Here’s a sneak peek at Chapter One of Can’t Stand the Heat, a queer rom-com that takes place during the heat of a reality cooking competition. If you Can’t Stand the Heat, get out of the kitchen.
“Good Luck, asshole.” Reading the loopy script sentiment written in blue icing over rainbow sprinkles makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I swipe my finger through the icing and hum as the creamy texture coats my tongue.
“Sorry, Ryan,” Rupert, our CEO, says. “Penny was in charge of the cake.”
“I figured as much. I am living for this cake though. I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
“Well, I bet you’ll have your chance to find out,” Misa says, raising one perfectly manicured brow.
“Yeah, Mr. Big-Shot TV Star,” Penny chimes in. Her lime-green skirt billows out as she twirls around Misa. Her energy is as vibrant as her outfit and such a contrast to Misa’s monochromatic power suit. Those two are the yin and yang to lesbian love—it just works.
Rena, the office’s fearless receptionist, still wearing her headset as if she’s waiting for my drive-thru order, snags a slice of cake from the table. “I don’t like sprinkles,” she says before devouring the entire thing in three bites. I don’t tell her that sprinkles are mostly made of corn syrup and wax with almost no taste.”
“Taking a look around the office and all the crepe paper decor, I grin. The fluorescent lighting and corporate carpet do nothing to diminish the festive atmosphere. Scanning the food covering the conference room table, I am disappointed but not surprised to find most of it store-bought. We live in Manhattan. A city with access to some of the freshest and most exotic ingredients and these people can’t be bothered to even try. Très tragique. Though it is New York and most of them may not even have more than a one-burner hotplate and six inches of counter space for cooking.
There are chocolate croissants bought from the bodega two blocks away—like I wouldn’t recognize the packaging. I eat breakfast there once a week. I see a charcuterie board that the boss splurged on, a smoked salmon dip from Zabar’s, a twelve-pack of Vegan Double Chocolate Chunk cookies from Insomnia, chips and salsa from Rosa Mexicano, and a few items that actually look like they came from someone’s kitchen.
Still, I am drawn back to the very festive, very large cake. “What did you guys do?” I ask the
room. “Search for the gayest cake in Manhattan? It’s very extra, so consider me flattered.”
“Not everything is about you,” Penny says with a flippant wave of her hand.
I scan the room and gesture to the large banner with my name printed on it. “This party is
literally about me.”
Still, I am drawn back to the very festive, very large cake. “What did you guys do?” I ask the room. “Search for the gayest cake in Manhattan? It’s very extra, so consider me flattered.”
“Not everything is about you,” Penny says with a flippant wave of her hand.
I scan the room and gesture to the large banner with my name printed on it. “This party is literally about me.”
“Well, I don’t know why you queers have to claim everything rainbow,” she says with a crooked smirk.
“You queers?” I ask. “Bish, you’re gayer than me.”
She laughs and slaps my shoulder. “No one is gayer than you. Now, move it,” Penny says, bumping me out of the way to grab a piece of Flour Shop’s six-layer-rainbow-vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting and colored candies exploding from the center. “Don’t stand between me and desserts unless you want to catch these hands.”
I throw my arm around Penny’s shoulders and squeeze her tight into my side. “I love how you mask your obvious grief with violence, Penny. It’s okay to admit that you’re devastated that I’m leaving. I know you’re going to miss me.”
She grunts and blows a red curl from her eyes. “Maybe. But I definitely will not miss your insane spreadsheets. Or those color-coded project calendars. Or the way that bouffant coif atop your head never moves. I mean, how much product is in there anyway?”
My hand reaches up to smooth over my perfectly styled hair. “Hag.”
“I don’t know what that means, but the first syllable sounds promising,” I say, releasing Penny from my grip.
She shoves a bite of cake into her mouth, frosting and sprinkles painting her smiling lips. The next bite she holds in the air for Misa, who gladly accepts. As much as we clown, those two really are the sweetest. I love their love. Watching them come together last year was the best Showtime-worthy lesbian dramedy I’ve ever seen. What those girls have is certainly a far cry from anything I’ve ever experienced. My love life is like trying to find original genetic features on a Kardashian. It’s just not there.
It’s not that I don’t dream of finding the right guy and settling down someday, but I’m young and still figuring out who I am. There’s certainly no white picket fence and nuclear family in my future, but a nice two-bedroom on the Upper West Side with a wet bar and a hypoallergenic dog to lounge in the sunlight pouring in from floor-to-ceiling east-facing windows sounds nice.
Still, there are so many steps between here and there that it seems impossible. I’d settle for a man who loves me, doesn’t want to change me, someone who excites me and challenges me. I’d love someone who reads autobiographies and doesn’t mind a good juice cleanse, while also appreciating a pepperoni Hot Pocket at three a.m. after too many shots of tequila. And while I’m not completely vain and superficial, it wouldn’t hurt if he looked like the love child of Harry Styles and Michael B. Jordan. Mostly, I just want someone to love me the way my grammy loves pie—borderline obsessive while respectful and fulfilling.
Working for an NYC advertising agency has been a dream come true for this Southern boy. But last year’s adventure out to the West Coast to visit celebrity chef Marco Delgado’s new restaurant stirred something in me. As much as I love food and cooking, being around someone on that level just magnified my passion for it.
As we ate our way through Chef Delgado’s menu, I found myself inspecting the food while enjoying it. Not only was I obsessed with the taste, the mouthfeel, the presentation, but I also wanted to know how it was made. I wanted to sit down with the chef and question him on his technique, his flavors, and the inspiration behind the dishes. Being there made me realize that cooking could maybe be more than a hobby for me—a master’s degree in Marketing & Communications from the University of North Carolina be damned.
“Oh my God, Ryan!” Kendra shouts from across the conference room. “Did you make these samosas? Freaking delicious.”
I wave my fork at her. “Thanks, doll. They are like little pockets of potato heaven wrapped in pastry. My secret is roasting and grinding the carom seeds into a powder before adding them to the dough.”
Her face falls, and a blank expression stares back at me. “Whatever.”
“May I have your attention!” Rupert shouts. All conversations die down. He stands in front of the wall of glass looking out over Houston Street, the afternoon sunlight creating a halo around his $400 haircut.
“Thank you. We’re celebrating Ryan today, to send him off with all our love, appreciation, and well-wishes. Our favorite executive assistant has earned himself a place on a new cooking competition show and we couldn’t be more proud.” He raises his plastic champagne flute and gives me a warm smile. “Good luck, and don’t make an ass of yourself on national television.”
I chuckle and swallow down a sip of bubbly. It’s cheap, but still tasty. “Thank you. And I promise to keep my ass to myself.”
“For the first time in his life,” Penny adds. Everyone laughs and I stick out my tongue.
“Says the girl who slept her way through seven countries in twelve days.”
Penny’s face falls, her blue eyes blinking slowly. “How did you know that?”
“Would you two behave?” Misa begs. Poor Misa is always having to play the adult when it comes to Penny and me. It must be exhausting. But something about that girl reduces me to a six-year-old boy getting teased for wearing his momma’s pearls to first grade. Don’t laugh. They were the perfect complement to my knock-off Birkin bag.
A few people from HR wander over, making small talk about the weather when I know what they really want to know.
“Go on,” I say. “Ask me for details about the show.”
“Oh my God,” one girl says. “Can you get me on the show too?”
“Are you going to be in Hollywood? Will you see celebrities?” another girl asks.
“Do you get to eat all the food you make?” Marv from accounting asks. Everyone turns to look at him. “What? It’s a legit question. Food waste is a serious offense in this country.”
“All we’ve been told is that I will be part of a group of home cooks competing for a prize—$250,000 cash, a complete set of professional-grade kitchen appliances, and a feature in Get Cooking Magazine.” I squeal at the thought of having my recipes and my face on the glossy pages of a magazine. “Of course, I’ll want to pre-approve all photos and fonts used in the layout, but my agent will help negotiate that.”
“You have an agent?” Mark asks.
“How did you land a spot on a television show?” someone asks. “Was it hard?”
“It was practically cosmic,” I say. “I had just called home to check in with my mom. After I told her about this amazing deal on some Balmain jeans I found at Saks—they’re these gorgeous ribbed slim-fit jeans that make me look like I take leg day at the gym very seriously.” Rena clears her throat and sighs. “Sorry. My mother tells me that my grammy is thinking about closing her restaurant. With the economy and the local food scene booming in Asheville, she’s being left behind. I practically died.”
“That’s tragic,” Rena says, shaking her head. “We have to save our family’s history.”
“Exactly,” I answer. “That place is an icon in Asheville. It’s been around for forty years. Every happy childhood memory I have is there. Anyway, the next day I saw an ad online for a new show called The Heat—and more importantly, the prize money. I live for cooking and everything food, so I figured why not?”
“How did they pick you?” Rena asks. “I mean, obviously you’ve got the looks with your perfect hair and blue eyes. Not to mention an ass you could bounce a quarter off of. But you’re in your what? Mid-twenties? It’s all downhill from here.”
“Umm, thanks?” I say, unsure how I feel about Rena’s affection. “I got one of my neighbors, a film student at NYU, to help me with my entry. My application video was fire! I showed my cooking techniques and my major big-city life. I explained that I want the money to help save my grammy’s restaurant back in North Carolina and what an inspiration she is to me.”
“That’s sweet,” Rena says. I sip my champagne and smile as nostalgia washes over me. Images of tiny aprons and standing on upturned soup pots to see over the counter flash through my mind like a vintage home movie. I can practically smell the biscuits baking.
Every memory, every bit of my love for cooking comes from my grammy. From the time I could hold a whisk that woman included me in every part of her kitchen. She was never afraid of me making a mess or ruining her recipe. Grammy has always had the patience of a saint. She saw something in me and nurtured my love of cooking; she encouraged me to create and invent in her kitchen. And she always ate what I made. Even when it was bad.
“That woman taught me everything I know, and she is the reason I am so fierce in the kitchen. Anyway, I did all of this while serving up my obvious charm and winning personality. When they called for the first interview, I was gagging!” Nothing but silence and confused expressions. “Shocked, y’all! I was excited.”
“Ohhhh,” the group answers in unison.
“After three more interviews, a background check, blood test, personality assessment, medical history forms, credit check, and an online cooking quiz, I was in!”
“Wow,” Rena says. “I bet you’ve been in the kitchen practicing nonstop.”
“Uh, not really. But I have curated every outfit—including accessories—for the show and have mapped out a serious shopping day in Beverly Hills while I’m there.”
“Hashtag priorities,” Penny mumbles from behind me. “Look, I’ve already told people about the show and that I know you. Don’t get on there and embarrass me.”
“Yes, because it is all about you.” I roll my eyes and address the group in front of me. “I already know how to cook,” I point out. “I just want to make sure that I look good while doing it.”
When the champagne is gone and the celebration winds down, I make my way back to my desk. I take out the binder I’ve created for whichever poor soul takes my place. Turning to the last page, I leave one final list of notes.
1. Make friends with Rena. She is the eyes and ears of this entire company and will spill the tea on anyone who crosses her.
2. Keep snacks in airtight containers. I’m not saying it’s in danger from rodents, but this is New York and these swole CrossFit rats will climb to the twenty-eighth floor in search of food.
3. If Miss Ito wears her black peep-toe Christian Louboutin Very Prive shoes, you should take cover and stay out of her way. Only speak when spoken to and make yourself scarce.
4. Stick to the color-coded folder system I have in place. Review the spreadsheets I set up in Google Drive. Learn them, live them, love them. Miss Ito does not like change.
5. When Miss Ito asks you to order dinner because she’ll be working late, make sure to order for yourself too. You are also working late.
6. Her coffee is Extra-Hot Grande Skinny No-Foam Latte. If you go to the Starbucks on the corner of W Broadway and Houston, they will get it right every time. Good luck.
Glancing at my watch, I know that it is time for goodbyes. First, I say goodbye to Rena and then I make my way through the accounting department, HR, design, and our CEO.
“Ryan!” he says. “Come in. Is it that time already?”
I take a seat in front of his desk, my eyes landing on a box of cigars on his bookcase. “I’m afraid it is.”
Rupert kicks his feet up onto his desk and folds his hands over his stomach. “It truly has been a terrific couple of years having you here. I don’t know how we will replace you.”
I lean forward and lower my voice. “You mean you have no idea how you will find another person who can handle Miss Ito.”
Rupert laughs so loudly that it echoes off the walls. He drops his feet and leans over the desk. “Between you and me? I have no idea how I will find another person who can handle Miss Ito. You have a talent, sir. You will be missed.” He holds out a hand and I give him mine with a firm shake. “Call me if you ever need a reference.”
I make my way back to my desk and knock before entering Misa’s office. Penny is draped sideways in an armchair while Misa works at her desk.
“Okay, ladies. I’m about to pack up and head out for the last time.” Penny and Misa both give me a sad frown. Penny pokes out her bottom lip and stands, holding her arms wide open.
“Give us a hug, darling.”
I wrap her up tight. Her wild red curls tickle my nose. She smells like lavender and coconut. “I’m gonna miss you, Pen. Thanks for keeping me sane this past year.” She nods and squeezes me tighter. “Whoa. Like I knew you had huge jugs, but those things are so big they could headline Vegas.”
“I know, right? You’ll be hard-pressed to find this kind of perfection in California,” she says, releasing me and waving a hand along the curves of her body.
“Girl, eww.” I roll my eyes. “Because so much perfection comes out of Jersey.”
“Will you two give it a rest for once?” Misa says, squeezing between Penny and me. She takes my hands in hers. Her slender fingers are soft in the palms of my hands, and I realize that I don’t think we’ve ever touched each other purposely before. Not a hug or a handshake. Is that possible?
“It’s been a dream, boss.” I blink a few times to keep from shedding tears in Misa Ito’s presence. I made it through three years of Hunger Games meets Office Space without crying, I’ll be damned if I break my perfect record now.
She shakes her head. “No, it hasn’t. But you truly are an amazing assistant, Ryan. I know I was hard on you, but I knew you could handle it. You’re going to be successful at whatever you do. Just remember us when you’re a famous television star.”
“Of course.” I mime flipping hair over my shoulder. “Also, these cheekbones are going to look sickening in high-def.”
Misa wraps herself around me, her arms pulling tight against my ribs. I’m shook. I don’t know what to do with my hands. They hover awkwardly in the air until finally resting on her back to return the hug. She sniffles and releases me, returning to her default uptight demeanor.
“Well, go on then,” she says. “Safe journey and all that.”
I return to my desk and slump down into the ergonomic chair that I’ve slept in exactly seven times in the last three years. I’ve made a lot of memories in this place. I’m going to miss the late nights, the amazing dark roast coffee at the deli next door, and even Create Slate’s sprinkle-hating receptionist Rena.
There aren’t many things left for me to pack. My Tiffany & Co. stapler, personalized pens, highlighters, and a few notebooks all find a home in my Prada shoulder bag. I don’t clean out the drawers, figuring I should leave my Misa Ito Assistant Emergency Kit behind for the next person. They’re going to need it.
As I step onto the sidewalk, I close my eyes and inhale deeply. I love it here and I’ll miss NYC during the time I’ll be filming. The plan is to return when all is done. But if I get the outcome I’m hoping for I may be heading to Asheville instead.
I still can’t believe this is really happening. What a journey it’s been from North Carolina to New York City, and now Los Angeles. Can I do this? Can I save my grammy’s restaurant and make a name for myself in the food world? I guess we’re going to find out.
APPLICATION FOR SEASON ONE OF THE HEAT
NAME: Ryan Tate
CURRENT CITY: New York City, NY
HOMETOWN: Asheville, NC
OCCUPATION: Advertising Executive Assistant
FAVORITE CUISINE: Southern comfort foods and Thai
RATE YOUR KNIFE SKILLS (1–10): 8
RATE YOUR BAKING/PASTRY SKILL (1–10): 7
DIETARY RESTRICTIONS: None
HAVE YOU ATTENDED CULINARY SCHOOL? No
NAME TWO DISHES THAT YOU COOK THAT FRIENDS/FAMILY RAVE ABOUT: Panang Curry Beef, Boudin Arancini with Blackberry Honey Mustard
LEGAL U.S. RESIDENT? Yes
EVER BEEN CONVICTED OF A CRIME: Never been caught