In Catalonia, there lives a critically acclaimed (but eccentric) restaurateur named Alex, whose unique selling point is that he eschews all ingredients originating from the New World - so you'll find no potatoes, tomatoes or pineapples on his menu.

This grouchy but predictably soft-centred chef is an artist, sinking his restaurant ever-deeper into debt while single-mindedly pursuing his pre-Columbus vision of Mediterranean food. Into his life comes Annette, a Canadian who has a terrible grasp of the Catalan language, but her drive and determination persuade him to give her a job anyway.

Two damaged people with sadness in their pasts; it's only a matter of time before the inevitable happens and they fall in love. But there's the necessity of a plot to get through first. Annette's attempts to get the restaurant back into profit by bringing in a couple of business partners opens the door to the scheming food critic Carol, who also fancies Annette desperately and has a plan to destroy the business while pretending to be on her side.

Loading article content

This novel by distinguished Spanish chef Ada Parellada is her first, and it shows. The plot is paper-thin, with the resolution being telegraphed miles in advance, the characters (except for Annette, who speaks in the Catalan equivalent of franglais) continually talking to each other as though they're reciting long, prepared speeches and a major crisis facing Annette being waved away for the sake of an uncomplicated happy ending. She's tried to write a feel-good novel, but, as with Alex's cooking, it's missing a few ingredients.

Its saving grace is that Parellada knows her food, describing it with mouth-watering sensuality, whether she's writing about the dishes served up to customers or a snack a gourmet might throw together for himself. In the story, Annette has studied cuisine, and delivers little lectures to Alex, interesting in themselves, on the history of various foodstuffs, softening him up, cutely if rather obviously, to accept one particular North American dish into his life. Overall, though, Vanilla Salt relies too much on the sensuality of food and the romance of the restaurant setting to paper over the cracks in the storytelling.