Author Chris Negron’s latest book for young readers, The Last Super Chef, follows his successful debut novel, Dan Unmasked. Here he answers a few questions for readers at Mother Daughter Book Club as well as shares a recipe from his home kitchen. For more information, visit www.chrisnegron.com.
How did you get started writing books for young readers?
CN: Initially I wasn’t! I wrote mostly books for adults for several years. But then a critique partner and I started writing flash fiction together as an exercise, and when I sent her a piece featuring a group of baseball players hanging out in the outfield that was very friendship-focused, she told me I had a strong voice for that age group and type of story. That eventually led me to write Dan Unmasked, which became my debut middle grade novel and was also very baseball- and friendship-forward. The Last Super Chef is my second middle grade project with HarperCollins.
What do you think are some of the challenges writing for that group?
CN: I recently started teaching a class to young writers, and one of the frequent pieces of advice I was given was to just be myself and be honest and authentic with them, because kids detect a phony in their midst really quickly. I think the same applies to writing stories intended for young readers. It’s important to just be authentic and honest, to source what you’re writing about from your own experiences as much as possible. So far with my middle grade books, I’ve written about the things I love, like comic books and baseball and competitive cooking shows, and because of that, it’s been easy to be authentic in that way. The themes of my books are just things that I think a lot about, or maybe things that bother me or have bothered me in the past. I’m not trying to “teach” anyone anything, I’m simply interested in starting a conversation with readers along the lines of “Does this bother you, too?” or “Do you think about this, too?” I think it’s really important to ask questions with our stories, and not to try to give kids answers. Stories for young readers should simply provide them with a canvas to paint out those answers on their own.
What do you like most about it?
CN: I love doing virtual events with schools where the kids can ask whatever they want about being an author or the books. The questions are always unique, and never fail to surprise, and sometimes later I even get thank you letters from the class which always touch my heart.
In The Last Super Chef, Curtis loves to cook. How do kids benefit when they become savvy in the kitchen?
CN: I think it can be empowering for them. I know that’s part of it for Curtis. Because his mother is a single mom raising both Curtis and his younger sister Paige on her own, Curtis is often forced to cook for this sister, and it’s great that his mom can depend on him to not only do that but to do it competently. Expertly, actually, in Curtis’s case.
My two sisters and I were latchkey kids when we were young, and we had a bunch of “go-to” dinners we could make – or at least start – on our own. I still remember cooking the ground beef for the El Paso taco kit in my mother’s electric fry pan, then draining off the grease into a coffee cup (mom’s instruction), using a precarious method of tilting the entire pan in the air. Looking back now, it makes me marvel at how independent we were but also makes me realize…well, that it was a little bit dangerous, I guess? Ah, the eighties, when all the playgrounds were metal death traps and kids were cooking on their own with hot grease. I’m realizing now I probably brought a little bit of that danger aspect to Curtis’s story, even though it’s set in present day. I mean, there *may* be a blowtorch early on, and an ill-advised bonfire as well.
Do you cook much at home?
I’m really lucky to be married to an incredibly good cook who truly enjoys prepping most of our meals. Now that I think of it, maybe her motivation is keeping my meager skills out of the kitchen! Seriously, though, all through the pandemic, I kept suggesting various take-out options to give her a break, but she always insisted that she preferred to make our meals at home herself, even though it was a ton of non-stop work. So, no, I don’t do much of the cooking at home, and that often leads people to ask how I would develop the idea to write a book with so much cooking in it.
The answer is my great fandom and admiration for competitive cooking shows like Top Chef, Master Chef, Chopped, and so on. What I love about these shows is the creativity of the competitors, how they strive to practice their art at the highest level, how focused they are on producing a dish – essentially, their art – that is unique and authentic. The judges on these shows often talk about wanting to see the chefs cook in their own “voice.” This is inspiring to me, because it’s a lot like writing. As writers, we’re always trying to produce authentic and unique work in our own voices, too. Sometimes watching the creativity at work in these shows gives me ideas in my own art.
Did any real-life cooking competitions for kids inspire you to write The Last Super Chef? If so in what way?
Definitely, most of the shows I listed have “junior” editions as well. I’m a dedicated viewer of all of them, and I think I mixed little pieces of each one into various parts of this book’s plot. The kids having to work with surprise ingredients in a few of the challenges definitely comes from Chopped Junior. The focus on creativity and inventiveness I think for sure was inspired by Top Chef. And I was probably thinking of the look and feel of Master Chef Junior the most when describing the made-up Super Chef studio.
All that said, I feel like the Super Chef show is an invention completely from my own creativity, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book. I got to invent challenges that I had never seen before, in a format that fit my own imagination of how that kind of show would – or maybe more appropriately, could – work. I loved coming up with the various dishes the kids cooked, along with creating the pressure they were under to excel and maximize their talent in unique and creative ways, just like I see the real life chefs and amateur cooks – kids and adults alike – do on those shows I’m so obsessed with.
As Curtis gets to know his fellow competitors as well as Chef Taylor and his staff, he discovers that things aren’t always the way they seem to be on the surface. How does that influence him?
CN: For sure. In retrospect, I think that’s one of the major things I ended up exploring with this book. One of the early reviews I read said that The Last Super Chef was a “lesson in perspective” and I was so gratified to read that. Maybe not the “lesson” part – as I said earlier, I’m not so much interested in teaching lessons or being didactic with my work – but I am glad that the book seems to ask the right questions, ones that encourage readers to think deeper about the people around them.
For Curtis in particular, he starts out making a lot of assumptions about a great many things, including himself and the town he comes from, and certain members of his family, too. As he’s hoping and yearning to earn his way into the competition, he continues that line of thinking from afar about his competitors. A lot of these thoughts are born from the jealousy he feels as he watches them get announced ahead of him.
I confess I wasn’t thinking along these lines when I was writing it, at least not exactly, but now that I look back, perhaps I was mirroring a lot of what we’ve seen in the news recently into this aspect of the book. Curtis has this perspective based mostly on assumptions at the start, and we see how it evolves as the story progresses. And I guess I think that might be an important discussion with kids because we’re in a culture these days where many of us find it difficult to have meaningful exchanges with others who don’t share our exact and precise opinions and beliefs. We tend to make a lot of assumptions, like Curtis, about people who are different from us, whether it be politically, ideologically, racially, along gender lines, whatever. If seeing how Curtis handles his own assumptions, and the ways he realizes how most of them may have been wrong, can help readers out with their own real-life experiences even a tiny bit, then I think I’d be really grateful for that.
Without giving anything away about the story, is there something you really hope young readers take away from reading The Last Super Chef?
CN: Yeah, definitely. I think another thing this book is about is the future. Readers will see why, I hope, by the end if they give Curtis and The Last Super Chef a chance. Without spoiling it, what I’d just say here is that we all have a certain view of what’s ahead – our own futures, more specifically – but as adults we know things rarely turn out the exact way we think they’re going to. Understanding that’s going to happen, developing an ability to roll with the punches when they inevitably come, being flexible enough with our goals and what we want out of life, is a big part of being happy in life, I think. So I hope readers will take away that sometimes cooking without a recipe is not only the best, but most fun way to make your most memorable meals.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at MotherDaughterBookClub.com?
CN: If readers are interested in a signed copy of The Last Super Chef, they can order online from Foxtale Book Shoppe, my local indie bookstore here in the Atlanta area (Woodstock, GA, to be specific). Just include a comment on who it should be personalized to, and Foxtale will let me know when these orders come in, so I can head over there and sign them before they ship the book out.
I’ll be doing quite a few Super Chef-related events, so visit my “Upcoming Events” page at chrisnegron.com for a listing. Many will be virtual, so anyone can attend, or perhaps there will be a live, in-person one near you!
Thanks so much, Cindy, this was a ton of fun.
…And on the next page I have a recipe for you too!