Chapter 15:

Round 3: TV Dinner

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

The excited murmurs of the crowd in the studio filtered through the thick black curtain separating the wings from the main soundstage. Beyond that curtain, where the stagehand was standing, was where I’d make my debut.Bookmark here

You got this, Vanilla, I thought as I clutched Michiru’s apron tighter to me. I was barely able to concentrate at school all day in anticipation of this match. I knew that so many pairs of eyes would be on me, both in the studio and elsewhere. Kinoshita and the rest of my coworkers at Kotobuki Supermarket would be camped out in the back room, watching the TV during their breaks. People would be watching the show on monitors at the train station. Mako was probably watching at home, with a cold can of beer. (And my mom was probably too busy to watch.)Bookmark here

I knew Kei and Yomogi were on the other side of the curtain. I probably wouldn’t be able to see them out in the audience under the glare of the spotlights, but I knew they were there.Bookmark here

And on the other side of the stage was Kazuya Watanabe. I had seen him hanging out with his family earlier; he had a huge extended family that all lived in the area so they were out in the audience with signs and banners. It made me wish I had a cheering section of my own, but I didn’t care.Bookmark here

This is where I belong. I don’t have the hands of the sun or the devil’s tongue. I have my skills, I thought.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san,” one of the stagehands said, “get ready. We’re about to begin.”Bookmark here

I nodded, clenching my fists as I heard the faint voice of the director.Bookmark here

“Five…four…three…two…one…”Bookmark here

Loud recorded fanfare and cheers echoed through the studio, and then I heard the familiar voice of Ryotaro Koizumi—only much more excited than usual.Bookmark here

“It’s that time of year again—time for us to see the future of world cuisine through the eyes of our youth! These are the students of Japan’s most prestigious culinary school, Kikunae Ikeda Memorial Culinary and Food Sciences Academy—Umami Gakuen!” There were more loud cheers from the audience.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, get up to the curtain,” said the stagehand, pointing to a spot on the ground where an X was marked with luminous tape. I nodded and stepped forward, my legs feeling like jelly.Bookmark here

“Tonight’s contest is between two first-year students of the Yoshoku Division,” Ryotaro continued. “Our first contestant has dreams of working alongside his parents at their neighborhood restaurant, and also dreams of continuing his studies in Paris. Please welcome Kazuya Watanabe!”Bookmark here

There were loud cheers, and from a tiny gap in the curtain I saw Kazuya step out and wave to a group of people seated in the front row. They were holding a huge sheet with “GO FOR IT KAZU!” painted on it, and many of them had smaller signs and were ringing cowbells. I sighed.Bookmark here

I wish I had a cheering section like that, I thought.Bookmark here

“He will be battling against someone with a name that may be very familiar to viewers, but she is trying to forge her own path on the culinary battlefield! She is a fan of bananas and hopes to one day reach the top of the rankings. Please welcome Vanilla Sakamoto!”Bookmark here

There was another huge cheer from the audience as I pushed aside the curtains and entered the stage. It was bright! I scanned the audience, looking for a familiar face, when I saw Yomogi and Kei, seated among a bunch of other Umami Gakuen students that included Michael and Maria among their number. They were jumping up and cheering, holding neon-colored signs with “GOOD LUCK VANILLA!” painted on them with black marker. There was Emi, wearing one of her cutest outfits, waving at me with both hands and making the bracelets on them rattle. I could even see Caroline, sitting next to and talking with a girl I didn’t recognize. The two of us waved as they saw me looking in their direction.Bookmark here

That’s right. I don’t need a huge family when I’ve got all my friends cheering for me, I thought as I waved, approaching Kazuya and looking him in the eye.Bookmark here

“Never thought I’d make it this far,” Kazuya said.Bookmark here

“Me either,” I said. “Let’s make it a good one. Pull out all the stops! Don’t hold back!” I replied, holding out my hand for the pre-match handshake.Bookmark here

As we clenched hands, the video screen set in the wall behind the two kitchen stations flickered to life, showing our statistics and our star rating. Ryotaro had walked over to a small area at the front of the stage, where the celebrity panelists were already seated.Bookmark here

“Joining me tonight in our commentary is an esteemed panel of food critics,” Ryotaro continued. “First, we have Rising Sun Daily’s food editor, Shinnosuke Hashimoto. Next, celebrity food blogger and cookbook author Cherry-tan, and finally, all the way from France, five-star Gourmet Battler Ludovic St. Germaine!” There was polite applause from the audience.Bookmark here

“Wow, all the way from France, huh?” Kazuya whispered.Bookmark here

“I wonder if he’s here for the entire time?” I whispered back.Bookmark here

“Maybe they change them up? Who knows?”Bookmark here

We looked up as the spotlights began to fade, and then the video screen behind us changed from our statistics to the big wheel. Everyone was watching intently as it began to spin.Bookmark here

“The wheel is turning,” Ryotaro said, “and the possibilities are endless!” It began to slow to a stop, and then finally landed on a single wedge: Potatoes.Bookmark here

“Potatoes!” Ryotaro said, as the audience clapped and cheered. I looked at Kazuya, who shrugged.Bookmark here

“Well, at least it’s something familiar,” he said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…but the possibilities, I replied.”Bookmark here

There was a rapid-fire burst of French coming from the direction where the panelists were sitting, and that’s when I realized that a translator had joined Ludovic St. Germaine and the three panelists on the stage. “The potato was first introduced to Japan through Dutch traders traveling through Jakarta, which led to its name, jaga-imo,” the translator said to the audience. The two of them continued droning on as the lights on the stage dimmed.Bookmark here

A production assistant approached me and Kazuya. “The two of you, get to your stations,” he said in a stage whisper. “As soon as St. Germaine-san is done with his lecture, we’ll give you the signal to begin.”Bookmark here

I was guided to one of the cooking stations. It was set up much like the ones we had at school, except there was no charging and data port for our smartphones to integrate with the system. (Our phones were actually plugged in at the director’s station, to prevent us from any outside distractions.) Behind us were various portable refrigerators, freezers and cabinets filled with all the staples we’d need to compete. Bookmark here

Kazuya was looking in my direction; his expression lost in the harsh glare of the spotlights. I needed to focus. Okay. Sink. Knife block. Stove. Looks like it’s an induction cooktop, I thought, as St. Germaine and the translator kept droning on about the wonderful world of potatoes.Bookmark here

Then, a huge countdown clock, much like the one used by another news channel to tick down to the 7:00 news, appeared on the video board. Loud beeps were ticking down the seconds, echoing through the studio that was almost deathly quiet.Bookmark here

Beep. Beep. BEEEEEEP!
The crowd roared to life as I whirled around behind me, looking for the bins full of potatoes. I had an idea, and I needed to find the right potato in order to implement it. I opened a cabinet door to find potatoes sorted by every shape and color, and grabbed a couple that I knew would turn out nice and fluffy when cooked. I piled them onto my cooking station and grabbed a cutting board and peeler, while I placed a pot under the faucet to fill with water.Bookmark here

“All right! Let’s get shredding!” I said, brandishing the peeler and taking the first of the potatoes to it. The peelings piled up on the board, and I shoved them into a garbage bag that was hanging on hooks at the end of the cooking counter. Next, I pulled a knife from the knife block and started chopping away. In order to accomplish my plan, the potatoes needed to be as finely diced as possible. I noticed the water begin to almost approach the top of the pot, so I turned off the faucet and paused to carefully lift it onto the cooktop. I hadn’t worked on an induction cooktop that much; they use special pans that heat through magnetism or something. But in a TV studio like this one, safety was paramount, so I had to learn to work with it the hard way.Bookmark here

“All right!” I said, looking down at my cutting board covered in bits and chunks of potato. “Into the pot you go!” I lifted the board and scraped my knife against it, sending the pieces tumbling down into the water. This was followed by a generous pinch of salt before I turned the water on to boil.Bookmark here

I didn’t have time to rest: phase two of my plan needed to be set into motion, and that’s when I dashed towards the refrigerator to grab some milk, unsalted butter and to peruse the selection of cheeses. The producers had thoughtfully labeled each of the cheese blocks they had stocked in both romaji and katakana, and I managed to find the one I had been looking for: gorgonzola. It was a cheese with a strong flavor, but what I was planning on making needed a strong flavor to shine.Bookmark here

I looked over at Kazuya as I returned to my station to see him slicing potatoes in very thin slices. There was a pot on his stove as well, and I could see a cloud of steam coming from it. He also had a trio of ceramic baking dishes laid out on his counter, which meant that he was likely making some sort of potato gratin dish. I couldn’t dawdle any longer, and looked down at my pot where the potatoes inside were happily bubbling away. I grabbed a bamboo skewer and poked one of the closest ones to me, to see if the inside was ready to give, but it wasn’t quite ready yet. Five more minutes or so.Bookmark here

I grabbed a bag of flour and put it on the counter, followed by another saucepan on the burner. A few pats of butter went in, followed by an equal amount of the flour, which I vigorously stirred in order to make a blonde roux.Bookmark here

“I know you’re waiting patiently, potatoes, but give me a second here,” I told the pot of potatoes as I carefully poured the milk into the saucepan, stirring it into the mixture. I wondered what was happening out in the audience. I could barely hear the sound of the commentators over the cheering and loud chatter of the camera operators. A camera man was standing behind me with a handheld camera, zooming in on me as I whisked the beginnings of the cream sauce in the saucepan.Bookmark here

As the cream sauce began to thicken, I turned to the potatoes, and stuck the bamboo skewer in one again. It gave easily and began to crumble, so I turned off the heat, grabbed the pot handles using heat-resistant gloves and carefully tipped the pot into a colander waiting in the sink. I turned the water on to cool them down as I returned to the cream sauce. I pulled the plastic wrap off the gorgonzola cheese and was rewarded with its pungent odor. “Ugh! Just a little of this will be good,” I said, as I carefully took a large spoonful of the gorgonzola and dropped it into the slowly bubbling cream sauce.Bookmark here

With the potatoes finally cooled, it was time for the next step: mashing. I grabbed a potato masher from a canister sitting on the cooking station counter, and tipped the potatoes into a large bowl. “Here we go! HI-YAH!” I shouted as I started pounding the potatoes with the masher, taking out all my frustrations and stress onto them as they broke down into a smooth paste. “Take that! You are already mashed! ORA ORA ORA ORA ORA!”Bookmark here

I looked up from my mashing to see amused looks on Ryosuke and the three panelists. Blushing, I returned to my cream sauce, which had thickened and was suffused with the wonderful flavor of gorgonzola. Satisfied, I added one last sprinkle of salt before putting it on the back burner.Bookmark here

“All right, it’s GNOCCHI TIME!” I yelled. With the mashed potatoes thoroughly cooled, I tipped the flour bag into the pot, stirring and mashing until it was fully incorporated. I dashed behind me to grab a couple of eggs, cracking them against the table and pouring the contents in, then stirring until the bright orange streaks from the yolk disappeared into the creamy white mixture. I started rolling it into a ball inside the bowl, then tipped it out on the counter and started rolling pieces of it into long snakes.Bookmark here

“Whew,” I said, allowing myself the briefest of breathers before the next important step: boiling some more water. I picked up another pan and filled it up as I continued rolling the potato dough against the counter. With a blunt knife moistened with a paper towel, I cut the snakes into bite-sized pieces, then took a small fork and pressed the tines into each of them, making ridges.Bookmark here

Across the stage, Kazuya had a crank-action cheese grater in his hand, and he was turning it furiously over the small ceramic dishes that had been filled with some sort of potato and cream sauce mixture. Tiny flakes of cheese fell like snow over the dishes, and I wished I could smell what was in them—everything looked good.Bookmark here

The sound of bursting bubbles brought me back to my workstation, as the pot of water I had set up began to boil. Quickly, I scooped up a double handful of the gnocchi and dropped them into the water with a loud plop as I started preparing more with the rest of the dough. I looked up at the timer built into the wall and saw that I had about fifteen minutes left—more than enough time to finish three batches. I gave the gorgonzola cream sauce a few stirs, making sure it was smooth, then dashed to the pantry to grab three ramekins. They each got a good ladleful of sauce.Bookmark here

My first batch of gnocchi were done, so I dipped a spider into the boiling water and scooped out as many as I possibly could. I shook them out into the sink even as I was grabbing more with my other hand and throwing them into the boiling water. Carefully, I speared one on a fork to check the flavor and texture.Bookmark here

“Hmmm…not bad,” I said, as I chewed. “It came out nice and springy.”Bookmark here

Time was beginning to tick slowly down as I fished more gnocchi out of the boiling water and put them in an attempt at an attractive pile on each of the three plates. I stood back and looked at them, almost disappointed. They looked so bland. Pale yellow gnocchi plus off-white cream sauce equals…I had to figure out something to use to give them a little more color!Bookmark here

Suddenly, it hit me. Parsley! I ran to the refrigerator and looked around for a bundle of curly leaf parsley. I had little time, so all I could do was just grab it, slam it down on a cutting board, and go to town on it with two knives, the same way my father did when he was pressed for time in cooking battles. “ORA ORA ORA ORA ORA!” I yelled, pounding the parsley into tiny flakes. I stopped at the stems, then wiped my brow and carefully picked up the pile of parsley leaves, sprinkling them over the gnocchi like sakura petals in the breeze.Bookmark here

I looked up at Kazuya, who was bent over and appeared to be taking something out of the oven. It was one of the small dishes, that was filled with what appeared to be piping hot potato gratin. Even the sauce was bubbling. It was a beautiful looking dish, and it probably tasted just as good as it looked. I looked down at my three dishes of gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and felt like I had already lost the battle.Bookmark here

“Face every loss as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Look your opponent in the eye and smile at them even when you want to scream at the world.”Bookmark here

My dad’s words sprung to my mind. I haven’t lost yet, though, I thought to myself. I still have a chance. The time was beginning to tick slowly down. Five…four…three…two…one.Bookmark here

DING! The alarm for the end of the round sounded, and the audience burst into applause and cheers. Both Kazuya and I stepped back from our stations, arms raised. We caught each others eye and gave each other a nod.Bookmark here

“That was the end of the round!” Ryosuke came onto the stage from where he was sitting with the other panelists. “Right now, the random draw for the judges is taking place outside of our studios, and in a few minutes, we’ll be serving them these delectable dishes! Please join us after the break.”Bookmark here

There was another burst of applause, and then a scurry of activity as the program cut to commercial. “Sakamoto-san, Watanabe-san,” a production assistant called. We looked over in his direction to see a couple of studio staff members with rolling carts.Bookmark here

“Come take these and load your food on there,” said the production assistant. Both of us dashed over and wheeled the carts to our station. They were already loaded with cloches and cutlery wrapped in paper napkins, so we just needed to load our dishes, cover them and carefully wheel them back to the judge’s table, which was being set with glasses of water and the voting tabulators.Bookmark here

I heard a door open in the back of the audience, and three people were being ushered inside by some of the production assistants—they must be our judges. They were walking down the stairs under everyone’s watchful eye, and helped up on stage to the judge’s table. They looked fairly diverse—a man wearing punk-rock clothing, a woman who looked like she worked at a high end department store, and an older woman who was dressed in casual clothing.Bookmark here

“Last commercial’s wrapping up,” yelled the director. “Are we ready?”Bookmark here

“We need a little more time! Play the promo!” someone yelled back.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, Watanabe-san, please follow me,” a production assistant said. He was pointing to two chairs that were set to the side of the judge’s table, out of range of the cameras but a place where we could sit off-camera while it was our opponent’s turn. We went over to them and sat down.Bookmark here

“How are you doing?” Kazuya asked.Bookmark here

I tried to talk, but I felt queasy, and swallowed.Bookmark here

“Ugh. I’m nervous, too,” Kazuya said.Bookmark here

There was some more activity, and then the director shouted, “Promo’s wrapping up! Bring up the lights!” The lights in the studio brightened. “We’re back in three, two, one…”Bookmark here

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There was another burst of applause in the studio, and as I realized where I was sitting, I could see my friends a little more clearly. I tried to catch Yomogi’s eye, and she waved, which started a chain reaction among the other students. At the other side of the studio, Kazuya’s family waved, banners and all.Bookmark here

“We’re back to the action here at the studio, and the three judges have all been chosen,” Ryotaro said, approaching the judge’s table. “Our judges for tonight are Torajima-san, a musical college student; Kumagai-san, who works for Rakuen Cosmetics, and Hibino-san, who is a homemaker. They have been randomly chosen to vote on which student and their potato-based dish will win the crown of the first year division of Umami Gakuen’s Yoshoku Division!” The audience applauded again.Bookmark here

Behind us, the video screen showed a picture of the person who’d be presenting their dish first—Kazuya. “Good luck,” I whispered, as he got up and grabbed the cart with his food.Bookmark here

Standing behind the judges, he took a deep breath as he handed them their plates.Bookmark here

“My dish tonight is a potato gratin dish that’s based on one that my grandmother loved making for us when we went to visit her home in Hokkaido,” Kazuya started. “After she passed away, I tried my hardest to recreate it, and this is the closest I could come. It includes chopped pork belly, onions and lots of cheese in a mild cream sauce that’s seasoned with freshly ground white pepper.”Bookmark here

The judges lifted the cloches from the dish, and I got my first look at what Kazuya had made close up. It looked marvelous. The potato slices were probably a half centimeter thick, and I could see translucent slightly caramelized onions and chunks of pork belly surrounded by sprinkled cheese and a drizzle of cream sauce. It was still steaming hot, and slightly browned at the top. The judges each picked up their forks and started loading them up with a good, hearty bite.Bookmark here

“This smell is wonderful,” Torajima said, as he lifted the fork to his mouth. He put it in and chewed. “And the cheese you put in hits the spot.”Bookmark here

“Was the pork belly seasoned in any way?” asked Hibino.Bookmark here

“Just a little salt and pepper,” Kazuya replied.Bookmark here

Kumagai took a bite of her dish, and appeared hesitant. “It feels a little mushy to me,” she said. “But the flavor’s good. It’s like perfume notes harmonizing with each other.”Bookmark here

Everyone seemed to have a look of joy on their face as they were eating Kazuya’s gratin, like maybe they, too were discovering what his grandmother’s cuisine tasted like. Or maybe they were remembering what their grandmothers made for them when they visited? I bit my lower lip, realizing that Kazuya probably had this in the bag.Bookmark here

The judges cleared their plates and gave Kazuya their thanks, and he sat down next to me as the audience applauded and cheered. He was sweating, and his hands were visibly shaking.Bookmark here

“Oh man. I was going to lose it up there,” he whispered.Bookmark here

“You did fine,” I said. “It’ll be OK.”Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, your dish, please,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

I stood up, straight as bamboo. “Yes!” I said, a little forcefully. There was a subdued chuckle from the audience.Bookmark here

I went over to the cart that was laden with my dishes, and carefully placed on in front of each of the judges. “I’ve made gnocchi, which are an Italian dumpling made from mashed potatoes, flour and egg. In that little ramekin on the side is a gorgonzola cream sauce that you can dip them in, or pour it over.” I hesitated for a second as the chefs opened their cloches before I continued. “I’ve always thought that potatoes are so versatile, yet we’re only used to them as fries or in dishes like curry or niku-jaga. But you can turn them into croquettes or use them in bread dough or noodle dough like this!”Bookmark here

Hibino was looking at her gnocchi, which was speared onto her fork. “Why are they designed like this?” she asked. “It looks…it looks kind of like a snail.”Bookmark here

“The ridges are to hold onto the sauce,” I said. “Just like pasta.”Bookmark here

“It’s very chewy!” Kumagai smiled as she ate her first gnocchi, then she poured a little of the gorgonzola sauce onto the rest of them and tried them in the sauce. “This sauce goes perfectly with them. They’re a little bland all by themselves, but when you combine them with the sauce, it makes it taste so much better.”Bookmark here

Torajima had a fixed expression on his face. “I can’t really taste any potato in this,” he said. “It’s like it’s being masked by the other ingredients.”Bookmark here

I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach. There it was—my final blow. My first time on television would be a crushing defeat. I glanced over at Kazuya, who was looking down at the floor, taking deep breaths to calm himself.Bookmark here

“I did like how you presented the sauce and the gnocchi separately,” Torajima continued. “But yeah…it’s like you’re trying to disguise the fact that there’s potato in it, almost.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Thank you,” I said.Bookmark here

As the judges cleaned their plates, I went back to my seat, folding my hands in my lap. Inside, I wanted to scream to the world. I’ve lost. I can’t believe it, I thought. Well…at least I can still cheer for Yomogi-chan…and there’s still two more chances for me. I just have to work harder! The audience applauded politely for me, as if they were saying “Good job!”Bookmark here

“Who will be crowned the champion of the first years in the Yoshoku Division?” Ryosuke announced. “Will it be Watanabe, with his interpretation of a beloved relative’s recipe? Or will it be Sakamoto and her creative interpretation? The judges are making their votes now!”Bookmark here

Out of the corner of my eye, I heard the sound of a drumroll. Ginga TV had actually gotten a kettledrum player from the symphony orchestra to supply the sound effects!Bookmark here

The video screen showed our portraits, as well as the three vote indicators underneath. The drumroll continued…Bookmark here

Beep!Bookmark here

A vote for me? I couldn’t believe it!Bookmark here

Beep!Bookmark here

Then, as I expected, a vote for Kazuya. He had it in the bag. I glanced over at him and smiled, as silent congratulations.Bookmark here

Beep!Bookmark here

The third vote appeared…underneath my portrait.Bookmark here

My friends in the audience jumped up and cheered. I felt all the tension wash away, and collapsed into the chair like I had just finished a marathon. Kazuya looked stunned, but shrugged his shoulders and smiled, extending his hand.Bookmark here

“You did it, Vanilla-san,” he said. “Congratulations.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said, hardly being able to believe what I was seeing. I had won? I was so sure that I was going to lose this battle. I took his hand in a feeble handshake that was probably more sweat than hand.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, go stand next to Koizumi-san,” whispered a stagehand. I tried to stand up, but my legs suddenly felt like jelly. Kazuya gently grasped my hand again, and helped me upright.Bookmark here

I crossed the stage and saw the entire audience applauding. The applause was more polite and subdued from Kazuya’s supporters, but my friends were all cheering happily. Kei was standing up and applauding while Maria was hugging a smiling Yomogi, and Emi was jumping up and down excitedly. Everyone had huge smiles on their faces. I stood next to Ryotaro, wondering what my expression looked like on the cameras. Surprise, shock, or…Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, congratulations on your victory,” Ryotaro said. “How are you feeling right now?”Bookmark here

He pointed the microphone at me, and I hesitated. “Uh…” I swallowed nervously. “I’m…surprised, honestly,” I said. “Watanabe-san’s food looked and smelled delicious…”Bookmark here

“And here to present the championship trophy is the headmaster himself, Junichirou Mimori.” Ryotaro stretched out his arm to present the chairman. I had met him before; he was the one that I reported Frosted Tips Boy to after he confronted me in the kitchens. He was holding the trophy—a thick piece of laser-engraved clear plastic that could probably break someone’s foot if you dropped it.Bookmark here

Ryotaro handed the microphone to him. “Sakamoto-san, congratulations,” he said. “You have proven yourself to be the best first year student of the Yoshoku Division, and it is my honor and privilege to present you with this trophy.” I approached him and bowed politely, and as I straightened up, he placed the trophy in my outstretched hands.Bookmark here

“Well done,” he said, smiling.Bookmark here

“That was a spectacular battle,” Ryotaro said, “and we’ve got another one coming up in just a couple minutes! Stay tuned to see our next two challengers in the Yoshoku Division!” The audience applauded and the lights grew dim.Bookmark here

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Kazuya and I came up to the edge of the stage to retrieve our phones. He looked drained, but had a concerned expression on his face. “Are you all right, Vanilla-san?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah…Just…still surprised,” I said. “I can’t believe it.”Bookmark here

Kazuya gave me an embarrassed smile. “I completely blew it. Not only did I use the wrong kind of potatoes, I think I used too much,” he said.Bookmark here

That kind of made sense, but still…I wanted to see if I could find the judges to ask them what they really thought, but as I walked off the stage, I was swarmed.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, you were so sparkly!” Emi said. She was holding a small stuffed cat that she thrust into my hands. “Here! I bought this for you!”Bookmark here

“Uh…thanks?” I looked down at the cat, which was a plush beanbag calico.Bookmark here

“You were awesome!” Yomogi said. “That dish you made was so beautiful! They looked like little clouds!”Bookmark here

“I knew you would win,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Um, ‘scuse me, Sakamoto-san?” said an unfamiliar voice behind me. I turned to see Caroline standing next to the girl she had been sitting next to, who was wearing what appeared to be a baseball jersey over a plain black T-shirt. She had very short hair in a deep red-orange pixie cut, and was holding in her hands a torn piece of notebook paper and a black marker. “Can I have your autograph?”Bookmark here

“Uh…sure,” I said, as she handed me the paper and the marker. I signed my name on it with very precise cursive, then added a drawing of a banana for good measure before handing it back to her. The girl smiled and bowed.Bookmark here

“Thanks so much! I was hopin’ I’d get to meet you!” She was speaking in Osaka-ben. “My name’s Hanabi Sakuraba, by the way!”Bookmark here

“Hanabi-chan and I met on the train,” Caroline said. “At first I had no idea what she was saying. I was picking up one word in three until she started speaking standard Japanese. I didn’t know about Osaka-ben!”Bookmark here

“M’family and I just moved here from Osaka,” Hanabi said. “I really wanna get into Umami Gakuen, so I’m gonna take the entrance exams later this year!”Bookmark here

“Well, if you ever need advice, look me up,” I said. “Or better yet, look one of us up,” I continued, pointing to Yomogi and Kei. “What division do you think you want to test into?”Bookmark here

“Washoku!” Hanabi said. “My family’s in the festival food business, and I kinda want to put my own spin on it.”Bookmark here

“Ooh, festival food! Sounds delicious,” Yomogi said.
I looked behind me as I noticed the lights were beginning to brighten. “Let’s talk later,” I said. “It looks like they’re beginning Maria-san’s round,” I whispered.Bookmark here

Everyone nodded, and we all sat back down in our seats. I took the one vacated by Maria as Ryotaro stepped back on stage for the second round.Bookmark here

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So, how did the rest of the night go?Bookmark here

Maria-san went up against another girl, and the two of them were given the subject of a noodle-based stir-fry. The opponent made some pretty good Thailand-inspired satay noodles mixed with chicken and vegetables, but Maria blew her out of the water by making a beautiful somen champuru—an Okinawan dish with stir fried cabbage, sprouts and bits of pancetta mixed with somen noodles. Maria won a unanimous victory, and peppered her congratulatory speech with lots of happy Portuguese.Bookmark here

Then it was Michael’s turn. His opponent was a boy I vaguely remembered from the banquet, and the two of them were tasked with something even I thought would be difficult: duck. Did Michael ever prove me wrong! He had taken a duck breast and cooked it in plum wine reduction sauce, like a chef at a five star restaurant, and served it with some lightly seasoned vegetables. Just looking at it and how wonderfully it was glazed made my mouth water. His opponent prepared Peking Duck, which looked just as wonderful, but the judges gave Michael three unanimous votes.Bookmark here

“This will go great with the others,” Michael said into Ryotaro’s microphone, causing the audience to roar with laughter.Bookmark here

“And that’s all for tonight,” Ryotaro said. “We’ve crowned the three winners of the Yoshoku Division. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting the six students that will compete for the crown of the Yogashi Division. Whose cuisine will reign supreme? Join us tomorrow night for the second night of competition! Until then, this is Ryotaro Koizumi! Bon Appetit!”Bookmark here

The audience burst into applause (as I saw a sign reading “APPLAUSE” light up above the stage.) The lights dimmed and people around us were starting to gather their things and go. I looked back at Yomogi, who looked somewhat nervous and excited.Bookmark here

“You looking forward to tomorrow?” I asked.Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “Yeah! Going to come and see me?”
“You bet,” I said. “Come on, let’s walk back to the train. I’m tired.”Bookmark here

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After we parted ways at the train station, I arrived back home. The air was damp and smelled of impending rain. It was eleven thirty, and as I opened the door, I was greeted by Mako, smiling from ear to ear.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! You were AWESOME!” she said, giving me a thumbs up. “It was so funny! You were going all Fist of the Morning Star on those potatoes! ‘ORA ORA ORA! You are already mashed!’”Bookmark here

“Uh…” I blushed, as the events of the evening had faded fast from my memory.Bookmark here

“No, seriously. It was awesome,” Mako said. “And that interview where you talked about the apron, it was really uplifting.”Bookmark here

“Huh, really?” I said. I smiled. “Well…thanks.”Bookmark here

“Anyway. I won’t keep you. You look tired,” Mako said. “Good night, Vanilla-chan.” She ducked back into her apartment.Bookmark here

“Night, Mako-san,” I said through the closed door. I shuffled my way down the hall, unlocked my door, and shuffled into my apartment, where I flopped triumphantly on my futon and went to sleep.Bookmark here

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