How a webcomic about a restaurant became my pandemic parable

How a webcomic about a restaurant became my pandemic parable

Image: Leehama (Gourmet Hound)

The best meals satisfy more than hunger. I should know; I’ve done my fair share of quarantine comfort cooking, because I love every aspect of the process. Particularly feeding other people, especially since I moved back in with my parents a month and a half into lockdown. One of the dishes I’ve been most proud of is a recipe I developed myself, a spicy chicken alfredo penne that I first made for my dad on his birthday and have made multiple times since because he and my mom—tough critics—both enjoyed it so much they went back for seconds and even thirds.

There’s something special about watching people you care about enjoy a meal you’ve made just for them with your own hands. Gourmet Hound, my favorite webcomic drama, understands this. Over the course of 166 chapters, it captures the magic and soul-nourishing qualities of a meaningful meal, spinning an ode to both food and the love of food in every frame. Created by Robyn/Leehama, an Asian-American creator from Hawaii, Gourmet Hound is beautifully written and illustrated and can only be described as a warm hug of a story. Although I first came across it last summer when it was still being updated weekly, it makes for fantastic marathon reading now that it’s complete. Maybe you, like me, can turn to it whenever you need a pick-me-up.

The series centers on Lucy Fuji, the granddaughter of Lynn Fuji, a beloved cooking instructor who has recently passed away. Lynn always believed that the dinner table should “be a happy place, whether you’re at the most expensive restaurant in the world, or at home with just one other person,” and hoped for her granddaughter to “live a life full of wonderful meals.” As someone who comes from a family that celebrates every element of food—from the ingredients themselves to the histories behind each inherited recipe—I’m particularly drawn to Lynn’s sentiments, especially as my world has gotten (temporarily) smaller by necessity, and making enjoyable meals at home has become an important responsibility.

Lucy Fuji is blessed with an uncanny sense of smell and taste that allow her to discern the chef behind any meal. She has taken her grandmother’s words to heart: some of the most wonderful meals in Lucy’s life have taken place at Dimanche, the fine dining restaurant down the street from Lynn’s famed cooking school, founded by Lynn’s most talented early students. Over the years, the unique flavors used by each of Dimanche’s chefs become as familiar to Lucy as her own grandmother’s cooking, even though she never meets these chefs face-to-face or even learns their names.

But soon after Lynn’s death, Lucy has to grieve a second loss: she can suddenly taste a full staff changeover in the food at Dimanche. Without the familiar flavors of her home away from home, Lucy is unmoored, and vows to embark on a nearly impossible quest: to track down the former staff members of Dimanche, taste their cooking, and figure out who among them can once again prepare her perfect meal.

[image provided by creator]
Lucy’s supernatural abilities allow her to “taste” the talents behind each meal.
Image: Leehama (Gourmet Hound)

Despite the magical realism of Lucy’s powerful palate, it’s a predicament the reader can relate to. As she searches for her lost meal, Lucy says she “hadn’t realized how precious it had become to [her] until it disappeared,” and that she can’t bear the thought of never tasting it again. For all of us, the magic of our favorite restaurants is largely intangible, even if we think we know what we love most about them. And Gourmet Hound speaks to the experiences of a kitchen staff just as powerfully: at one point, a pair of former Dimanche chefs tell Lucy about how the sudden departure of their executive chef stoked feelings of abandonment among the workers, which quickly led to everything falling apart after their once supportive and kind kitchen became combative and distrustful.

Lucy has taken on a quixotic quest, but her mission feels like it belongs to all of us. She’s chasing a memory, a desire to recreate a perfect moment that can’t be revisited—it’s the heartbeat that thrums underneath the narrative as she seeks to solve her culinary mystery, especially as she gets to know all of Dimanche’s scattered workers and gains a deeper understanding of her roots in the process.

It’s clear that the creator of Gourmet Hound appreciates food on the same level as its protagonist, because there’s simply no way to fake the sincerity of this webtoon. There is almost nothing about food that doesn’t excite Lucy, and the overall story shines a light on every corner of the culinary world, including the various motivations that have drawn each member of the Dimanche team to the field. One character explains that she became a chef because of the way she could make her sister’s face “transform from tired or unhappy to delighted just because of some food I made...the magic of seeing an expression transform, whether to smiles or to tears...it stirred something in me.”

There are countless themes that crop up throughout the series’ 166 chapters, from the weight of intergenerational expectation (a world-class pastry chef can’t convince her protégé to stick with the craft) to the herculean task of running a business (the founder of an independent coffee shop aims to create a space “where customers would come again and again, a place where I could greet people by name and watch them enjoy what I made for them”) to the unintended fallout from a chef’s single-minded pursuit of their dream. But grief, that quiet undercurrent, is really what ripples outward from every plotline. Lucy’s search for the perfect meal is, of course, a way to rekindle her connection to her grandmother, because finding those flavors again would engage all her senses, not just her memories.

And I get it. Amidst so much uncertainty, food is a constant we can hold onto. We need it, and not just to keep us alive. I’m living with my parents for a while, and though I can’t go out to new restaurants or travel to new cities seeking cafes that invite me to sip on a sweet latte and daydream about everything I haven’t yet written—and even though I won’t be able to do these things again for who knows how long—I can still plan out dinners for both of them. I’ve come home, and I’m sharing the best discoveries I’ve made since I started living and cooking on my own, like the way that Chinese five spice, fresh basil, and soy sauce come together to form a fantastic stir fry, or how cubed sweet potatoes and frozen okra marinated in turmeric, salt, and a pinch of sugar and sautéed over high heat make for a quick but filling entree. I’m always thinking about how to cook larger batches for the three of us, incorporating their favorite ingredients, and watching with bated breath as they take the first bite. Those, at least, are small pleasures that can’t be taken away from me—so I am trying to take Lynn Fuji’s words to heart myself and make my dinner table a happy place.

Priyanka Bose is an Indian American writer & photographer based in Chicago. A Fulbright Scholar born and brought up in the Midwest, she loves writing about all things food, fashion, film, and fiction.

DISCUSSION

mandarin10000
mandarin10000

I’ll check this out. Any other suggestions ?