ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
As I passed through the turnstile at the train station, I noticed glowing halos around the street lights, meaning that the rain had returned. I reached for the handle of my battered plastic umbrella, which protected me from the elements for the low, low cost of only ¥200, and held it aloft as I exited the shelter of the station’s roof. (Can’t open an umbrella indoors, after all. That’s bad luck.)
My stomach gurgled uncomfortably—it’s really hard to keep yourself from getting hungry when you’re surrounded by delicious food during a three hour work shift, and I needed food badly. Peering into the falling rain, I looked up and down the shopping plaza to see if there were any enticing places open, and found a small restaurant a few paces from where I was standing. I’d probably noticed it many times before, but something inside my head was telling me “this is the place.”
The restaurant was named Michiru, and there was a soft glow coming from inside filtered through the gauzy curtains. The glass door was fogged up thanks to the cold spring rain, but I walked by to see an assortment of inexpensive display food in the glass window, gathering dust. A standard yoshoku (Western-style food) restaurant; cheap and filling. I decided that would be my stop for the night before I headed home.
I opened the door to the jingling of a set of metal bells tied to the opening rods to see that Michiru was completely deserted, except for one man sitting behind the counter in the small kitchen area. It was obvious he was the owner and chef. It was also obvious that I was probably the only customer he had had for hours—there were undisturbed place settings at every table and counter seat, and he was reading the newspaper while a variety show droned on an old TV mounted to a shelf in the corner of the room. He looked up as he noticed me come in.
“Welcome,” he said, his voice sounding tired. “Take a seat anywhere. No rush.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, folding up my umbrella and depositing it into a rack set by the door. “May I have the menu, and a cup of green tea? It’s still pretty cold out there for April.”
“Hmm? Just a moment,” the chef said, as I seated myself at a table that let me watch the kitchen. I love places like these that let you watch the chef—you could get an idea of how they trained and who they learned from if you watch closely. Even a simple task like the way they cut their vegetables tells you a lot about a chef.
“Here you are, young lady,” the chef said, handing me a laminated sheet of A4 paper along with steaming, fragrant green tea in an earthenware yunomi teacup. I accepted the cup gladly and laid my hands around it to warm them as I scanned the menu.
When you’ve never been to a restaurant before, and you don’t know anything about it, it’s hard to decide what you would like to eat, and the display hadn’t convinced me. There were your standard hamburger steaks and fried chicken sets, along with both curry and hashed rice. I had my heart set on one dish, but then saw a description of another and my thoughts wavered. I wished I could say “I’d like one of everything, please,” but I’d probably burst. That’s when I got an idea.
“Are you ready to order?” the chef asked as he came over to my table.
“Sir, I’d like to order your personal recommendation,” I said.
“Oh?” The chef looked surprised as I handed him back the menu. “Well, then, my personal recommendation…Rice omelet. Is that OK?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said. “I will have that, then. Take your time, I’m not in a rush.”
The hot green tea was helping to quell the clamor in my stomach, and I decided to catch up on some studying while the chef did his prep work. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him moving about the kitchen swiftly, grabbing a frying pan from an overhead rack, a bowl from a cabinet, and a knife off a magnetic rack mounted to the tiles behind the sink. I peeked from my class notes to see the knife, which looked like it was a family heirloom—the steel had ripples and waves like an old samurai sword, and the edge looked like it was honed so sharply you could split a hair on it. It was the kind of knife that cost thousands of yen new.
The mellow aromas of garlic and onions being sautéed distracted me from my reading, and I decided to give up and watch the master at work. There was a bowl of neatly chopped fresh vegetables sitting next to a cutting board: bright orange carrots, golden sweet corn, bits and pieces of fresh broccoli. A plate of chopped chicken was waiting to be added to the pan. The chef turned to another bowl sitting next to the stove, and dipped an electric handheld mixture in it—these must be the eggs. I leaned closer to watch the whites and yolks combine and begin to foam. He deftly picked up the plate of chicken with his free hand while keeping an eye on the mixing bowl and dumped it in the pan, then picked up a pair of long chopsticks and started to stir and separate them for even cooking.
As he turned towards the bowl again, he looked up and noticed me watching him. Well, maybe not watching him, more like staring at him intently. “Excuse me,” I said, and decided to direct my gaze back up to the TV.
“That’s fine. You’re the only customer I’ve had all evening, so you deserve a show,” the chef said as he turned off the had mixer. The eggs in the bowl were now a foamy pale yellow. He laid another frying pan on the burner and carefully squirted it with oil, swirling it around so it would coat every surface evenly. As he waited for the oil to eat, he opened a huge kitchen-sized rice cooker and packed a few scoops of rice into a small bowl, then added it, along with the vegetables, to the chicken mixture currently sizzling away on the stove. The smell was mouthwatering, and I could hardly wait to taste the finished result. He picked up what appeared to be a tube of tomato paste and squirted a good sized dollop of it into the pan, mixing it in to the chicken mixture and tinting it a deep pink.
The fluffy eggs were poured into the other frying pan, and he deftly began to stir as the eggy foam rose up like a sponge cake. A souffle style omelet, I thought, smiling to myself. It was a novel idea, and I hoped the texture would marry well with the tomato flavored chicken rice. Everyday food like this has a tendency to get a little mundane, especially when you know 100 ways you could have made it better.
Seconds later, he spooned a generous amount of the chicken mixture onto one half of the fluffy omelet, then with a toss of the frying pan, he deftly folded the other half against it, sandwiching the goodness within the fluffy egg. He carefully slid the mixture from the frying pan onto a plate, a standard ceramic plate with chips on the rim thanks to years of everyday use, then added a sprig of parsley before placing it in front of me, along with a squeeze bottle of ketchup.
“Your rice omelet, young lady,” the chef said.
I nodded as I picked up my knife and fork. “Thank you. Itadakimasu.”
With the crackle of popping bubbles, my knife sliced through the fluffy omelet, and I swiveled the cut piece towards me, exposing the chicken rice mixture that was dotted with color from the broccoli, corn and carrots. Carefully, I loaded the bite onto the tines of my fork, gazing at how well the omelet held together for something so fluffy and delicate. I took a bite and started to chew…
My jaw dropped. Everything was in perfect harmony—eggs, tomato, rice, chicken, vegetables. “Sir!” I said, slamming my fork and knife onto the counter. “Where…Where did you learn to cook this!?”
“It was my wife’s recipe,” the chef said. There was a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“This…this is PERFECT!” I continued. “The way the egg cradles the rice, and how every one of the vegetables in here is cooked to the right tenderness! And the chicken, it’s still really juicy! I’m going to come here every week—”
“Young lady,” the chef said, “this…unfortunately is my last week in business.”
The chef looked over towards a corner of the room, and my gaze followed him to a small Buddhist altar. A portrait of a smiling older woman, with plump cheeks and gray hair and wearing a sedate kimono, was placed on the top, along with the powdery remains of burnt incense.
“My wife, Michiru,” he said, sadly. “She died suddenly last weekend.”
“Oh…I’m sorry, I said. Suddenly, the omelet seemed to lose its color and fluff as I could hear the grief in the chef’s voice.
“We were planning on closing at the end of this year anyway…my son’s family lives down south in Fukuoka, and they invited us to live with them. We were doing some cleaning up around the house, and my wife suddenly collapsed…she didn’t make it.”
I nodded sedately, the meal all but forgotten because I needed to be a listener now.
“She was the one who did most of the work here. Everything from developing recipes to waitressing…It was her life. And now…the life’s gone from this place. I’ve sold it to a developer, and they’re going to auction off all the equipment. It’s better this way, so the cash I get isn’t going to impose on my family.” He looked down at me and my meal. “If she were here right now, seeing you staring at your food like that, she’d say ‘I didn’t spend all that time preparing that for you to stare at it. Eat up!’”
I blushed, and continued eating somewhat awkwardly. But it made me feel warm from the inside out, like snuggling under a kotatsu blanket in winter while having piping hot coffee. It felt like Michiru was encouraging me with every bite.
As I was about to dig in to the last portion of the rice omelet, the door swung open, with the chimes clanging violently. The chef and I looked up to see three boys at the door, and I immediately recognized their uniforms as being from the same school as I was, but with the ties denoting third year students.
“Looks like we came at the right time,” said what appeared to be the leader of the boys. His hair was frosted at the tips and slicked back, and he looked like he could bench press his own weight. The other two boys behind them were your generic background characters—average height, maybe a little over average weight, untucked shirts and messy hair from after school activities. I think in anime and manga, they’re referred to as “goldfish poop.”
“Welcome! May I help you?” the chef asked, but Frosted Tips Boy strode over to the counter and reached into his pocket.
“Actually, old man, you can help me,” the boy said, as he slammed his smartphone on the counter. “Name’s Hiro Tanaka, and I’m challenging you.”
I knew exactly what the boy meant, but I was unsure if the chef did. As he looked down at the smartphone, I realized he knew exactly what the boy meant, and gave a heavy sigh.
“Young man…to be honest, I don’t even have the fight left in me,” the chef said.
“What?” Frosted Tips Boy snapped. “You see this score right here? 99 victories. One more gets me another star rank. You can’t refuse me. You have no right to.” The boy grinned, sensing victory in his grasp. His attitude was getting on my nerves.
“Look, if you want the victory that badly, I’ll gladly forfeit,” the chef said. “What does it matter, anyway? This place will be gone next week.”
Frosted Tips Boy turned back to his goldfish poop. “Hear that guys? Looks like my 100th victory is in the bag. Why don’t we celebrate by—”
Something inside me snapped. I slammed my fork down on the counter and stood up, glaring at Frosted Tips Boy.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I happened to be enjoying a nice, quiet dinner cooked by that gentleman over there, before you came in and ruined it. I had a very hard day at school. I had a very hard day at work. Every day I go to school, I go to work, I come back home. This is my one indulgence of the week, and if you’re going to ruin it with some petty little duel…” I reached into the pocket of my school shirt, and watched as all three of their expressions changed when I whipped out my smartphone.
“My name is Vanilla Sakamoto, Umami Gakuen, Year 1, Yoshoku Division, and on behalf of this chef, I accept your gourmet battle challenge!”
The boys’ eyes widened as they saw exactly what was on my smartphone: my digital insignia, bestowed on all gourmet battlers by the world government to show their ranking using the world’s five-star standard. My ranking as of the beginning of the month: three stars out of five.
“Wha…She’s a three star?” one of the boys said to the other. “But I thought there weren’t any three stars in first year…”
Frosted Tips Boy (well, I should be calling him Hiro Tanaka now, but I think Frosted Tips Boy sounds better) smirked, seeing my ranking. “I haven’t had a proper challenge in a while,” he said.
“Then, it’s settled,” I said, and turned to the chef. “If that’s OK with you, after all.”
“Well…I see no harm,” the chef said. All right. Tanaka, I hereby authorize Vanessa Sakamoto—”
“VANILLA Sakamoto,” I corrected. I hated it when people got my name wrong.
“I hereby authorize Vanilla Sakamoto to accept this challenge on my behalf,” the chef said, taking out a smartphone and making a few quick taps on the screen.
Okay, so what’s all this about smartphones and challenges? Well, it’s a little complicated to explain to someone who’s not used to the way our world works, but I’ll try to do it as best I can.
Basically, we live in a society where there’s enough food for everyone. Scientists in the early part of the century developed various strains of staple foods, such as rice, millet, wheat, soybeans and other grains and legumes, that were resistant to drought and disease—so resistant they could grow even in harsh desert conditions. Farming and fish hatching operations were streamlined for species conservation, humane treatment and high quality during every step in the process. At the same time, a vaccination was developed against the most common allergens that would cause anaphylactic shock in people, such as shellfish. Because of all that, competitive cooking battles have become just as popular as professional sports and the Olympics. Last summer, the ratings for the finals of the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien were beaten by a televised battle between two internationally renowned five-star gourmet battlers that were vying for appointment to Japan’s imperial household. How cool is that?
Along with all that, we’ve been in a prolonged period of peace. What historians called the last major war ended probably way before my parents were even born. I guess Momofuku Ando (the guy who invented instant ramen, and a national treasure) was right when he once said, “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat.”
The world government decided to establish an international competitive cooking league about 50 or so years ago, known as the Gourmet Battle League. To become a member, you need to be at least 14 years old, and your rank is based on battles against other sanctioned chefs. There’s a whole process behind the competitions, and everything from picking the subject to picking the judges has been automated, thanks to the government supercomputers that track everything from food freshness (we get alerts on our phone when our milk is going to go bad) to social connections (judges need to be completely neutral parties to both challengers—they can’t work at the same company if it has less than so many employees, or go to the same school, and so on.) These battles also happen on the academic level as well, meaning that there are a lot of schools and institutions that train up future gourmet battlers—such as the one I attend. I’ve been improving on my rankings since the day I turned 14 and formally joined the league.
My goal? I’m going to be better than my father.
Anyway, once the challenge was set, everyone in a one kilometer radius of the challenge’s location gets an alert on their smartphone which tells them where the challenge is taking place, the names of the two challengers, and their star ranks. That entices them to make their way towards the location in the hopes that they’ll be randomly selected as one of the three judges which will taste the finished product.
As the people gathered outside the restaurant, Frosted Tips Boy and I stared down at our phones at a spinning wheel that appeared on the screen. It was a cute computer graphic that simulated the recipe selection process. Back in the early days of challenges, you had to draw subjects out of a hat and recruit people off the street directly in order to hold a challenge, and I’m glad the process got streamlined with the development of technology.
The buzz from the crowd reached our ears as we looked down to our phones and watched as the spinning wheel came to a stop on a single wedge that read one word: Doria.
I looked up from my phone at Frosted Tips Boy. “Well, it’s doria,” I said. “And it looks like the board is giving us permission to take turns, since this is a small place. Would you like to go first?”
Frosted Tips Boy was surprised, but then nodded. “Sure. I’ll go first,” he said. I was hoping he’d do that, because it gave me a chance to catch up on my studying. (It also gave me the advantage of being the first person to present the finished result to the judges, per the official rules.)
The chef vacated the kitchen and decided to take his newspaper to a corner of the room, along with a bottle of what appeared to be beer, while I took my book out from my bookbag. There were a series of beeps from Frosted Tips Boy’s cellphone—the countdown timer, five short beeps followed by one long beep—and he was on his way.
You had 45 minutes to complete three servings of the dish that was the subject of your challenge. The use of pre-made materials was allowed—in fact, gourmet battles often took place at schools, restaurants and cafeterias in order to take advantage of access to appliances that aren’t often seen in your everyday kitchen.
I started going through my day’s notes as a series of smells issued from the kitchen. It was obvious that this guy thought he knew what he was doing, but a seasoned chef like myself could tell he was making mistakes all over the place. I could smell soy sauce, pork fat and heard the sizzle of an egg hitting too-hot oil. A metal spoon scraped the bottom of a pot and made my hair stand on end. So far, nothing was exciting me.
“Think I’m gonna take a little nap,” I said, stretching and yawning. Like I had said, it had been a long day at school and a long shift at work, and it was close to nine o’clock. Luckily my English textbook had pillowy pages.
I really did fall asleep, as the bustle and din of the restaurant became indistinct and my eyes snapped awake as I heard the ending bell of the 45 minute time limit. “That was a good nap,” I said, as Frosted Tips Boy glared at me.
There were three gratin dishes on the counter, each covered with a bit of aluminum foil, and the heavy scents of overcooked onion, meat and grease hung in the air. It would be a tough act to follow. (No, it wouldn’t.)
“Well then, it’s your turn to take a nap,” I said, as I stepped into the kitchen. It was your standard industrial kitchen—a four burner stove with broiler oven, a large capacity hot water dispenser, rice cooker, and a fridge filled to bursting with all sorts of delicious ingredients. I took my chance to look around and plan my attack. I’d be sticking with one of my standards here—I just needed to make sure I had all of the ingredients at hand.
My smartphone made the countdown signal and I snapped to attention as the long beep signaled “go” time. “Watch and learn!” I said, as I grabbed a saucepan and a frying pan from the rack on top of the stove. “This is Vanilla Sakamoto’s cooking time.”
I twisted the dial on the stove’s oven temperature selector to Broil and heard a click and a poof from the gas igniting inside. I put the frying pan down on the larger burner, and the saucepan down on one of the smaller burners as I reached into one of the supply cabinets, in hope something I was specifically looking for was on hand. I recognized the tell-tale packaging even in the limited light—a cellophane bag full of dried shiitake mushrooms. “Yes!” I said, as I pulled the bag out, then put a good handful of them in a cup of water to soak. Reconstituting these would take time, but when I was done, both the mushrooms and the water I was soaking them in would be playing a major part in my plate.
“All right, step two: some of that luscious chicken,” I said to myself, as I opened the fridge door to find a pre-portioned package of chicken thighs, ready to cook. After the challenge was over, I needed to ask the chef where he got his food from, and if it was accessible to the general public (or a gourmet battler with a 3-star rating.) I unwrapped the chicken and laid it out on a cutting board, pulling the skin off and cutting it into bite sized pieces.
I turned back to another cabinet, which had divided compartments holding potatoes of many different varieties in one half and various onions in the other—red, white, yellow. I grabbed a yellow onion, pulled the skin off, and then started chopping it into small pieces thanks to the knife skills my father taught me when I was barely tall enough to reach the kitchen counter. I grabbed the bottle of cooking oil and poured a bit into the frying pan, and turned on the burner. It would need to heat up a bit while I started on the sauce.
For those not in the know, a doria is a type of dish with rather murky European origins that was imported to Japan in the early 1900s, which usually consists of a layer of rice mixed with other ingredients, smothered underneath a white sauce (known as béchamel in French), topped with cheese and broiled until the top turns a toasty brown. There’s all sorts of ways you can make them, but the one I decided to do was a chicken and mushroom doria. As I noticed the oil in the frying pan start to shimmer, I grabbed the cutting board and carefully scraped the chicken into the oil with the side of my knife. It sizzled on its way down, and I tossed the pan about to make sure everything was separated. I turned back to the fridge and took out a stick of butter and a carton of whole milk, which would be the basis for the béchamel sauce.
“Let’s see…this much should do the trick,” I said, cutting off about a four-centimeter chunk of the butter and putting it into the saucepan, which I turned on low. “What am I missing…oh, yes, flour,” I said, chuckling to myself. There was a large plastic container of flour on the counter, which I opened and carefully scooped out into a small cup. The butter in the saucepan had almost melted completely, which meant only one thing: flour time. I divided my attention between the two burners now: the chicken, which was browning nicely in the oil along with the chopped onions, and the pot of white sauce, which I was rapidly stirring so the butter and flour would be evenly melted throughout. I glanced over at the cup of water with the dried shiitake mushrooms soaking in it.
“You’re next to the party,” I said, glancing around for a strainer. I started pouring the milk into the saucepan, stirring briskly, in order to give the sauce a running start. Then I saw the strainer by the sink, and in a deft movement, reached for it while I was giving the chicken and onions another toss in the frying pan. I strained the mushrooms from the soaking water while holding the straining water over the saucepan—a little trick to ramp up the umami factor of the béchamel sauce. I continued stirring the sauce until it began to thicken, and tipped a little bit of it into a small tasting dish to see if it was the right flavor and consistency.
“Mmm…needs a little salt and pepper,” I said, grabbing the nearby spice grinders and giving them a few turns.
The final step would be the rice. I opened the rice cooker and with the paddle, packed a good amount of rice into a small mixing bowl. I turned towards the strainer with the drained shiitake mushrooms and dumped them onto a cutting board, and deftly cut them into chunks. They went back into the mixing bowl with the rice, and I gave the mixture a toss before I tossed it into the frying pan with the chicken and onions. There was a brief sizzle as the still damp shiitake chunks met the heated surface, and I stirred everything around, mixing it into a steaming cloud of deliciousness.
“Perfect,” I said, looking at the mixture, then taking a few scoops of it and packing them halfway deep into the three gratin dishes. I looked back at the sauce, which was slowly coming to a boil, and started stirring it again to break up the skin on top. “Now that’s a sauce,” I said, as I turned off the burner and carefully poured an equal amount onto each dish of rice.
A quick glance at my smartphone on the counter signified that I had 15 minutes left—plenty of time for the finishing touch. I needed cheese, and found some shredded white cheese in a small container in the refrigerator. I picked some out and gave it a quick taste—it had just the right flavor—then sprinkled it all over the white sauce’s surface. The doria was ready to go.
“Now then, there’s one last step,” I said, as I opened the oven door. A blast of hot air greeted me, and I grabbed a glove-shaped pot holder to wear as I loaded the oven with the three gratin dishes. I set the timer on the oven to seven minutes: no more, no less. That was plenty of time for them to get a perfectly browned topping.
Sighing and wiping my brow dramatically, I leaned against the counter. “I need water,” I said, seeing an empty glass on the sink’s drying rack. I filled it up and took a few gulps—cooking was thirsty work.
It was then that I noticed the Frosted Tips Boy and his goldfish poop looking like baby animals caught in the rain. Of course they did—they’d never come across a seasoned gourmet battler with skills honed from childhood like myself before. Victory was all but assured.
The buzzer for the oven went off, and I dashed over to open the door. I was greeted by a cloud of steam, and the bubbling, golden brown topping adorning the chicken rice like a warm blanket. Carefully I pulled the plates out, placing them on the counter just as my allotted 45 minutes were elapsing.
“Three…two…one! Whew, that was fun,” I said, as the three boys looked at my dishes enviously. “Now then, where are our judges?”
Five minutes later, the three judges chosen by random lottery from the people gathered outside had entered the restaurant—a young man who looked like a harried college student, a young woman who looked like she just got back from a hot date, and an older gentleman that looked like some sort of teacher or professor. Everyone’s database had been carefully vetted by the government supercomputers so they didn’t even know each other—or any of us—at all.
As previously decided, I was the first to present my dishes to the judging panel. “I have for you today one of my favorite cold weather specialties: chicken and mushroom doria,” I said, sweeping my hand over the three gratin dishes, still piping hot. “Please enjoy eating."
Forks and knives in hand, the three judges started in on the doria. The cheesy golden brown top crackled under the pressure of the fork, with the cream sauce oozing its way out and coating the chicken rice mixture below. I watched the three of them eat the dish intently, and they did so, pausing to blow on a bit that was still too hot to eat.
It was all over in less than five minutes—the three doria dishes were picked nearly clean, with only a few grains of rice and a bit of browned white sauce sticking to them. “I think, what I liked the most about this,” the young woman said, “was that this tasted kinda like…a harmony. You know, when a bunch of voices are singing and they’re, like perfect.”
The older gentleman looked at his dish and patted his stomach with satisfaction. “To me…this felt like a warm hug. Like your mom or grandmother saying ‘I love you.’” I absolutely hated family relation related food analogies for reasons I won’t get into right this moment, but I dared not say a word, gritted my teeth and let his judgment prevail.
The college student looked the most satisfied of all. “I agree!” he said. “This is like saying, ‘Welcome home’ after a long hard day. Man, I’d love to have someone make this for me when I come home for break.”
With that, Frosted Tips Boy got ready to present his dish. Everything was cleared off the table and set aside, as tradition dictated that the loser of the challenge would clean up after both competitors. He lifted the aluminum foil off the three gratin dishes he prepared to reveal…well...
I could tell immediately it was a failure. It looked like he tried to do some sort of Chinese fusion doria, as the white sauce smelled strongly of Chinese five spice and looked extremely greasy. The smell of fat hung in the air, and the little bits of rice that poked out from underneath were colored brown with soy sauce.
“This is one of my latest experiments,” Frosted Tips Boy said, “a little something I’d like to call pork fried rice doria. It’s like the best of both worlds! Dig in, everyone.”
The three judges dipped their forks in and took a cursory mouthful. Their expressions changed almost instantly to one I knew well—the masking of utter disgust. Obviously, this was a great idea on paper, but implemented, well…I knew the judges would make the right call, and left the decision up to them.
“It’s…okay,” the college student said. “A little greasy…it’s nothing special. It makes me feel like I’m eating leftovers.”
“I like how you used all the classic components of fried rice,” the older gentleman said, “but this fried rice would be delicious all by itself. There was really no need to dress it up.”
“Yeah,” the young woman said. “It’s not, like harmonious. I think the white sauce drowns it out completely…it kind of reminds me of a bus full of screaming children, and one of them is screaming really, really loud.”
I was trying not to crack up. A bus of full of screaming children, and one of them is screaming really, really loud. That was probably one of the best analogies I’d ever heard from a judge in a gourmet battle. Frosted Tips Boy noticed my expression, and glared.
“If everyone’s finished…” The older gentleman looked at the other two, while pulling his smartphone out of his pocket. It was time for them to vote. A unanimous verdict would mean that I would gain five points towards my next rank, while a 2-1 verdict would net me only one. And if I got zero (of course, after looking at Frosted Tips Boy’s measly effort, would never happen) then I’d lose a point.
The votes were locked in, and we stared down at our smartphones, waiting for the votes to take effect. Then, on my screen, a green check mark. Bing! A few seconds later…Bing! Bing!
A “CONGRATULATIONS!” message, complete with cheers and confetti, appeared on my screen, along with the standard disclaimer that ranking would take 24 hours to update. Frosted Tips Boy looked down dejectedly at his phone, and I decided that now would be a good time to give him a little advice.
“Stop mixing things together,” I said, as I collected my coat and schoolwork.
The crowd that had gathered outside the restaurant slowly filtered away, back to their normal lives. The three judges walked off, each of them shaking both my and the restaurant chef’s hands, as Frosted Tips Boy and his goldfish poop scuttled from the premises to avoid any further embarrassment. Soon it was just me and the humble chef that served me one of the best omelet rice dishes I had ever eaten before the rude interruption.
“Miss Vanilla,” he said. “Don’t leave yet…there’s something I want to give you.”
He walked over to a narrow closet set in the wall, and opened the door to reveal something hanging from a hook. It was an old-fashioned work apron, the type you’d wear over a kimono. He pulled it off the hook, folded it up, and approached me with it in his hands.
“This belonged to Michiru-chan, and I want you to have it,” he said, holding it out to me.
“Sir, I can’t take this,” I said. He unfolded it and showed it to me, and my eyebrows raised as I noticed the simple embroidered patch of a bunch of happy bananas that had been sewn to the front.
“Michiru-chan wore this every day in the kitchen. Her grandson gave her that patch because she loved bananas so much,” the chef said, pressing the apron into my hands as I fought to find the words.
“I…I really love bananas, too,” I said, “but—”
“No ‘buts.’ She would be so happy to know you were wearing this in the kitchen.” The chef smiled, and wiped a tear from his eye. “Thank you for giving my kitchen a little joy after all this misery.”
My eyes were getting watery as well, so I took the apron, gave the chef a respectful bow, then gathered my things and headed out the door. The rain had stopped, so I didn’t need my umbrella, but there was still a mist in the air. The bustling streets were quiet as I made my way back home.
It takes about ten minutes to get from the train station to my apartment house on a good day, but right now my feet were dragging because I felt completely exhausted—more emotionally than physically. I turned the corner onto the block where my apartment house was and felt something narrow and furry brush against my leg.
I looked down to see Ebifry, the orange and white cat that wandered the neighborhood and had a little “house” in the back of the building. I didn’t know how old he was, but I knew he had been abandoned by his previous owners and left to fend for himself. His head had orange tabby spots, while most of the rest of his body was pure white—except for his tail, which had dramatic orange tabby stripes that made it look like a cooked shrimp.
“Did you say ‘welcome home,’ Ebifry-kun?” I asked, as I reached down to stroke his head. Ebifry’s eyes narrowed and he began to let out a faint purr. I continued walking, and Ebifry fell into step behind me.
I smelled a burning cigarette and looked up to see the familiar face of my landlady leaning out of her kitchen window, smoking a Mild Seven with a glass ashtray at her side. “You’re home late,” she said. Mako Saibara was my landlady and the daughter of the building owners, and she took care of everything in the four unit building—squeaky doors, clogged toilets, pest infestations. Often she’d ask me to help her out on a task, with the return being use of her kitchen—which was massive compared to mine.
“Hey, Mako-san,” I said. “I kinda got into a cooking battle.”
“Well, your victory’s all over Tweeter, that’s for sure,” Mako said, blowing a plume of smoke from her mouth. (I don’t like smoking; you lose your sense of taste and smell.) “Hey, Ebifry-kun, go to your house. You’re not smuggling yourself into Vanilla’s place tonight. Shoo!” She waved her hand in his direction, and Ebifry merely twitched his tail and walked off.
“See you tomorrow, then,” I said, as I unlocked the gate. Mako nodded to me as she stubbed out her cigarette and slid her window closed.
Home again, at last. I live in a fairly small apartment (what real estate agents call a 1R in the official lingo); it’s the only space I could afford on my school stipend and the money I make working at the supermarket. My kitchen—if you could call it that—contains a two burner stove that was probably older than I was, a mini fridge, and one of my most favorite purchases: a combination microwave/convection oven that let me bake as well as reheat. A narrow passage linked it to the main room where I ate, watched TV, used my computer and slept, and a door to the combination toilet and bathroom was off to the side of the kitchen. I also had a balcony, which was where Ebifry liked to hang out on warm days. (He also liked to try and come in during heavy rainstorms.)
I stuck my umbrella in a corner, took off my school coat, and shed my clothing as I snaked through the kitchen. The siren call of my futon was calling me, and almost as soon as I shed my school uniform in favor of a sleep T-shirt, my head hit the pillow and I was falling asleep.
This is my daily life and my daily world. I’m Vanilla Sakamoto, the daughter of a chef, and I’m on a mission to become the best gourmet battler in the world. I don’t have God’s tongue or the hands of the sun—I just have pure skill. I’m honed like a knife made from folded steel and my mind is just as sharp.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this day was the day that my life began to change forever.