Teenage chef is challenged to learn about being Filipino through cooking competition

Story acts as commentary on racial discimination and stereotypes in real-world chefs’ cuisines

Winnipeg author Primrose Madayag Knazan takes young adult readers on a journey through the highs and lows of a pandemic-style cooking competition in her novel Lessons in Fusion. The main character, Sarah Dayan-Abad, was inspired by the author’s children.

“My children are mestizo – a combination of Filipino and Ashkenazi Jew,” says Madayag Knazan. “I wanted to write a character my children could identify with.”

Sarah is a teenage food blogger in Winnipeg who, like Madayag Knazan’s children, has a Filipino mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father, though she was raised as Jewish, surrounded by her Jewish family. Sarah’s passion for cooking and putting her own twists on recipes make her a natural for a virtual cooking competition called Cyber Chef: Next Gen, a spinoff of the original Cyber Chef that she and her friends love to watch together. When Sarah is accepted into the competition, she is strongly encouraged to cook Filipino-style food, but she doesn’t know much about being Filipino.

“Food is often the gateway to other cultures,” says Madayag Knazan. “It was a perfect place for Sarah to start her journey.”

Madayag Knazan was inspired to write this novel set in pandemic days by a few things – including her son’s struggle with virtual learning and growing disinterest in reading. “The stories didn’t interest him. He didn’t care for dystopian, fantasy, or romance stories. He enjoyed stories based in reality,” she explains.

Madayag Knazan ensured that her virtual cooking competition was realistic by drawing from various sources for information. “In June 2020, as the world was starting to open its eyes to the blatant and also not-so-obvious discrimination of people of colour,” she says, “I read an article about how non-white chefs were encouraged to feature only dishes that highlighted their own ethnicity: Asian chefs mostly demonstrated Asian food; Black chefs were encouraged to cook Soul Food; South Asian chefs made Indian dishes. Conversely, white chefs were allowed to cook all kinds of cuisine.”

Primrose Madayag Knazan
Primrose Madayag Knazan

The judges in the novel’s cooking show judge recipes partly by how clear, easy-to-follow, and thorough the contestants’ recipes are. “I heard a podcast about recipe testing, that recipes are only valid if they can be replicated,” Madayag Knazan says.

Each chapter of the book begins with one of the author’s recipes. “I rarely measure out ingredients, so the experience of writing out the recipes was an exercise in discipline and focus,” Madayag Knazan says.

Like Sarah in the novel, Madayag Knazan is also a food blogger. “I love fusion cooking and combining different flavours,” she says. “I especially enjoy challenging myself to create something new.”

Madayag Knazan, who is well known as a playwright, has succeeded in creating something new in this novel that is rich in the diversity it portrays and appealing in its realistic contemporary story. Writing and publishing a novel fulfilled a dream she’s had since she was 12, and now her dream is to inspire other young people – one in particular.

“My hope is that my son will enjoy the story and fall in love with reading again.”