BUCKSPORT — Food, whether fajitas or Italy’s Neapolitan Easter cake, has been a constant in Jarrett Melendez’s life and career. The 2004 Bucksport High School graduate recently earlier this summer spoke about his career as a food writer and graphic novelist in a virtual conversation during Pride Month at Buck Memorial Library.
Speaking from his Boston home, Melendez talked about his literary career and latest book, “Chef’s Kiss” (2022, Oni Press). He partnered with Canadian comic artist/illustrator and friend Danica Brine to produce the graphic novel, which has gotten a starred review by Publishers’ Weekly.
“Critically it’s doing really well,” Melendez said. “We’re thrilled with how it’s resonating with people. We’ve ended up on a lot of 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 get-go,” 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.”
Setting a light tone was important to them.
“Neither of us wanted to create anything centered around queer trauma,” the 36-year-old writer said. “Those types of stories are incredibly important — but we really wanted it to be normalized.”
So, Melendez got to work writing his first comic book script when he wasn’t submitting articles to Bon Appetit magazine or the online cooking site Food52.
“I learned how to write a comic book script and how to format it,” he said. “I did between four and six pages every day until it was done. Danica did some sample art and we pitched it together.”
Three publishers were interested in “Chef’s Kiss” but an independent publisher in Portland, Ore., Oni Press, wound up with the publishing rights. Oni Press also owns a production company, which created the 2010 film “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” which was first a comic book.
“Bon Appétit contributor Jarrett Melendez blends his culinary skill and knack for fiction into a perfect mix of romance and self-discovery in this charming graphic novel,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “Ben Cook has just graduated college with the dream of landing a publishing job but has absolutely no professional prospects, a secret he’s keeping from his helicopter parents.”
Melendez says writing a comic script is a “different monster from a film or a TV script. There’s a lot to consider because as opposed to camera turns, we have to rely on page turns for reveals.”
“If you’ve got a big reveal, you wouldn’t want it 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 gets to see what he sees at almost the same time that he sees it.”
Born in Miami, Melendez and his family moved to Bucksport when he was 9.
“It was not super easy because I’m Latino. Bucksport at the time was predominately white,” he recalls. “I think there were three or four other kids of color in high school in my time there. Being closeted also wasn’t super easy.”
“I was terrified of coming out,” he continued. “But at the same time, I did find my people, people I’m still friends with to this day. I will never ever forget the people who made my life easier during that rough period of my life. They were the people I felt I could be myself the most around. One of the big themes in ‘Chef’s Kiss’ is found 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 working 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 conventions. They got shut down.”
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 writer than cook, although he does enjoy 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. By the time I was a teenager I was working the grill. I was learning a bunch of our family recipes. I was never really interested in it as a career, I didn’t really want to work in kitchens. I did end 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 sci-fi queer romance story that I’m co-writing with Steve Orlando,” an American comic book writer, he said.
Melendez also is also working out details for a sequel to “Chef’s Kiss.”