I’m Mexican in addition to other things – French, Italian, Spanish too,” he said. “My mom always made pasta and lots of Mexican rice and frijoles. Fajitas were another frequent dish.
Melendez is in the middle of a handful of projects, including finishing a graphic memoir.
“I just signed a contract for a queer sci-fi love story that I’m co-writing with Steve Orlando,” he said.
Melendez is also working on details for a sequel to “Chef’s Kiss.”