ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
As I was in the cavernous classroom watching my mixture of stock and sauce espagnole slowly simmer and reduce to demi-glace, my cell phone vibrated. It was a photo mail sent from Yomogi. I pulled my phone off the socket and went to retrieve it.
It was a photo of a single canolli, lying on a paper doily on a white ceramic plate. The pastry portion had been drizzled with melted dark chocolate, and the cream inside was tinged a pale yellow—and every so often I could see a peek of mashed banana. “Hey Vanilla-chan! I made it! Will give 2 you @ same place yesterday!” the message read.
A chocolate banana cannoli! I couldn’t believe it, and my stomach rumbled in anticipation. “Shut up down there,” I said, “you’ll get to eat after this sauce reduces.” (This was true—I skipped breakfast just to get here right when the gates opened.)
I finished and taste tested the reduction right as most of the student body was beginning to arrive for classes—I needed to get everything stored and cleaned up quickly, as there’d be morning classes. I grabbed the cleaning solution and a few sponges and carefully wiped up any traces of what I had been making before taking the covered canister of demi-glace and storing it in my designated refrigerator. “Whew!” I said, making sure that I had everything I needed before leaving, but as I was about to exit, I noticed a person standing in the doorway.
He was wearing the school uniform (and marked as a third year,) but had a stocking cap on that was hung low over his face, as well as fairly long bangs. He was carrying his chef’s coat.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just finished cleaning up.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” and as soon as he said those words, I recognized his voice. It was Frosted Tips Boy. “You humiliated me, Sakamoto.”
“You humiliated yourself,” I said. “There’s a time and a place for fusion cuisine, and that was not the time. You don’t become a great chef by mixing random things together.”
“I humiliated myself? You bitch! How the hell do you think I’ve been treated this week? No one’s even looking at me!” It was true; the goldfish poop had probably found something new to latch onto.
I didn’t want to stick around for the rest of this conversation. Every nerve in my body was telling me get out, get out now. I’m not the most athletic of people, and Frosted Tips Boy had the size advantage, but I knew there was a way that I could probably slip out and make it back to the academic buildings. It all depended on if Frosted Tips Boy could be taken by surprise…
Suddenly, I looked towards the front of the room, and yelled “TOYOTA-SENSEI!” in a frightened voice. Momentarily distracted, Frosted Tips Boy looked in my direction, and as he did, I pushed past him and ran into the hallway.
“HEY! COME BACK HERE!”
I started running up the hallway, and noticed that a class of students was coming my way. They weren’t in the same class or division as Frosted Tips Boy, thankfully, but it was easy for me to slip into the crowd and escape unnoticed. I ran all the way across the quad and into my homeroom where I sat down at my desk and started panting with exertion.
My legs felt like jelly, my stomach worse. I’d never, ever received this sort of reaction after winning a challenge before. Would he be waiting for me somewhere? Would he be lurking outside our classroom? I rummaged through my bag, panicking that I may have left some of my things in the classroom, but everything was accounted for. My hand brushed my smartphone, and even thought it was against the class rules to have them out, I took it out of my bag and looked at the picture of the banana cannoli that Yomogi had made me. I felt myself calm down, and with shaking hands, I slowly typed in a message.
To: Yomogi From: Vanilla
Can u come to class 1-B with the cannoli?
To: Vanilla From: Yomogi
To: Yomogi From: Vanilla
I will explain
To: Vanilla From: Yomogi
OK will come at lunch
I managed to shove my phone back into my bag before sensei even noticed it. It was hard to pay attention; the adrenaline was still running through my system. And I had to go through three classes feeling like this!
Finally, lunch break arrived, and with it, Yomogi came, carrying a small paper bag. “Excuse me, is Sakamoto-san here?” she asked the boy sitting by the door, and he nodded and pointed in my direction.
“Afternoon, Vanilla-chan!” Yomogi said, depositing the bag with the banana cannoli on my desk. Her expression grew serious. “What’s going on?”
“You know the challenge I won the other night?” I said. “The guy I won it against confronted me in the kitchens this morning.”
Yomogi’s eyes went wide. “No way. Did he hurt you?”
“No…I’m just freaked out, is all,” I said. “I had no idea he was even there.” I shuddered a little, remembering how short it lasted—less than 30 seconds—and the memory of that was making me shake. “It was just so…random. I never thought he’d be trying to find me.”
“Do you want me to come with you so we can report it to the headmaster?” Yomogi asked.
“I…I guess so,” I said. “If you’re not busy.”
“The only thing I was doing at lunch today was taking the time to deliver this to you,” Yomogi said. She held up the bag. “Come on, let’s go.”
The cannoli would have to wait; we walked down the hallway towards the administrative offices.
We spent about thirty minutes—the rest of the entire lunch break—reporting Frosted Tips Boy to the headmaster. As to be expected, the headmaster spouted empty words about student safety and how committed the school is to making sure its students stay healthy and happy, and that this complaint would be taken very seriously and investigated by the school safety committee. He also reminded me to not walk around campus alone, to not do anything to call attention to myself and to behave with proper decorum after challenge wins and losses.
In other words: We’re just going to write this down and lock it away in a filing cabinet, and you brought this on yourself.
Neither Yomogi nor I were satisfied after we exited the headmaster’s office. “I’m sorry,” Yomogi said.
“For what?” I said. “You didn’t have any idea that they’d just brush me aside like that.”
“I thought it’d help you feel better if someone in authority knew about it,” Yomogi said.
“Well, what’s done is done…” I looked down to see that Yomogi was still carrying the bag with the cannoli. “I’m going to eat that cannoli you made me now, is that OK with you?”
“I was hoping you would, I wanted your critique on it,” Yomogi said.
“Critique? Well…I’m not really a reviewer or anything like that,” I said, as I unwrapped the bag and laid it in my lap. The cannoli still had bits of powdered sugar clinging to it, and I took a careful bite of the pastry cream and the crunchy shell.
“Oh…” My eyebrows raised as the mascarpone and banana mixed into an incredible flavor. The chocolate drizzle was the perfect combination of bitter and sweet to bring them into harmony. “This is great! It’s like…a chocolate banana!”
“That’s what I was trying to go for,” Yomogi said.
The bell for the end of lunch break began to ring. “Come on, I’ll walk with you,” Yomogi said. “You’ve got class in the kitchen wing this afternoon too, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, as I got up and brushed bits of powdered sugar off my skirt. “Aw, no…” A tiny bit of chocolate had managed to drop onto my uniform shirt, leaving a brown spot that had melted into the fabric. “I hate it when my uniform stains!”
Yomogi and I parted ways at the main stairwell, and I rejoined my class to see a bunch of students milling about and talking. They seemed tense, and all of them turned to look at me as I entered.
“Hey, Sakamoto,” said Mari Tanuma, a girl in my class who shared my refrigerator. “Come here…there’s something you need to see.”
“What happened?” I asked, and then this morning’s encounter reared its ugly head as I stepped towards our fridge to see it wide open. Demi-glace sauce—my demi-glace sauce—had been spilled all over everything that was in the fridge. It was covering bags of vegetables, smeared over eggs and butter, and was even painted all over the inside. The empty container had been left open on a bottom shelf.
My jaw dropped and I began to tremble with anger. He couldn’t take out his frustrations on me, so he decided to do the next best thing and take it out on what I had slaved over two full class sessions to make. Worse still—he got my classmates involved.
“Do you know who might’ve done this?” Mari asked.
I continued to stare at the mess until one of the other classmates that shared the fridge, Kazuya Watanabe, spoke up. “We can talk about this later,” he said.
“Let me help you clean up,” I suggested. “Can someone get a garbage can?”
Someone dragged one of the large industrial sized garbage bins over to the fridge, and the classmates I shared it with started assessing what they could keep and what they had to toss.
“Ugh, they even ruined my mayonnaise.”
“At least we can wash off the vegetables.”
“I’ve got a sponge and some kitchen cleanser; let’s get the inside wiped down.”
I grabbed a roll of paper towels from a rack and started wetting them down, then started cleaning demi-glace off the inside surface of the fridge. It had dried slightly and it took a bit of work to get it scrubbed off.
Toyota-sensei entered to see everyone with their demi-glace ready, except for the eight of us that were working to salvage our materials and clean the fridge. “What happened here?” she asked.
“Sensei, someone sabotaged Sakamoto-san’s demi-glace,” Mari said. “It’s been like this all day, I think.”
“What a waste,” Toyota-sensei said. “Don’t worry, Sakamoto-san. I’ve got some extra demi-glace for today’s assignment, and I know a good source where you can get it prepackaged. At least you know how to make it now, right?”
“Thanks,” I said, half-heartedly.
I wiped down the inside of the fridge door with a dry paper towel and stood back to make sure there weren’t any extra drops of demi-glace lingering anywhere, as the students I shared the fridge with reloaded it with the materials they were able to salvage. Anything that was wrapped had been spared, but a lot of stuff like open containers of condiments and dairy products were pretty much ruined now that the demi-glace had seeped into them. I started pitching some of my own ruined ingredients into the garbage as well, as Toyota-sensei started announcing the subject of today’s class.
“We will be making a classic pasta sauce today, that will make good use of your demi-glace!” she said, pressing a button on her console that activated a slideshow of gleaming golden pasta bathed in a delicious looking sauce based on what appeared to be ground beef. “This is known as ragù alla bolognese, and was born in the Bologna region of Italy. Normally, it’s served with a wide, flat pasta noodle, like fettuccini.”
As I finished pitching my ruined ingredients in the garbage and went back to my station, I noticed Mari looking at one of the other classmates that shared our fridge. They were whispering together, but quieted down as I walked past.
The ingredient list was uploaded to our smartphones. I scanned the list and thankfully, noticed a lot of the ingredients hadn’t been affected—celery and carrots, crushed tomatoes, bacon and ground beef. We started getting pots out of the cabinets and grabbing ingredients from the fridge and pantry, everyone subdued and quiet after the incident.
I’ve always found chopping vegetables to be therapeutic—the feel of a sharp knife cutting through a carrot with a sharp snap, slicing through meat like it was butter. I was making deep gouges in my cutting board in my rage, and everyone was looking in my direction. The smell of rendering bacon in my shallow frying pan was making me hungry, but I had to concentrate. I ripped the cellophane from the ground beef and slowly added it to the frying pan, chopping and stirring at it with my spoon to break it up.
“Sakamoto-san, here.” Toyota-sensei approached quietly, with a small ramekin in her hand. Inside was a small portion of demi-glace sauce. “This will be enough for your assignment today, but you’ll need to have a supply set aside for the future.”
“About that,” I said, “I need to talk to you.” I figured it would be better for Toyota-sensei to hear what happened first, and not my classmates, so I turned down the burners on my stove and told her what I had reported to the headmaster earlier this morning.
“And you think…Tanaka did this to your sauce,” Toyota-sensei said. “Are you certain?”
“I believe so,” I said. “Like I said, I ran for my life.”
“Does the headmaster already know about this?”
“I reported it to him this morning.”
“I’ll be sure to take it up with him after class is over. Also, I’m going to sign a waiver allowing you to use a store-bought supply of demi-glace.” She smiled. “I’ll let you get back to your Bolognese.”
That was a relief—I wouldn’t have had to spend hours slaving in the kitchen again. And at least Toyota-sensei took me seriously. Maybe it was better to be a woman in authority.
After class, Mari and Kazuya, along with the others that had shared the fridge, were waiting at the door for me. “Sakamoto-san, can you talk with us?” Kazuya asked.
I nodded. “About the fridge?”
“Yeah…what happened?” Mari asked.
I was hesitant. Now that my classmates had been dragged into this, I didn’t want to get them involved, but I told them about the events that had transpired the other night and the incident from this morning.
“I’ve reported it to the headmaster and to Toyota-sensei,” I said, “and I will replace everything you had to throw out.” I had the money; it’d mean that I’d have to skip eating out and cancel my monthly visit home that weekend.
One of the other boys snorted. “That’s good. At least you know you had it coming—”
“HEY!” Mari shouted. “Sakamoto-san was scared!”
“Tanaka-sempai’s not exactly an angel, either,” Kazuya said.
“Yeah, well YOU didn’t lose most of your stuff,” the boy muttered. “I’m going to see if I can move my stuff into Akira-kun’s fridge. If she’s going to have a target on her back like that, I’m staying the hell away.”
He walked off, angrily muttering to himself. I looked at the people remaining and felt my face turn red with shame. Yeah, I had a reputation, but who doesn’t in this day and age?
“I have to go,” Mari said, walking back to her locker to gather her books. Kazuya looked at me, and felt like he was about to say something, before shutting his mouth and walking away. The rest of them followed quietly, leaving me alone, staring at the refrigerator and wondering where everything went wrong.
“That’s a pretty big haul, Vanilla-chan. Having a party?”
I shook my head. “School assignment,” I replied, giving Auntie Yumiko my student ID to scan. I had budgeted for everything, and it meant that I’d need to live on instant noodles for a little while, but as long as everyone was satisfied with my solution, it was worth it.
I laid my phone on the reader, and the payment was accepted. With my groceries in four huge plastic bags that weighed my arms down, I waddled towards the train station. The school gates were likely closed for the evening, and I did not want to go back there and risk running into Frosted Tips Boy again.
I looked behind me to see Kazuya running towards me. He noticed my shopping bags, and his eyes widened. “Wait…don’t tell me you were serious, were you?” he asked.
I nodded. “Everything in here is to replace what got ruined.”
Kazuya looked towards the distance. “Look…I’m sorry about what happened earlier…I don’t think you brought this on yourself. I should’ve said something more but Morinaga-kun was so furious…”
“It’s OK,” I said, curtly. “It’s been reported. I’m making it better for you. I appreciate you sticking up for me.”
“Then…can I help you bring those back to school?” Kazuya held out his hand and took the handles of two of the plastic bags, one in each hand. He started walking back towards the school, and I followed him after having shifted the weight from one hand to another.
“I thought they were closed?” I asked.
“Nah, the third year students are doing prep for the banquet,” Kazuya replied.
Every year, the graduating classes of the four culinary divisions’ main project was to put together a huge banquet for the faculty and staff. Every class and division contributed at least 5 dishes according to a theme, and they would be judged and graded as their final exam from the culinary arts program.
“The third years?” I blanched, and Kazuya looked back at me and smiled.
“It’s OK; I’ll stay by your side.”
The culinary arts building was blazing with light as we entered, and while our classroom was dark, it was still accessible with our student ID’s. We stepped inside, our footsteps echoing in the cavernous room, and went over to our shared refrigerator to see a piece of paper on it. “Sakamoto Vanilla’s Private Fridge,” it read. We opened up the doors to reveal that it was completely empty.
“I’ll talk to everyone tomorrow,” Kazuya said. He pulled the paper off the fridge and crumpled it up in his hand, as I started to load up the shelves with everyone’s replacement ingredients.
“Sakamoto-san, how much did these…” Kazuya started, but I held my hand up.
“Before you ask, I get a generous discount from my workplace,” I said, “and I have the budget for it.”
“Hold out your hand.”
Kazuya looked me in the eyes as he reached into his pocket and handed me a ¥1000 note. “I’m paying you back. Accept it. I won’t let them treat you like this.”
I looked down at the crumpled note in my hand as Kazuya shut the refrigerator doors. “Are you done? I’m walking out,” he said.
I followed him out of the building and out the school gates. Kazuya checked his watch as we crossed the threshold. “Damn, I need to hurry. My train leaves in 5 minutes. Will you be OK by yourself?”
I nodded. “Watanabe-san…thank you,” I said, quietly.
He waved as he took off in a sprint towards the train station. Mine would probably be along a few minutes after his, so I decided to take a leisurely walk back.
All my life, I believed that the only person you can depend on is your own self. My mother’s the type who would much rather be seen at social events entertaining and being entertained than go to her daughter’s elementary school concert. We hardly speak to each other anymore, and the last time we did was when we were looking over the apartment before she signed the lease for it.
My father, on the other hand…I was definitely “his” child. Ever since I was a little girl, I would follow him into the kitchen, watching him make beautiful meals and wield his knives and saucepans like a conductor’s baton directing a symphony. I could talk to him about school and friends, and can never forget the time I came home from kindergarten crying because the others made fun of my name and pushed me into the dirt.
“Why did you and mommy name me a silly name?” I remember telling him.
“Vanilla-chan,” my father said, “I named you after vanilla because it’s sweet and universally loved. It’s my hope that you’ll grow up to be like vanilla.”
My mother and father never really got along. She wanted him to stay home more often in order to raise me and go to my school functions, but my father had speaking tours and live demonstrations he needed to attend—and his reputation as a five-star ranked champion to uphold. However, everything came to a crashing halt the day my father kissed me goodbye before going to the airport to join an expedition to the Himalayas to find one of the most sought after ingredients in modern cuisine—a spice that grew in a remote territory that was said to be as sweet as sugar and as fiery as the hottest peppers. I’d been half asleep when he left, and went to school as usual (it was the middle of my first year of junior high) without telling him goodbye. That afternoon, during math class, a member of the office staff appeared at the classroom door and asked me to follow her to the office—my mother was there to pick me up.
My father’s plane had lost contact with air traffic control as they were flying over an area of dense fog somewhere in the Himalayas. He had been traveling with an experienced pilot and navigator, along with three other five-star ranked chefs like himself. The media was camping outside our house as my mother brought me home from school, and she roared at them like a tiger as they were rushing towards the two of us to answer their questions. “My husband IS A FOOL!” was her only comment on the matter.
As time went on, and search party after search party was sent out, my mother drilled into me the notion that I needed to be strong. That meant, at least for me, going to school and avoiding the media and answering “I’m fine” to anyone who asked me if I was really OK. It meant I had to push all the thought and worry about when—or if—my father’s plane would be found out of my mind, and concentrate on my schoolwork. I put up walls around my heart, and my classmates would find ways to chip at them until they threatened to shatter. I lived that way for a few months, but them something good happened that led me to open up my heart again, which I’ll touch upon later. It’s been a little over two years since he disappeared now, which was enough time for my mother to decide she wanted to date again. I haven’t met her newest boyfriend, but I know he’d never replace my father. Still, in the back of my mind, I always think that he’s out there, somewhere, and one day we’ll be reunited.
Meanwhile, in a small park outside of Umami Gakuen
To: Hiro From: ???
How did it go?
To: ??? From: Hiro
sucked. ran off. i ruined her stuff though.
To: Hiro From: ???
That’s not what I supplied that information for.
You told me yourself, you want to hurt her.
I told you her schedule.
To: ??? From: Hiro
i got hauled into the headmaster’s office
they don’t know about her stuff but they’re gonna find out
To: Hiro From: ???
I already helped you.
That’s what you paid me for, remember?
Looks like I’ll have to do the thing I told you I’d do if you failed~
Bye bye, Hiro-chan~
[SYSTEM MESSAGE] You have been blocked from contacting this user.
Smiling, the person in the hooded sweatshirt opened a new mail using his burner account and attached the zipped folder marked “T.HPosts” to it, before mailing it to a variety of email addresses. The person leaned back in their chair with their arms folded behind their head, sighing happily.
“Good morning, Vanilla-chan!”
I turned around to hear the unfamiliar greeting, and saw Yomogi-chan standing behind me. “How are you doing this morning?”
“I’m…better, I guess,” I said, “but it got worse yesterday.”
“Oh no, really?” Yomogi said. “What happened?”
As the two of us walked slowly towards the main campus together, I told her all about the events from yesterday. When I got to Kazuya defending me and helping me restock the fridge, her eyebrows raised and she gave a warm smile.
“What a coincidence. Kazuya-kun’s the class rep for my homeroom,” she said. “He’s really conscientious. I’m glad he took your side.”
I still had the crumpled ¥1000 bill in my pocket and I wrapped my fingers around it. Think I’ll buy myself a treat with this, I thought.
We arrived at the main corridor, and I waved goodbye to Yomogi as the two of us parted ways. As I turned into the corridor where my homeroom was located, I noticed a group of students clustered around the bulletin board. A whole bunch of paper printouts were pinned to the board, and the students were reading them with shocked impressions. As I grew closer, I realized they were photographs of Hiro Tanaka—and he was drinking in all of them. A blatant violation of the school’s honor code. The school supplies alcoholic beverages for culinary purposes, but their use is tightly regulated—and drinking outside of class was forbidden.
“All right, all right, clear the way,” yelled Tachiyama-sensei, our literature teacher. “What is going on here…” She stopped to look at one of the posts and the color drained from her face. She pushed students past and started ripping them down from the pushpins, one by one.
“All of you! Get to your classrooms, NOW!” she ordered. We scattered into our individual classrooms where we sat down at our desks, subdued and wondering what was going on. By the time lunch had rolled around, the damage had been done: Hiro Tanaka had been expelled.
“That came completely out of left field,” I said to Yomogi as the two of us sat together on the stone bench, eating our lunches. (We had gone to the school’s cafeteria to pick up some hot bentos—I got yakiniku and she got the sandwich assortment.) She had learned of Frosted Tips Boy getting expelled after seeing the photos tacked up in her wing of the school—and apparently, they had showed up almost everywhere, judging from how everyone in line had been buzzing about it.
“It’s…weird,” Yomogi said. “The timing of it all, I mean.”
I paused while eating my yakiniku and nodded. “I had absolutely nothing to do with this—I reported him for something else completely. And I don’t even run in the same circles as any of the upperclassmen here—I don’t even know anyone in third year that well.”
“You’re worried people might think you had something to do with it, aren’t you?” Yomogi asked.
“Well…kind of,” I said, remembering Morinaga’s reaction to me last night.
“I don’t think anyone would even find room to blame you. There’s apparently hundreds of these all over campus—who would’ve had the time to get all these printed up and posted everywhere?” Yomogi wiped her mouth with a napkin as she balled up her wrappings to throw away. “Oh, what are you doing this weekend?”
“Me?” I hadn’t been asked about weekend plans in practically forever. “If you were thinking about doing something, I can’t do it on Saturday. I’m going back to my hometown for the day.” I had decided to head back home after all.
“Really? How far away is it?” Yomogi asked.
“About two hours by train. I go back once a month to see my best friend.”
“Oh, that’s nice!” Yomogi smiled as she came back to the bench. “Sometimes I wish I could go back home for a day, but it’s not possible. Where I live is fairly isolated. Guess that’s why we get a lot of clients, though.”
“My family owns and operates a traditional inn,” Yomogi said. “There’s a hot springs resort in town, too.”
The chimes for the end of lunch period started ringing. “Are you free Sunday?” Yomogi asked.
I shook my head. “Work,” I said.
“Well, maybe I’ll stop by and say ‘hi’,” Yomogi said. “Have a good afternoon. Like I said, don’t worry about how everyone’s going to react.”
She strode proudly into the culinary arts building, and I smiled to myself. After thinking I’d never have another friend like my best friend, here was Yomogi. We had only met a few days ago, but I already felt like I trusted her completely.
My afternoon class was devoted to the art of making a classic Caesar salad—the method involved crushing anchovies and garlic in a suribachi for flavor before adding the egg yolks, vinegar and spices that emulsified in the dressing, along with the proper preparation of lettuce leaves and croutons. The croutons were my favorite part—who would think that stale bread could be turned into something so delicious and crispy?
Oh, there was another good part. Morinaga—the boy who had lashed out at me yesterday afternoon—approached me during the session and told me that he was sorry about how he acted the previous afternoon, and that he appreciated me getting him replacement groceries. So at the end of the day, I had ¥2000 in my pocket instead of just ¥1000.
I felt relaxed as I cleaned up after my session and put away my apron for next week. So much had happened in such little time, and tomorrow—tomorrow was the day I had been waiting for ever since I started school here at Umami Gakuen.