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Diving into Culinary Combat - An interview with JORDAN ALSAQA & VIVIAN TRUONG

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Cody of Keeping it Geekly invited Jordan Alsaqa and Vivian Truong to the Yeti Cave to discuss their new collaboration, Cooking with Monsters, which was released by IDW this September.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Hello and welcome to the Yeti Cave, Jordan & Vivian! Thank you for stopping by to talk about Cooking with Monsters (Book One): The Beginner's Guide to Culinary Combat. Feel free to grab a seat and introduce yourselves to us!

JORDAN ALSAQA: Happy to be here! As noted, my name is Jordan Alsaqa and I’m the writer and co-creator of Cooking with Monsters. I’ve been making comics for almost a decade now, with plenty of self-published one-shots and anthology work in my resume. In the past, I’ve written the rural horror series Welderkin for Comicker Press and the teens-and-demons comedy series Raise Hell through Kickstarter funding. I’ve got several unannounced projects in the works, but as my YA OGN debut, Cooking with Monsters marks my biggest release yet!


VIVIAN TRUONG: Thank you for having us! I’m Vivian Truong, the artist of Cooking with Monsters. I’m also the co-creator to a best-selling middle-grade series, City of Dragons, the illustrator behind I Am Fun Size, And So Are You! by Overwatch Actress Anjali Bhimani, and currently the official World Book Day illustrator in the UK. I was born in London and currently reside there still now working on the sequels to my books, a few other unannounced projects and more.


CBY: Cooking with Monsters (Book One): The Beginner's Guide to Culinary Combat is such an interesting concept. Combining cooking with combat feels like the perfect match, and even better if the opponent is tasty. In a landscape of competitive cooking shows across media, can you tell us a bit about how this story of Warrior Chefs came to be?


JA: Competitive cooking shows definitely played a big role in the development of the book, as I’ve watched stuff like Master Chef and The Great Food Truck Race for years, but the original idea of Cooking came from eating at our local teppanyaki restaurant while I was still living in Raleigh. The mix of cooking and performance art that makes up the tableside dining experience was always a favorite, and it felt like a natural transition to bring that energy to a battlefield. The original vision for the series played a lot more into that entertaining performance energy, but there’s hopefully still clear markers of that influence in the final version of the story.

VT: I was heavily inspired by the video game series Monster Hunter for the warrior chefs and drew a lot of influence from my upbringing of Pokemon and all of the pet/monster madness in the 90s/early 00s! I also took a lot from shounen manga and The Great British Bake Off for the general vibe of the book, but one series I must mention is Yakitate!! Japan, that made stories about baking the perfect bread so fun and bizarre.


CBY: How does the creative process work between you two? Is there a set idea of how everything should look based upon the scripting or is there room for artistic freedom?

JA: It’s definitely an extremely collaborative process, with a lean towards giving Vivian as much room to play as she wants. We work through Discord and have a whole channel dedicated to just pitching monster concepts back and forth. Sometimes, I’ll have a very specific idea of what a monster should look like, but mostly, I leave it open to Vivian’s interpretation. On the flipside, sometimes Vivian will throw out a monster that can completely shift the way I approach writing a scene to incorporate her idea. Beyond monsters specifically, I write fairly sparse scripts unless something absolutely needs to be included, so it leaves plenty of room for Vivian to fill the world with even more ideas and concepts; even reading my physical proof, I still find new background jokes or details she’s slipped in!

VT: As Jordan said, it’s extremely collaborative. I’m grateful to work with a writer who gives me the freedom to craft my vision into the artwork, but also open to my thoughts when it comes to script feedback too! Perhaps to my detriment, I am very vocal when it comes to every script I receive and I’m happy to be working with collaborators who don’t mind this! When it comes to drafting the pencils, Jordan has quite a clear idea of how he wants the scenes to play out without it being too restrictive. I can tell how much of a masterful storyteller he is from his scripts that most of the time I can trust his instincts and don’t have to stray too much from his directions at all.


CBY: We follow protagonist Hana Ozawa as she begins her first year at the Gourmand Academy of Culinary Combat. Jordan, what kind of protagonist can our readers expect to find, and for Vivian, what went into her character design?

JA: I think the shonen influence on the book is pretty clear, so there’s a lot of the traditional shonen hero in her. She’s excitable and quick to lead with her emotions, meaning she’s just as excited about the fantastical world around her as we hope the readers will be. That said, she’s also dealing with a lot of insecurities as a new chef, and as a second-generation immigrant who’s had to deal with her fair share of prejudice. Those two struggles inform her character arc across the book, ideally keeping her grounded and relatable even in her more over-the-top moments.

VT: I wanted to have fun with “unnatural protagonist hair syndrome” first of all, so that’s why she looks a little unordinary. In my mind, she’s very scrappy and full of fire, and I wanted to make sure to reflect that in her design. The only problem I find myself running into right now is that I may have made her too short (or the other characters too tall) so she sometimes has to literally fight to be in the frame!


CBY: There’s more than just five-star meals and fighting huge monsters in this world, though. It covers old prejudices, rivalry, and teen romance as well. How did you two get into the mindset to create this story? Was there any special content you consumed or memories you drew from to help achieve that teenage feeling?

JA: For my part, a lot of it was as simple as drawing from my own experiences. I’m 32 now, but I was only a couple years out of college when I first had the idea, so a lot of those memories were still pretty fresh in my mind. In particular, Hana’s struggle with prejudice and taking pride in her culture is something I dealt with a lot as a half-Palestinian kid going through school during the wildly Islamophobic/xenophobic mid-to-late aughts. I wanted to capture not just the blatant hate, but the subtle, matter-of-fact prejudices that people commonly hold without realizing they’re problematic. And from games like Persona 4 or Trails of Cold Steel to shows like My Hero Academia or Pretty Little Liars, I’m just a huge fan of teen drama and big emotions, so it’s a headspace that’s a lot of fun to spend time in.

VT: When I was a teenager, I once had a teacher see me with fried rice for lunch and remarked, “Isn’t Chinese food quite smelly?” While I don’t believe she meant anything by it, it always stuck out to me as a bizarre interaction. The sad truth is that many people from different cultures have similar interactions all the time. It was imperative for Jordan and I to have the characters come from different backgrounds who could bring their culture into their cooking styles and recipes. Really, it’s just natural to have this because food is all about sharing parts of yourself and everyone has different upbringings. It was fun to use teenagers to cover this kind of story since this is the best time for growth and many mistakes to be made. Cooking is a lot about discovering yourself and constant failure until you get the dish just right.

CBY: Is it challenging to balance a story that will entertain a young adult audience while capturing the attention of the older crowd as well? What elements of the story do you feel will draw in readers of all ages?

JA: I think the overall hope is that the central concept of warrior chefs will draw interest and let the central themes get their hooks in readers. I think the best YA work can speak to a large audience by playing on universal experiences. Our story takes place in a fantasy world, but struggling to fit in, dealing with prejudice, and facing walls in your journey of self-improvement are themes that readers of any age can connect to. Beyond that, I think we’ve done our best to make a book that doesn’t shy away from complex issues, but presents them in a digestible way for kids and adults alike. And fortunately, YA has become a bit more of universal genre in and of itself these days, so we hope there’ll be an inherent potential audience that won’t be driven away by the age range on the cover.

VT: I think it can be quite challenging, because reading Young Adult books as an adult, you kind of forget that the characters are teenagers and are going to make unwise decisions that maybe you wouldn’t make anymore. I’m guilty of this as well. But I think Jordan has done a fantastic job of writing realistic teenagers and all the messy parts of teen drama. I think the themes of friendship and rivalry in the book are really fun to read. Hopefully teenagers and adults can relate to the struggles the characters are going through and understand that sometimes you just gotta battle out your feelings with big spatulas!


CBY: Which monster do you each feel would be the tastiest from the world of Cooking with Monsters? We also are dying to know, what would be your weapon of choice if pressed into battle? JA: I’m a sweets guy, so I think the fruit of a fruit bat has the potential to be the most delicious treat you could get. Plus, none of the stress of actually having to properly prepare anything like some of our other creatures! As for what weapon I’d use, while we have plenty of fun ones in this book and beyond, I think I’d stick with the standard battle spatula. It’s the first weapon we came up with for the world, and I’d love to genuinely have a real-world replica some day.

VT: Is it weird to say that I want to lick the Narwheletto? Haha! The tastiest monster I would recommend is the Miracle Cow, it’ll give you all sorts of third-eye visions. Even though I was very sick from being forced to have snake soup as a kid, I would love to taste the Basilisk too. If I could pick a weapon I would also go with either the spatula or rolling pin. Definitely want a replica of the spatula too, purely for reference of course. Can we arrange this?


CBY: This is the first book of a trilogy if I am not mistaken. Without spoiling anything, what can our readers expect from the future two installments?

JA: Going back to my favorite YA works, I think the best, most memorable series are capable of aging up with their readers. So, with books two and three, which together cover Hana’s second year at the Gourmand Academy, we’re aiming to tell a slightly more mature story that presents the sous-chefs with greater challenges both physically and psychologically. They’ll go on their first field missions, learn more complex warrior chef skills, and face real antagonists that threaten all of Gourmand. Of course, we’re also aiming to introduce even more wild monsters and spend more time fleshing out our extended cast of students.

VT: We’re looking to flesh out the world outside of Gourmand Academy in the next two books without straying too far from the school itself. There’s going to be exciting new antagonists that I can’t wait to introduce, and a couple of monsters that have already become my new favourites.

CBY: Where can our readers find you both? Are there any social media platforms that either of you would like to promote?

JA: The best place to find me is still Twitter, unfortunately. I’m all set to jump ship when the alleged paywall goes up, though, so I can also be found on Bluesky and Instagram, as well as at my official website for a full catalog of all my past work.

VT: Most unfortunately, I am most active on Twitter. I do have a Bluesky, Instagram, Facebook, and go by @Superrisu across all platforms. You can also find my portfolio and links to my books under www.viviantruong.com . CBY: Thank you both for swinging by and chatting with me today, we can’t wait to read the next installment when it drops! Let us know if you have other publications you’d like readers to know about beyond Cooking with Monsters.

JA: I’m in desperate need of a new webstore myself, but the indie superhero series I write for Altruist Comics is available at their website, and my first license work is dropping at the end of October with the Apex Legends Official Cookbook, which I wrote all of the lore entries for, not the recipes!

VT: For anyone who loves stories about dragons and adventure, City of Dragons: The Awakening Storm is the other series I’m working on. The sequel to the book Rise of the Shadowfire is set to be released October 17th and I’m already working on the third book as we speak, so if you’d like to tackle on another magical series please do check it out! You can also find Anjali Bhimani’s self-help book I Am Fun Size, And So Are You! On Amazon, which I recommend for a feel good collection of life lessons from the wonderful actress. To the confusion of my family, I am also working on a cookbook comic book, so please keep an eye out on that too.

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