Chapter 12:

Round 1: Strong to the Finish

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

The day of the party had finally arrived. It was a warm June evening, and the ninety-five other competitors and I were buzzing with excitement as we waited for the charter busses to take us to the venue—the ballroom at the prestigious Asahi Grand Hotel, where every bride in Tokyo wanted to get married. I had snuck a glance at some pictures of the interior while on a break during classes and saw the pictures of a huge room that looked like the interior of a royal palace in a fantasy anime—decorative suits of armor, crystal sconces on the wall, a chandelier that was apparently made by Tiffany himself back in the early 1900s. Of course, I only wanted to see the kitchens.Bookmark here

Yomogi had added a small fluffy bolero sweater to her dress, which she had borrowed from her roommate Aiko. She had changed her hairstyle for the event as well—while she usually wore her bangs back in a pompadour with a barrette or bobby pins, she had parted her hair diagonally and had a sparkling crystal barrette holding her bangs back. Likewise, Kei had decided to do something unusual with her hair—she’d arranged it in double buns, with flower trimmed ponytail holders ringing both of them. “I thought I’d try the Chun-Li look,” she said, as I approached.Bookmark here

“It works,” I replied.Bookmark here

I had decided to let my hair down for the event, which I usually did while at home on the weekends. It was wavy and curly, thanks to being braided all the time, and I decided to pull it back with a gold chain headband to keep with my dress’s theme.Bookmark here

“You two look good,” I said, absentmindedly staring at a bunch of moths fluttering around a streetlight. “Emi-chan has good taste.”Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled, looking a little sheepish. “I’m not good at these types of events,” she said.
“Well, as long as the three of us stay together, we should be fine,” I said.Bookmark here

One of the other students shouted as four motor coaches approached the entrance of the school where we were waiting. The doors opened, and we started making our way in. I hadn’t been on a motor coach in a while, and it was comfortably appointed, with bucket seats, lights and TV monitors positioned every few rows.Bookmark here

Honestly, I wasn’t one for huge parties either, but I was excited about this one. I’d be getting to meet my competitors, and we’d probably swap tips and recipes and such all evening. I couldn’t wait to size everyone up.Bookmark here

I gazed out the window as the busses pulled away from the curb and started down the way to the hotel.Bookmark here

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We arrived at the entrance to the Asahi Grand Hotel. It was a huge white building, with a traffic circle set in front where a beautiful scallop shell fountain was shooting a jet of water into the air. A few girls I vaguely recognized were standing in front of the fountain, taking pictures of each other.Bookmark here

“Want to do that later?” I asked Kei and Yomogi as we made our way down the stairs of the bus towards the hotel entryway.Bookmark here

The front hall was beautiful. There were floor to ceiling windows and tiny lights sparkling from what appeared to be artificial trees situated between every window, and ivory velvet couches with mahogany trim were occupied by various travelers and revelers.Bookmark here

A huge banner with the Umami Gakuen logo was spread over the entrance to one of the hotel ballrooms, along with a couple of huge, circular flower arrangements. Everyone was starting to make their way down the hallway towards the open doors to the ballroom, where an usher was greeting everyone. “We’ve been expecting you. Step inside,” he said.Bookmark here

Yomogi, Kei and I walked through the doors to the ballroom and gasped as we saw how beautiful the room was—the pictures I had found online couldn’t even do it justice. The walls were painted with gilt accents and draped with red velvet curtains, and the floor had plush carpeting with an intricate design ringing a parquet dance floor, situated underneath a gleaming crystal chandelier. Ringing the dance floor were a bunch of round tables, set with fine china and gleaming silverware. A beautiful centerpiece of multicolored roses was set in the middle of each table. A buffet station was set up at one side of the room, which was piled with various hors d’oeuvres, and a few students were milling about it already. I looked around, trying to spot anyone familiar and having no luck. We passed by a group of boys that were talking in a corner.Bookmark here

“…can’t seem to find the sweet spot.”
“Yeah, those things are hard. You need to have the right amount of stamina reserves.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t solo one of those things.”Bookmark here

Yomogi’s expression changed. “Excuse me,” she said, “but it appears they’re speaking my language.” She approached the boys, and said, “You can solo a Greater Horned Demon if you’ve got the Lance of Longinus.” Kei and I glanced at each other quizzically, until we realized they were talking about Monster Slayer. Yomogi was in her element, and was talking to the boys about strategy as we decided to leave her to her own devices and look around.Bookmark here

“Mitsurugi-san! Hey, over here!” said a voice. Kei and I looked to see that a smallish male second-year student was standing in a small group which included Kei’s main rival, Nagisa Tominaga. “I got that video loaded on my phone I wanted to show you.”Bookmark here

“Be there in a second,” Kei said as she turned to me. “Hitachi-san’s in the karate club with me. I’ve got to see this.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “I’ll be around,” I said. As she walked over to her friends, I started to scan the room for familiar faces, and didn’t see any. I wonder where Michael-san and Taiga-sempai are, I thought. As I started to head over to the buffet table, I heard someone approach me from behind.Bookmark here

“Oh, you’re so cute!” said an unfamiliar voice that was tinged with a foreign accent.Bookmark here

I turned around to see a young woman wearing a frilly black strapless floor length gown that looked absolutely awesome on her. She had a curvy figure that made me feel like I was as flat as a board and ramrod straight from head to toe, her complexion was tanned, and her bleached hair was in a wave that made her look like she was an old Hollywood actress. She was smiling warmly at me.Bookmark here

“You must be Vanilla-chan! I’ve heard so much about you. My name’s Maria Masuda,” she said, and I recalled seeing how excited other students were when they saw her name on the list of competitors.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you, Masuda-sempai,” I said in reply, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.Bookmark here

“No no no, sweetie! Don’t ‘sempai’ me,” Maria said, putting her hands on my shoulders and looking into my face. “You looked so lonely, I decided to come over and say hi. I was in your position last year! I was the best in the Yoshoku Division, but I didn’t do too well in the tournament.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “So what’s your specialty?” I asked.Bookmark here

“My family’s originally from Brazil, so I’ve got a lot of South American recipes under my belt,” she said. “Ever hear of moqueca? No? Well, for starters, it’s a fish stew that’s cooked with vegetables and herbs in a clay pot, and…”Bookmark here

“Whoa, Masuda-san, leave her alone!” said another familiar voice. I looked back to see Michael standing behind the both of us. He was wearing a navy blue three-piece suit with a purple and green paisley patterned tie. “You’re going to talk her ears off.”Bookmark here

Maria let out a loud explanation that sounded like something naughty in Portuguese and poked Michael on the forehead. “We’re having girl talk! Don’t butt in.”Bookmark here

“I just want to say hi, that’s all,” Michael said, looking annoyed. “Evening, Vanilla-kun. How are you doing?”Bookmark here

“All right,” I said. “Though I gotta admit, I’m not really one for parties.”Bookmark here

“Neither am I, frankly,” Michael replied. “Hey, Masuda-san, let’s go around and do our introductions. You don’t know very many people in second or third year, do you, Vanilla-kun?”Bookmark here

“Can’t say that I do,” I said, shrugging.Bookmark here

Michael and Maria took me around the room and started pointing out people to me. A lot of people looked up and gave notice—we were the number one Yoshoku Division students, after all, and us hanging around together was a sign that something interesting was going to happen. Yomogi and Kei left their groups, and went over to us as everyone started looking down at the tables to try and find their names. The party planners had managed to make a good mix of students from all divisions and years at each table, and I found that I’d be sitting next to Maria—no wonder she had sought me out.Bookmark here

“Maria-san, these are my friends, Yomogi Kisaragi and Kei Mitsurugi,” I said, introducing them. Maria smiled broadly as the three of them made their requisite bows.Bookmark here

“Ohhh, you’re so cute!” she said as she approached Yomogi. “And you look so nice! Blue’s such a lovely color on you.”Bookmark here

“Thanks! Vanilla-chan’s friend picked it out for me,” Yomogi replied, blushing slightly.Bookmark here

“And you’re in the karate club, right?” Maria asked Kei. “Then you know Hitachi-kun?”Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “If you’ll excuse us, I think someone’s calling me over to a table.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of your friend tonight,” Maria said, putting her arm around me rather abruptly. “Have fun at your tables!”Bookmark here

“Uh, hey, be careful,” I protested.Bookmark here

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Waiters in black tuxedos with white gloves approached our tables, setting down plates with gleaming chrome cloches on the top. They lifted them up to reveal tonight’s menu: a mix of Eastern and Western cuisine. Everyone had gotten a menu with three meal choices: meat, fish or vegetarian, and I had chosen to get the fish. My main dish was salmon meuniere prepared Japanese style, with a touch of soy sauce along with the crispy pan fried texture achieved by dusting in flour and frying in clarified butter. This was accompanied by chunks of miso glazed eggplant and a familiar looking soft bread roll. (“Maybe one of the chefs here is a big fan of school cafeteria food,” said a boy that was sitting near me.)Bookmark here

I noticed the girl sitting next to me, who was a member of the Washoku Division, had gotten the vegetarian entree, which featured some of the staples of shojin ryori, or Buddhist influenced vegetarian cuisine—a tofu steak, tender-crisp steamed broccoli, and a bowl of rice flavored with pickled plum paste. She was calmly using chopsticks to lift a chunk of the tofu steak to her lips, which was still steaming hot. She blew on it lightly before putting it in her mouth.Bookmark here

“Hm. Very good,” she said, in a low voice.Bookmark here

“That does look good…” I glanced at the name card in front of her place. “Kinashi-sempai,” I said, as it identified her as Sonoko Kinashi, second year and in the Washoku Division.Bookmark here

“Yes,” she said, glancing over at me. “I am pleasantly surprised at the quality of this food,” she said precisely and with hardly any emotion or inflection in her voice.Bookmark here

Maria had gotten the meat dish, which was a filet mignon garnished in what appeared to be a balsamic vinegar reduction, accompanied by white asparagus in hollandaise sauce and a crusty piece of rustic bread. “Delicioso!” she squealed as she picked up her knife and fork and began to cut a slice of the filet mignon. It cut almost as easily as butter.Bookmark here

“Enjoy yourself,” Sonoko said as she emotionlessly cut another piece of tofu steak. She noticed me looking at her, and blinked like you’d blink at a cat. “Do I have something on my face, Sakamoto-san?”Bookmark here

“Ah, no. Just…jealous of what everyone else got,” I said, looking down to my plate and continuing with eating.Bookmark here

When we had cleared our plates and pushed them aside, the introductions began, prompted by Maria. “My name’s Maria Masuda, second year, Yoshoku Division,” she said, smiling broadly. “I’m Brazilian-Japanese, and my family owns a steak house in Yokohama. My specialty’s beef, but I can adapt.” She glanced at me and waved her hand as if to say “go on!”Bookmark here

“I’m Vanilla Sakamoto, first year, Yoshoku Division,” I said. “And before you ask, yes, I’m Yoshiaki Sakamoto’s daughter. My specialty is cream sauce based dishes.”Bookmark here

“Sonoko Kinashi. Second year. Washoku Division. I am from a Buddhist monastery family. My specialty is shojin ryori.” Sonoko’s gaze fixated on all of us.Bookmark here

“Masaya Yamadera, first year, Yogashi Division! I enjoy making fruit pies, and I’ve won prizes with my sacher torte!” The boy sitting next to Sonoko was fairly young looking for a first year high school student, and reminded me of someone from a shoujo manga I once read that turned into a rabbit if a girl hugged him.Bookmark here

“Keisuke Iida, third year, Washoku Division,” said the boy who had commented on the dinner rolls. “I’m going into the teaching track after I graduate. My specialty’s sushi.”Bookmark here

“Yukiko Asahina, second year, Wagashi Division. I’m also in the Tea Ceremony Club, and I specialize in traditional tea ceremony sweets.”Bookmark here

“Tsukiko Asahina, second year, Yogashi Division, and a member of the Literature Club. My specialty is baked goods.” There was a pause, and then both Yukiko and Tsukiko said, “We’re twins.”Bookmark here

The final person at the table spoke. “Joutaro Naito, third year, Wagashi division. My family runs a liquor store in a small town, and my specialty…hmm. Castella, I think.”Bookmark here

The introductions finished, we started talking excitedly between ourselves, swapping recipes and asking each other about ingredient recommendations. Some time later, the waiters came around and started clearing the entrée dishes. A two tiered tea tray was placed in the center of the table, which was filled with many small desserts from both Eastern and Western cuisine: egg tarts, small slices of yokan (chilled red bean jelly), miniature cheesecakes, strawberry shortcake cupcakes, castella, sweet potato cakes. Everyone picked their favorite, and as we were beginning to eat, I heard the familiar sound of a violin beginning to tune.Bookmark here

“Whoa, what’s going on over there?” I said as I looked behind me to see that a string quartet was setting up next to the dance floor. Did this mean music and…dancing?Bookmark here

Maria sighed, holding a half eaten macaron in her hand. “Ugh, I hate classical music. Puts me to sleep like that,” she complained, snapping her fingers for emphasis.Bookmark here

The orchestra finished tuning, and a conductor lifted his baton. He started swinging his arms to the beat, and the string quartet started to play a familiar tune: the overture from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. Couples started to drift onto the dance floor.Bookmark here

I was getting a little sleepy from all that good food, and leaned back on my chair to watch the action. From across the room, I noticed Taiga Shirogane was seated at the same table Yomogi was. He got up from his chair and stood behind her to talk to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but Yomogi’s reaction was to put a hand to her face in surprise, but then she looked up and nodded her head. Taiga put out his hand and gently took hers in it, and led her out to the dance floor.Bookmark here

I felt a pang of jealousy as he started teaching her how to waltz. Lucky you, I thought.Bookmark here

Then I saw another familiar couple, this one looking rather strange due to their height difference: Kei and Hitachi, the boy who had called her to watch a video earlier. Surprisingly, Kei was a good dancer—maybe it was because of her karate training. I glanced over at Masaya, who seemed to be watching Yomogi and Taiga rather intently. I wonder if he’s jealous, I thought.Bookmark here

Many of the people at my table had gotten up to ask others to dance. I looked around the room, wondering if anyone would come up and ask to dance with me, but then realized that not a lot of boys were that adventurous. Oh well. I had one possibility in mind.Bookmark here

I got up and started making my way over to where Michael was sitting, but suddenly realized I had a competitor. “Excuse me,” said Nadeshiko Enomoto, as she noticed me going over to Michael. She was wearing a pale purple Lolita dress that was patterned on the border of the skirt with carousel horses, and her hair was decorated with tons of pastel barrettes and other hair decorations. “I would like to ask Valentine-kun to dance.”Bookmark here

“What a surprise, so do I,” I said.Bookmark here

“You poor plebe, resorting to asking a boy to dance instead of it being the other way around,” Nadeshiko said, haughtily.Bookmark here

“You’re describing yourself, you know,” I retorted.Bookmark here

Nadeshiko’s expression changed to one of utter hostility, and she turned on her heel. “It’s not like I wanted Valentine-kun to dance with me, you idiot,” she muttered, walking off.Bookmark here

I continued my approach to Michael and cleared my throat. “Oh, hi Vanilla-kun,” he said. “What was that all about?Bookmark here

“Uh…well, we…I mean, I…wanted to know if you’d like to dance…” I said, suddenly blushing.Bookmark here

Michael shrugged. “Sure, but I can’t dance,” he said. “And forgive me if I step on your feet a lot.”Bookmark here

We stepped out onto the dancefloor just as the song was ending. The conductor lifted his baton a second time, and started in on a faster song—it was a string quartet version of a familiar tune I was hearing on the radio a lot lately. There was a squeal from Maria as she jumped up from her chair and started dancing in the center of the dance floor.Bookmark here

“That’s what I’m talking about!” she said, as the other couples stopped dancing and watched her. Maria was in her element, clapping her hands and singing along. The other dancers shrugged and started dancing along with her, partnerships forgotten as we spread out.
“Well, at least they thought of the modern era,” Michael said as we followed suit.Bookmark here

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After that song ended, I found Yomogi and Kei standing by the drinks bar, which was decorated with two punch fountains and an ice sculpture of the Umami Gakuen cornucopia. “How are you two doing?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Well…” Yomogi blushed. “I had a fun dance with Shirogane-sempai. He’s sitting at my table. He was the runner up last year, didn’t you know?” She was obviously enjoying herself.Bookmark here

“I saw you and Enomoto fighting over Valentine-sempai,” Kei said. “She’s still at it, huh?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. She keeps being the pot that calls the kettle black,” I replied.Bookmark here

We talked about who was sitting with us at our tables, and I mentioned Maria and Sonoko. “I’ve heard about Kinashi-sempai,” Kei said. “Apparently, she was the best first year student in the Washoku Division last year.”Bookmark here

“Masuda-sempai seems kind of direct,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“’Seems kind of direct?’ She’s really into physical contact,” I replied. “Maybe that’s how they show affection in Brazil or something. I don’t know. She doesn’t seem like a bad person. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how she competes.”Bookmark here

“What about you, Kei-chan? Meeting any top competitors?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“I’m seated with a couple of third years from the Yogashi Division,” Kei replied. “And they both mentioned you—pretty glowingly, I might add.”Bookmark here

“Do you know a Yamadera in your division?” I asked Yomogi. “He’s seated next to me.”Bookmark here

“Oh, Masaya-kun,” Yomogi said, and her face colored slightly. “He’s…very sweet. He always says ‘good morning’ to everyone and gives out candy to everyone in class.”Bookmark here

Kei and I shared a knowing look, smiling. “What’s that all about?” Yomogi asked, looking a little peeved.Bookmark here

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At around ten thirty, the party broke up, and we all made our way back to campus and our homes. I stopped at a vending machine at the train station to buy myself a hot drink, as the evening had turned chilly, and checked my messages on my phone. My mother had left a voice mail, and I knew she was still awake, so I decided to return the call.Bookmark here

“Good evening, Vanilla-chan,” she said. There was noise in the background. “I trust you had a good evening?”Bookmark here

“Yes. Did you get my message about the schedule?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I did…but unfortunately, things aren’t going to work out this weekend,” my mother said. “We are hosting a major international trade show and I will need to be on site.”Bookmark here

Of course. Even if my mother didn’t have work, she probably wouldn’t want to see me compete anyway. “All right. I’ll let you know what happens,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yes…Oh, I’m sorry, Vanilla-chan, but I need to go. I’m out with some friends for a birthday. Good luck.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…good luck. Thanks,” I said, as I hung up. I stared at the empty train tracks in the nearly deserted station, sighing. Bookmark here

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A few days later was the beginning of the first round.Bookmark here

I had gone to school as usual that morning, but decided that I would pack a few good luck charms, just in case. A little Banana Cat plush I had won in a crane game when I was out one day with Yomogi. An omamori from a local shrine around the corner from the building for success in academic studies. As I opened my closet to pull a fresh school uniform off a coat hanger, I noticed something folded up on a shelf. Something jogged my memory about it, and I pulled it out and shook it out—it was the apron that the old man from Michiru Restaurant had given me; the one that had been worn every day by his late wife. I held it up in front of me and rubbed the banana patch that had been fastened to the front, hoping the old man was doing well. I folded it up neatly and inserted it into my school bag.Bookmark here

As I opened the door to the hallway, I noticed Mako standing outside. “Today’s the big day, huh?” she said.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I replied.Bookmark here

Mako smiled and reached into her pocket. “Here, a little something,” she said, handing it to me. My eyes widened as I realized it was a 5,000 yen bill.Bookmark here

“Mako-san, I don’t think—” I tried to refuse it, but she put her hand on top of it.Bookmark here

“Win or lose, use this to treat yourself.”Bookmark here

I smiled. “Thanks, Mako-san.”Bookmark here

“Good luck tonight.” She patted me on the head and gave me a gentle push towards the door. As I closed it behind me, I saw Ebifry sitting on the sidewalk, getting in some early morning sunshine.Bookmark here

“Morning, Ebifry,” I said, reaching down to pet him on the head. He squinted his eyes and gave a low purr as his tail swished about. “Wish me good luck today?”Bookmark here

Mrrrrrow,” Ebifry replied, sounding happy.Bookmark here

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The culinary arts wing was filled with competitors, as well as various other students and faculty well wishers. The first two rounds, which would decide the top two students of each division for each year, would be fought over a period of two days—Yoshoku and Wagashi would compete today, and Washoku and Yogashi would compete tomorrow.Bookmark here

“I wish I could come cheer you on,” Kei said, as she saw that she’d be competing at the same time as I was.Bookmark here

Yomogi looked at the two of us. “I’ll try to divide my time between the two of you,” she said.Bookmark here

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Go support Kei-chan. I give you my blessing.” I was feeling pretty confident about myself.Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m fine. And if you get the chance to get into my match too, do it.”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “I’ll keep you posted about what happens, Vanilla-chan,” she said.
The public address system chimed. “Would all competitors in the first set of matches, please report to your designated kitchens,” said a voice.Bookmark here

I held out my pinky finger without a word. Kei held hers out, as did Yomogi, and we touched them to each other before Kei and Yomogi went off in one direction and I went off in the other.Bookmark here

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Eight of us first year Yoshoku Division students entered the culinary classroom. I didn’t know many of the other students, but Kazuya Watanabe and I shared silent waves and good luck signs as we stood in front of the culinary stations.Bookmark here

I was wearing Michiru’s apron, which made me stand out versus the other students, who were wearing solid colored chef’s aprons over their uniform jackets. Having a different apron than what was normally acceptable wasn’t against the rules, but it did make me stand out a little. However, at least I’d be able to tell a story about it if anyone asked me.Bookmark here

One of the culinary arts teachers that would be overseeing the exam was standing at the front of the room, tapping away at a computer tablet. “Please plug your devices into your station, and we will post the first round bracket as soon as everyone is ready,” he said. I pulled my smartphone out of my pocket and did so. There was a series of beeps from the console at the front, and small photos of us, as shown on our student IDs, appeared on the board as each of us plugged our devices in. Then the board refreshed, and showed the pairings for the first round.Bookmark here

I would be going up against a boy named Kouki Tanimura that Kei had mentioned was in her homeroom. Apparently, his family owned a yakiniku restaurant. We looked at each other from across the room and nodded at each other.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, right?” Kouki asked. “I used to watch your father’s videos all the time. He was a really great guy.”Bookmark here

“Thank you,” I said. “I hope that I’ll be able to live up to his legacy.”Bookmark here

With the pairings made, the subject of the challenge would be decided. Each pair of contestants would have a different subject. We gazed down at our smartphones as the spinning wheel got slower and slower. The room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop…
Ding! The wheel landed on “Spinach.” I looked up at Kouki. “Good luck,” I said.Bookmark here

“You too,” he replied.Bookmark here

The other pairs had gotten some fairly eclectic selections: one pair were making something sausage related, one was instructed to make something involving pineapple, and the third were given the assignment for horse mackerel. The room would be bustling with activity in a matter of minutes as the countdown clock ticked down. Three…two…one…Bookmark here

An idea had formed in my mind, and I dashed to my fridge to grab a carton of eggs, some butter, a bottle of milk and a block of hard cheese. I cut a small bit of the cheese off and tasted it—it was smooth with a bit of bite to it, and would be perfect for what I needed it for. I put the eggs, milk and cheese back at my station and went to the vegetable pantry to grab an onion and a bunch of fresh spinach. Finally, after a bit of trouble, I grabbed the last piece of the puzzle: a cast-iron skillet, designed to go both on the stove top and in the oven.Bookmark here

I put the stove burner on low, then put a pat of butter into the cast-iron skillet, setting it on top. I grabbed the papery skin of the onion and tore it off aggressively, chopping off the root end in one blow and chopping the onion in half with another. After cutting it into smaller pieces, I grabbed another knife and started drumming the two of them, mincing the onion into fine pieces which I swept up and dumped into the cast iron pan. They started to sizzle almost immediately, which meant I had to work fast.Bookmark here

The spinach went under running water, where I pulled leaves from the main stalk and scrubbed them thoroughly to make sure all the dirt was gone from the roots. Satisfied, I shook as much water as I could from the spinach and put it into the skillet along with the butter and onion to let it color and wilt. The leaves shrank as they were coated with the butter, and I noticed the onions beginning to lose their opacity. I turned the burner off, lifted the pan from the burner using a potholder, and placed it down on a soaking wet dish towel to help cool it down before turning to the next step.Bookmark here

In a mixing bowl, I cracked four eggs, then dipped an electric mixer in them to whip them up until they were a foamy, uniform yellow. I then picked up the block of cheese and a box grater, then vigorously rubbed it against the coarsest side of the grater over the bowl of eggs, shaking it every so often to make sure all the cheese went into the bowl. This was followed by a splash of milk and a few grinds of salt and pepper, and I gave the bowl a few quick stirs to make sure that everything was evenly incorporated.Bookmark here

I held my hand a few centimeters over the cast iron skillet to make sure that it had cooled off enough—I didn’t want the eggs to cook immediately—and was satisfied that it had, so I poured the entire egg mixture into the pan. I let the contents settle before picking up the pan with another potholder and putting it into the oven.Bookmark here

“Whew!” I said, as I looked at the clock to realize that I had a half hour left to the time allotted. It would take about that long for it to bake, so I decided a quick drink of water was in order. I looked around at the other competitors, who were all in various stages of their work. Bookmark here

The pair that had been assigned pineapple, which included my classmate Kazuya Watanabe, had managed to extract all the juicy pale yellow goodness from their spiky prisons, and it appeared one person was using it for a sweet application while Kazuya was using it for something more savory.Bookmark here

A fishy smell from behind me made me glance back to see that one of the pair assigned to preparing horse mackerel had managed to batter and fry a couple of filets, while the other was doing some sort of a fish stew.Bookmark here

The pair that was working on sausage was the farthest away from me, and I couldn’t see what either of them were doing—but I was hoping that whatever they were doing wasn’t involving making sausage.Bookmark here

Five minutes before time expired, I peeked into the oven and was greeted by just the sound I wanted to hear: the sizzle of my crustless quiche, cooking perfectly in the well seasoned cast iron pan. I grabbed a table knife from the counter and carefully poked my hand inside to test its doneness, and smiled as I pulled the clean knife out from within. It was time. I stuck my hand inside the industrial strength oven glove and pulled the entire skillet out.Bookmark here

Looking at it under the light, the top looked puffed and a little overly browned. I started cutting the quiche in half from the center, then rotated the pan and cut it across the other axis. Four piping hot slices were carefully maneuvered to the waiting plates—with one for me to make sure it was worthy of presentation. I grabbed a fork and took a small bite of the fourth quiche slice. It was piping hot, and I burned my tongue a little, but I could taste everything coexisting in a happy mix. It was as satisfying as spending time with your friends.Bookmark here

The timer finally beeped to signal the end, and all the other competitors stepped back from their work. I looked around for the first time at my opponent, and saw that Tanimura had been making what appeared to be triangular pouches of a flaky pastry. One of them had been cut open, revealing what appeared to be curd cheese and bits of spinach inside. I hadn’t seen it before, so I decided to go over and ask before it was time to be judged.Bookmark here

“Tanimura-san, what did you make?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Oh, this? It’s Greek food. A spanakopita. They’re like dumplings with spinach and a type of cheese called feta,” he replied. “They’re wrapped up in a type of dough that’s really thin, phyllo dough.”Bookmark here

“Like spring rolls or egg rolls?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Even thinner than that. Look.” Tanimura put the plate up to me, and I could see how thin the layers of baked phyllo were. I had never worked with something like that before, and nodded.Bookmark here

“I made a crustless quiche in a cast iron skillet,” I replied. “I had to factor in time, and all the recipes I know for quiche involve blind baking the pie crust first. I couldn’t have done it in enough time.”Bookmark here

Tanimura and I walked back to my station and he admired the golden brown outside of the quiche. “Wow, I never thought of that, either,” he said.Bookmark here

The professor in charge of overseeing the judges started walking down the line. “We will be sending you to the judges’ rooms in a few minutes. Please make sure your presentation dishes are tightly covered, and there are carts in the corner of the room.”Bookmark here

I nodded, seeing the carts he was referring to, and I went over to retrieve one. I nestled each of the quiche slices under an aluminum foil tent before loading them up. One by one, the proctor approached each pair and told them to follow him. Soon, the room was almost empty.Bookmark here

“Did you see what the others made?” I asked the other competitors.Bookmark here

“I don’t know about the people who got sausage,” said the girl behind me who was part of the pair that competed with horse mackerel. “But I think someone did something soup related.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Well, wish us luck,” I said, as the proctor came back in to retrieve us.Bookmark here

“Please proceed behind me to room 25,” he said, and we did so, pushing our carts in front of us.Bookmark here

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Room 25 was one of the lecture rooms. The three judges that had been appointed had been sequestered here for the better part of an hour, and were probably ravenous by now. “If you two would do the coin flip, we will begin the presentation,” the proctor said.Bookmark here

I nodded at Tanimura and pressed the coin flip button on my phone. “Heads or tails?”
“Tails,” he said, and as he said so, the “coin” landed on heads. I smiled.Bookmark here

“All right, looks like it’s my turn,” I said, pushing the cart up and placing each plate in front of each judge. “My dish today is a spinach quiche, but instead of being baked in a pie or tart shell, I baked it directly in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Emphasis on well-seasoned, of course, as it’s notoriously difficult to cook eggs in one.” I smirked as each of the judges pulled back the foil to reveal their quiche slices, which were still steaming a little. “Please enjoy them.”Bookmark here

The judge at the far left of the table, an older woman wearing a traditional yukata kimono, cut a small bite of her quiche and admired it. “It looks very solid,” she said. “And I can see the spinach sprinkled throughout. Was the spinach fresh?”Bookmark here

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.Bookmark here

“Why did you decide to make this quiche crustless?” the man seated in the middle asked.
“I decided that it would take too much time for me to blind bake a pastry crust,” I replied. “I know that there’s a lot of potential for flavor in a crust, but I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the egg mixture.”Bookmark here

“And this was baked in the same skillet you cooked the vegetables in? That’s quite impressive. It’s not common to see someone that can work so well with cast iron.”Bookmark here

I blushed, and gave a very quiet “thank you” as I watched the final judge, a woman in a business suit, take a bite of her quiche serving and smile.Bookmark here

“What cheese did you choose to pair with this?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Um…” I thought back, but I couldn’t recall the name. “Honestly, I don’t remember, but all I know is that I definitely wanted to use a hard cheese suitable for grating. It has the best melting properties and isn’t overly oily.”Bookmark here

Satisfied, the judges finished their plates and pushed them aside. It was then Tanimura’s turn, who placed three plates and revealed the spanakopita he had made.Bookmark here

“These are tarts called spanakopita, which are Greek spinach and cheese filled triangles that are wrapped with phyllo dough,” he said. “However, I decided to substitute the feta cheese with silken tofu, and I added some additional herbs that are typical in Greek cuisine.”Bookmark here

I could definitely smell some oregano and basil from where I was standing, and maybe a little bit of lemon juice as well. The three judges carefully picked up the spanakopita and bit into one end. I heard a crisp crunch as the layers of phyllo dough yielded to their teeth, and they each had a satisfied look to their faces.Bookmark here

“What made you choose to use silken tofu instead of feta cheese?” asked the man in the middle.Bookmark here

“I don’t like overly salty flavors in my food, and they’ve got a tendency to power over everything else,” Tanimura said, hesitantly. “And feta’s stored in a salt brine.”Bookmark here

“The herbal flavor makes everything taste very fresh,” said the woman in the yukata kimono. “It pairs perfectly with the spinach. What did you use?”Bookmark here

“Oregano, basil, and a little dill,” Tanimura said.Bookmark here

“There’s one thing I don’t like about mine,” the woman in the business suit said. “There’s a large spot on the bottom of this that did not cook properly, and it’s all soggy.”Bookmark here

Tanimura blushed, looking down. “I’m sorry. I tried my best to make sure they were rotated, and…”Bookmark here

“Other than that, I thought it was delicious,” the woman continued.Bookmark here

The judges finished as I looked over at Tanimura, who was nervously fidgeting. It was hard for me to imagine how nervous he was, but I decided to perk up his spirits a bit. “Hey, I’d like to try one of those someday,” I said.Bookmark here

“Well…if I ever make them again,” he said.Bookmark here

The judges were beginning to lock in their votes, and we pulled out our phones to watch the process. Tanimura swallowed nervously and looked down at his phone as the first vote came in…Bookmark here

It was for Tanimura! His face immediately brightened, but then…Bookmark here

Beep! Beep!
Two votes for me. It was a split decision.Bookmark here

Tanimura looked sad as he looked up from his phone. “Oh well,” he said. “That’s…pretty much it for me in the tournament, I guess.”Bookmark here

“Well, you did manage to take a point from me,” I said. “I think you had a great idea, and those looked delicious.”Bookmark here

Hesitantly, Tanimura held out his hand for the post-battle handshake. “Thanks, Sakamoto-san. That really means a lot to me.”Bookmark here

I took his hand and shook it. “You’ll be back next year, right?” I asked.Bookmark here

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I emerged from the judging room to see the other competitors from my division. Half of them were looking dejected and trying to keep their emotions together, but the others were furiously messaging family and friends to let them know that they had passed. Kazuya approached me, smiling.Bookmark here

“I managed to win a unanimous decision,” he said. “How did you do?”Bookmark here

“Two out of three. Tanimura-san did some pretty delicious looking spinach pastries,” I replied. “What about you?”Bookmark here

“Pineapple fried rice with pork belly! My opponent made some sort of pudding trifle with his, and it didn’t even hold up. I guess he was too nervous.” Kazuya smiled.Bookmark here

My phone vibrated and I looked down on it, and my mood suddenly swung from elated to dejected as I read the message:Bookmark here

To: Me From: Yomogi
Kei-chan lost!Bookmark here

“Oh no…” I said.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.