ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
“All right, everyone! One, two, three!”
With a loud chorus of “CHEESE!” the twenty-four remaining competitors of the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational Tournament had their group photo taken standing in front of the set for the televised matches.
It had been a whirlwind few days after Yomogi and I were victorious in our second round divisional matches. Today, we’d all been invited to the Ginga TV studios to take a tour of the facility where the next rounds of the competition would be hosted in a series of prime time battles. Over the next few days, we’d be going for makeup tests and one-on-one interviews with the hosts and panel members that would be supplying the analysis and color commentary for the competitions. Everything would begin in earnest at the end of this week.
A lot of the students I had met at the pre-tournament banquet had moved on to the televised rounds. Yomogi and I had been hanging out with the Asahina twins while we were on our tour of the studio. Yukiko, who would be competing in the Wagashi Division, was the older of the two, while Tsukiko, the younger twin, was competing for the Yogashi Division. She and Yomogi had spent most of their time between stops on the tour comparing notes and swapping recipes, while Yukiko and I talked about our favorite kitchen appliances.
The woman who was leading the tour guided us into the cafeteria, where a bunch of long tables had been pushed together to accommodate 12 competitors each. A screen had been pulled down from the ceiling, and a media projector was on, displaying a computer desktop with the Ginga TV logo as its background. We all sat down at the tables as the woman picked up a remote control.
“If I can have your attention, ladies and gentlemen,” the woman said. “My name is Keiko Okamoto, and I will be the main director of the televised tournament. I’m going to take you all through the tournament structure and schedule, and if you have any questions or concerns, please let me know.”
She pressed a few buttons on the remote, and a tournament bracket appeared. “The first four nights of the tournament will be the Grade Level Championships,” she said, moving a red laser pointer around the bracket. “Each night, we will be airing three hour long matches with a 30 minute break after each match for judging. The first night will be the Yoshoku Division, followed by the Yogashi Division, then the Washoku Division, and finally the Wagashi Division.”
She pressed another button, and the tournament bracket changed to a different one. “The next four nights will be the Division Championships. Since there will be only three competitors for each round, we will have a random draw to determine who will automatically advance to the championship battle. There will be two hour long battles with a 30 minute break after each battle, and the order will be the same as the Grade Level Championships.”
She pressed another button on the remote. “Finally, the Grand Championship. This will be in a round robin format.” She moved the laser pointer around the tournament brackets, which showed that each division winner would be pitted against the other three. “The two battlers with the best win-loss record will advance to the Grand Championship finale on the final night of the tournament.” She smiled as she pressed another button on the remote, which made the screen fade to black. “Are there any questions or concerns about the schedule?”
“Will there be any breaks between the rounds?” asked Michael.
“Yes, the tournaments will be taking place from Thursday to Sunday each week,” Keiko said.
I raised my hand and waited for Keiko to acknowledge me. “Will we need to be here even on the days we’re not competing?” I asked.
“It’s not a requirement. If you have any concerns about your schedule because of part-time jobs or extracurricular activities, please let me know. We should be able to shuffle things around if the timing is inconvenient.”
“Excuse me,” Yomogi said, “but are these matches going to be broadcast anywhere other than the region? Is there going to be Internet viewing?”
“We will be streaming these matches online,” Keiko said. Yomogi seemed to tense up a little.
There were a few more questions that were mostly inconsequential, when I heard the door open at the back of the room. My eyebrows went up as I noticed Ryotaro Koizumi enter the room and walk over to us. He noticed me as well, and gave me a cordial nod.
“Oh, here’s Koizumi-san. May I introduce you to the emcee of this tournament, Ryotaro Koizumi,” Keiko said, stretching out her hand. Ryotaro bowed to all of us, and there was a buzz of conversation.
“Wow, he’s pretty tall.”
“Hey, wasn’t he on one of those sentai shows?”
“I heard he’s really into theater.”
“Wow, he’s like, around fifty, and he’s still kinda hot!”
No one had mentioned his connection to my mom, which brought me relief.
“Good evening!” Ryotaro joined Keiko in front of the screen. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, and I look forward to getting to know all of you.” He smiled, and I saw Yomogi slightly blush. “I will be announcing each episode of the show, as the leader of our discussion panel. I will also be conducting one-on-one interviews with all of you over the next few days, which will be airing during your matches.”
“Each of you will be getting an information packet which I will need to have signed and returned by both you and a parent or guardian,” Keiko said, picking up a pile of clear folders with stacks of paper inside. “Your schedules for the matches are inside, as well as the time allotted to you for the make-up test and one-on-one interview with Koizumi-san. Please let me know immediately if there are any conflicts, and we will work to accommodate you.”
As Keiko called the names of the students to get their packets, our table buzzed with conversation. “I can’t believe it,” Yukiko said. “It just doesn’t seem real to you, does it?”
“It’s…kind of a familiar feeling,” I replied. “My dad appeared on TV a lot when I was growing up, and sometimes I’d hang out at the studio with him after school. There’s lots of planning and rights and such involved.”
“A make-up test, huh?” Yomogi said. “Hopefully nothing’s going to interfere with food prep.”
I heard my name called, so I went up to get my folder. Ryotaro smiled as Keiko placed it in my hand.
“Good luck, Vanilla-chan,” he whispered.
As I returned to my table, Nadeshiko glared at me. “Vanilla Sakamoto! Did I just see that man whisper something to you?” she said loudly and with wild gestures. (She was wearing a somewhat low-key Lolita outfit—if you could call a stylized sailor suit with a pink sakura-patterned collar and skirt low-key.)
“Why, are you jealous?” I countered.
“It is a fact that your own mother is DATING that man!” Nadeshiko shrilled back. (Oh no, there it was.) A bunch of heads turned to look at me, and I needed to counter that, fast.
I slammed my hand on the table. “And it’s a fact that YOU got called out for selling fake Lolita dresses by HIS DAUGHTER!” I said, pointing for emphasis. Nadeshiko recoiled and fell over her chunk heels, directly onto her bottom. There were a few snickers.
I sat down, feeling a little unsure of myself now that a connection to the show’s host had been made. Yomogi looked over at me, sensing my distress. “Are you going to be all right, Vanilla-chan?” she asked.
“Well…it’s common knowledge, anyway,” I muttered. “All over the tabloids and everything…”
I decided to distract myself by opening my folder and looking at my schedule. Apparently, I needed to be at the TV studio for my make-up test and one-on-one tomorrow night. This wouldn’t be a problem—in anticipation of my TV debut, I had told Kinoshita about my schedule and he was more than happy to give me the week off, as long as I told him when I’d be competing, so they could watch my matches in the break room.
“When did they call you in, Vanilla-chan?” Yomogi asked.
“Tomorrow night,” I replied. “You?”
“Day after tomorrow, after school. Are you free then?”
“I’ve got work, so no. Hey, do you think we could meet Kei-chan for dinner tomorrow night after my session? We can go to that ramen place again. I really liked it,” I suggested.
“I think I’m free,” Yomogi replied. “Let’s do that, then!”
“Think anyone else would like to join us?” I asked. “Maybe Michael-san or Maria-san?”
“Hmm, that’s a good idea,” Yomogi replied. “Although…I kind of want it to be just the three of us. You understand, right?”
She did have a point, so I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Also…this summer, if you and Kei-chan are free, you’re more than welcome to come visit me if you have the time,” Yomogi said. “I’ve told my parents and sister about you, and you’re more than welcome to come visit.”
“Really? That’s great!” I said. “What’s it like where you live? Is there anything interesting?”
“Well…” Yomogi laughed to herself a bit. “I’m in the country. Fresh air, lots of mountains, some farms, and my family runs an inn! It’s pretty quiet out there.”
“Seems interesting,” I said. It would be a nice change of pace.
It appeared it was time to go, as everyone else was getting up and chatting to each other as they made their way out of the cafeteria. Yomogi and I picked up our paperwork and followed suit, and as we did so, I glanced over to see Ryotaro talking with Keiko, and gave him a smile. He looked up to me and waved, returning my smile.
The air was shimmering with heat, but our usual lunch spot was nice and cool underneath a tall maple tree crowned with leaves. We were leaning up against it underneath, gazing through the canopy of leaves to the blue sky above.
“I’ll be there to cheer you on,” Kei said, as Yomogi and I shared our schedules with her. She looked genuinely happy for the first time in a while after suffering that crushing defeat in the first round. “What about your families?” she asked.
“My mother can’t make it this weekend,” I said. “I guess there’s some huge convention happening she needs to stick around for.” Not that my competing really matters to her, I thought.
“My older sister and her fiancé are coming,” Yomogi said. “My mother and father are busy, but they’re going to try and make it down here if I get past the first round.”
“You’ve got a big sister? I envy you. My mom and I are the only women in our family,” Kei sighed.
“Her name’s Yanagi. She lives in Yokohama, and she works in accounting,” Yomogi said. “Here, I’ve got a picture.” She held out her phone and scrolled through the images with her finger until she landed on one with her and a woman that looked like an older version of her with no glasses and longer hair.
“Wow, you two look so much alike,” I said. “Do you take after your mom or your dad more?”
“More like my mom,” Yomogi said.
I heard footsteps and looked back to see someone approaching us. “Afternoon, ladies,” said the familiar voice of Taiga Shirogane.
“Afternoon, Taiga-sempai. How are you doing?” I asked. He was carrying a half-eaten anpan and smiling that same joyful smile he always seemed to have.
“I’m very excited,” he replied. “Only a few more days to the competition! I’ve done all this before, but it’s still such a thrill to get up on stage and perform in front of an audience. I’m sure you know what I mean, Vanilla-kun.”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said, remembering seeing my father seem to dance across the stage when having his televised gourmet battles.
“I’ve been doing some warm up battles this week,” Taiga said. “I’m not competing right away, but I want to keep my skills sharp.”
“Warm up battles…” I wondered if those might be beneficial. I’d been spending my time outside of school either at work, studying or relaxing.
“A warm up battle is a good idea,” Yomogi said, “but I’m confident enough that I’ll be able to battle at full power in my championship match!” Her eyes lit up again with that same competitive fire.
Taiga smiled back at us. “Well, I’m sure that this year’s tournament will be quite memorable,” he said. “See you later this week.”
He walked away as the first bells of the chime started to toll. I watched him, feeling my face grow hot and remembering his advice to me the day after I had lost to Yomogi. He was so understanding, and such a great listener. I wonder if he had been a fan of my father, too?
I stood in front of the front doors to Ginga TV and stared at my hazy reflection in the glass. I was still in my school uniform, and had a change of clothes in my school bag for later. I had brushed out, re-braided and re-pinned my hair, and bought one of those single use shoe shine wipes to use on my penny loafers. I swallowed nervously, but then took a deep breath.
Remember, relax. You’re going out for ramen later, I thought to myself.
I stepped towards the doors and pushed them open, then strode to the reception desk. “Hello there,” said the receptionist, a woman who was wearing the charcoal gray vest and skirt and pale blue shirt that seemed to be the Ginga TV uniform. “May I have your name and your reason for your visit, please?”
“Vanilla Sakamoto,” I replied, “one of the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational competitors. I am here for my interview with Ryotaro Koizumi-san.”
Ramen. Ramen. RAMEN. My inner voice chanted.
“Very well, please sit over there and someone will come get you,” the receptionist said, stretching out her hand to indicate a bank of leather upholstered seats surrounding a low table with a bonsai tree as its centerpiece. I sat down, and stared up at a wall mounted TV that was currently showing what was airing on Ginga TV at the moment, which was a rerun of a detective drama. (The detective and his young assistant were at a ramen restaurant spying on the criminal. My stomach was growling.)
A few minutes later, the double doors leading to the studio space opened up. “Sakamoto-san? Please come this way,” said a familiar voice. I looked up to see Meiko Okamoto had approached, clipboard in hand.
“Thank you,” I said. “Okamoto-san, correct?” I asked.
“Yes. How are you doing today?” Meiko replied.
“Well…school was long and boring,” I said.
“Not surprised there,” Meiko said. “Come with me. This should probably only take an hour or so, if all the technical stuff goes well.”
Meiko guided me through the doors to a hallway. We passed by the cafeteria where all the competitors had met yesterday evening, and turned down another hallway devoted to studio space. She opened a door marked “Studio 1” and ushered me inside.
It was a small soundstage on a raised platform, with a two-camera setup and a set of comfortable chairs with a fake plant set in between them—the type of setup you’d see when interviewing politicians and other public figures for evening news programs. There was what appeared to be a bookshelf set behind them, but when I looked a little closer I realized it was wallpaper.
I saw Ryotaro sitting on one of the chairs, getting a quick touch-up on his makeup. “Tanabe-san, I’ve brought Sakamoto,” Meiko said, as the man doing the makeup looked up from his work. “Could you do a quick test on her before we begin?”
“Why, yes. Sakamoto-san, could you sit down by that mirror there?” Tanabe said, as Meiko ushered me towards a small makeup station.
Twenty minutes later, my face had been covered in grease paint and powder and I had been seated on what was probably the world’s most deceptively uncomfortable chair as I looked into the face of my mother’s boyfriend and father of one of my new friends, trying to compose myself. Meiko was leaning against the back wall while a director was making slashing motions with his hands to count down the seconds.
Ramen ramen ramen ramen ramen ramen ramen…I thought.
“Three…two…one…ACTION!” he yelled, and red lights on both of the cameras lit.
“You may recognize the name of this next contestant immediately,” Ryotaro said, reading off a teleprompter that had been set in his line of sight. “She is the daughter of the late five-star gourmet battler Yoshiaki Sakamoto, and is already making waves as one of the only students to enter Umami Gakuen at a three-star ranking. She is competing in the Yoshoku Division. Thank you for taking the time from your day, Vanilla Sakamoto-san.”
“Likewise,” I said, which was the only thing I thought was appropriate.
“You’ve had quite a lot of memorable battles in your climb to the top of the ladder as one of the best first-year students in the Yoshoku Division. What has been your most memorable battle so far?” Ryotaro asked.
I stared up at the spotlights hanging from the ceiling wracking my brain, feeling like it was made of ramen noodles. “Well…I’d have to say that…it was the one against Michael Furukawa Valentine-sempai,” I said. “Because he introduced himself as my dad’s fan, and I’d never had someone come up to me and say that my dad was an inspiration to them. I lost to him, but I did manage to get one point from the judges, so…I think it’s about time we had a rematch, I guess.”
Ryotaro nodded. “I’ve seen some of the footage from the previous rounds, and I have to ask about that apron you’re wearing with the banana patch. What is the story behind it?” he asked.
“Well…it was a few weeks after I started at Umami Gakuen. I stopped at a restaurant to have dinner after work,” I said, recalling the events of that fateful night with a fond smile on my face. “The owner of the restaurant got challenged by some upperclassman from my school, and he was about to forfeit when I stepped in and took the challenge on his behalf. And I won! After the match, the owner gave me that apron. It belonged to his late wife, Michiru—that was also the name of the restaurant, but he had to close it down—and when I saw the banana patch on it, I knew it had to be fate.”
“I see. You must be very fond of bananas,” Ryotaro said, smiling.
“I love them so much!” I said. “I like collecting banana themed goods. I even have all of Banana Yoshimoto’s books. But I don’t like monkeys, and they’re always associated with bananas, so…” I giggled nervously.
“Is it difficult finding banana themed goods that don’t have monkeys on them?” Ryotaro asked.
“Well, ever since Banana Cat was introduced I’ve been really happy,” I said, holding up my phone to show my Banana Cat charm.
Ryotaro nodded. “What are you looking forward to the most from this tournament?” he asked.
Ugh. Another question that I needed to think about. So much for thinking that he’d go easy on me since I was his girlfriend’s daughter. “I think…it’d be a rematch,” I replied.
“Who do you hope to have a rematch against?” Ryotaro asked.
“Valentine-sempai and my friend Yomogi Kisaragi-chan. I had a tough loss to her, too, but it was mostly my fault.”
“Many of your fellow competitors have mentioned that they are some of the people to beat this year,” Ryotaro replied.
“They’re not lying,” I said. “Yomogi-chan’s got serious drive. You need to see her when she’s competing, it’s like you’ve lit a fire under her.”
Ryotaro smiled. “Sakamoto-san, I’ve already mentioned your ranking, which is something you’ve worked on diligently despite your circumstances. What is it that drives you?” he asked.
There it was: THE QUESTION. I could barely think about how best to reply without turning my answer into word salad. I looked down at my lap as I tried to think.
“I…I want to be a five-star gourmet battler…so maybe I can find out the truth of what happened to my father,” I stammered. Ryotaro nodded, his face solemn. “I always thought that if I got super rich, I’d hire a team of investigators and a private plane and fly to the place his plane went down in…Maybe there’d be some clues.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand signal from the director, and the teleprompter flickered to life again. “That was Vanilla Sakamoto, a first-year student competing in the Yoshoku Division. Now, back to the action in Gourmet Stadium.” There was a brief pause, and the red lights on the camera flickered off. As if a switch was pulled, there was movement and talking.
“Are you all right, Vanilla-san?” Ryotaro said, in a low voice.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. A little hungry is all,” I said. But inside my head, all I could think about was, I just made myself sound like a little kid. “I want to get rich so I can find my daddy!” My face was bright red.
“All right,” Ryotaro said. “I believe…we’ve got everything we need for now,” he continued, looking over at the director, who gave him a thumbs up. “I will be seeing you later this week, then.”
“Likewise,” I replied, giving him what I hoped was a mature smile.
“Okamoto-san, could you please see Sakamoto-san out?” Ryotaro called to Meiko, who approached the soundstage.
“You did great, Sakamoto-san,” she said, as I stepped down from the stage. “Oh, I should mention how we’re going to show the interviews. We’ll have your competition on in the background, and the interviews will be in a small picture at the corner of the screen.”
“Huh, really?” I said, picturing the layout in my head. “That’s a good idea. You’re showing two sides of the same person that way.”
Meiko smiled. “That’s exactly what we’re going for. Have you ever considered a career in television?”
We were walking down the hallway towards the front lobby of the studio, and through the glass I could see Yomogi and Kei, both wearing regular outfits, talking with Yukiko and Tsukiko, who were apparently next in line for interviews. “Oh, my friends are here,” I said.
Meiko looked down at her clipboard. “Could you tell Yukiko-san that I’m ready for her?” she said as she opened up the glass door.
“I’d love to, except I don’t really know how to tell them apa—Oh.” I smacked my forehead lightly as I remembered that they were in different divisions. “Yukiko, chestnut. Tsukiko, strawberry.”
“The emblems of the four divisions,” I said.
Meiko shrugged, but smiled. “I’ll see you later this week, Sakamoto-san.”
“You as well!” I gave a polite bow as I opened up the door to the lobby.
“I can’t believe I SAID THAT! He just asked me that question out of the blue and that was the only thing I could think of, and it’s such a childish reason, and—”
“Tonkotsu ramen with ajitama, extra chashu and sweet corn,” the waiter said, placing a bowl in front of me, as my forehead was bowed touching the table surface in embarrassment.
“Thank you,” I said, lifting my head up to gaze at the pool of creamy broth embracing bright yellow noodles and a soft boiled egg colored light brown with soy sauce.
“Vanilla-chan, I think you’re overthinking about this,” Kei said, as she snapped her chopsticks apart. The waiter placed a bowl of steaming hot shoyu ramen in front of her. “This is television, after all. They’re probably going to edit most of the boring stuff out.”
“Yeah, but I’d rather people hear about the time I defeated that frosted tips idiot in the restaurant than what happened to my father,” I said. I grasped the ends of my chopsticks and attempted to snap them apart cleanly. I ended up with one very short chopstick and one long and very thick chopstick.
“Here,” Yomogi said, taking a little pouch out of her purse. “I’ve started carrying these around, Vanilla-chan. You can borrow them.”
I opened the pouch to reveal a cutlery set. It was made of rainbow tinted metal that reminded me of a motor oil slick on water. There was a fork, a spoon, a set of chopsticks, and a straw tucked into elastic loops on the inside of the pouch.
“I’ve decided to be a little more eco-conscious lately,” Yomogi said, “and I thought that the metal looked pretty.”
“Thanks. I’ll wash them off,” I said, as I pulled the chopsticks loose and deftly grabbed a clump of noodles.
We were in the same ramen restaurant that we had eaten with Emi in, and none of us could believe that it had barely been two weeks since our shopping trip together. I had been talking about the interview, as Yomogi had been nervous about going one-on-one tomorrow.
“I can’t wait to get to know Koizumi-san better,” Yomogi said, looking into a cloud of steam issuing from her delicious looking miso ramen (made Hokkaido style with lots of corn and a pat of golden butter. Butter on ramen: don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.)
“By the way, Yomogi-chan, I never asked you how you won your last challenge,” I said. “What’d you do?”
Yomogi was mid-slurp. She waited until the noodles were thoroughly chewed and swallowed before she answered. “Guess,” she said.
“Guess?” I looked over at Kei, who was mischievously smiling—obviously, she was in on this.
“Fruit or vegetable?” I asked.
“From a tree or from the fields?”
“From a tree?”
“Is it long and yellow with spots on it?”
“Bingo!” Yomogi said. She seemed to be a lot more relaxed now. “And I decided to pull out all the stops and made Bananas Foster.”
“Bananas Foster? What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a dessert with caramel and rum and fried bananas, and you light it on fire as the finishing touch!” Yomogi said, excitedly. “But instead of serving it with ice cream, I made crepes. There’s another dessert with the same presentation called Crepes Suzette that’s orange-flavored, so…I did a mash-up! The judges loved it.”
“That’s great,” I said, smiling as I bit into the ajitama. “I’d love it if you could make that for me someday.”
“Well…since it has rum, I can’t,” Yomogi said, looking a little disappointed. “But I can do it with rum flavoring! That reminds me, you two have never been to visit me at the dorm! How about when the competition’s all finished, we’ll have another dinner party?”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” I said. “Best we wait until the pressure’s off.”
“I’ve been thinking about what to make for the next party,” Kei said, “and I was thinking about making some cold noodles, since it’s that time of year. And I found some really neat ones that are pink and green.”
“And we can have three-color dango, too!” I said. “I haven’t had that in a while.”
We were making excited plans as the soup level in our bowls dipped lower and lower. Finally, Yomogi laid her spoon and chopsticks down, looking extremely content.
“You know…This is probably the first time I’ve ever felt so excited and alive since I started high school with you,” she said. “To hell with the haters!” She raised a triumphant clenched fist in the air.
I picked up my glass of barley tea. “Let’s make a toast! To our success and to our goals!” I said.
“It’s crazy to think of it…but I can see the two of you facing each other in the grand championship,” Kei said, raising her glass. “I can totally see it!”
“KAMPAI!” we shouted, as the three of us clinked our glasses together, cheering our triumphs and happiness. Only a few days until we made our great debut.