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The Secret Ingredient

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Dish created by Stewart Lewis

Serves: hungry readers everywhere
Prep time: 0 minutes
Total time: 1-2 sittings

Recommended equipment: quiet, a cozy spot to curl up in, tasty snacks

1 dash girl, Olivia, sixteen
2 dollops loving dads, Bell and Enrique
3 fistfuls guitar-playing older brother, Jeremy
1 pint-size British best friend, Lola
5 gallons family trouble
1/2 smidgen warning, from a psychic on an elevator
4 pounds vintage cookbook, with notes from the past
1 search, kneaded, for a mother never known
2 hints hope (a key and a name)
3/4 pinch romance, with a cute boy named Theo

Pit life as you know it.
Marinate in summertime.
Add the secret ingredient.
Serve with love in Silverlake, Los Angeles.

241 pages, Hardcover

First published June 11, 2013

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Stewart Lewis

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5 stars
99 (18%)
4 stars
150 (28%)
3 stars
186 (34%)
2 stars
73 (13%)
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24 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 92 reviews
Profile Image for A. .
254 reviews108 followers
November 3, 2013
It's not that it was bad, it's just that stuff happened, and then it was over, and there was no feeling at all. In writing class they always tell you to 'Show, don't tell!' but I think the author missed all of those classes, because all he did was tell. I felt absolutely no connection to the characters and they didn't even seem like actual people. No one had personality or emotion. And nothing bad ever happened. Olivia just did things, and everything was just way too easy for her. There was no inner struggle, no sense of hardship or anything.

This is how it went (be warned there are spoilers):

Olivia cooks things.
She has two dads and she's adopted but about once every three chapters thinks about her birth mother.
She needs a job and has one within a few pages even though she's seventeen, has no interest in the field, and is wearing her old sneakers to her interview.

She cooks more things and I have no idea what they are because they always seem to be French.
Her dads have financial difficulty and don't want to share it.
Her brother gets arrested. The he's released.
The end.

She finds an old cookbook which someone wrote in and then based on a few entries makes up an entire life story about the previous owner.

She likes a guy. She loses her virginity. It barely hurt and she tells one of her dads and it just makes him happy THE END.

She manages to get some movie directors to film at her dad's restaurant and THEIR FINANCIAL DIFFICULTY IS SOLVED!

She finds her birth mother and WOULDN'T YOU KNOW IT? SHE IS EXACTLY THE WAY SHE PICTURED AND IS JUST LIKE HER! No hard feelings, no conflicted emotions.

She seeks out the owner of the cookbook and meets her family and EVERYTHING SHE COMPLETELY MADE UP ON BASELESS ASSUMPTIONS IS TRUE.

Everyone she meets is fantastic and attractive and wonderful.


This is not life, this is just silly. I can tell the author was never a teenage girl because Olivia doesn't have any characteristics of a teenage girl. She's a robot. She even buys a bikini without trying it on and it fits perfectly. I'm sorry, but that is JUST NOT POSSIBLE. This author has absolutely no concept of the female body and even when she loses her virginity it means nothing and she feels nothing. Her birth mother turns out to be a 17 year older spit of herself. They act the same, look the same, have exactly the same values and interests and get along like peas in a pod and there is no tension or resentment or anything. She says at one point that the fact that she was always afraid of the ocean has been 'weighing on her mind,' but besides a passage in which she says she stepped on a stingray and that her dad taught her to swim in someone's pool, there is no reference to this 'weighing on her mind.' Her brother is an idiot but besides him being in jail for a few days and not having it affect him at all, it's all good. Supposedly bad things should happen, her dads might lose the house and the restaurant but it doesn't seem to concern her at all. The fact that she could lose her home doesn't change anything.

I thought that this book could have been good if there had been emotion and if things didn't all turn out perfectly. The secret ingredient was appreciating what you have, but she never DIDN'T appreciate it, so instead of learning how to appreciate her life she just said something she knew all along and that was the ending. I don't know how this got published.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Heidi.
1,395 reviews152 followers
June 6, 2013
Four stars: A simple summer read about family, love and changes.

Olivia drags down the alley behind Hank, a boisterous chocolate lab. In his quest to find a pizza box, Hank inadvertently drags Olivia to the back of a secondhand bookstore. Beside the backdoor is a cardboard box full of battered books and a sign that says $.25 each. Olivia finds a vintage cookbook from the sixties that she just can't resist. Olivia at sixteen is an aspiring chef. She cooks the weekly special at her father's restaurant every week. Little does she know that this cookbook and this summer will be full of surprises and changes that will ultimately have her searching for that secret ingredient that she thinks is missing from her life. Can Olivia find her happiness?
What I Liked:
*I am on an easy, breezy summer read kick as of late, and The Secret Ingredient fits right in with my current trend of great books perfect for the beach, or backyard or anytime you need a pick me up book. I loved that this book was without all the things that drag down far too many books these days. There are no love triangles, cliffhangers and it refrains from heavy drama and angst. Instead this book follows a sixteen year old girl during the summer as she learns about love, grownup problems, heartbreak, and the true meaning of family. This book is beautifully written and I enjoyed this light read.
*At the heart of this story is the message regarding family. Olivia comes from a not so traditional family. She was adopted in the nineties by two gay men. They also adopted her older brother Jeremy. Olivia is content with her life and she loves her dads and brother dearly. Yet, there have been numerous times while growing up that she has wondered what it would be like to have a mother, until finally she takes that daring step to find her mother. This book features the ups and downs of any family from financial troubles to arguments, but through it all the heart of the family remains strong and true and shines through. No matter how unconventional or different your family may be, the one fact remains that they are your family and through thick and thin, hopefully they will be with you to the end. I loved that this brook brought me a non traditional family and that it shows that the only thing that matters is love and being there for each other.
*Olivia is a character whom I adored. She is unlike your average teenager, first because she is raised in a home with two dads. Second, she has never had a privileged life, as money was often tight so she is content to wear vintage clothes and create her own style. I loved that she wasn't all about material things. The thing I admired the most about her, though, was her refusal to carry a cell phone. She likes to walk and observe the city and doesn't like being tied down by a cell phone. How refreshing is that? Olivia is also a talented chef, and she is always whipping up fantastic dishes. I enjoyed reading about all things pertaining to food in this book as I find it soothing to read about cooking and food preparation. Olivia is the kind of girl you can't help but like as she is kind and sweet, and she is all about helping others. I enjoyed watching her growth during the summer, and delighted in her discovery in the end.
*I really liked the writing in this one. It is lovely and there are so many wonderful lines that just touched me. I loved that this was an easy read and that it was without all the drama and angst that is so prevalent right now. There are plenty of food for thought lines to ponder in this book.
And The Not So Much:
*If you are looking for a book that has a focused plot and storyline you may be a little disappointed with this one. For me, the loose storyline was just fine since it felt realistic. The story focuses on Olivia's summer adventures from a first romance, money problems, illness, heartbreak and the search for her birth mother. Even though the story isn't tight, it is easy to follow, and I personally enjoyed the format.
*The romance was a bit of a letdown. When it first takes off it is sweet and charming and so feel good. Then there is a stumble, and in the end everything is left rather open ended so I was uncertain how it would work out. I liked that this was realistic, because let's face it, how many first loves go the distance? Yet, I was sad that I didn't get a laid out happily ever after, but again that is the way life goes.
*The books ends rather abruptly leaving many unfinished story lines. It almost feels like the author is laying out the story threads for a sequel, but I am uncertain whether there will be a sequel. I wanted do know what happened to Lola's mom? I wanted Olivia to meet Eloise and learn the truth about Rose and the cookbook. Will she see Blake again? Will things work out with Theo? What about her birthmother? I would have preferred just a bit more resolution.

The Secret Ingredient is a pleasant summer book that follows a young girl as she deals with many obstacles on her way to adulthood. This is a book with a lot of heart as it reminds you of the importance of family. I enjoyed the easy storyline and all things pertaining to food. Grab this sweet little book when you are in need of a short, simple book for a summer afternoon.

Favorite Quotations:
"Bell says I'm like a fine wine. If you want to get to know me the right way, you have to let me breathe first."
"When you live in an imperfect, mismatched family like mine, you understand that love is about more than just blood. My dads raised me, took care of me when I was sick, taught me to walk, and read me to sleep every night. They are in my bones, a part of who I am. I can't imagine loving my birth parents any more."
"Food brings people together and gives you a comfort that nothing else can. It's more than nourishment, although that's a big part. When our taste buds come alive, other things seem possible. Hope, change, a new outlook on things. Especially when it's the right dish."
"I think about imperfections, and how we're all basically made up of them. But sometimes on the right day, or in the right light, things can feel perfect. Like now."
"After we're done, we share a cookie. No matter what crap is going on in life, a cookie will make it go away---just for a minute. The aroma encircles us in an invisible bubble of safety."

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this review.
Posted@Rainy Day Ramblings.

Profile Image for Kristen.
1,764 reviews29 followers
April 1, 2016
Ugh. I now know that a book can be both incredibly boring and have way too much going on at the same time.

This one had so much promise going in...gay dads, a cool British best friend, a cute boy, a search for a birth mother. What a let down. There is SO MUCH going on--like the author just threw every YA thing ever together. [spoilers] Gay dads not getting along, family restaurant going under, new job, cute boy proves untrustworthy, musician brother goes to jail, best friend's mom gets cancer, mysterious birth mom, dog that she walks dies, deahly afraid of water, obsession with an old cookbook with personal notes inside so she must track down owner...OH MY GOD ENOUGH. All that happening randomly throughout the book with very little dialogue or character interaction left me apathetic and bored. I finished...but it was a struggle. And I have no idea what I was supposed to get out of it.
Profile Image for Julie Bradford.
13 reviews2 followers
March 20, 2013
I fell in love with the blurb and really wanted to love the book as much. It was a good read, but left me unsatisfied somehow. Olivia is a likable enough gal, but some of the plot details were a bit hokey to me. A psychic shows up and makes predictions, but I would have liked them wrapped up a little more at the close of the book. The plotline about the boyfriend had me turning pages; the "plot twist" with him was a bummer. The explanation at the end was a little vague.
I found the part about the cookbook and the story Olivia makes up to go with it to be a little too contrived. It seemed to involve homosexuality just for the sake of it--that part didn't feel genuine.
I enjoyed the book, but found it to be a little too contrived to give it more than 3 stars.
I read the ARC. I hope the final copy comes with some recipes!
Profile Image for Mary Bronson.
1,433 reviews84 followers
May 23, 2017
I thought this was an interesting young adult summer contemporary romance about a young sixteen year old girl who lives with two dads and use to live with an older brother who was also adopted like her and she wants this summer to be different. That is what happens when she meets this psychic who surprisingly gave her truthful information that would change her life. Plus I love the idea of adding a culinary twist to the story.
Profile Image for jasmine.
102 reviews5 followers
May 3, 2015
"tell me this," i say. "do you think there's some grand scheme to our lives and we just have to, like, give in to it?"

the truth about this book is that it disappointed me. there's not much more to it than that. when i saw the cover and read the synopsis, i was absolutely sure that i needed this book. i'm adopted, for all intents and purposes, and i've recently developed an affinity for cooking, so everything about this book's set up screamed for me to read it. for the first 20%, i was thinking about how happy i was that this book was turning out pretty decent after all of my anticipation, but after that, it just got progressively worse and worse and worse.

even in the beginning, i thought that olivia (or one of her thousand nicknames) was a little bit of a selfish twit, and that she was incredibly judgmental of her family, and i even got the vibe that she thought of herself as above them somehow, and that theme stayed prevalent throughout this novel in its entirety. she was cold and entirely unforgiving of her brother -- admittedly, he was kind of a screw up, but she was such a holier than thou bitch about it that i just wanted to shake her and tell her not to make her brother cry anymore.

beyond all of that, this girl had an annoying habit of making everything about herself. her boyfriend was incredibly boring and for some reason, i just thought that he was kind of creepy, plus the whole pre-existing romance (to get out of having to write one that took actual effort) trope is really off-putting for me personally.

overall, this was a decent read, though it had little to nothing to do with the main character. i appreciated that her mother wasn't some apologetic bleeding heart - that she stood by her decision, was honest about it, and even proud of it; giving up your child because you would be an unfit parent is not something to be ashamed of. many children would prefer a loving home to a blood-related one, if the two were mutually exclusive.

the best part was this, though: the story she finds in her cookbook is beautiful - it's well-written, well played out, and i loved how i got a sense of completion from it, even though it made my heart ache. i wish this story had been about rose, kurt, and eloise instead of olivia the selfish drama queen.
Profile Image for Estelle.
855 reviews80 followers
November 25, 2013
Review originally posted on Rather Be Reading Blog

Last year, I sat curled up at a hotel pool reading You Have Seven Messages. I fell hard for Stewart Lewis’ lyrical prose. So it was with great anticipation that I started The Secret Ingredient.

I love how Lewis has created another old soul character in Olive, a master chef in her own kitchen and her dad’s restaurant before she has even graduated high school. She’s insightful and loyal, as she wades through the many unknowns in her life: who is her real mom? Will her dad lose his beloved restaurant? What about their home? She has a lot on her plate, so to speak. But the confidence she has in her family unit does shine through, even during the rough, quiet moments. Another Lewis signature touch is the closeness of the siblings. Despite their different bloodlines, I really liked how Jeremy and Olive related to one another even though their goals were so different. They didn’t tiptoe around the other when they were unhappy with each other’s choices, and still showed such solidarity and affection.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little jealous of how easy Olive can whip together delicious dishes. She finds apples and black beans and makes burritos, friends. It’s like magic! Why can’t I do this? I think a character like Olive can teach us a lot of things. How confident some people can be in some areas, and how it takes some time to catch up in others. Just how observant a character can be about the world. And when it comes to finding her mom, she’s not entirely honest with her Dads, but she also doesn’t go in hoping for a happily ever after either. She’s a realist.

Trips to Laguna Beach, a great moments with her best pal, Lola, the story of an old cookbook, and a sweet romance with the mysterious Theo swirl in and out of The Secret Ingredient, and all add up to a summer of discovery and lots of imagination for Olive. Once again, Lewis has caused me to fall in love with another multi-dimensional and intelligent character. And this story? It felt so fast-paced even though I worked to enjoy every single word. It was just as good as one of Olive’s masterpiece dinners.
Profile Image for Farah Jay.
183 reviews177 followers
September 2, 2013
Olivia, a 16 year old teenage girl's world is about to change. Those are such cheesy lines, but this book wasn't that cheesy. The Secret Ingredient is a short and fast contemporary read. Olivia doesn't know her birth mother, but it's this summer that she's interested in finding out who she is. When she meets a psychic in the elevator who gives her a warning, Olivia starts connecting the dots about how her choices are connected. It's summer, so there's no school. Olivia starts working at a place thanks to her dad, and one day she meets mysterious boy Theo. Theo isn't much of a "mysterious" boy, but more of a boy who suddenly vanished on Olivia one day.

Olivia works at her dad's restaurant, where she cooks a special meal every saturday. Olivia loves to cook, hence title, and you do not how many times the descriptions in the book has made me hungry! I was literally drooling when Olivia would cook breakfast for her parents. One day, Olivia finds a vintage cook book that she decides to buy. In it, she finds recipes that she decides to cook, alongside letters from a women a long time ago. As she started reading those letters, Olivia figured out what she has been missing, her mother. Olivia goes on the "journey" searching for her mother. It was interesting to see what she would find, and Olivia was a great character as well! Stewart Lewis did a good job in never making me feel bored while reading this book.

Overall, The Secret Ingredient was a great contemporary read. Nothing was wrong with this book, other than maybe it lacking a bit of excitement. The characters were great, and the plot was interesting as well! I really want to read Stewart Lewis's other book, You Have Seven Messages, because it's a MYSTERY!! The author did a good job in contemporaries, so let me see how well he does in mysteries too! If you're looking for a chill and fast read, then I recommend this for you!
Profile Image for Karline05 Un brin de lecture.
1,783 reviews19 followers
March 24, 2015
Déçue par cette romance young adult qui avait pourtant tout pour me séduite. Olivia est une héroïne atypique et attachante ; comme une bonne partie des gens qui l'entoure mais le manque d'approfondissement des situations pourtant intéressantes entraîne une lassitude et un manque d'implication du lecteur. Je ne me suis pas sentie concernée par cette histoire qui saura sûrement trouvé son public, peut-être auprès de lecteur plus jeune ( 13 ans).
Profile Image for Rousette.
6 reviews8 followers
January 29, 2016
Couldn't get myself to finish this book. Got up to page 145 and just couldn't keep going. I don't like the writing style this book has. I feel like there's too many unnecessary "deep" moments/ thoughts. Like she would be cooking and then she'll be like "maybe this is what I should do, cut away all my problems like I'm cutting this onion" or something like that. This book has other flaws but I just can't think of them at this moment. I would not recommend this book. Others might like it but for me, not my type of writing style/ book.
Profile Image for Jacquelyn.
444 reviews205 followers
July 28, 2015
Actual Rating: 3.5 stars

A very cute and creative story. It wasn't great but I still enjoyed reading it.
Profile Image for Margo Berendsen.
582 reviews80 followers
June 20, 2013
This is a fun trip through a girl’s life in L.A. with a little bit of what we all crave from this setting: run-ins with actors (Jude Law – nice!) and a few insider peeks into movie biz, as Olivia works at a casting agency and gets to meet some, um, interesting clients. But mostly it’s a frolic through the ups and downs of family relationships, food, and budding romance all told with a great quirky voice that keeps you glued to the pages.

First line: Every day is sunny in Los Angeles, but it’s not exactly paradise.

This first line is intriguing but its sort of just a random observation; the first chapter is in fact nothing but a collection of random but interesting observations from our all-over-the-place teenage main character, Olivia. I suppose some people would be annoyed at her jumping from subject to subject, but I thought it was fun! She hooked me on page 1 with her suggestion for the name of a laundromat: “Not Responsible for Lost Socks.”

And shortly afterward her description of her dad in the morning: “His hair seems to be living in a different area code than his head.”

The whole book is filled with fun observations like this. And sometimes with writing that crosses over from fun, to really lovely:

I look down at the photo he handed me. It looks a little retouched, but his gaze covers me slowly, like sheets falling from a clothesline.


The road stretches out before us like a chance.

Olivia is different, yet relatable. I certainly don’t get into food like she does – the first thing she does when she gets home is start cooking – but I loved how she muses her way through her concoctions, and she’s the sort of girl that when getting ready for a date, she dabs a little vanilla extract behind her ears instead of perfume. And, here’s the best thing about her:

Everyone is so attached to their phones, I find it liberating to not have one. I also kind of enjoy how people react when they find out, like I’m some kind of alien. I find it oddly reassuring that I’m a bit different. But mainly, I’m just not a phone person. I prefer to look up at the trees when I walk home, or stop by people’s houses to actually talk to them face to face.

And this:
I’m probably the only teenager in L.A. who doesn’t have a Facebook page. I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Love blogs, hate social networking. I like that I can email Soupdork for recipes, but I don’t like to stare at pictures of my “friends” or read about boring movies or celebrity sightings.

That's so me!

I loved her best friend, Lola, too:

When she transferred to my school two years ago, all the popular girls wanted to become her friend because she’s British. But she didn’t really care for them. It’s almost like she has this X-ray vision that can see through fakeness.

This made me so happy:

I can’t imagine my life without Lola in it. It’s like I used to live in black and white, and when Lola came along, everything was suddenly in color.

I had a friend like this in high school, that made my life brighter – or rather I saw everything brighter because of her.

Loved how the title played into the one of the book's themes of finding what makes you unique:
The cook was a guy named Eli, who would always squeeze my cheeks. I would stand there, mesmerized by how he cut his onions, waiting for him to slice off a finger. He told me that with every dish I make, there should be a secret ingredient, something that comes from the chef alone, like a handprint. Something that completes the dish and makes it unique.

Characterization: 5 out of 5. Mostly for Olivia and Lola. The dads were great. I wanted more of Jeremy, and maybe a little less of Theo – he was too good to be true. Extra characters like the psychic and Davida and her dog were wonderful additions.

I tell her about Jeremy putting an old scarecrow in the passenger seat of Bell’s car just so he could ride the HOV lane to his friend’s concert in Long Beach.

Setting: 4 out of 5. I did get a real Southern California vibe from the setting descriptions, but I wanted more unique stand-out places. However, this was a memorable description:
The line of the fading sun makes a million sparks on the top of the water, and they’re all pointing directly at me.

Plot: 3 out of 5. Usually I love historical threads interwoven with contemporary stories, but this premise of a 1960’s housewife making notes in her cookbook and then Olivia building her own elaborate story of the woman based on these tiny notes felt a little thin to me and not well connected to the rest of the story.

Some of the events in the story felt too coincidental:

Oh, and one other thing that puzzled me. The very first page makes a big deal about Skid Row in Los Angeles, making me expect it to come into play in the story. And it never does. Maybe I just misread it as a plot device instead of setting device, but I kept looking for Skid Row to show up again.

Pacing: 5 out of 5

Dialogue/Voice: 5 out of 5. Just adored Olivia’s all-over-the-place voice.

Personal appeal: 3 out of 5. Going into this book, there was HUGE appeal. The premise of a teenage chef isn’t new, but after the first chapter I felt like it was new, because of Olivia’s great voice. The Dads were an interesting combo. I adore historical/contemporary parallel stories, but personally didn't connect with the historical thread in this one. Also had a personal dislike of

Margo’s Literary Scale: where 1 is "merely entertaining" and 5 is "really made me think." Between a 3 and 4. The book uses some symbols in Olivia's character arc, like the palm trees that Olivia loves and what they symbolize to her, and her Stingray Trauma that has made her afraid of the ocean. There are little touches of wisdom that appear here and there, like “half of the world’s great ideas were born out of unlikely pairings." And of course exploring adoptive and non-traditional family relationships.

To end this with, a quote I liked:

You will notice, if you haven’t already, that the good fortune that comes your way life is always related to who you know. It’s important to operate in an open way, and never close yourself off to possible connections. Light shines from unexpected places.

And this one was a good analogy, except that braids don't drift apart; but I still like it.

I feel that families are like braids. You drift apart but always come back together.
Profile Image for Celeste_pewter.
593 reviews147 followers
March 14, 2013
Two-second recap The Secret Ingredient is a short, sweet snapshot into the lives of a quirky, unconventional family in the heart of Los Angeles. Infused with delicious food and loving relationships, Stewart Lewis’s novel defies stereotypes and expected conventions.

Full review:

Stewart Lewis’s The Secret Ingredient is by no means a long book – the ARC comes in at roughly a brief 240 pages – but it’s a meaningful one. Lewis masterfully tackles all sorts of conventions and stereotypes normally found in YA – from relationships to family crises – and completely turns them on their head.

The end result is a very quiet novel which leaves a strong impact long after you’ve finished reading.


Things that worked:

* Lewis’s ability to discuss serious real-world problems, without over dramatization.

Olivia’s family has to deal with a series of fairly serious personal problems throughout the course of the novel – from a potential foreclosure; to having her brother land in jail; to losing the family restaurant. Lewis generally has Olivia deal with these problems in a rational manner, without dramatizing them.

I felt like Olivia’s quiet, level-headed way of handling difficult situations, was a pleasant change of pace from the typical YA protagonists who tend to go to extremes when dealing with stress. It’s much more realistic, and definitely a better example for young readers to emulate.

* Bell and Enrique. Even though they’re in the background (and not getting along) for a lot of the book, I really loved Olivia’s dads.

First and foremost, I love the fact that a gay couple plays such a strong role in this book. Anytime a YA book features diversity in relationships – I’m down.

Second, I felt that Lewis did an excellent job of showcasing the different sides of the two men, and how they’ve contributed to Olivia as a whole.

The details about Enrique’s background as a dancer; his ability to nurture Olivia after the “Stingray Trauma”, and even how he liked to sneak special items into Olivia’s second-hand wardrobe when she was younger, did a lot to explain Olivia’s ability to nurture people through her food.

Similarly, Bell’s practicality and go-get them attitude, also explains why Olivia is just so level headed about doing certain things – e.g. accompanying Enrique to an important dinner and getting a job to help support her family.

*The sibling relationship between Jeremy and Olivia. At first glance, Jeremy would fit into the slacker musician sibling stereotype that I tend to see in so many other novels.

The fact that he’s a) still willing to support his sister and his dads at all costs – and more or less inadvertently breaks the law to do so and b) does develop a substantial contract within the music industry to the absolute joy of his family, were all nice changes from my usual expectations.

* The relationship between Lola and Olivia. Lewis does an excellent job in creating a friendship between the two girls that is full of rich moments, and very true to real life.

I really enjoyed the fact that regardless of what they were going through, Lola and Olivia were always mutually supportive and encouraging of one another.

Even when both girls receive life-changing news, there were none of the secretive/dramatic moments that one might likely to find in other YA books. Instead, both girls just made adjustments accordingly, and continued to do what they could to help the other one through their individual rough patches.

Ultimately, Lewis has created the type of friendship that is so realistic; I can easily visualize Olivia and Lola just quietly living their day-to-day lives, long after the novel has taken place.

* Obviously, the food. Cooking and food are omnipresent throughout the book, and Lewis uses both to build on characters, propel plotlines forward and also help us better understand motivations and circumstance.

Though Lewis’s use of food is constant, it’s also very subtle and really enriches Olivia’s world.

* Finally, this is only really applicable to me, but I love the fact that the book takes place in a not-so-famous part of Los Angeles.

As someone originally from L.A., I feel like L.A. generally gets a bad rep in print and entertainment. The city is either portrayed as a glitzy gateway into Tinseltown or a drug-ridden, smoggy wasteland.

(Crash, I’m looking at you).

The fact that Lewis chose to highlight a section of the city that doesn’t really get that much attention is something that made this homesick girl, very happy.


Things to consider:

I’ve seen some reviews state that they felt like Olivia tended to just accept unfolding situations, without taking the time to emotionally process them. As a result, the reviewers couldn’t connect with Olivia at a deeper level.

E.g. Olivia misinterprets a situation involving her long-time crush Theo. But instead of trying to get to the bottom of what she saw, she more or less just moves on.

After rereading some of the book’s earlier passages, I would have to agree with those reviews – but only to an extent. In the earlier chapters of the book, Olivia does appear to have the habit of just accepting what life and circumstances throw at her, without necessarily engaging with them at a deeper level.

However, I don’t think Olivia’s refusal to emotionally engage is necessarily indicative of poor characterization on Lewis’s part.

If anything, I would argue that Olivia’s lack of ability to process situations, only serves to reiterate how empty she feels at the beginning of the novel. Her dads are on the verge of losing their business and home; they’re not getting along; and Olivia’s not sure that her cooking – as talented as she may be – will lead her to where she wants in life.

Throw in the fact that she’s always felt like there’s a part of missing since she knows nothing about her mother, it’s not surprising that while she goes through life doing the right thing – e.g. getting a job to help her dads – she doesn’t necessarily think about the deeper implications. She doesn’t want to.
It’s only after she starts finding out answers; starts developing a stronger sense of self, that you see that she does start taking hold of her own life and destiny.

Final verdict:

Coming in at a brief 240-something pages, The Secret Ingredient is a short, sweet look into how a girl comes of age, in a summer full of change. Readers will relish reading about Olivia’s emotional and culinary journey, as she strives toward her future.

Highly recommend for readers of all ages, especially fans of Sarah Dessen, John Green and Gayle Forman.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Secret Ingredient from Random House in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Random House!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
2 reviews
April 9, 2018
The main character, Ollie, goes through a lot in her life, and it really puts your life in perspective on how everyone is going through something. The booked seemed a bit choppy, from going through one story then the next in a very short amount of time. However, I do like how she relates to Rose in the story, distracting herself from her own problems. The ending doesn't resolve everything, which is OK, as it solves the main problem. The story just seemed rushed.
4 reviews
September 2, 2017
great book has some things in it that I wouldn't suggest to us kids.
For a girl who's that grew up not knowing her mother has done pretty well with two dads as parents Olivia who's seventeen finds out how hard life can be plus working at a restaurant on Saturday's is making it hard at finding a job other than a cook.
Profile Image for Brittany S..
1,405 reviews692 followers
March 28, 2016
4 stars
Initial Impressions: Thank you to Random House for sending me the ARC for The Secret Ingredient blog tour!

The Secret Ingredient was a lot more than I expected it to be. I was unreasonably a bit wary of it at first and totally dove in to the book and the mysteries (and the food!), devouring the book (no pun intended) in an afternoon. It was a quick and enjoyable read!

Review originally posted on The Book Addict's Guide: I’m really glad that I got to be a part of this blog tour because I hadn’t heard of THE SECRET INGREDIENT before and I devoured it (okay, pun kind of intended) in one afternoon. With a breezy California setting, I found THE SECRET INGREDIENT to be a perfect mixture of romance, mystery, and culinary expertise for a summer day. Olivia and her family run into some hardships over the summer that is chronicled in this book, but despite the hard times, I still found the book to have a lightness to it that carried me through the whole book and got me lost in Olivia’s story.

One of the main points of THE SECRET INGREDIENT is Olivia’s quest to find out about her birth mother. She was adopted and lives with her two fathers in Los Angeles and despite being teased when she was younger, she couldn’t be happier in her home with such loving parents. The real sort of mystery begins when Olivia has a nagging desire to find out who her birth mother really was and after digging up documents, she decides to finally take that leap and possibly even make contact with her… Providing she’s still alive or in the general area. I really liked this part of the storyline — I think it’s always interesting to see where the author takes an idea like this. Is Olivia’s mother a good person? Is she in prison? Did she start a new family? Is she even alive? That little spark just had me questioning every little thing until the very end!

Another huge part of the book is Olivia’s knack and passion for cooking (hence the title). When she finds an old cookbook with numerous notations and personal thoughts written in the margins from the previous owner, a whole back story begins to unravel in her head and with each recipe she tries from the cookbook, a new tale unfolds. Very Half-Blood Prince, no? :) I kind of loved it! This story becomes Olivia’s other obsession over the summer, attempting all of the recipes that the previous owner had. I liked the second story line that sort of unravels here piece by piece and that these people and events that are being recorded in the cookbook are real people somewhere that Olivia may or may not be able to meet in real life, should she choose to go out and find them. The only thing I didn’t like was that Olivia jumped to her own conclusions about where the story really went because Rose (the previous cookbook owner) was very vague on many things. Olivia just assumes that “Maybe this is what happened” and then takes her own assumptions for the truth. I think I just wanted a bit more mystery there — me being a mystery person and all — and maybe a few more guesses and hypotheses instead of just assuming one story line was true. Either way, it was definitely an interesting piece to the story!!

Another thing I really enjoyed was the family dynamic of this book. I loved both of Olivia’s dads and how different they were, with Bell as the restaurant owner who seems to be the backbone of the family and Enrique as more of an artistic sort of person having formerly been part of the Mexico City Ballet. I really loved their guidance and advice for Olivia and just the way they all interacted. I could totally tell how much love was in their family and even through the hard times, they still all manage to pull it together and were so supportive of each other. Olivia also has a brother who doesn’t live at home, but she still pops out every once in a while to meet up with him. Both Olivia and her brother work their hardest over this summer to help out their fathers’ struggling business and it was just so touching to see their dedication to the family! Their family seemed so realistic and they all just felt so genuine. It was one of my favorite aspects of this book!

And of course there’s a romance! How could I forget about that!! After up and leaving with no word the previous year, Olivia’s first real crush is back in town. Theo is back after abandoning Olivia on the night of their first date and things start to heat up again… But I was always left with that idea of “Can we trust him?” He left without a word so I was very hesitant to see him back in Olivia’s life, but I definitely started seeing his appeal and he had just some of the sweetest moments with her! Theo was a bit quirky in a good way and I never knew what to expect from him. I loved the spontaneity… As long as it didn’t involve him leaving again!

THE SECRET INGREDIENT has its fair share of serious topics and hard times, but it isn’t one to bog you down — I started and finished in one afternoon and really enjoyed every high and low of the book! I was swept away by this book and just let myself get lost in Olivia’s story.

Profile Image for Megan Harris.
18 reviews
October 5, 2017
It was an okay book. I loved how it used modern day situations but it was never really that interesting for me. It was kinda dry the whole way through and didn't have much of an ending. It almost seemed as if the author got tired of writing the book.
Profile Image for Heather Reeder.
238 reviews1 follower
July 27, 2017
A kids book- ellie and I read together. Recipes were fun. The kissing boy didn't really fit.
Profile Image for Hazel Leu.
189 reviews2 followers
October 23, 2018
Cute, but I thought it could’ve been a little better. Looking forward to what this author writes next.
Profile Image for Tracey.
21 reviews
January 26, 2020
2.5 stars for this sappy romance. A nice easy read when you need a break. It held my interest for the most part but I’m glad to be done ✅
Profile Image for Michelle.
648 reviews7 followers
March 10, 2017
I wouldn't say that this book is something I would recommend to readers of Thirteen Reasons Why like the blurb says. I anything it was watered down version of Sarah Dessen's books. There wasn't anything extraordinary about this book.

It tells the story of Olivia's summer before her junior year of high school, when she gets a job, learns that her fathers are having trouble paying off their bills, and goes on a search to find her birth mother.

I think that the reason for why I was less involved with the story was partially because there were so many subplots going on. And by the end, even though they could be considered "finished", I wished there had been more detailed and finalized versions.
Profile Image for Dayla.
2,032 reviews201 followers
June 11, 2013
Review first appeared on my blog: Book Addict 24-7

I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis is a young adult contemporary novel that features a protagonist on a quest of sorts to find not only herself, but the past that has waited for the day her curiosity becomes too much to handle. Wonderful in its portrayal of same sex parenting, first love, identity, and what makes us us, The Secret Ingredient is an interesting, but slightly disconnected tale of adolescence and the hardships we sometimes face when coming into our identities.

Olivia, the protagonist, is a girl who is forced to re-examine her world in a different way thanks to a psychic she encounters. What ensues are a series of coincidences and life-changing events, after all, she lives in L.A.-a city full of dreams, right?

While I definitely enjoyed the little cooking moments and her imagined world after she finds a vintage cookbook, I found things to be a little strained, unrealistic, and impersonal.

Don't get me wrong, the descriptions are very pretty and the lessons that Olivia learns are very important for the reader to take note of. My issue is with how the story is brought to life. The characters are sometimes a bit too unrealistic (especially Olivia's best friend, her background is not an excuse for her to talk like a middle-aged woman living in the sixties). Despite my inability to connect with some of the characters, I still enjoyed the adventure and romance that Olivia experiences.

Her first love is sweet and we are swept up in her summer romance right along with her as she strives to figure out her past. But again, this falls back to the whole credibility of it all. I think issues are resolved too easily and forgiveness handed out quickly. In a way, I found Olivia to be a little bit too weak in this aspect. If I went through what she goes through, I would be incredibly angry and would make those who hurt me work for my forgiveness, not just simply shrug, smile, and say, "All's forgiven!" Life doesn't always work the way Olivia lives it, especially as a teenager.

The pacing was pretty good, though we do miss a chunk of the summer, since Lewis breezes past it. And though this novel reads more like a fairytale waiting to happen, I was still drawn into Olivia's life with her unconventional family. I love the bond between her and her dads and her brother, I felt that that was the most realistic aspect of this novel.

I think the greatest weakness The Secret Ingredient has is its credibility. I get it if something miraculous happens--but over-the-top miracles push the moment from an "aww," moment to a "oh, I see," moment. I want to believe what Olivia experiences, but it's hard for me to imagine that nearly everything gets solved and prettied up near the conclusion, while we don't even have a solid conclusion about Olivia's best friend. Which, by the way, is way too good to be true--oh, and a random storyline is thrown in after half the novel...but these lips are sealed.

What I did like is the conclusion and how open-ended it is. Unlike the psychic's detailed idea of what would happen to Olivia throughout the novel, the ending offers us a sort of clean slate where Olivia can choose whichever path appears before her, rather than a predestined one. Olivia shows us that yes, we may all be looking for our secret ingredient, but sometimes one might find that it was never truly lost--just hidden somewhere inside of you, you just have to discover it. In my opinion, this is the one point where Olivia is at her strongest.

I recommend The Secret Ingredient to readers who want a light summer contemporary read that is both quick, and witty. There are important issues within Lewis's novel, but treat this as a lighter read to truly enjoy it.
Profile Image for Michelle (In Libris Veritas).
1,929 reviews80 followers
July 2, 2013
I received this book in exchange for an honest review

The Secret Ingredient is the story of a single summer in young Olivia’s life, a summer where things start to change. Olivia is beginning to feel like she’s missing something and she’s certain it’s her birthmother. Her fathers, Bell and Enrique, are struggling to make do with their slowly failing restaurant and her brother Jeremy is kind of a dreamer. The Secret Ingredient is the perfect summer time read; it’s short, sweet, has a touch of romance, and a ton of self discovery. Just make sure you have snacks handy, because this one is sure to make you hungry.

Olivia Reese is a incredibly sweet sixteen year old girl who puts her family first and it’s not until she gets a little push that she starts trying to do things for herself. She’s also an incredible cook and that’s where she finds her peace, and believe me…the food she makes in this sounds utterly amazing. The family unit in SI is really important to the story and the best part for me is that her parents are actually great parents, none of that typical YA horrid or absent parent nonsense here. Bell and Enrique have their issues and they have a lot of stress on them but they really try and thanks to a few flashbacks you get a good idea of how they raised Olivia and Jeremy. I suppose my only complaint is that I wish I could see more of those instances. Lola is Olivia’s best friend and while we didn’t get a ton of back story for her she really does seem like a wonderful best friend who is willing to stand by Olivia no matter what. Then there is Theo, the boy with the surprisingly sweet heart and big dreams. I really liked him, he seemed really sweet and at sixteen he’s incredibly responsible. He really encourages Olivia is realize her dreams and I thought he was a great addition to her already large support system. I did not like where their relationship ended up though, it felt a bit off or incomplete. Though I suppose technically it is since the story only covers one story of her whole life and realistically everything would not fall into place, but still it was a bit of let down.

The overall plot is a quick and filled with life’s ups and downs that Olivia has to find a way to navigate. I think she does better than simply navigate the troubled waters though, she really puts her best foot forward and works to do what she can to better both her situation and that of her friends and family. She also discovers quite a bit about herself as she searches for her birthmother and I liked that she grew as a person. The romance is really cute and put a smile on my face, and the cooking parts had me reading in the kitchen. (Seriously…I read most of this while in my kitchen so I could grab stuff to eat easier). My only real big issue was the fact that there was a lot of telling and not a lot of feeling, it didn’t really balance out and while I enjoyed the story quite a bit I didn’t find my self connected to the characters as much as a I wanted to be. It’s not an extremely deep novel but it did get me thinking about how people can take seemingly small things for granted, but when you lose them you realize just how big it was.

If you’re looking for a book to keep you company while you sit out in the sun and relax then The Secret Ingredient just might be for you.
Profile Image for Céline Meg.
182 reviews6 followers
March 19, 2015

Olivia, seize ans et demi, est presque heureuse dans la vie. Il ne manque que trois fois rien à son bonheur. Elle a deux pères qui l'aiment et qui la soutiennent, une grande complicité avec son frère, une passion : la cuisine et une meilleure amie géniale : Lola. Pourtant, Olivia a envie de plus. Elle veut en savoir plus sur sa mère biologique et si possible, rencontrer l'amour...

Trois fois rien qui font tout est un roman léger qui se lit rapidement. Nous sommes du point de vue de l'héroïne et nous allons la suivre à travers ses interrogations, ses doutes et ses choix. C'est une rencontre fortuite avec une médium, dans un ascenseur, qui va tout déclencher. Olivia se pose des questions depuis toujours mais grâce aux prédictions de la voyante et un livre de cuisine des années 1960 qui tient plus du journal intime, elle va commencer à agir pour atteindre le bonheur.

Globalement, j'ai apprécié cette petite histoire même si je lui ai trouvé un gros manque de réalisme. Tout est un peu trop rose et trop facile pour Liv. Sa famille a des difficultés financières, elle n'a aucune piste pour retrouver sa mère et celui qu'elle aime a disparu sans laisser de trace. Malgré cela, la chance va lui sourire et l'adolescente va résoudre, un par un, ses problèmes.

Trois fois rien qui font tout est très jeune, tant dans le style que dans le développement de l'histoire. Le roman se lit d'une traite et sans réfléchir. Olivia va de découverte en découverte et les événements s'enchaînent rapidement. L'auteure a fait du bon travail avec son héroïne puisque nous arrivons facilement à l'imaginer, avec ses passions et ses phobies. Concernant les personnages secondaires, ils n'ont pas été autant développés (par ex Lola) voir même pas du tout pour certains (par exemple Théo). Nous ne savons rien d'eux, nous passons vite sur leur caractère tout comme nous passons vite sur les différentes étapes du roman. Il y avait pourtant des thèmes intéressants à exploiter au travers du vécu des protagonistes : la maladie, l'handicap, l'adoption... mais l'auteure ne s'attarde pas. Ce livre souffre, à mon avis, d'un grand manque de profondeur et la romance est à l'image de l'histoire : mignonnette mais pas transcendante.

Même si j'ai soulevé plusieurs bémols, je me suis suffisamment attachée à Olivia pour avoir envie de connaître son histoire. Je n'ai pas eu à me forcer tant la lecture est fluide. J'avais d'autres attentes mais mon ressenti post-lecture n'est finalement pas si négatif que ça. Les relations familiales sont bien traitées et notamment le lien entre Olivia et ses pères. L'homoparentalité est abordée sans clichés ni préjugés.

Pour conclure, Trois fois rien qui font tout est un roman sans prise de tête mais qui aurait mérité d'être plus fouillé. Les thématiques étaient intéressantes mais pas suffisamment exploitées. Toutefois, je garderai un bon souvenir d'Olivia et de sa cuisine!


Une lecture en demi-teinte.

D'autres avis sur www.megworld.fr :)
Profile Image for Jessica .
2,044 reviews13k followers
July 11, 2013
As soon as I saw that this book was for fans of Sarah Dessen, I knew I had to read it ASAP. Sarah Dessen knows how to write a good contemporary romance, and I was definitely in the mood to read one! Not to mention the main character is a girl who loves to cook. A romance that has to do with food? I'm in!

Olivia has been going through the motions of life, working at the restaurants her dads (Yes, she has two) run while going to school. The summer before her senior year though, everything changes after a mysterious run-in inside of an elevator with a psychic. The restaurant is going under, so Olivia gets a job as an assistant to a casting director. After that, everything seems to fall into place and Olivia can't ignore the giant signs life is throwing her way. This summer will definitely be different and she may just find the missing pieces she's been searching for all her life.

First off, I absolutely loved Olivia's character. She's such a relatable character and I love that she loves to cook. Those quirky little details about characters always make them a million times more likable, and it was awesome how she was constantly sharing the little secrets she puts into her dishes that make them that much better. And the fact that she finds a vintage cookbook where the previous owner had written down when she made each dish was really cool. Olivia would make that same dish when their stories seemed to be on the same paths. Being connected to the past to a person she's never met was a really nice detail to Olivia's story.

Olivia deals with a lot in this book, from helping save the restaurant and rekindling an old, albeit brief, romance to searching for her birth mother. That being said, there was rarely a dull moment in this story. The only problem I had with it, though, is how perfect things happened to fall into place. I know the whole deal is that the psychic said all of Olivia's choices are connected and she has to take chances, but things aren't that perfect. Also, the story Olivia makes up for the previous owner of the cookbook was really interesting, but I definitely wouldn't have jumped to those conclusion if I had read what she wrote. So her interpretation of the cookbook's past seemed a little random and too far fetched.

The only other thing that kind of bothered me was how Olivia and Theo's relationship panned out. What happened seems sort of cliche and how it turned out in the end bothered me. I don't want to reveal what happens, but I wish there was more communication and less forcing things to happen to fit the moral of the story.

But overall, I really liked this book. The whole cooking element definitely won me over and Olivia's life and family were great. I really enjoyed Olivia's growth and journey to find out who she really is in life. While it wasn't as amazing as Sarah Dessen's books, it's still an enjoyable YA contemporary that would be a fantastic summer read.
Profile Image for Kristina (Gone Pecan).
269 reviews29 followers
June 5, 2013
Review can also be found at:


Source: ARC via Random House/Delcorte

Story Breakdown:

Olivia is just a normal teen trying to make it day-to-day. Then during the summer before her senior year things hit the fan. She’s unsure of what to do to prepare for her future, still thinking about ‘What if?’ with a former potential flame, her dad’s restaurant seems to be going under, and she’s been slowing thinking more and more about her birth mother. Over the course of the summer and guided by the strange advise of a psychic, she uncovers information that could be helpful not only in locating her mother but help push her into her own.

Character Highlights:

Olivia - IMO, a great character. I really enjoyed her cooking in the book; it’s a skill that I haven’t really worked on and I love to read about all the different dishes. Overall she seems really well-balanced and even though she is a teen didn’t come off at all entitled. She worked and helped her family when she could which is nice to see in a YA book.

Theo - As far as Theo is concerned I felt he wasn’t really necessary to the story for me. We don’t learn much about his time away and to me that made all the difference because I didn’t feel like I could connect with him. He wasn’t a horrible character, but he just wasn’t memorable for me.

the Dads - Bell and Enrique, Olivia and Jeremy’s fathers seem to be great people. I would have liked to see a bit more interaction between Olivia and her fathers since it seemed every time we saw them together they were just dealing with another problem or trying to not reveal a secret.

Overall Thoughts:

I loved that Olivia had a non-traditional family, something that is becoming more common place in society and therefore I felt the story was more relatable to a broader crowd. There were some areas of the story (including Theo) that I felt weren’t really required and if they would have been missing wouldn’t have taken away from the overall feeling I got from the book but were not in any way a bad addition to the story.

I felt that even though this book deals with somewhat more serious issues there was still a great balance of the light-heartedness so many contemporaries have which I found surprising, especially coming from a male author. I 100% mean that as a compliment because I have a harder time connecting with any book written by a male author so for man to not only write YA, but a contemporary in a female POV is a huge feat and I think Mr. Lewis did a great job.

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