BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls
“What happened, Vanilla-chan? We were supposed to meet half an hour ago!”
“Sorry…there was an incident at the restaurant we were at, and…” Sheepishly, I looked up at my mother, still breathless from running all the way from the station to the theater.
“Come on. They’re about to begin,” she said, guiding me towards the doors to the darkened theater. The lights had just dimmed, and the emcee was stepping out on stage, reminding us to silence our cell phones. We hung back, leaning against the wall, waiting for the applause to begin so we could hastily make our way towards our seats.
My mother’s name is Sayuri Koizumi, but it was once Sayuri Sakamoto. She married my stepfather, Ryotaro Koizumi, during my second year of high school. He was also widowed, but lost his wife due to cancer rather than a plane crash, and also had a young daughter, Caroline, who’s a year younger than me. Back in Chichibu, my mother owned and operated a hotel and conference center along with her family, but when she married Ryotaro, she requested a transfer to another property held by the family business. This is when she became the concierge for Hotel Angelique in Ginza, a boutique hotel popular with celebrities and other high-rollers visiting Tokyo. It’s a smaller hotel, but she tells me the work is a lot less stressful. (I have no idea why—some of these celebs can be awful demanding.)
Ryotaro, my stepfather, was discovered and scouted as a model in his youth, which led to his big break as one of the main cast members of Winged Warrior Birdman, which is very popular among people in their 30s and 40s. (He will do his roll call from the series if you ask nicely.) The series ended right around the same time he decided to study abroad in England, and while he was there he fell in love with Shakespeare—and his first wife, Sophie. They raised Caroline together until illness took Sophie, then Ryotaro returned to Japan about four years ago with Caroline. When he came back to Japan, he worked for Ginga TV, where he was a TV presenter, before he decided to leave and join a theater group full time. He and my mother met each other in real life after being friends on an Internet support group for widows and widowers, and decided to give dating a try until they made it official and got married. I did have some initial reluctance to their relationship, but Ryotaro’s a great guy.
Tonight, we were attending a Shakespearian play, The Tempest, which was being put on by Ryotaro’s theater company, which produces many Western plays in and around Tokyo. He was playing the lead, a sorcerer named Prospero, and we had all been helping him with learning his lines and helping him with makeup testing and costuming for the past couple months.
The sets were beautiful. The first scene took place on a ship during the middle of a violent storm, so there were flashing strobe lights, the sound of howling wind and driving water, and the principal actors were running furiously about as the actors playing sailors pulled at ropes dangling from the top of the stage, as if they were trying to control the sails attached to the mast of an old wooden sailing vessel. Then the scene changed, and I saw Ryotaro as Prospero walking onstage with a woman who was playing his daughter, Miranda. Seeing him in costume and in character was amazing, and every time I saw him acting or presenting, it was like that character had completely consumed him. Prospero was a wizard who had the power to command the elements and had managed to harness a spirit (Ariel, played by a man wearing a costume that made him look like a goat trapped in ivy) in order to draw the passengers on the ship to his island for a revenge plot, which he was detailing to Miranda in the opening scenes.
It was a pretty long play, with lots of action, intrigue, drunken singing, and a happily ever after arranged between Miranda and one of the boat’s passengers, but finally the actors lined up on stage to make their curtain call, front and center. My mother cheered and clapped the loudest, while Caroline shouted “Dad! Dad!” and waved. I merely just clapped—I was exhausted from all the excitement of the day, and still had all my homework and studying to do.
The next morning I woke up bright and early to the sound of my phone’s alarm, and looked down to see a message: Walk Paddington.
“Urrghhh…” I shifted off the bed and got to my feet, taking off my pajamas and putting on a pair of fleece-lined leggings, a sports tank and sweatshirt before heading downstairs. I padded the side of my leg.
“Paddington-kun, it’s time for a walk!” I called quietly.
Paddington was our family dog. He was a three-year-old Pomeranian that Ryotaro had gotten for Caroline’s sake. (They had had a family dog back in England that passed away when Caroline was in junior high school.) I heard him get up from his bed and run up to me, nails clacking against the bamboo hardwood floors of our downstairs hall, tail wagging as he ran circles, making little squeaky barks.
“Hey, quiet down! There’s still people sleeping,” I said as I pulled his leash from a hook on the wall and clipped it to his harness. I then stepped into my slip-on sneakers and opened the front door onto the neighborhood.
We moved into this house only a few months after my mother got married to Ryotaro. It’s in Kichijoji, which is one of the neighborhoods in Musashino. We’re only a short walk to the train station where I would take a short train ride to Umami Gakuen and Caroline would take a slightly longer train ride to Queen Elizabeth the 2nd British School, where she’s in her first year of A Levels. It’s very quiet, and there’s a street right around the corner with a convenience store, pharmacy and several markets, including a greengrocer and fish market. It’s a lot different from the area I used to live in—there’s more single family homes rather than apartment buildings, and a lot more families.
I pulled a waste bag from the little bone-shaped dispenser hanging off the handle of the leash as I let Paddington trot before me, with him stopping every few moments to sniff an object and pee on it. Eventually, we reached a grassy place where he did his dirty business, and I fought back a little nausea as I picked it up with the bag and put it in a trash can. “What did you eat last night?” I muttered, and Paddington just made another happy bark at me.
I had always been a cat person, but Paddington awakened something different in me when I first got to know him. He liked to sit next to you when you were reading, and he loved jumping and playing with balloons—under direct supervision, of course. Whenever I had a tough day, he seemed to sense it, and would jump up beside me and roll over so I could pet his fluffy, fluffy belly. He was a good boy.
As I walked Paddington back inside the house, I saw that Ryotaro had awakened. He looked tired, but was sitting at the kitchen table with a steaming hot cup of tea, reading the newspaper. “Good morning, Vanilla-chan,” he said.
“Good morning, Dad,” I said. It was still a little strange calling someone who had no role in your creation “dad.” “How are you feeling?”
“Very tired,” he said, stifling a yawn. “Is it wet out there?”
“Nope, there’s no dew or anything,” I said. “Paddington was a good boy.”
“I see.” I removed the clip from Paddington’s leash, and he dashed over to Ryotaro, putting his front paws up on his leg. “Good morning, Paddington-kun. Did you want your breakfast?”
I went over to one of the kitchen cabinets and removed my French press coffee maker, then added the water and ground coffee to it. As I waited for everything to steep, I heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, and looked to see Caroline.
“Good morning, Caroline-chan!” I said.
“Good morning, Nee-san!” Caroline replied. It was her nickname for me; when I told her I was kind of uncomfortable being called “onee-san” formally, she decided on that nickname instead. “Paddington-kun, are you a good boy this morning?”
Paddington barked happily and ran over to Caroline, who picked him up and cradled him in his arms. He settled down contentedly, and she carried him over to his doggy bed and placed him back down into it.
“Mom’s still asleep?” I asked.
“She is. It’s her day off today,” Ryotaro said. “Well deserved one, too. All she’s been talking about is how nice the boy band that she was serving at the hotel was. Nice, but demanding.”
I went over to the family’s rice cooker and scooped a few paddles into my personal rice bowl. “Caroline-chan, can you hand me an egg?” I asked.
“Here you go,” Caroline said, as she had two eggs in her hand. She handed me one and kept the other, putting it in a pot on the stove and setting it to boil. I cracked mine against the table and poured the contents over my rice bowl, mixing everything thoroughly with my chopsticks.
“What did you think of the play last night?” Ryotaro asked.
“It was amazing! Everything looked so magical and otherworldly,” I said. “It was a little hard to follow so I’m glad you put a story summary in the program.”
“Even in English, Shakespeare can be really hard to follow,” Caroline said.
My coffee was done, so I poured it into my Banana Cat mug. “It was so amazing watching you on stage. Every time I see you playing a new role, it’s like you’re completely different.”
“Well, that’s all a part of being an actor,” Ryotaro said. He put down his newspaper. “Much like every time I see you cooking, it’s a surprise every time.”
I blushed, and hid my face by furiously shoveling rice in my mouth.
Half an hour later, we were showered and dressed and in our school uniforms as we went downstairs to see that my mother had finally awakened. “Morning, Mom,” I said.
“Good morning, Mother,” Caroline said, with the same hesitation that I have when I call Ryotaro my dad.
“Good morning, girls. You look bright and happy,” my mother said. Her own French press was on the kitchen table, steeping away.
I had explained to her what had happened at the restaurant last night after the play, and she had been very pleased with what we did to defuse the situation, and the fact that we stayed to help clean up. (She chuckled when I told her what Hanabi had written on the autograph board.)
“You’ve got work tonight, right, Vanilla-chan?” my mother asked.
“Yeah. I’ll be home around eight.”
“What about you, Caroline-chan? Are you staying late at school?”
“No, I should be home at the usual time,” Caroline said.
“I’ll save a plate for you then, Vanilla-chan,” my mother said. She turned to Ryotaro. “I’m so glad we can spend the day together, sweetie.”
He gently clasped my mother’s hand. “It’s been such a long time since we had the house to ourselves for the day.”
The two of us turned bright red. “IT’S TOO EARLY IN THE MORNING FOR LOVEY-DOVEY STUFF!” we yelled.
We made our way down to the train station. It was a fairly cool April morning, and the cherry blossoms were just beginning to peek out from their leafy sheaths.
“We’re starting to plan a hanami party,” I said. “And you’re welcome to come along with us, of course.”
“That’s awesome. Do you need any help with anything?” Caroline asked.
“No, not really. We’re still working on scouting out locations this week,” I said. This area of the city was all so new to me.
We arrived at the train station and scanned our passes. “Well, see you later,” I said, as Caroline walked towards the inbound station platform.
“You too! Have a good day!” she said, as I walked towards the outbound platform.
The train was crowded and it was hard to wedge my way in to find a good place to stand and brace myself, but I did. Luckily, I didn’t have too many stops to make, but I was always worried about Caroline and how far she had to travel. She usually talked to me about stuff that she felt uncomfortable bringing up to our parents, and I’m glad that I haven’t heard her talking about creepers or anything like that.
Umami Gakuen: the informal name of Kikunae Ikeda Memorial Culinary and Food Sciences Academy, Japan’s top institution for high school and college students looking to make their way into the cutthroat world of gourmet battling. Many gourmet battlers that have gone on to stellar careers as professional NPGBA members and celebrity chefs graduated from here, and it is my hope that one day I will be one of that number.
When I first started studying here, my goal was to become a celebrity chef so I could raise enough money to sponsor an expedition to find out the ultimate fate of my father and the other chefs he had been traveling with when their plane went down. As time went on, however, my childish goal had been replaced by a new one: I was going to bestow my knowledge to a new generation.
You see, one of the reasons why I’m friends with Hanabi Sakuraba is because she’s one of my biggest fans. She first saw me cooking during the ill-fated Summer Invitational two years ago, when I was a first year student who had managed to make it to the televised finals of my division before disaster struck. If I can have that kind of effect on her, what kind of effect could I have on others?
I entered the school building and mounted the stairs up to the third years’ homerooms. Ever since our second year, I was in the same homeroom as Kei and Yomogi. We think that maybe it was because of the fact that the three of us managed to help take down a plot to rig matches that was devised by a devious upperclassman whose name I shall not mention because it still makes me sick. Or it could’ve just been coincidence. Who knows?
I slid open the classroom door and walked inside. Yomogi was talking with a couple of other classmates about the latest Monster Slayer title, while Kei was doing some last minute cramming before the exam that we were all supposed to have in English first thing. “Morning!” I said as I slid into my seat and hung my bookbag on the little hook.
“Good morning, Vanilla-chan,” Kei said. “How was the play last night?”
“It was really, really good! And Ryosuke-san—I mean, Dad—he was spectacular. I’ve never seen him in a role like that before,” I said.
Yomogi came over to the both of us. “Hikaru-chan and Misaki-chan were talking about some possibilities for a Hanami party location,” she said. “They mentioned there’s a park near the station that’s pretty sparse, and then there’s…oh.” Her expression darkened. “I guess Tanpopo Park is a definite no from you.”
I nodded. I don’t even want to think or talk about Tanpopo Park after what happened to me there.
The bell rang, and the class rep (a girl named Aiko Kinomoto, who is Yomogi’s roommate) led the class in “Stand! Bow! Sit!” as the teacher entered. Our homeroom teacher was Mizuhara-sensei, a man about Ryotaro’s age that was also a professor of mathematics.
“Good morning! We’ve got a few announcements to go over,” Mizuhara-sensei said. “Kinomoto-san, would you do the honors?” He handed a sheaf of paper to Aiko.
“All right…First of all, there’s been a recall of beef that was supplied to us, so expect there to be a shortage of beef in the school’s pantry for a few weeks while we switch to a different supplier. Second, we will be getting a transfer student sometime later this week from Ashwargandha.” There was a chorus of excited voices around the room. “And finally…there’s going to be a new Team Competition Format starting next year for anyone that’s ranked in the National Professional Gourmet Battle Association. I’ve got a handout of all the stipulations here, for anyone that’s interested, and the first exhibition matches will be held at the Interscholastic Championships.”
A team competition format? I eagerly read the handout as the stack was passed around. Teams would be made up of five people, and they would either collaborate on one whole dish or five individual dishes that matched the competition’s theme. Well…if I could get Yomogi-chan, Kei-chan and Hanabi-chan on a team with me, then who would be our other member? I thought.
Ever since my first few weeks at Umami Gakuen, I’ve always eaten my lunch in the same spot on sunny days with good weather, with the same people. It’s a little courtyard between the main academic building and the culinary arts building. There’s a tree that hangs over it and makes the grounds shady and cool in the summer heat, and the leaves turn a beautiful orange red in the fall, like a ripe tomato. There are a couple stone benches set up there, both of them donated by alumni as a graduation president. It’s where we can watch people come and go, and where people first turn to when they need to look for us. It’s a place that, thanks to us, is now known as the Court of the Four Horsewomen. (There’s a word in Japanese, shitenou, that was derived from the gods of the four cardinal directions and is now applied to whenever there’s four people that are really, really good at something—like children’s monster catching game trainers, or evil space generals. It got applied to us, too.)
As I was on my way out to the courtyard, I felt someone jumping on me from behind. “Hello, Sempai! It’s just Momo-chan!” a voice said.
Momoko Ijuuin—call her Momo-chan to her face, or Knife Girl behind her back—is in her second year, and is also in the Yoshoku Division. She loves bright colors, and often has different colored streaks in her hair. She also wears huge black framed plastic glasses. She’s obsessed with two things in particular: chef’s knives and beaded jewelry. She wears multi-colored beads around her neck, her wrists, and strung on the laces of her shoes. Well, make that three things in particular: she’s obsessed with me.
“Momo-chan, I’m headed out to lunch,” I said, trying to shake her off my back. “If you want to join us, you gotta get off me.”
“Momo heard about the new team competition format, and Momo would like to know if Sempai wants Momo on her team,” she said as she slowly slid off my back.
“I haven’t even decided yet,” I said. “And besides, it’s only exhibition! They’re not doing proper battles until later on.”
“But Momo wants to share the stage with Sempai,” Momoko said, sounding like a sad puppy. Then she noticed Hanabi coming up to us. “Go have fun with your friends, Sempai. Momo will see you later.”
Hanabi and Momoko had come from the same junior high school, and they barely tolerated each other. As they passed each other, I noticed Momoko and Hanabi shoot a mean look at each other. Hanabi sat down on the bench and started unwrapping her bento box—despite her tomboyish looks, it was a mature looking bento made of black plastic meant to mimic lacquer, with a sprinkling of pink cherry blossom petals.
“What’s with her,” I muttered as I sat down next to Hanabi.
“You know her…She wants to be as good as you, if not better,” Hanabi said.
Yomogi and Kei emerged from the building together. “Sorry we’re late! The teacher needed to talk to me,” she said.
“Nothing bad, I hope?” I asked.
“No, nothing bad! Just a heads up about the new transfer student.” Yomogi was the class’s health committee representative.
“Do you know when they’ll be arriving?”
“They think maybe Thursday or Friday? Apparently there’s a situation with immigration or something.”
“Another exchange student? We haven’t had one in a while,” Kei said.
“Yeah, Maria-san graduated last year,” Yomogi said.
They sat down and opened up their boxed lunches, and for a few minutes everyone was concentrating on eating and admiring each others’ lunch packing skills. Hanabi’s lunch was fairly simple: a couple of flavored rice balls with a green salad studded with chopped tomatoes. Yomogi’s was half filled with rice dotted with black sesame and a single umeboshi, with spicy meat croquettes on the side. Kei’s was thinly sliced tea sandwiches with fruit salad. Mine was spaghetti Neapolitan, with tomato sauce, pepper, onion, thinly sliced and rendered pancetta, and rabbit ear apple slices.
“You heard about the exhibition rules for this year?” Hanabi asked.
“Yeah, I was just, uh, talking about them with Knife Girl,” I said. “That would be pretty cool! Imagine, the four of us, competing on a team together! We can get monogrammed shirts like the esports teams do!”
“Who would we have for the other member, though?” Yomogi asked.
“Good question…honestly, if I could think of anyone I’d want on a team with us…” I sighed. “They’ve all graduated.”
“Yeah…” Yomogi looked down at her food again, looking a little downcast. I decided that maybe it would be a better idea to change the subject.
“What did you all think of the restaurant we went to last night?” I asked.
“I loved it,” Hanabi said. “We should definitely go back there again! Well, hopefully we won’t have any obnoxious American MewTubers interrupting us.”
“What other places do we have on the list to visit?” I asked as I pulled out my phone and opened the text file listing the restaurants we were planning to visit together.
“There’s that kaitenzushi place that had the shrimp tempura rolls…” Yomogi said.
“And that Swiss fondue restaurant! But it’s so expensive! Maybe we should save it for a birthday or somethin’,” Hanabi said.
The restaurant discussion continued until the end of lunch, when Hanabi went off to the academic buildings and I followed Kei and Yomogi into the culinary arts building. As third year students, our culinary arts training was mostly finished, unless you were enrolled in a specific track or program, like the teaching track that I was a part of. Some days I would be called upon to assist in a class, but on other days I had what we called “lab”—a culinary arts free study afternoon.
I entered one of the third floor lab classrooms to see a bunch of my other Yoshoku Division classmates getting out ingredients and pulling up recipes and cooking technique videos on our phones. Many of us didn’t really have the luxury of trying out cutting edge techniques at home, so lab was an important part of our day.
“Good afternoon!” I said to Aiko Kinomoto as I plugged my phone into my cooking station. “What are you thinking about doing today?”
“Well, I was hoping I could try out this new sous-vide,” Aiko said. “You?”
“Check this out,” I said, as I opened up the MewTube channel on my phone and scrolled down to my list of favorited videos. “It’s a step-by-step recipe for paella, and I’m going to try my best to streamline it as much as I can.”
“Yeah, but you just have to leave the choice to fate,” Aiko said.
“Well, paella has rice, chicken, saffron, seafood…” I said, ticking off the ingredients on my fingers. “All that matters is that you make it taste good, right?”
“Hmm, that is true,” Aiko smiled. “Your thought process can be kind of all over the place, but I think that’s what I like best about you, Vanilla-chan.”
I blushed a bit. “Well…thanks. Good luck on the sous-vide.”
A few hours and one dish of paella later, I was headed out of the culinary arts building when I noticed something out of place on the grass outside the academic building. It was a chair from one of the classrooms, and as I got closer I noticed there was stuff written all over it in black permanent marker:
THIS SEAT IS CURSED
A LOSER SITS HERE
GO TO HELL, TETSUYA
“What is this…” I murmured as I approached it, but a first year boy came up behind me.
“Don’t touch that. It’s supposed to be there,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“We put it out here,” he said. “The kid that sits there shouldn’t be here. You should know that, of all people, Koizumi-sempai.”
He turned around and walked away before I could say “what do you mean” again, and I saw a teacher approaching. She sighed as she saw the chair.
“Again,” she muttered, as she picked it up and carried it back with her into the academic building. “What am I going to tell Tetsuya-kun…”
I was bewildered. Who was this Tetsuya and what had he done to deserve such treatment?