The high-stakes restaurant industry is a great place to explore the intersection of artistry, ambition, and commerce, where oftentimes a restauranteur’s dreams are compromised by the harsh financial reality of starting a business. In James Albon’s new graphic novel, The Delicacy (Top Shelf), an exceptional young Scottish chef, Danny Green, aspires to bring wholesome organic food to the starving London masses with his farmer brother, Rowan. But the more successful their farm-to-table restaurant becomes, the more concessions Danny makes to keep profits growing—compromising his cuisine, his morals, and his relationships.
A surprise death significantly changes the course of the story, and even with the fable-esque tone, there are some significant leaps in logic that make this plot point hard to swallow. Rather than calling the police when a mobster drops dead in his restaurant mid-extortion, Danny disposes of the body with his brother’s help, which comes far too easily. Danny justifies their actions because of the victim’s appearance, viewing him as a symbol for the urban junk diets that repulse them, but it’s quite a jump from the moral high ground of organic food consumption to the criminal behavior of covering up a person’s very accidental death. Albon hints at a complicated family history of deceit and ill will, but doesn’t fully explore it, flattening relationships that could have much more depth. Danny and Rowan’s mother is a paranoid hippie anti-vaxxer who cut her sons off from the rest of the world, and there’s a darkness to her that would inform Danny’s descent, if only she played a more active part in the story.
There’s no denying Albon’s talent as a visual storyteller, and The Delicacy gives him the opportunity to really show off, with bustling city locales, idyllic farm landscapes, and delectable food illustrations. He succeeds at capturing the wonder of London’s culinary scene for the two sheltered brothers, and his fluid lines bring vitality to the character acting, creating a sense of camaraderie that connects the siblings early on. There’s a particularly glorious sequence when Danny first tries the exotic mushroom that makes his restaurant a culinary tour de force, using text to describe the taste while vines, knives, skulls, and birds float through the surrounding space, awash in warm sunlight.
Albon cleverly uses lettering to reinforce the emotional content on the page: When Danny realizes all of the unexpected red tape he has to cut through to get his restaurant up and running, Albon puts each individual requirement in its own word balloon, wrapping them around Danny to amplify his overwhelmed feeling. And after seeing the mobster’s fallen corpse, Danny’s body breaks into four pieces, separated by text describing the feeling of disassociation coursing through him. Albon’s page design captivates and surprises with the ways it shifts scope; you don’t know if he’s going to zoom in on a plate of food or pan out for an overhead shot of the restaurant and its surrounding neighborhood. The visuals keep the book compelling even when the story stumbles, providing a feast for the eyes from start to finish.