Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "Hot Mess" by Emily Belden, Served with a Recipe for Crunchy Iceberg Salad with Creamy Blue Cheese

It's one day closer to Friday! Today I am happy to be a stop on the TLC Book Tour for Hot Mess, a new foodie novel by Emily Belden. Accompanying my review of the book is a delicious Ina Garten recipe for Crunchy Iceberg Salad with Creamy Blue Cheese that was inspired by my reading.

Publisher's Blurb:

Sweetbitter meets The Devil Wears Prada in this riveting and provocative novel set in the trendy Chicago restaurant scene. 

Twenty-something Allie Simon never imagined she’d fall for a recovering drug addict—but that was before she met Benji Zane, Chicago’s hottest up-and-coming chef, who’s known as much for his hard partying ways as for his unparalleled culinary skills. Six months into their relationship, the food and chemistry are out of this world, but the reality of living with a cooking wunderkind hasn’t exactly been all hearts and flowers. Still, Allie’s convinced that her love is the key to fixing this talented man’s broken soul—so when Benji is offered his dream job as chef de cuisine for a new restaurant opening on Randolph Street, Chicago’s foodie hot spot, Allie agrees to invest her life savings in his future. But less than a month after she goes all in, Allie learns a heartbreaking lesson: addicts lie. Benji cracks under the pressure, relapses and disappears, bagging out not only on the restaurant, but on her, too. Left with nothing but a massive withdrawal slip and a restaurant that absolutely must open in a matter of weeks, Allie finds herself thrust into a world of luxury and greed, cutthroat business and sensory delight. Lost in the mess of it all, she can either crumble completely or fight like hell for the life she wants and the love she deserves.

With razor-sharp wit and searing insight, Emily Belden serves up a deliciously dishy look behind the kitchen doors of a hot foodie town.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Graydon House (March 20, 2018)

My Review:

I love a good foodie novel and especially ones that are set in the world of professional chefs and restaurants. I like the ability to live vicariously through the characters as having been involved both in opening and supporting birth quick service food concepts and casual dining restaurants in my career, I know the hard work that goes into them and have no desire to actually do that work again myself. Allie Simon has no desire to be involved in the restaurant business, although she enjoys the fame that comes with being the girlfriend of Chicago's favorite bad-boy chef, Benji Zane. She also helps him with his current post-rehab venture of pop-up dinners--mainly to collect and hold onto the money so he isn't tempted to return to his old ways. When he inevitably does (not a spoiler--it's on the cover blurb) she is left with all of her savings being tied up in the new restaurant concept he was set to headline and she must jump in and learn quickly if she wants any possibility of ever recouping her money.

Hot Mess was interesting for me. I did not love the main character Allie, who at twenty-five, is a few decades younger than me. That she is a bit immature and codependent didn't help. I also was not a fan from the start of Benji and did not see his appeal. I'm not into grungy addicts with man buns. (I disagree strongly with Allie who says, "For anyone who says the man-bun trend isn't their thing, they're lying." I see a man-bun and pretty much think 'douchey!') ;-) Anyway, the first half of the book I was convinced that foodie or not, I was probably not the demographic for this novel and I found it (mainly Allie putting up with Benji) a bit annoying at times. Luckily, the second half finds Benji missing (again, not a spoiler--it's on the back cover) and Allie working with general manager (Angela) and the team to get a high profile restaurant open and I got interested and began to like and respect Allie. I enjoyed the characters involved in the restaurant--Angela, the new chef Tabitha, and the hot produce vendor Jared, and it took me back to the crazy pre-opening days of food service establishments, which was fun.

The cover tag on my ARC of the book captures it pretty well, Hot Mess is "a novel of fine dining and finer men." It's a foodie novel that is also a romantic comedy with the coveted boyfriend who turns out to be a loser and a new guy who may not be glamorous and famous, but is a solid pick and different from who Allie normally goes for. It's a bit predictable (as rom-coms tend to be) and for me the foodie aspects were more rewarding and interesting than the romance, but overall once I got into it, I found it an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Author Notes: Emily Belden is an author for powerhouse publisher, Harlequin/HarperCollins. She is represented by famed literary agency, Browne & Miller, along with 44 Blue Productions in Burbank. The SoCal studio is adapting her memoir into a comedic series.

You can connect with Emily on her website, Facebook, or Twitter


Food Inspiration

It's a novel based on the girlfriend of a bad-boy chef and the opening of a restaurant so of course Hot Mess is filled with food inspiration. I started the novel writing down all food mentions and then gave up and just noted the ones that interested me. Here's just some of what was included: chocolate soufflé, hard boiled eggs, house-made butter, caramel, avocado aioli, Sriracha Jell-O cubes, grilled fig panna cotta with bourbon honeycomb drizzle over vanilla bean gelato, deconstructed squash blossoms, Bloody Marys with a host of garnishes, a veggie omelet and hash-browns, cinnamon brioche French Toast, deconstructed elotes with yellow corn, homemade mayo, and parmesan cheese, crispy cucumber slices with homemade garlic hummus and Craisins, toast points with guacamole, ricotta pancakes, carrot mousse, "real" mac-n-cheese with a roux, ditalini pasta with cream sauce and pancetta, roasted chicken with carrots and broccoli and mashed sweet potato gnocchi, deconstructed cannoli, spaghetti with black truffles, cheese and black pepper, 'fancy' eggs Benedict, tomato bisque, prosecco and an octopus appetizer, a blue cheese burger--deconstructed and served on toast points with tomato jam and strings of onions, sweet potato mash with pecans, spinach salad with Honeycrisp apple, butternut squash soup, a variety of amuse bouches--including prawns, portobellos, and dates, burrata flatbread,  and roasted beet salad,

Several ideas tempted me like the fig panna cotta, one of the several deconstructed dishes or egg and bagel sandwiches with onion bagels, cheddar and scrambled eggs (cooked with 12 cup sparkling water to make them "beyond fluffly"). I decided to go with an iceberg salad which sounds basic but it wasn't cooked by Benji, whom I didn't like and showcased the contrasting  'good guy-ness' of Jared the produce vendor, who replaced a case of iceberg lettuce that Allie let outside where it became "totally browned and wilted--not to mention half-eaten by whatever lives under the dumpster and between the cracks of the building." Allie panics when she checks the menu and sees a "Wedge of Iceberg with house-made bleu cheese dressing"  and calls Jared for help.

It gave me an immediate craving for good, homemade blue cheese dressing so I went to Ina Garten who had a couple of iceberg salad recipes. I was caught by her Crunchy Iceberg Salad with Creamy Blue Cheese (from The Barefoot Contessa website)--in which the wedge is instead a thick slice of iceberg lettuce, topped with a creamy blue cheese dressing, thinly sliced crunchy veggies and small chunks of Roquefort blue cheese. It sounded delicious and the presentation looked restaurant-worthy.  

Crunchy Iceberg Salad with Creamy Blue Cheese
Slightly Adapted from Ina Garten via
(Serves 4)

For the Dressing:
4 oz Roquefort blue cheese, crumbled
2/3 cup good mayonnaise
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

For the Salad:
4 tender inside celery stalks, trimmed and sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
6 radishes, trimmed and sliced into thin rounds
5 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts sliced ¼ inch thick
1 large head iceberg lettuce, wilted outer leaves removed
4 to 6 oz Roquefort blue cheese, crumbled
Fleur de sel or other flaky salt

For the dressing, place 4 ounces of blue cheese in a small bowl and microwave for 15 seconds, until it begins to melt. Place the mayonnaise, yogurt, warm blue cheese, sherry vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until smooth. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.

For the salad, combine the celery, radishes, and scallions in a bowl. Slice the whole head of lettuce across to make four ¾-inch-thick round disks and place each on a dinner plate. Spoon the dressing on the lettuce and sprinkle on a quarter of the vegetable mixture. Distribute the remaining crumbled blue cheese on the salads, sprinkle with fleur de sel and pepper, and serve.

Notes/Results: I know blue cheese is a bit polarizing--people either really like it, or they really don't. I happen to love it and Ina's creamy dressing is perfect--just blue cheesy enough without being too overpowering and thick and creamy enough to be a dip or spread. In addition to going well with the lettuce, the texture and flavor of the dressing compliment the green onions, celery and radish slices piled on top, and the extra crumbles of cheese provide an extra punch making the salad a pleasure to eat. I think you could plly around with and change up the toppings--I think blueberries or sliced strawberries, chunks of avocado, and/or chopped hard-boiled egg would make nice additions. I loved this salad and will happily make it and the dressing again.

Although our theme at I Heart Cooking Clubs this week is Breakfast Buffet, I am always happy to have salads on any breakfast or brunch buffet, so I'm linking this Ina recipe up there. ;-)

Hot Mess is my second foodie book entry for the Foodies Read 2018 event. You can check out the March 2018 Foodies Read linkup, hosted by Heather at Based on a True Story, to see what everyone is reading this month.  

I'm also sharing this post with the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.

Finally I am linking this post up to Souper Sundays, right here at Kahakai Kitchen. Each Sunday we feature delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches from friends around the blogosphere--please join in if you have any to share. Here's this week's post and linkup 

Note: A review copy of "Hot Mess" was provided to me by the author and the publisher, via TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.

Note: If you are reading this post anywhere other than on this blog--Kahakai Kitchen, the content has been stolen--taken and used without my permission. It is very frustrating, when people steal your hard work--writing and photos, and put it on their blog like it is their own, when it clearly is not. I am currently taking steps with the server that hosts the site that has been scraping my blog feed and stealing my work to both to get all of my work removed from that site and to deal with the troll who is stealing it (and also stealing material from other blogs) and would not take it down when asked. I am hoping that karma will come around and bite them (very hard) where it hurts.



  1. Totally with you on the man-bun. NOT a fan. Can't wait to try your salad, Deb.

  2. That salad is pretty and sounds yummy. Enjoyed hearing about the book; appreciated your candid observations. I'm kind of ambivalent when it comes to man buns -- guess it depends on who's wearing it. :)

  3. I love your salad, and I just happen to have some good blue cheese in the house. Humm, perhaps this salad is in my future. I'm on the fence with this book, but since I have a copy of the audio, I may give it a shot. :)

  4. I am a fan of Blue Cheese but I never seem to eat it. This recipe sounds good especially with the crunch of crisp lettuce.

  5. Iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing sounds fantastically retro! About your problem with people stealing the content -- you can turn off RSS feed and then they can't do it easily and hands-off! There are legit uses for RSS feed but it's better to do without it. I turned it off a long time ago.

    best ... mae at

  6. Yeah, I hear you on the main character. I don't care for it when young girls think they can change a guy. It makes me cringe.

    I do, however, love blue cheese and would be happy to eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

    Saw your message about people stealing content. Didn't know that was happening. Why, why do people want to take someone else's work like that? I just don't get it.

  7. I may add this to my loooooooong queue. Thanks for the review.

  8. Interesting choice. Personally, I think iceberg is often overlooked in favor of flashier lettuces. I love it for a wedge salad. And I'll freely admit to having salad for breakfast, or pizza. Just the other day it was leftover fried fish.

  9. I like blue cheese and this salad looks wonderful. Salad for breakfast? Why not! I could eat green veggies anytime of the day!
    A couple of years ago, a website stole some of photos together with my written posts and shamefully posted it as their own. I've contacted them giving them a piece of my mind, and they have removed the photos and contents of my post. People like them have no moral etiquette or values! They would steal any contents they want without the blink of an eye! Yes, hope their karma will come around and bite them hard!

  10. Hmmmm. The publisher blurb didn't sell me at all....I thought Sweetbitter was a bit "douchey"....I think I might have a problem with this protagonist, too. I'm a few decades out of being in the know for this one, Deb. (However, I do have to say I do like a good man-bun, though.)


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