ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
I was in a huge kitchen, which was gleaming with the shine of stainless steel and pure white ceramic tiles, under bright lighting. Everything seemed familiar until I turned to see the audience and video cameras; it was the set of my father’s cooking show that he used to host on Ginga TV. The digital clock mounted behind the bank of lights was slowly ticking down the seconds before I was live on the air. Ten…nine…eight…
There was a loud beeping noise, and I lifted my head from my pillow. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was 6:30 AM and my alarm clock was going off (it was a banana-shaped one I had found online.) I fumbled for the alarm and groaned.
“Urrrghhh…what time did I get to sleep last night,” as I mumbled, sleepily shuffling into the kitchen. I opened the pantry cupboard and pulled out a microwavable single serving rice bowl, which I stuck in the microwave to heat while I grabbed a pair of chopsticks, an egg and my bottle of soy sauce from the fridge, and a small shaker jar of sesame seeds from the little pink spice rack I had bolted to the wall.
A minute later, my microwaved rice was ready, and I transferred it into a porcelain bowl. Tamako-kake gohan, raw egg mixed with freshly cooked rice, was my usual go-to breakfast. (It’s really easy: all you have to do is cook rice, break a raw egg over it, and stir. People sometimes add natto to it, but those people are health nuts and freaks. I get by with just a little soy sauce and a few shakes of toasted sesame seeds.)
Once breakfast was over, it would be time for me to head to school. I picked up my school uniform from the ground, which had been wrinkled all over from the night it had spent sleeping on the floor of the bedroom, and carried it into the bathroom with me so that the steam from my morning shower could work its magic. Once confident that I looked all right, had my school bag all packed and ready, and that I was totally going to bomb the test that I was going to study for last night but didn’t get to, I headed off towards the train station.
Mako waved from the backyard of the apartment house; she was hanging laundry out to dry while Ebifry was closely supervising her. “Hey, Vanilla-san, good morning,” she said. “Are you working today?”
“Yeah, do you need something?” I asked. Mako used me as a way to get some of the harder to find groceries that she used in her daily life—usually spices or herbs you don’t commonly see at a small supermarket.
“Any way you can find me some of that Ultimate Hot Sauce?”
“I’ll check,” I said. “The one with the fireworks on the label, right?”
“Yeah. Text me the price; I’ll deduct it from your rent.” This was her usual joke; she always paid me back in cash. “You have a good day at school, now.”
“Don’t remind me,” I muttered. “I hardly had any time to study last night.”
The formal name of the school that I go to is the Kikunae Ikeda Memorial Culinary and Food Sciences Academy, but everyone calls it Umami Gakuen—it’s named after the man who discovered umami, the fifth taste. It’s considered the best of the best culinary arts and food sciences programs for anyone who wishes to go on to study them in higher education—or whoever wants to be a gourmet battler. The high school’s courses of study are divided into the Food Science and Culinary Arts divisions. The food science division covers subjects such as agriculture, molecular gastronomy, sports nutrition, and the like. Attending school in that division pretty much guarantees you to have a quiet, unassuming academic life.
The culinary arts division is where the real party is. Most of the students attending are hardcore into gourmet battles, and it’s not uncommon to attend class alongside students that are two or even three star ranked. (Like me. I’m the talk of the first year, of course.) The division is divided into four subjects: yoshoku (my division, the Western Cuisine Division), washoku (Eastern Cusine Division, covering domestic and general Asian food), wagashi (Eastern Confection Division, covering domestic and general Asian confections) and yogashi (Western Confection Division.) We’ve all got a different insignia on our school uniforms; mine is a sheath of cornstalks and wheat symbolizing two important ingredients in Western cuisine.
Every day is divided into two sessions, morning and afternoon, with general academics happening during one and our culinary studies happening in the other. Every week, the two are flipped, which means during this time next week I’d be walking into a class ready to start prepping ingredients for that class’s assignment, instead of walking into a history class completely unprepared for the test I was having this morning.
One of Umami Gakuen’s main rules is that every student must be involved in an extracurricular activity, unless they had a part time job related to the culinary industry. This meant I could work at a grocery store, stocking vegetables and inspecting them for damage before putting them out on display, instead of being involved in some stupid club. It paid all right, it was enough money for me to pay for household needs beyond food, clothing and toiletries (like my weekly dinner out and my once a month train trip back home to see my best friend) with a little money going into a postal savings account for a real emergency.
I arrived at Umami Gakuen along with a crush of students coming off busses and exiting train cars and (in some cases) exiting chauffeured limousines. There’s a mix of social classes attending—fairly well off students that are able to afford the tuition like putting a ¥100 coin in a gacha machine often worked side by side with boys and girls who relied on scholarship money and grades. I threw my empty coffee cup into a garbage can and walked through the gates, which are wrought iron and framed with brick pillars and a relief of various fruits and vegetables spilling out of a cornucopia done in bronze. For many years, prospective students would rub the apple on the relief for good luck in entering Umami Gakuen, which left the apple with a perpetual twinkling shine. (I admit, I rubbed it too.)
As I entered the quad and crossed the grounds towards the culinary arts division, I heard a buzz of low voices:
“Did you hear about Sakamoto’s victory?”
“Tanaka deserved it, he’s such a jerk.”
“Sakamoto’s not exactly an angel either. She’s always got that smug face.”
“It’s like, ‘I’m better than you’ with her all the time.”
I glared in their general direction and they all went back to playing Pokémon or whatever it was they did with their smartphones, then entered the school building.
“Stand! Bow! Sit!”
It was the first class of the day, and I had barely managed to do any studying during my train ride to the school, so I was flying by the seat of my pants as I entered the class and attempted to do some very last minute studying.
One other thing I should mention about academic studies here is that everyone is assigned a homeroom, but has different assignments for their culinary studies. That way, students in all four of the divisions could mingle with each other. The divisions aren’t quite equal much of the time, depending on the enrollment of students within a division, which meant my homeroom class of 35 consisted of myself and seven other Western Cuisine students, 11 Eastern Cuisine students, 10 Western Confection students and six Eastern Confection students.
Higashizawa-sensei, our history teacher, started to call the roll. I’m near the start of the alphabet (the Japanese alphabet, that is,) so I usually reply pretty promptly, but this time he had to call twice as I was knee-deep in notes.
“Sakamoto, you are here, correct? Or are you having an out of body experience?”
“Sir,” I said, shutting my book and looking up at him earnestly. “My apologies. I am here.”
“Just because you had a thrilling victory in a cooking competition last night does not mean you can slack off in my class,” Higashizawa-sensei said before continuing to call names.
As expected, I completed the test with certainty that most of my answers given were wrong ones, and even managed to wear a hole in the test paper from writing and erasing an answer that I wasn’t 100% certain on. (Maybe it was 85%. 70%? It was probably going to be marked wrong, anyway.)
I felt uncomfortable as I passed the morning’s academic classes, but the thought of lunch and our afternoon assignments was keeping me going.
The bell for lunch rang, and I almost jumped out of my seat. I wanted to make it to the cafeteria and get their grilled salmon rice ball set before it ran out, and as luck would have it I was one of the first people in line. I decided to take my lunch and find a quiet, secluded place to sit and process the day’s events in 30 minutes.
As I turned the corner to a grassy part of the school grounds with a huge stone bench, I heard a voice chanting: “…cheese lemon, lemon cheese, lemon and cheese…”
A girl that I didn’t recognize was sitting on the stone bench, looking down at a series of notes in a spiral bound notebook. She was in my year, and wearing the insignia on her breast pocket that identified her as a Western Confection Division student: a strawberry and blossoms growing on a vine. Her dark green straight hair was pulled back in a pompadour, and she wore oval-shaped glasses with “invisible” wire frames.
“Do I add the lemon to the cheese or do I add the cheese to the lemon? What if it curdles, or…”
“Excuse me,” I asked, making the girl jump (along with an adorable squeaking noise.) “Are you all right?”
“Um…not really. Maybe…maybe you can help me,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out something for an assignment in a test we’re having in pastry arts this afternoon.”
“I’m in Western Cuisine, but I work at a supermarket,” I said, sitting down beside her. “What’s this about cheese and lemon?”
The girl turned her notebook around and showed me a two page spread, where she was writing notes. “We had to pull words out of a hat and make a recipe based on them,” she said. “And I got cheese and lemon.”
“Hmm, I can see why they probably might not be the best of friends,” I said. “But if you think of something like cheesecake, sometimes they use lemon sauce on it, or a lemon curd.”
The girl nodded. “I thought about that, but it needs to be pastry related,” she said. “Every cheesecake recipe I know of uses a reconstituted crust, and that doesn’t count.”
There went that possibility, until I thought of something. “Hey, tiramisu,” I said. “You ever make that?”
The girl nodded. “But it’s a matter of assembling and chilling, not baking, unless you make the ladyfingers or sponge cake from scratch.”
“There’s cheese in that, isn’t there?” I said. “Mascarpone?”
“OH!” The girl suddenly balled one hand into a fist and hit the palm of her other hand. “Yes! And…I think I got it! Cannoli!”
“Cannoli?” I asked.
“It’s an Italian pastry,” the girl said, making a circle shape with her thumb and index finger. “A pastry shell with cream inside that’s kind of shaped like this.”
I nodded, and thought to myself, I have to find one and try it, now.
The girl got up and brushed off her skirt. “Thank you so much!” she said, giving me a polite bow. “You helped me jog my memory. I can make this work!”
“No problem,” I said, preparing to bite into my salmon rice ball, but then the bell for the end of break rang.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to take up your lunch like that,” the girl said.
“No, it’s more like I took too much time finding a place to eat,” I said. “Oh well.”
I wolfed down the rice ball as the two of us joined the mass migration of Western Cuisine and Western Confection divisions back towards the school building.
My afternoon class of the day was held in one of the school’s teaching kitchens. Picture a huge room the size of a gymnasium, then put twelve cooking stations in it, each of them hosting a four burner gas stove, an oven, counter space, and a small sink for washing up, as well as a socket to plug our smartphones into that connects to a live feed of the teacher, which allows everyone to follow their instructions even when in the back of the room. There’s six huge refrigerators, each allotted to eight students each, for us to keep ingredients we bring from home or store our finished products for another class. Then there are the pantries, which are chock full of every culinary staple known to humankind: different grades of flours, a variety of sugars and salts, spices in tightly sealed containers, dry beans, rice, and various dried noodles. The school’s vegetable supply gets harvested almost every day during the growing season here, thanks to the school’s gardens that are tended by the agricultural sciences students, with meat being the only ingredient students are required to purchase themselves. (We get a student discount on meat purchases if we show our ID at every supermarket chain in the country.)
Yesterday, we had started the process of making beef stock, which took up the entire afternoon, thanks to the process that involved us boiling beef bones and skimming scum for hours. Everyone had made a varying amount of stock, which was being kept in the refrigerators in preparation for step 2: the making of a sauce espagnole. Put it together with the beef stock, and you get demi-glace!
Our sensei for the afternoon was Toyota-sensei, a vibrant woman who had spent many years on the competition circuit and retired after holding the five-star rank for over 20 years. She reminded me of a tomato—she had a round body shape and her face was constantly rosy cheeked. However, she had somewhat of a reputation for being hard on people that didn’t keep things clean in the kitchen.
“Good afternoon, everyone!” she said cheerily, as we filed into the room, wearing our school-issued chef coats over our school uniforms. “Wash your hands, and we will get started on the sauce espagnole! I’ve uploaded the ingredient and equipment list to the wi-fi.”
I plugged my smartphone into the socket. An ingredient list came up on screen, and if I swiped my finger to the right, the list of equipment would display. There was a flurry of activity as everyone gathered up the pots and pans needed, as well as butter, vegetables and flour.
“Ah crap, I forgot to bring more butter! Rieko-chan, can I use some of yours?”
“Sensei, this pot has some pretty deep scratches at the bottom, is it OK for me to use it?”
“Can you hand me that can of tomatoes? Thanks.”
Calmly, I went to the equipment cabinet, selected two pots for myself, then went to my designated refrigerator and took out the perishables I needed: unsalted butter and the beef stock I had made the previous day. Another trip to the cabinets brought me the flour, the required dry vegetables, canned tomatoes and a bouquet garni: a premade bundle of dried herbs that adds flavor.
The best thing about culinary classes is that you’re allowed to work at your own pace, but for an involved recipe like this, socializing is almost unheard of: stocks and the making of roux require constant attention, and no one wants to be that student who spends too much time reading about the latest celebrity scandal on Tweeter as the contents of their pot slowly turn to deep black. I chopped up the vegetables and added them to some melted butter in one of my pots to slowly saute. The other pot would need my undivided attention: a dark roux was beginning to take shape. It’s what happens when you mix flour and butter together and let it slowly turn dark brown, instead of the pale color that I went for last night while making the doria.
“Hello, Sakamoto-san!” Toyota-sensei popped out from behind the station, scaring me enough that I dropped the spoon I had been stirring the roux with—oops. Under her watchful eye, I didn’t dare put it back in the pot—I immediately dropped it in the sink and went to grab a spare. She was watching the pot for me as I came back.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “Looks like your roux is getting good color. It’s like getting a suntan, remember?”
I rolled my eyes—of course I knew about roux. Why did she have to treat me like a kid, despite the fact I was a 16-year-old first year high school student with over a decade of cooking experience under her belt attending an advanced culinary high school program? I didn’t say another word as I diluted my roux with a ladle full of the warmed beef stock, and she walked away to “help” another student.
I tried to keep my thoughts on my task, but I thought of the girl from earlier and that I hoped I had helped her find the answer. I’d never had cannoli before; I wondered what they tasted like? Could you make one with bananas?
There was a loud pop from the pan I’d been sautéing the vegetables in, and before I could react, I felt a glob of molten butter land on the back of my left hand. I shrieked in pain and immediately turned off the burner, then turned on the sink and thrust my hand into the cold water.
“Sakamoto-san, are you all right?” Toyota-sensei came rolling over to me, noticing the red spot on the back of my hand that was still stinging, making me grit my teeth in pain. “You need to go to the infirmary.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, as the cold water rushed down my hand. All the while, I noticed the vegetables starting to get some color—and not the best color.
“Leave your vegetables the way they are, and go down to the infirmary,” Toyota-sensei ordered, with the same edge to her voice that she reserved for students who didn’t follow proper sanitation. I sighed, turning off the sink and shaking my hand dry as I exited the room. The red mark from the burn was still there, and it was probably going to blister—not a good sign. Why did I have to let myself get distracted?
Mizuno-sensei, our school nurse, got up from her desk as I entered the infirmary. “Sakamoto-san, good afternoon. How is every—”
I interrupted her by showing her the back of my hand. “Ah. That’s not good,” she said. “I’ll need to report this, you know.”
“Wrap me up first before you do. It stings,” I said.
A few minutes later, my hand was neatly wrapped in gauze, with a protective cotton pad against the burned area that had been treated with an antiseptic ointment. The school’s required to document any food preparation related accidents, so I was now being grilled.
“What were you doing that led up to this accident?” Mizuno-sensei asked, her fingers poised over the keyboard of her laptop.
“Sautéing vegetables for a sauce espagnole in butter,” I answered. Mizuno-sensei typed my report into the computer with almost blistering speed—I had heard rumors that she was just as good at playing the piano.
“What did you do immediately after the accident?”
“I ran my hand under cold water for a couple minutes,” I said, thinking about the sautéed vegetables left on the burner and how they’d go to waste. I had to catch a train to work right after class today, so I couldn’t stay after in order to complete it. It disgusted me.
“All right. You did everything by the book, Sakamoto-san. Keep that covered and dry for the next few days, and put ointment on it every morning. Don’t break the blister, whatever you do.” She handed me a few latex gloves from a box next to her. “Will you promise to wear these in the kitchen for me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
The rest of my afternoon cooking session was fairly uneventful. I was able to salvage the rest of my sauce espagnole, thankfully, but the required reduction wasn’t something I would have been able to accomplish before I needed to catch the train home. Rolling my eyes and sighing, I strained my two sauces into one pot to store in the refrigerator—I would have to go in early to school tomorrow, and that I did not like to do.
Once class let out, it would only be a short walk from there to Kotobuki Supermarket, the site of my part time job where it’s my duty to put out vegetables and dry goods for display, sweep floors and fill in when needed for things like wrapping delicate purchases and manning the checkout booths. I was even put in charge of refilling the gacha machines recently, and the supplier let me buy a Banana Cat keychain off his stock as long as I put my money directly in the coin receptacle. I walked into the locker room to see Yumiko-obachan—Auntie Yumiko—had already arrived for her shift. She was an older woman who had been widowed about 10 or 15 years ago, and was living with her son and his family. Since her grandchildren were now at the age where they didn’t need afterschool care, she decided to head back to work.
“Oh my, Vanilla-chan, what happened to your hand?” she asked as I shut the door behind me.
“I burned it during class today,” I said.
“You’ll need to show it to the boss. It doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“It did, but not anymore. I do have to get some burn ointment for it.”
“You’ve got time before your shift, I’ll let the boss know you’re getting medicine,” Auntie Yumiko said, urging me outside.
Two hours into my shift and the afterschool and after work crowds were beginning to thin. Luckily, I didn’t have to stay until closing tonight—the store closed at 10 PM, which was unreasonable for a school night. The boss, an imposing man named Kinoshita, fussed over my burn, as expected. He was ready to send me home for the night when I told him I’d be perfectly fine as long as I didn’t lift anything heavy. That meant I was stuck on floor sweeping duties for the night. It was OK work; sometimes I even got to give some of the customers some advice on their purchases.
“You’re buying a daikon? Ever try to make Korean pickles out of it? It’s really easy, you just cut them in cubes, soak them in sugar and vinegar for about a week or so. But they stink.”
“We just got these grapes in today. They’re very juicy, and there’s no seed in them, either!”
“I personally recommend this brand of ponzu sauce. We use it every day in class.”
But tonight was fairly quiet, and I spent most of my time moving piles of dirt and dust from one end of an aisle to the other so I could toss it all in the garbage. As I was sweeping in front of the dairy case that held the cheeses, I saw a familiar figure.
“Hello!” the girl said, turning to me.
“Oh, hello there…Cheese Lemon,” I said, resorting to that placeholder for her name.
“Yomogi,” the girl said.
“You’re looking for yomogi (mugwort)? There’s powdered yomogi in—”
“No, that’s my name. Yomogi Kisaragi. You are?”
“Vanilla Sakamoto. Nice to meet you,” I replied.
“Oh, you’re that Vanilla,” Yomogi said, knowing full well she was referring to my victory last night. “I wanted to say, thanks for helping me out today. I was able to do my assignment fine.”
“Yes, I made a lemon mascarpone filling and sprinkled them with lemon zest infused powdered sugar. Now my dorm mates want to try them, so I’m looking for mascarpone…”
“You’re in the right place,” I said, scanning the shelf as the brand we carry was different than the one that was supplied to the school. “Oh, here it is.” I picked up a container and handed it to Yomogi, who added it to the rest of the goods in her basket. I looked inside to see some bags of specialty flour, little jars of flavoring extract, a package of powdered gelatin, and some vegetable shortening.
“What are you making?” I asked.
“Oh, just restocking for now,” Yomogi said, “but the shortening’s for cake frosting and I’m experimenting with rainbow jelly. Hey, do you want a cannoli? I’ll save one for you after I make them.”
“Uh…yeah! Is it going to be lemon or…can I request a flavor?” The thought of a banana cannoli popped into my mind.
“Sure, if it’s not too difficult.”
“I think I can make that work,” Yomogi said. “It’ll take some time, but I can do it. Now I’ll need to get a bunch of bananas…Hey, can I get your phone address?” Yomogi pulled out her phone, which was decorated with a cover that used traditional Japanese fabric. “Sure, hold on a sec,” I said, pulling my phone out. We each pressed the buttons to share contacts.
“I’ll message you when they’re ready,” Yomogi said. “Hey, it was nice meeting you. Can I call you Vanilla-chan?”
I shrugged. “Fine with me, I guess,” I said. That’d make Yomogi the second person other than anyone in my family to call me Vanilla-chan. “Is Yomogi-chan okay with you?”
“Yes! I don’t mind at all,” Yomogi said. “Well, I’ll see you at school then. Have a good night.”
“You too,” I said. Yomogi walked away, and I went back to my sweeping.
Her name was Yomogi. She seemed like a nice girl; very composed and put together. Probably the opposite of Emi, my best friend from back home. I pulled out my phone and looked at her contact information again. Aside from Emi-chan, my family and a few coworkers, hers was the only other person I had listed.
I’m not exactly the type that likes to make friends. Sure, I had a ton of them when I was growing up, but we all split apart when I attended a different junior high school than them. Once I hit junior high and turned 14, gourmet battles became my life, and I would rather spend time in the kitchen than hitting up print clubs and shopping with the other girls in my class. They started avoiding me, and I just shrugged and went with the flow.
Eventually, that avoiding led to all out bullying, but that all changed when I became friends with Emi. That’s a story for another time, though.
As Mako-chan let me into her apartment, I noticed there was an extra set of shoes in the foyer.
“Is your boyfriend here?” I asked. “I won’t be long.”
“No, don’t worry about it,” Mako said, taking the bottle of hot sauce from me and handing me a ¥500 coin in exchange. “We’re just sitting down to a late meal.”
Mako’s boyfriend Daisuke Honda was a motorcycle enthusiast (appropriate name, huh?) who worked at an auto parts shop, and knew everything to know about engines and cars. While you’d think he was a regular motorcycle hooligan like that one kid from that game with the psychotic black and white bear robot, he’s law abiding and has a soft spot for cats. (He was the one who convinced Mako to make a little shelter for Ebifry to stay in during inclement weather.) Daisuke was sitting at the little kitchen table, and a bag of fried chicken from a shop I hadn’t heard of was on the table.
“You wanna try some, Sakamoto?” Daisuke asked as he opened the bag. “Makkie wanted some of this all the way from Yokohama after she saw it on a TV show.”
“Um…” The smell was tantalizing, but I wanted to be polite. “I really can’t; I need to go into school early tomorrow.”
Mako smiled. “All right. Thanks again for the hot sauce,” she said, as I picked up my shoes and went back into the hallway.
There’s four units in my apartment building, including the landlord’s unit that Mako lived in. She and I are on the first floor, while the second floor has an older couple (the Yamadas) living in one unit and a single person living in the other. When I first visited the building with my mom as we were looking for housing, I went upstairs to explore while she hashed out the lease with Mako and her parents. I passed by the door of the unit marked #4, which was directly above mine, and was surprised to an electronic buzz from in there—like the sound of fans—and the whirrs and clicks that obviously came from someone typing on a computer. After I had moved in, the Yamadas introduced themselves to me, and I volunteered my services in case they needed plants watered or snow cleared off their balcony, like a good teenager that’s a functioning member of society should do. But I had never met the person in #4. I asked Mako about them one day, and she merely said, “I’ve met him once.” So it’s a him. “Every first of the month, at midnight on the dot, there’s an envelope slipped under my door with the month’s rent. In cash.”
“What’s his name? What does he do for work?” I had asked.
“Something having to do with IT or something. His name’s Tenmyouji.”
Whenever Mako enlisted my help to do maintenance or clean the building, I’d never see any requests from him. The only way I knew that Tenmyouji existed was his mail. Lots of it. Packages almost every day. Sometimes, there were so many letters in his letter box that the delivery person couldn’t even close and lock it properly.
I wondered if Tenmyouji could hear me making noise underneath him. I admit to being loud sometimes; phone conversations with my mother don’t put me in the best mood, and I enjoy singing and dancing sometimes when I’m in a good mood. But I never got a complaint. I also never saw clothing hanging on the clothesline outside on his balcony, either.
Tenmyouji: the Saibara Building’s mystery wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. I had that thought on my mind as I got into my pajamas and drifted off to sleep.