ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
I just love Mondays the week we have morning culinary arts sessions! Those are the days that I get up early to make sure I’m there well before the beginning of class, so I can do any prep work necessary to get a leg up on everyone else. Sure enough, I arrived on campus bright and early, with my take-out coffee still piping hot as I entered our classroom and sought my usual culinary station.
“Good morning, Sakamoto-san!” It was Toyota-sensei, as usual, more tomato-y than usual with a bright orange red turtleneck and a golden brooch that was sculpted in the shape of a leaf. “I hope this week will be easier on you than last one.”
“I hope so, too,” I said, as I plugged my smartphone into the socket on the desk. “What will we be making today?”
“You’ll find out, soon enough,” Toyota-sensei said. “Why don’t you head outside for a bit? It’s a lovely morning.”
I sighed—I was hoping I could get a head start, but I hated it when people wanted to spring surprises on me. “All right. I’ll be back in a few minutes before first bell,” I said.
I stepped outside and went to my usual spot in the courtyard, the one where Yomogi and I first met. I wonder if I’ll see her, I thought, but then another student approached. I recognized him as a classmate from my homeroom—his name was Katou or Satou or something like that.
“Hey, you’re Sakamoto, right?” the boy asked, and when I nodded, he continued. “Good. Can you follow me for a second? I need to show you to someone.”
“Wait, what’s this for?” I asked, the memory of last week’s events still fresh in my head.
“It’s nothing bad, I just…I just wanted to introduce you to someone, that’s all,” the boy said.
We walked over to one of the other entrances of the culinary arts building, where a few boys and girls—along with the tallest girl I’ve ever seen—were clustered around. “Hey, here’s Sakamoto-san from my class,” the boy said. “Tell Mitsurugi-san to turn around.”
The tall girl with the family name Mitsurugi turned around. She was probably at least 180 centimeters tall, and had steely blue eyes and dark hair, tied back in a high ponytail that made her look like a samurai warrior character in an RPG. The expression on her face was stoic—probably even more so than mine. It was like looking at a statue made of ice.
“Yeah, I think Mitsurugi-san’s got the scarier face.”
“No, it’s Sakamoto-san. You should see her when she competes.”
“Well Mitsurugi-san’s into karate, so she’s strong to begin with…”
Mitsurugi stared into my face and I suddenly startled and turned away, jostling my school bag as I did. The other students that had gathered us together started making their way into the building, leaving me and Mitsurugi to stare at each other. A breeze blew by, with a couple of leaves dancing in it.
Her eyes widened as she saw what was hanging from my school bag—it’s a little plastic keychain of Banana Cat that I had gotten out of the gacha machine at work. She stepped close to me, her expression wide and excited, and looked me in the eyes.
“Where did you get that?!” she squealed, in a voice that sounded completely out of place coming from a girl that tall and strong. “I LOVE Banana Cat!”
“Uh…” I could barely speak. “Work. Gacha machine.”
“Do they still have them? I missed out when they first got released! I reeeeeeally need one!” A few minutes ago someone was saying that this girl did karate; now she was ooh-ing and aah-ing over a plastic keychain hanging from my backpack like an excited child.
“I can’t remember, but if you want to check, I work at Kotobuki Supermarket,” I said.
Mitsurugi’s expression changed into the more stoic one as another student walked past. It was an amazing transition for me to watch. “Hey, by the way, why did my classmate start comparing us, anyway?” I asked.
“It’s a silly thing,” Mitsurugi said. “I think his best friend’s in my homeroom, and they wanted to compare the girl with the scariest face. I guess you’re the winner in your homeroom.”
I rolled my eyes. “Boys.”
“Well, at least that was an interesting way to meet,” Mitsurugi said. “My name’s Kei, by the way. Written with the kanji for ‘firefly.’”
“Vanilla Sakamoto,” I replied. “My name’s written ‘ba-ni-ra’ in katakana. My father gave it to me.”
“Do you mind having such a kira kira name?” Kei asked.
“Not really. I’m kind of used to people messing it up,” I said. “At least it’s easy to write. Have you seen those kids that have kira kira names that are made up of nonsense phonetic kanji?”
Kei nodded, smiling. Even her smile seemed severe. “What division are you?” she asked.
“I’m in the Yoshoku Division, you?”
“Wagashi Division.” That seemed to fit her—a cold, austere beauty on the outside, sweet on the inside. It was the division that specialized in traditional Japanese and other Asian confections, and its emblem was a small chestnut branch. The school’s bell started to ring, and as we separated, she had one last question.
“Where do you eat during lunch?”
“There’s a stone bench in the courtyard. Look for me and a green-haired girl,” I said, as she entered the building and I ran towards mine.
The surprising thing that we were going to make that morning?
Béarnaise sauce, to be exact: a French sauce that was flavored with vinegar, shallots and freshly chopped herbs. It was considered the “child” of hollandaise sauce, one of France’s mother sauces; daddy was the chopped herbs and shallots that added to its flavor. By the end of this week, we’d be serving it over a steak and steamed asparagus. As we filed into the classroom, we saw along with Toyota-sensei, three students that appeared to be upperclassmen in the Yoshoku Division.
“Everyone, you’re going to be observed today by three of the students that will be entering the teaching assistant program after graduation,” she said. “They’ll be coming around to observe your work. Now then, I’ve uploaded the instructions and ingredients, and you may begin when ready.”
The three students looked like they could become teachers; there were two boys and a girl, and one of the boys and the girl were wearing oval glasses of the sort that made the wearer’s IQ go up ten points. The other boy, however, was the one everyone in class was whispering about.
“I wonder where he’s from!”
“Is he a half?”
“How’d he end up going to school here?”
“He must be pretty smart. I wonder what his Japanese is like?”
The boy in question certainly was a half—he had dark toned skin and close-cropped black hair, but his facial features weren’t completely Japanese, if that was a word. Asking about him would have been rude, so I decided to get to work and start making my béarnaise sauce.
A bundle of shallots in their fragile, papery wrappings went down onto a cutting board, and I carefully peeled the top layers back to access the layers underneath. I minced them according to the technique my father taught me: with the root and the papery outer layers attached, cut horizontally against the grain, cut the root with the outer layers away from the rest of the shallot, then chop away with two knives in a drumming motion. It makes a ton of little pieces, and is an excellent stress reliever. I picked up the cutting board and swept the chopped shallots into a small dish with the side of my knife. As I reached over to grab another shallot, I noticed the boy’s expression changed to what I thought was a glimmer of recognition. As I started preparing, he walked directly over to me.
“Can I watch you?” he asked in slightly accented but perfectly normal Japanese. “You’ve got some interesting knife skills.”
I nodded as I peeled back the outer layers of another shallot. “This is courtesy of my father,” I said, as I started going through the motions again. When I finished chopping, the boy spoke up again.
“Your name is Sakamoto, correct?” he asked.
“Yes. Vanilla Sakamoto,” I said.
“Forgive me if I’m being rude, but are you related to Yoshiaki Sakamoto?” the boy asked.
I dropped the knife and it clattered loudly on the cutting board. “He’s…he was my father,” I said, surprised. Did he know something?
“Really? I was such a big fan of his!” The boy smiled broadly. “I loved watching his cooking show and his demo videos. You use a knife the same way he does! He taught you well.”
I blushed a little, looking back down at my shallots to make sure I didn’t miss a stroke and accidentally cut off a part of my finger. “Yeah, Dad loved making those videos,” I said.
“My favorite was ’25 Ways To Cook An Egg.’”
“Oh, yeah! That was the one that he used all my toys for,” I said. That had been a lot of fun to set up—I had a huge collection of Sylvanian Families when I was a little kid (and all the restaurant sets, of course) so he used that as a background as he plated each egg recipe. Soft boiled, hard boiled, onsen tamago style, poached, fried, scrambled, over easy…we had spent the entire day shooting it together.
“Yeah. I’m so sorry to hear about what happened.” His smile softened and turned more compassionate. “I wish I could’ve gotten the chance to meet him.”
I nodded, carefully scraping the last of my cut shallots into the dish. I turned to the stick of butter that I had gotten out earlier, measured a few centimeters and cut off a chunk to saute the shallots in. I put a shiny saucepan onto the stove burner and turned it on, then dropped the butter in to slowly melt.
“My name’s Michael, by the way. Michael Furukawa Valentine.” That was an interesting name order. “My dad’s American. Furukawa’s my mother’s name.”
“Have you lived in Japan all your life?” I asked.
“I went to grade school back home. My mother wanted me to get a culinary education at Umami. She didn’t think too highly of the advanced culinary schools they have in America.”
“Nothing but the best for you, huh?” I said, as I poured the bowl of chopped shallots into the melting butter and heard them sizzle.
“I think Toyota-sensei is telepathically telling me I’ve overstayed my welcome,” Michael said. “Nice meeting you. Talk to you later, maybe?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
Inside, I was jumping for joy. I met one of my father’s fans! Knowing he was still influencing people even though he was gone…it made me really happy. Hopefully, someday I’d carry on his legacy, and maybe a little kid would someday go up to me in the supermarket and say, “It’s Vanilla-chan! I watch your cooking videos! I want to be a chef like you, too!”
The rest of the morning session was spent finishing the bernaise sauce: lots more chopping, whisking, and tempering. Bernaise sauce gets a lot of its bright golden yellow color from egg yolk, and a few people in my class forgot the importance of tempering and found out they had made greasy, buttery, tangy scrambled eggs. All you have to do is slowly and carefully raise the temperature of the eggs by diluting them with a little warm butter before incorporating it into the main mixture! Is that so hard to do? Sometimes it feels like my classmates can’t tell a soft boiled egg from a hard boiled egg.
When the bell rang for the end of class, I noticed Michael standing at the door. “Hold on a moment, Sakamoto-san,” he said. He waited until the last of the students had exited, and pulled out his smartphone.
“If you’re truly the daughter of Yoshiaki Sakamoto, prove it to me in a challenge,” he said, displaying his rank.
Three and a half stars.
I was surprised, but then felt my adrenaline surge, thanks to the competitive spirit that drove me to perform at my best. I smiled, and pulled out my smartphone.
“Challenge accepted,” I said. “But we don’t want to do this now, do we?”
“I was hoping we could meet here after school,” Michael said. “My schedule’s open. Is yours?”
“It sure is,” I said, looking Michael directly in the face. “And I’m looking forward to a real challenge this time.”
Four o’clock, in this classroom. We set the time, and immediately heard a chorus of chirps from smartphones throughout the building announcing our challenge. We’d have an audience.
“I’m so excited for you!” Yomogi said, as we met for lunch. “Michael-san’s one of the best students in the entire school. I heard he’s on the shortlist for the championships later this year.”
I had found Yomogi in the shady park where we had been meeting for lunch. I looked around to see if Kei had remembered where we were, and was about to give up when I saw her walking towards us.
“I hope I’m in the right place,” Kei said as she pulled out an adorable pearlized pink lunch box from her school bag.
“Oh!” Yomogi’s eyes widened. “I know you…I think? You’re in the homeroom down the hall from mine.”
“Kei Mitsurugi,” Kei said. “I met Vanilla-chan earlier this morning. Hasn’t she got the cutest keychain on her bag?” She smiled and reached down to pinch the keychain’s plastic cheeks. “Such a cute little kitty with a banana hat, yes you are!”
“I’ve…heard you’re a black belt in karate?” Yomogi asked, hesitantly. Kei’s expression changed to a stoic one.
“I’m not able to test for black belt because of my age,” Kei said, “but I am at san kyu, the third rank before it. My family runs a karate dojo.”
“Why are you studying here, then?” I asked.
“I’ve got a lot of supplemental hobbies along with karate,” Kei said. “One of them is the tea ceremony. I’ve become quite adept at that, and being in the Wagashi Division always gives me new ideas for traditional sweets to serve. And there is a karate club here.”
We started eating our lunches, and I noticed that Kei’s box, instead of being filled with a character lunch as I thought it would be, was packed rather elegantly: apples cut into roses instead of bunnies, mixed rice with vegetables cut into tiny shapes, and a tiny glass bottle filled with sauce to go on a rolled omelet streaked with bits of green. Yomogi and I looked down at our cafeteria foods and sighed. Kei was on a whole other level than us.
“I saw the challenge announcement earlier,” Kei said. “I’ll come to see it, if that’s all right with you.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” I said. “Nothing like a sympathetic audience.”
When I got back to my classroom for afternoon academic sessions, everyone was buzzing.
“Are you gonna go see it?”
“I’ve got club. You’ll keep me posted, right?”
“So who do you have your money on? The half kid or Sakamoto-san?”
“He’s got a name, you know. And he’s kinda cute.”
I sat at my desk as a couple of students came up to me. “Good luck this afternoon,” a girl that sat near me said. “I’ve heard Valentine-san’s really tough. He’s got a lot of American food under his belt.”
“I like a challenge,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I can beat him at his own game.” I smiled confidently as the bell for afternoon classes started to chime, and everyone scurried back to their seats.
What I hated the most about days with morning culinary arts sessions is that the afternoons drag on forever. Language arts, English, mathematics, science, history…It was all I could do to keep myself from falling asleep in class. None of the teachers would even be sympathetic to the fact that I had to mentally prepare myself for a challenge against one of the school’s strongest students—they exist in a completely different world, it seems like.
Finally, I gripped the edges of my desk and watched the second hand of the clock slowly revolve around the face, ticking down the last five minutes of class. I wanted to be out of my seat, to dash across the quad, and be in the culinary arts building before the last notes of the Westminster chime, but that was probably not going to happen, so I decided to steel myself by envisioning myself victorious.
“Congratulations to Vanilla Sakamoto, the youngest five-star chef in a generation!” The MC gestured to me to step forward, and I did as a shower of shining confetti cascaded down from the rafters. There were three empty dishes and three satisfied judges at one end of the studio soundstage as the audience applauded and cheered. In the front row of the audience, my mother sobbed into a handkerchief, finally realizing that she was wrong to try and persuade me to have an easy life.
“Dad, wherever you are, I’ve done it!” I said into the microphone.
“Sakamoto-san, can you read from the top on page 52?” the MC asked.
“Huh?” I snapped back to reality—it was three minutes before the end of the day, and the teacher wanted one last passage to be read in our English conversation book. There was a giggle, and the teacher looked down at me sternly.
“Daydreaming of a victory, Sakamoto-san?” she asked.
I stood up, wobbling, and grabbed the book. “’David wanted to go to the party, but I refused because I had class the next day,’” I said, in halting English.
“Very good.” The teacher was about to say something else as the chimes of the school bell went off. “We’ll pick up from where we left off tomorrow…and Sakamoto-san, please remember to keep your competitive life and your academic life separate.”
As we streamed from the classroom, I noticed that a lot of people were walking into the culinary arts building. “Excuse me!” I said, trying to push my way through, and when they realized one of the competitors was trying to enter, they stood aside to let me pass.
“You can do it, Sakamoto-san!”
“Make us first-years proud!”
“Hey, there’s Valentine-san!”
Michael was headed into the building from the opposite direction, followed by some of his classmates. “Are you ready?” he asked, as he held up his smartphone.
“Ready,” I said.
We both confirmed the start of the challenge. Since this was being held at a school equipped with specialized cooking equipment, we’d both be cooking at the same time rather than taking turns. Also, the pool of judges would be members of the school’s administrative staff—not faculty or fellow students—in order for opinions to be completely impartial. The notice was going out now as the wheel on our phones’ screens was beginning to turn.
Ding! The wheel stopped and a single word appeared: Katsu.
“You mean we’ve both won already?” Michael asked me, smiling. He was joking, of course: katsu also meant winner, but in this case it was referring to a breaded and fried cutlet of chicken, pork, or beef. (If you made a seafood-based katsu, you call it a fry instead.)
The countdown clock started to tick down. I had to figure out what kind of cutlet to make, and how to present and serve it. Should I stick with something I know how to do well, or be adventurous and try something a little out of the ordinary? Perhaps something simple would be best after all.
The students gathered around the two of us were buzzing with excitement. I looked around the crowd and spotted Kei standing head and shoulders above her classmates, along with Yomogi aside her. I smiled and waved at them. “I got this!” I said as the timer beeped to begin.
We both dashed into the kitchen and started gathering ingredients. I grabbed a bunch of shiso leaves and a small daikon radish from the vegetable drawer, and a lemon from a basket up on a high shelf. I had formulated my plan: a simple pork cutlet, with breading seasoned with shredded shiso, served with grated daikon and a bit of citrusy ponzu sauce. I’d be making my ponzu sauce from scratch, so I needed to steep katsuobushi—thin flakes of preserved fish—along with mirin, vinegar, and a chunk of kombu seaweed before adding the juiced lemon. That would take the most time, so I got a saucepan, heated it up and started adding the ingredients, one by one, over a low flame.
The next step was to start tenderizing the pork. I went to the fridge and got out a carton of eggs for the breading, and found a package of fairly thin pork cutlets that could withstand a bit of pounding. I laid them out on a cutting board and found a metal meat tenderizer, and started pounding them as flat as possible.
“Whoa, Sakamoto-san is savage,” one of the students watching me said.
“Check out what Valentine-san is using!” said another, and I looked up for a moment.
It appeared Michael was going for making menchi katsu, a deep fried cutlet made with minced beef, but what he had on a cutting board was a large steak, which he was punching with a device that looked like a ton of sharp needles mounted on a thin piece of plastic. Was that another type of meat tenderizer? I wanted to get close enough to see what exactly he was doing, but doing so would waste me precious time. And besides, there was probably at least one kid who was filming it or streaming it online.
Online! I remembered the promise I made to Emi to do two-way video streaming, but it was too late now. The clock was ticking, and it was all I could do to keep tenderizing the pork and watching over the ponzu sauce that was slowly simmering in the saucepan.
With the pork flattened, I made a few shallow cuts between the meat and the layer of fat to keep it from curling, then turned to the preparation of the breading. I took a few shiso leaves and rolled them up in a tube, from side to side, then laid the tube onto my cutting board and started chopping away at it. (It’s a technique called “chiffonade.” Everyone should know it.)
I stepped away from my station to grab a small container of plain flour and a box of panko for the breading. I tipped each of them into a shallow dish, then took the shredded shiso leaves and mixed them into the panko, swirling them around with my fingers to make sure everything was blended. I grabbed another shallow dish and cracked one of the eggs into it, and stirred it around with a pair of cooking chopsticks until it was uniformly golden.
My ponzu sauce appeared to be properly steeped, so I ladled a little into a ramekin and tasted it. It was the proper flavor, so I took it off the burner, and cut the lemon in half. Over a strainer, I squeezed both halves of the lemon into the sauce and swirled it around to mix, while the spectators watched in amazement.
“Did you see the way she…”
I put a deep pan onto the stove and set a wire cooling rack above it. I filled it with frying oil and turned on the burner, waiting for it to get hot as I sprinkled the pork cutlet with salt and pepper—and then, in an epiphany, a little bit of sansho pepper for a different flavor. I dredged it in the shallow dish of flour, carefully brushing off any excess and making sure all the surfaces were evenly covered and not sticky, before dipping both sides in the egg wash and dropping it into the dish of panko mixed with shiso. I turned the cutlet around and let it collect as much panko as it could, before I smiled and said, “Let’s do this one more time, shall we?” I took the whole cutlet and dipped it in the beaten egg again, then again in the panko. “She’s making it extra crunchy!” someone said.
“Hey, look! What’s Michael mixing in with his flour?” said a voice from across the room.
I had the chance to pause and take a look and saw Michael with a large bowl surrounded by a bunch of little bowls, each of them with a small amount of premixed spices. He tipped each of the contents of the small bowls into the large bowl, then mixed it for a few moments with a fork so the flour became a dirty light brown.
Seasoned flour, I thought. Is he making Kentucky Fried Beef or something?
I turned back to the task at hand and picked up a few flakes of panko to test the temperature of the oil. They sizzled and danced as they landed inside, immediately floating back to the top. I picked up a spider (a type of ladle they use for deep frying that’s kind of like a wire plate on a handle), laid the cutlet on top, then gently lowered it in the oil. It began to bubble and sizzle, and the juices made the meat crackle as they escaped into the hot oil. If all went well with this one, I’d fry the next two one at a time.
It was garnish time, so I started cutting off pieces of the daikon radish to grate into a dish. I rubbed it vigorously over a grater, then removed and squeezed the juices out the pulp that landed in the bowl below. My plan was to top the pork cutlets with a shiso leaf and the mounded daikon radish pulp on top, with the ponzu sauce drizzled over everything. A refreshingly Japanese presentation.
A sizzling sound came from Michael’s station—he was apparently frying his cutlets as well. It appeared he was doing it in a cast-iron skillet from the looks of things, and was monitoring the temperature with a thermometer he was holding in his right hand as he controlled the frying cutlet with his left. There was a different smell, though—it didn’t seem like he was frying using the oil I was used to, and a glance at the counter next to him revealed the secret: vegetable shortening. Interesting.
I carefully fished the finished cutlet out of the hot oil and laid it on the draining rack, with a paper towel underneath to catch drips. It was golden brown (or brown as a fox’s coat, as we say in Japanese.) After giving it a few moments to cool, I’d be slicing it up and serving it with the ponzu and shiso, but first, I needed to cook the other two.
I was beginning to plate my second cutlet when I heard a chorus of surprised voices from around Michael’s station. He still had the cast iron skillet on the stove, but was adding milk to the dregs of the fried cutlets, mixing vigorously with a wooden spoon. He started slowly sprinkling in some fine flour.
“Is he making sauce?”
“No, I think that’s…gravy!”
Of course! Deglazing is an important concept every culinary student should know. When you take anything out of a pan you cook it in, you can make a very simple pan sauce just by deglazing it with wine, or milk, or stock. Gravy is a very thin sauce that is like a watered down white sauce. For example, you can make gravy with roast beef, and serve it on top of the roast beef, or on a side dish like mashed potatoes. It’s very popular in Western cooking, especially in America, where a lot of big dinners are served with a side of gravy.
The time was beginning to run out, so I reminded myself of my important task and laid out the final cutlet on the plate. I had sliced all of them into bite sized slices, with the ones in the center having the ponzu and grated daikon garnish, and drizzled the ponzu over every surface. It still needed something, so I decided to go the traditional route and grabbed a cabbage from the vegetable drawer to cut into thin shavings. I did it as carefully as possible—no time to show off, after all. Five minutes were on the clock, and did I have time to rinse them in ice water to crisp them up? No time. My reputation was riding on this, after all, and I didn’t want to serve someone a dish that was unfinished or ungarnished.
Our smartphones beeped, and the two of us stepped back from the kitchen stations, suddenly hit with waves of fatigue. I looked over at Michael, who was wiping sweat from his brow, and he nodded and smiled.
“Was that fun?” he asked.
“Heh. Very,” I said. “Let’s get these judged.”
I walked over to Michael’s station and my eyes widened. On each of his plates was a breaded cutlet, but it was shaped unlike one I had ever seen, and colored strangely from the seasonings he added to his flour. I could see a little of the beef that had been exposed when some of the breading flaked off, and it was marked with an interesting pattern—but it looked so tender.
“What did you make?” I asked Michael, as the students parted to allow the three judges to enter.
“It’s an American dish. It’s either called ‘chicken fried steak’ or ‘country fried steak’ and it’s really popular at diners,” he said. “It’s like menchi katsu, but it’s a whole steak that’s been specially tenderized instead. They call it ‘cube steak’ because this—” Michael held up the meat tenderizer he had been using and demonstrated it to me “—makes a bunch of square patterns on the meat.”
I nodded, and took the tenderizer as Michael held it out to me, playing with it as the judges entered the room. Our phones beeped, and we looked down to see that I had been chosen at random to be the first to present my finished meal to the judges.
“Good luck, Sakamoto-san,” Michael said. He stood back to let me take up my plates and present them.
The judges had all been seated: two woman who apparently part of the accounting office, and a man who worked on the grounds assisting with upkeep of the athletic fields. I placed each dish in front of them.
“Today, I have for you a double breaded pork cutlet, finished with ponzu sauce and a garnish of shiso and grated daikon, for a refreshing Japanese flavor. There’s shredded cabbage on the side, as usual. You’ll also find a refreshing surprise hidden within the breading as well. Please enjoy it,” I said.
The judges picked up their knives and forks, and cut small pieces from the cutlet. They started eating, and satisfied crunches were the first sounds I heard. One of the women’s eyebrows raised. “I taste shiso!” she said. “Is that the ‘refreshing surprise’ you were referring to?”
I nodded. “And the pork was seasoned with sansho as well,” I said.
“The ponzu definitely adds a good punch of flavor,” the man said, as he spread the grated daikon over his serving. “Did you make that from scratch?”
“I did,” I said. “Nothing beats a fresh taste."
The three judges finished eating without much comment other than how crispy the pork was, and pushed their plates aside to prepare for Michael’s. He approached the table hesitantly, looked at his phone for some guidance, and started his presentation.
“This is my family’s recipe for what they call ‘chicken fried steak’ in America. It’s a steak that’s been tenderized, breaded with seasoned flour and deep fried. It’s served with a side of green beans and a gravy I made from the pan drippings. I hope you enjoy it.”
He placed the plates in front of the judges, who marveled at the cutlets, which were served whole. The woman closest to me cut into hers and pulled the slice back with her fork. “This is beef!” she said, amusedly. “It looks like a flat piece of fried chicken, but this is beef!”
“It’s so tender,” the man said. “Reminds me a lot of menchi katsu, but it doesn’t fall apart when you cut it.”
“And the breading…what did you use? There’s a lot of flavor in it!” said the other woman.
“There’s paprika, garlic powder, black pepper and a little bit of cayenne pepper mixed in with the flour I used for breading,” Michael said.
“The sauce is spectacular as well,” the man said. “It goes well with the beef and the green beans. It’s a little bland all by itself, but when you mix it, it really brings out the flavor.”
“That’s because I used the leftover flour to make that sauce,” Michael said, winking. The three judges smiled, with awed expressions, and returned to eating.
I stood with my hands balled into fists, staring down at the ground. Seeing the faces on the judges and the questions they posed…I had underestimated Michael. He could probably win this thing handily. All I could do was hope that at least one of them liked my standard, run of the mill, every day pork cutlet.
The judges pushed aside the plates and took out their smartphones. Here we go, the moment of truth. I swallowed nervously and caught Michael’s eye, and he smiled back. I wonder if you know how I’m feeling right now, I thought as I watched the judges enter in their votes.
My hand closed around my smartphone in my pocket, and I pulled it out to see the votes being cast.
Beep! It was my phone! One vote for me! I just needed at least one more…
Then there was a second beep, and it was from Michael’s phone. He looked down at it, smiling. It was a split decision, and one more vote would swing it either way. My hand started to tremble.
The third vote had been cast in favor of Michael. I had lost in a 2-1 decision.
Michael’s friends and supporters cheered for him, as mine came forward with consolations. I saw Kei and Yomogi in the audience, and they rushed over.
“Sorry you didn’t make it,” Yomogi said, reassuringly. “It looked really good, though. I think you had a good artistic presentation, at least.”
“You put up a good fight,” Kei said. “You were able to hold Valentine-san back from a full decision, and that’s not something that happens every day.”
Michael approached, smiling. “You put up a good fight, Sakamoto-san,” he said, reaching out his hand for me to shake. “I haven’t had this much fun doing a challenge in months.”
I nodded. “Your dish looked really good,” I said. “I saw a lot of techniques that I had never thought of. You deserve this victory.”
“Yours did, too,” Michael said. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never been that good at making Japanese sauces and flavors shine like you did. I could tell the judges were impressed.”
“You’re the real winner today, though,” I said. I glanced over at his station. “I’d…better get started on the dishes. Thank you for the challenge today, Valentine-san.”
“You can call me Michael-san,” Michael said, “if it’s OK for me to call you Vanilla-kun.”
I smirked. “I hope that ‘kun’ becomes ‘sama’ someday,” I said, as Michael walked off with his friends. Soon, the only people remaining were me, Yomogi, and Kei. I stretched out my arms and grabbed the dish soap and towels from the closet.
“You two can go,” I said, gesturing to them. “I need to clean up, anyway. I don’t need your help.”
“Are you hurting, Vanilla-chan?” Yomogi asked.
I paused. Yes, losing hurt. But it was something I could learn from. I had stayed too close to my comfort zone, and let Michael with his American food walk all over me. “I’m fine. Please, go home.”
Yomogi and Kei nodded. “Same time tomorrow?” Kei asked.
The two of them left, and I stared at the two mounds of dirty dishes it was the loser’s duty to do, and rolled up the sleeves of my uniform and chef jacket. I might have lost the battle, but I gained two new friends, one of them an upperclassman that had been a huge fan of my father. I wondered what he would have said if he witnessed me losing the challenge, but then realized he’d probably say the same thing Michael said: I put up a good fight.
Humming the theme song to “Beauty Cure Sparkle Stars” to myself, I started in on the dish washing. As I started scrubbing one of the pots, my phone vibrated with the message indicator.
From: M. Furukawa Valentine
Hey, your friend with the glasses gave me your number. Wanted to say thank you again. Also please leave the cast iron skillet I used aside. I will clean it tomorrow myself because it needs special care.
I dried my hands and composed a reply:
To: M. Furukawa Valentine
I’ll beat you next time American!