ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
I spent the entire morning nervously fidgeting with my pencil as I took notes and worked out math problems. When lunchtime came, I sought out my usual spot to see Kei and Yomogi there. “How was your weekend?” Yomogi asked as I sat down and opened my bento box.
“It was all right,” I said. “No paparazzi or anything, if you’re wondering. But he seems like a nice guy. I met his daughter, too.”
“He has a daughter?” Yomogi asked.
“Yes, she’s fifteen and goes to a British school in Tokyo,” I replied.
“Must be Queen Elizabeth the 2nd,” Kei said, and when I looked at her quizzically, she continued. “It’s the name of the school. Apparently, it’s really prestigious. Lots of children of diplomats and such go there.”
“Her name’s Caroline,” I said. “She's into theater and she showed me her costume deisgns. Look, I’ll show you her photo blog.” I pulled it up on my phone and passed it to Yomogi and Kei to look at the designs.
“Wow…those are gorgeous!” Yomogi said.
“Where did she learn to draw like that?" Kei asked, pulling the screen to get a closer look.
"Her family was all into theater," I said. "She told me all about working on costumes and makeup and such."
"Seems like they're a nice family," Yomogi said.
I shrugged. "I guess," I said.
Monday afternoon: it was challenge time.
I had gone into the bathroom to redo my hair, braiding it and pinning the braids to the back of my head with barrettes, and washed my hands thoroughly, like a doctor would. I looked at myself in the mirror and imagined the showers of confetti, the tiara and mink-trimmed stole, and a biplane flying a banner reading “THE LEGENDARY VANILLA SAKAMOTO” behind me.
“Right! Let’s do this!” I said to my reflection.
My class had just wrapped up their afternoon session, and a lot of my classmates were sticking around to watch me in action. Yomogi and Kei had promised they would be there as well, and there was even a text from Caroline that had come during my afternoon in the culinary arts wing:
From: Caroline To: Vanilla
Don’t tell my dad but I’m going to try and watch your challenge today
From: Vanilla To: Caroline
From: Caroline To: Vanilla
I’m skipping Japanese school
See you later! Go for it, Vanilla-san!
From: Vanilla To: Caroline
If you do look for the tallest girl OK?
I stepped back into the classroom to see everyone staring at me, looking almost sympathetic. Yomogi and Kei were among the crowd, and gave me thumbs up as I stepped towards my usual culinary station, but then a voice came from the front of the room:
“You’re in my spot. Move it.”
Everyone looked to see that the front of the room was absolutely filled with girls wearing extremely frilly dresses. They had wide bell skirts over foamy petticoats, and were emblazoned with patterns that contained flowers, toys, cats, puppies, fruits, stars and planets, and various stripes and plaids. Many of them wore elaborate wigs that were topped by miniature top hats, tiaras, and huge Alice bows.
Standing within the sea of frills was Nadeshiko Enomoto. She was wearing a lacy dress of pure white, with tiny pink ribbons adorning the bodice and the hem. Her hair was arranged in a bouffant, with loose curls coming down from the front, and set off with a golden tiara. Her shoes were the same wooden soled shoes I had seen when I encountered her at the supermarket, except they were white with frilly pink bows, and her stockings were made of lace and woven with roses. She was brandishing a golden ladle that was tied with a tiny pink bow.
“Excuse me? I’m in your spot?” I said.
“That is where I usually work my culinary magic. You can go to the other end of the room, with your plebes!” Nadeshiko said.
I shrugged, and then walked back to another station. “Are you ready to begin, then?” I asked, as I stood in front, impatiently rocking back and forth on my heels.
The challenge was registered, and in a few seconds the spinning wheel was on everyone’s screens. I watched it intently as it slowed, and then, stopped, on one segment. It was labeled...Steak.
“Steak?” Nadeshiko shrilled from the other end of the room. “Why steak? I’m the Yogashi Division’s grand mistress of pastry! Why do I need to make a steak!”
“It’s random and it’s also based on the ingredients at our location,” I said. But I wouldn’t be hollering like that if it said ‘cake’ instead of ‘steak,’ I thought. Then again…she’d probably be lording it over me. I pictured Nadeshiko as the typical queen in anime, making an evil “oh-hohoho” laugh while admonishing her followers.
Steak, huh? I wracked my brain for a few seconds as the countdown clock was winding down. Then, I got an idea. Having done these challenges for the past couple of years, I knew all the rules, inside and out. It was my chance to shine and do something I hadn’t thought of doing in the past—and possibly make Nadeshiko look like a fool at the same time for having dared to challenge me. It was perfect.
The phones beeped and everyone started cheering for us. I made a beeline for the refrigerator, where some of the choicer cuts of meat were stored, and selected one that looked as if it would be suitable for serving as is: bright red with beautiful marbles of fat. Perfect. I took it out and put it on my counter. Next, I grabbed a block of soft cheese, some onions and parsley, a box of breadcrumbs and a huge Portobello mushroom, then laid them all out on the counter as I went to search for a knife, cutting board, and my Secret Weapon. I saw Yomogi and Kei whispering to each other, concerned looks on their faces, and I responded by giving them a wink and a thumbs up. They seemed to understand, and nodded.
I looked over to see that Nadeshiko had selected what appeared to be a filet mignon from the refrigerator—and one of the better quality ones, too. I wondered, with her expertise with sugar, if she would be going for a teriyaki steak sauce, but told myself to get back to the task at hand. “No thinking! I must be doing!” I said to myself as I rushed back to my station with the Secret Weapon.
“Wait, what’s that?”
“I haven’t seen one of those…”
I lifted up the (rather heavy) Secret Weapon and twirled the butterfly nut that kept the clamps together so that they would open up with enough room for me to clip my Secret Weapon to the edge of the counter. I found a dial with fairly small holes and loaded it in the front of the Secret Weapon’s nozzle, then stepped back and looked at the audience watching me.
“What? Haven’t you all seen an old fashioned meat grinder before?” I asked, and no one seemed to understand. It was then when I started cutting the beef I had gotten from the refrigerator, fed it through the top of the meat grinder, and began turning the handle—slowly at first, but getting faster as the ground meat extruded from the holes of the dial opposite. Everyone gasped.
“Why is she grinding her steak?”
“Is that in the rulebook?
“Well, it is steak, so…”
“Hey…I think I figured it out.”
With the meat ground, I let it rest while I tossed a hastily chopped onion in a frying pan with a little oil to take on a little color. It sizzled as I chopped up some parsley and measured a good amount of bread crumbs into a little ramekin. I looked up to see Nadeshiko carefully lying the filet mignon inside a well oiled cast iron griddle pan. The steak sizzled as it hit, and started to smell good. I gave my onions another few stirs, making sure they were soft and transparent, before I dumped them into the bowl with the ground meat. I added an egg, the breadcrumbs, and the chopped parsley, then rolled up my sleeves and dug in, mixing and kneading the meat until it was a uniform mass of goop.
I looked back at the crowd watching me and winked at them, but then I realized they had been joined by another member. It was Caroline! She was standing next to Yomogi and Kei (she must’ve gotten my instructions to seek Kei out. Part of me felt guilty about using her as a landmark.) And instead of her school uniform or street clothes, Caroline was wearing a gorgeous deep red dress with matching bonnet. She smiled and waved at me.
“All right, back to work,” I said, as I continued kneading. Soon I had the ground meat mixture divided into three, and I put a chunk of the soft cheese in the center of each flattened lump before drawing the rest of the meat around it, carefully slapping it around in my greased hands to make sure it was completely sealed. I laid the patties down on a cutting board as I added some more oil to the pan, and let it slowly heat. With my spatula, I carefully laid each of the patties down in the hot oil, letting them sizzle and brown a bit before swirling the pan and shuffling them around.
“Is that…a hamburger steak?” murmured someone behind me.
“She made a hamburger steak out of steak!”
“That’s ingenious! I wonder if it tastes any different!”
I hope this works, I thought as I turned the steaks to let the other side brown nicely. I decided to make some side vegetables, so I rushed to the fridge and grabbed a bunch of spinach. I put a smaller frying pan on the burner, added a little oil and dropped the spinach in along with some leftover chopped garlic and yuzu kosho (it’s a flavoring paste with a type of citrus fruit, yuzu, and black pepper.) I gave it a few stirs to let the spinach wilt before I checked the hamburger steaks, which were now browned on both sides. I added a splash of water and plopped the lid on top to steam the rest of the raw meat. With the spinach wilted and properly flavored, I lifted it out with tongs onto the three serving plates and opened the pan to check on the steaks. Yes, they were plump, juicy and done!
“Time for the last step,” I said, as I carefully transferred each of the hamburger steaks to the plate. I dashed to a rack and selected a bottle of red wine, then dashed to the fridge and grabbed my stock of demi-glace. (Well, not mine, technically. I was still using the supply that Toyota-sensei gave me after Frosted Tips Boy decided to fingerpaint the inside of the fridge with the demi-glace I had slaved over.) I also grabbed some of my beef stock, which was frozen into ice cube trays for ease of use, and shook three cubes out directly into the still hot frying pan that had been cooking the hamburger steaks. As it melted, I added a few splashes of the red wine, as well as a good dollop of the demi-glace, before putting another squirt of yuzu kosho directly into the sauce. I swirled everything around to combine before tipping a little bit into a small ramekin and taking a taste. Perfect.
The clock was tipping down as the sauce reduced. Finally, with a minute left, the sauce was the perfect consistency for me to spoon on the hamburger steaks, which I did. It dripped off the tops and made a perfect puddle around them, and everywhere was the wonderful aroma of red wine and beef. I looked over to see Nadeshiko leaning against her station, obviously looking overheated. Her face was red, and it appeared she managed to splash some meat juices on the front of her white dress, which I hoped would come out in the wash. But she was done. Three perfect looking filet mignon steaks, along with a few small potatoes, were on each plate, ready to be served. Maybe I shouldn’t have underestimated her—everything looked good.
The clock ticked down to the final seconds, and as the time elapsed, we stepped back and put our hands in the air. Cheers erupted from both sides of the room, and I leaned against the counter, sighing.
“That was very unexpected,” Yomogi said. “Why’d you do that?”
“Reasons,” I said. “Oh, have you met Caroline-chan?”
“Uh, yes,” Yomogi replied. “We were practicing English together.”
“Your friend Kei was telling me about how much she wished she could wear my clothes, but she’s too tall,” Caroline said.
I was glad to see her, but knew she was breaking the rules by being here. “Caroline-chan, as soon as everything’s over, will you please go on the next train back home?” I said. “The school doesn’t take well to unauthorized visitors.”
“It’s okay! I snuck in with the rest of them,” she said, indicating the crowd of girls in Lolita fashion that had been cheering on Nadeshiko. “And besides…I have a secret weapon for you.” She smiled.
I didn’t think much of it, but at that moment the doors opened and the randomly selected judges walked in. Nadeshiko and I looked down at our phones for the coin flip, and it appeared that Nadeshiko was going to go first. She smiled savagely at me as she picked up her dishes and presented them to the judges.
“What I, Nadeshiko Enomoto, have prepared for you today, is a choice grade filet mignon, made from Kobe beef and provided through my family’s connections to Japan’s best organic farm,” she started. Damn, I forgot about her family connections, I thought to myself. “It is served with a simple topping of Himalayan pink salt and freshly cracked black pepper, along with a couple of dainty potatoes that have been cooked in heavily salted water for maximum flavor. Please enjoy my most luxurious and delectable creations that are worthy of the crown princess of the Enomoto family!” She struck a pose with her ladle as the judges stared at her. They then started cutting into the meat.
The oldest of the judges, whom I recognized as one of the college’s athletic coaches, swallowed with a look of delight on his face. “So easy to cut and so tender!” he said. “The delicate flavor of the salt sets everything off perfectly, and when the juices hit the salted potatoes, they taste even better.”
“This is certainly a nice cut of meat,” the second judge, a woman who looked as if she worked as a parking lot attendant, said. “How exactly did you cook this? Did you use any special techniques?”
“Silence, plebe! My techniques are not fit for ears such as yours,” Nadeshiko ordered. The room grew so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.
The third judge, who appeared to be another janitor, had finished his steak. “It was a good steak,” he said, “but my cut had a huge chunk of fat on it. What about you two?” he asked the other judges.
“I didn’t have much,” said the parking lot attendant.
“Mine had a lot around one of the edges,” the coach said. “Maybe it wasn’t trimmed correctly.”
Nadeshiko looked angry. “How dare you suggest that I trimmed that steak incorrectly, you plebe! I selected the choicest cuts of meat directly from the factory, and they were ready to cook!”
“Then perhaps you should have trimmed them before cooking,” the parking lot attendant said. She pushed her dish aside, and the other two followed suit. It hadn’t been such a big steak, and there were still huge chunks of fat on the plate.
I approached the judge’s table with my three plates. “I have for you…a hamburger steak.”
“OBJECTION!” shrieked Nadeshiko, who jumped to her feet. “That is NOT a steak! She’s DISQUALIFIED!”
“Hold on,” I said, looking her in the eye. “Let me finish. These hamburger steaks were ground from some of the best well marbled Kobe beef steaks that the school has in their stores.” I drew out the “Kobe beef steaks” for emphasis. True, I hadn’t cooked a steak in its true form, but I had cooked a steak with steak.
“And according to the rulebooks of the gourmet battles written by the world government…a hamburger steak, also known as a Salisbury steak, is considered a steak.” I smiled as I plunked the three plates down on the judge’s table. “Please enjoy these, and forgive my opponent. She’s still a little sore about the fact that I corrected her on how expiration dates are written in Europe.” There was a giggle from my supporters.
Each of the judges carefully cut into their steak. “What’s this?” said the parking lot attendant, as her chunk revealed the melted cheese that was hiding within. “You put some cheese in here!”
“Yes, and if you haven’t tried it yet with the sauce, you’ll find that it’s flavored with some red wine. They pair excellently together,” I continued.
The coach was chewing his steak. “It’s well made,” he said. “I taste a little bit of parsley in here, and is that yuzu kosho in the sauce?”
“And there’s yuzu kosho in this spinach you made for the side, too,” said the janitor. “Have you tried them all mixed together? They make a really good rounded harmony.”
There were hardly any sounds from Nadeshiko’s corner of the room. She was quietly seething in anger as she watched the judges enjoying my dish—much more than they enjoyed hers, I’m sure. Finally, they cleared their plates and pushed them to the side while each of them got out their smartphones to make the final vote.
“All right, here we go,” I said, looking back at Yomogi, Kei and Caroline. They all nodded back at me for luck, and as I was turning my head back…
One vote came in for me. I clenched my fist in triumph, and then…
Nadeshiko looked down at her phone in horror. It was a unanimous decision in my favor.
My side of the room erupted in cheers, as my classmates and friends jumped in the air and gave me fist bumps and high fives. I looked back to see Nadeshiko glaring at her cheering section.
“Can you believe that she cheated?” she shrilled at them, waving her whisk in the air. “How DARE that girl bend the rules in order to fool me, the queen of the Umami Gakuen Yogashi Division!”
“Hey!” yelled Caroline rather forcefully. Nadeshiko looked back to see Caroline step out of the crowd, and her eyebrows raised.
“I see you’ve heard of me,” Caroline replied. “I’m sorry you got meat juices on the front of your dress, but I know you’ll be getting another one soon enough. That’s because all the Lolita fashions you’ve worn and sold to others…” Caroline pointed at Nadeshiko, her voice getting louder and more forceful.
There were gasps from Nadeshiko’s supporters. “It’s true!” Caroline said. “She’s contracted an entire factory to make replicas for her, right down to the labels!”
The group of angry Lolita fashion girls surrounded Nadeshiko, murder in their eyes. They grabbed the skirts of their dresses in shock.
“You sold me a replica?”
“You told me you stood in line three hours for this print because I was your best friend!”
“I can’t believe I spent ¥300,000 on a fake!”
“Wait, what?” I looked at Caroline, not understanding what was going on, and she smiled.
“Nadeshiko Enomoto scammed them all on the secondary market,” Caroline said. “She got some of my friends back home, too. Let’s just say that one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Japan with my father was for revenge.”
At the other end of the room, Nadeshiko was going down in a sea of petticoats and ruffles as the angry Lolita fashion girls started hitting her with bags and parasols. My side of the room decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and slowly and quietly sneaked off.
Kei, Yomogi and I were waiting outside the women’s restroom while Caroline was rapidly changing her clothing inside. When she opened up the door, she was wearing her normal uniform from Queen Elizabeth the 2nd British School.
“That’s like a magical girl transformation in reverse,” I said, as the three of us walked her out. “Thanks for coming to see me, Caroline-chan. You were pretty awesome.”
Caroline smiled. “I’m from a family of actors, after all,” she said.
"Vanilla-chan showed us your designs, by the way," Yomogi said. They’re really beautiful.”
Caroline blushed. “Thank you, Kisaragi-san.”
We arrived at the gates and parted ways. Caroline and I arrived at the train station. “Remember, straight home,” I said, as Caroline pressed her pass against the turnstile.
“I’m going to start calling you onee-san if you don’t let me alone,” Caroline said, rolling her eyes. But we both laughed as I watched her pass through the turnstile onto the train platform.
I sighed to myself happily. It had been an eventful day, and soon it would be June. Short sleeves and rain every day, but also the exciting school tournament. I was looking forward to it.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs apartment of the Saibara Building…
Tenmyouji was crouched in his usual position in front of a large computer monitor. He had a keyboard in his lap that was on a wireless connection, and was watching a security camera at the entrance of Umami Gakuen.
A chiming noise came from a set of speakers mounted near the ceiling, and a message box popped up. Tenmyouji pressed a designated button on his keyboard, and a video chat box window opened.
“Hello there, Tenmyouji,” said a man’s voice. It was slightly distorted from being transmitted over a long distance on a spotty connection, and the video was spotty as well. “I take it the experiment went well?”
“Yes. I decided to test it out on her, after all,” Tenmyouji replied. “Luckily, that was one of the possibilities available to Umami Gakuen.”
“Interesting. How were the results, may I ask?”
“Well, the opponent decided to go the orthodox way, but that girl managed to make a hamburger steak out of actual steak. Bent the rules a little. It was fun to see,” Tenmyouji replied.
“Have you sent me the report yet? I want to see it before we go forward.”
“On it,” Tenmyouji said, opening up a window with a secure e-mail client, dragging an icon of a zipped folder into a new mail message, and pressing send. “You should have it in a few minutes, depending on your connection.”
“It’s not the best here. I’ll let you know in an hour either way.”
“Right.” Tenmyouji minimized the window for the email client. “Did the competitor lists come through yet, too?”
“Yes, and I have my eye on a few likely candidates, although today’s events are certainly going to change things.”
“So who are you picking to win?”
“Who do you think?” The man at the other end of the connection chuckled.
Tenmyouji smiled back. “Her, most likely,” he said. “By the way, when were you thinking of implementing the plan?”
“I was thinking in a few weeks, during the summer tournaments.”
“First Umami Gakuen, and then the world, huh?”
“We have several of our people already in place. We’ll be playing to their strengths, and who knows? We might make some money out of it, too.”
Tenmyouji smiled. “Then if all goes well…”
“We’ll have started to remove the loose pebbles from the foundation of the world government. It will take work, and many years, but we will triumph.”
The man closed his chat window as Tenmyouji leaned back against a wedge pillow and smiled. “Vanilla Sakamoto. You’ve had quite a streak lately…Too bad your good luck is almost ready to run out.”