BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls
After a brief stop at the convenience store for a quick snack and to buy some school supplies, I hopped on the train towards home. Instead of making the walk back to my home, I went in the opposite direction towards work—my position as a waitress and line cook at Scarlett, a small Western cuisine restaurant in the shopping district right outside the train station.
Every student at Umami Gakuen was required to be a member of an official club or work in some capacity for the culinary industry. (Some students did both—one of my former sempai, Maria Masuda, was a member of the girls’ basketball team and worked at her family’s Brazilian steakhouse a few times a week.) I had spent my first year and a half as an Umami Gakuen student working at Kotobuki Supermarket, where I stocked groceries, worked the till and cleaned a couple afternoons a week and a couple weekend days a month. Right after my mother got remarried, she and Ryotaro purchased our house, and I decided it was time to move on, and through my mother’s connections found the job at Scarlett. However, the work was very difficult, and the first few weeks I came home extremely tired, barely even able to study or finish my homework before nodding off. It forced me to change my habits and start looking after myself a little more responsibly. Once I managed to accomplish that, the work got so much more enjoyable and worthwhile. (Plus I was earning a little more money than what I’d been earning at the supermarket, too.)
I pushed open the door and stepped inside quietly. There weren’t many customers right now, but everything would change once the evening rush happened. One of my colleagues, a college student named Rumi, was taking an order from a businessman who was seated at a table by himself. She looked up as she finished writing something down on her pad.
“Evening, Koizumi-san!” she said. “How was your day?”
“It was good,” I said, as I walked through the curtain that separated the dining room from the back, where the kitchen and the staff locker rooms were situated. I opened the door to the women’s locker room, stored my school bag, and changed into my work uniform—a simple black A-line skirt, a sky blue shirt, and a black tailored vest with a pocket for the order notepad and pencil. (I was allowed to wear my school shoes and socks.) As I exited the women’s locker room, I noticed Satoshi Mato—the restaurant’s manager and main chef—bent over a pot of what looked like tomato sauce over the stove. “Good evening, Mato-san!” I said, bowing respectfully.
Satoshi looked over at me and nodded before returning to his cooking.
I looked over the dining room and took stock of what was on the tables in terms of place settings and decorations for the evening rush. We had vases of fresh flowers on every table, and I refreshed the water and pruned the wilting flowers in each one. I wiped down the tables with a dry cloth, made sure all the silverware was clean, refilled the plastic containers that held sugar tablets and toothpicks, and went over the carpet with a rolling cleaner just as I saw the first group of customers arriving at the door.
“Welcome!” I said in a firm voice, as I went up to the podium and started assigning diners to tables, writing their numbers on a sheet that was covered in plastic so felt-tip markers could be wiped off. The other waiter, a man named Hiromu, had arrived while I was doing prep work, so he, Rumi and I went around and took orders from our assigned tables.
“Table 8 needs more water!”
“Rice omelet with demiglace sauce on Table 2, order up!”
“Where’s the bottle opener?”
It was frantic, and on a busy night like this one, three hours can fly by. I was taking orders, stacking plates to take back to be washed, and carrying trays of finished dishes out to eagerly awaiting customers. They were all mostly salarymen, but here and there were a college student or a family dining together. I made sure I was polite and polished, even while I felt myself sweating underneath my work uniform. The four of us together were a well-oiled machine.
Eventually, there was a lull, and I took that moment to push some chairs back into place when the door opened again. The person entering looked all too familiar—uncomfortably familiar, even. My eyes widened.
Blonde hair, twinkling blue eyes, boyish good looks. He was wearing an Umami Gakuen school uniform with the wheat and corn emblem of the Yoshoku Division on the breast pocket of his jacket, and his school tie was the powder blue of first year students. My hands started to shake.
“Excuse me,” the boy said. His voice even sounded familiar. “Are you still seating for dinner?” he asked.
“Y-yes,” I stammered. No way. There’s no way, I thought. He looks just like…him.
Who is “him,” you ask? His name is Taiga Shirogane, and he is scum.
I met him during my first year at Umami Gakuen. He was a third year student, and gave me a few words of wisdom one day when I came across him after having a fight with Yomogi and Kei. He was also a four star ranked Gourmet Battler that was the best in the Washoku Division. However, all his kindness and friendliness towards me was a ruse: He wanted revenge. He had a grudge against me that stemmed from the fact that his mother, Hibiki Shirogane, died along with my father in that plane crash four years ago, but her death got no attention from the media because of the fact she had gotten a five year ban from the NPGBA after being caught in a cheating scandal. He worked with a strange cult to rig various Gourmet Battle matches, and even went as far to sabotage the lighting during a televised match, causing serious injury to one of the competitors. He even teamed up with a guy that I had defeated in a gourmet battle and his friends, and they managed to lure me into a confrontation that I was lucky to get out of without much harm. Even worse, he found some information on Yomogi’s past that she had wanted to keep private, which got publicly broadcasted and nearly led to Yomogi taking her own life. Like I said, he is scum.
I nervously drummed my fingers against the podium. “Seating at the table or at the bar?” I stammered.
“At a table, please,” the boy said politely. I guided him over to a table and pulled the seat out for him, then handed him a menu. As he bent down to peruse it, I caught Rumi’s eye, and beckoned her to come closer and lean down.
“Take over for me,” I whispered. “I’m freaking out!”
“What? Why?” Rumi asked.
“Please, do this for me.”
“Why, what happened? Did he say something creepy?”
“I’ll explain later…I need to calm down,” I said.
As Rumi took over for the tables I was waiting on, I dashed behind the curtain and leaned against the wall of the kitchen, counting slowly back from one hundred as I tried to steady my breathing. Even though it was almost two years since I had been attacked in Tanpopo Park, I still had anxious thoughts from time to time. The initial nightmares had mostly faded since then, and I still had a scar on the back of my hand where one of my attackers punctured it with the point on one of his cleats.
“Sakamoto-san, you look like a ghost. Are you all right?” Satoshi asked.
“I’m…I’m just a little scared,” I said. “I thought I saw someone…”
Satoshi returned to the stove. “Then take over for me.”
One of the things I could depend on to calm me down and keep me centered was cooking. I looked at the stove and tried to steady my breathing, visualizing chopping vegetables and stirring sauce in pans. I visualized the taste and texture of a carrot that was steamed until tender. I walked over to the window and waited until Rumi pinned the slip containing the boy’s order to the little clothesline we had slung over the window for the placement of orders. I pulled the slip gently—with shaking hands—down from the clip and read the order on it.
“Hamburger steak with tomato sauce and roasted potatoes!” I said.
“All right. Leave the potatoes to me. Do you want to handle the steak?” Satoshi asked. I nodded, cracking my knuckles.
What I loved the most about working at Scarlett was the fact that I got to cook for people just because. It’s a different feeling from when I was competing in a gourmet battle—I’m trying to please someone, but not for a grade or a rating. For that reason, I make every recipe with the same care and attention that I would if I were cooking for a panel of judges.
I opened the fridge and took out a wrapped tray holding individual portions of ground beef that we used for our hamburger steaks, and slapped it into a bowl while I reached for a knife from the magnetic strip on the wall. I opened a drawer filled with potatoes and onions and pulled out an onion that was the size of a billiard ball, and chopped off the top before peeling back the skin and mincing the onion with swift, careful strokes. My hands weren’t shaking anymore, but I couldn’t afford to hurt myself.
I dropped the minced onion into the bowl with the ground beef, then sprinkled in a small measure of crispy panko before cracking an egg into the mixture. I plunged my hands inside and started kneading and squeezing, making sure all the air was beaten out and patting the meat into an oval.
“Mato-san! Put a pan on the stove with oil! I’m ready!” I shouted.
“Got it!” Satoshi looked up from the pan where he had been carefully tossing wedges of potatoes that had been coated in oil and various seasonings. He paused to carefully pour them onto a plate before putting the pan back on the stove and pouring a good amount of oil in it. I slid the oval shaped patty into the pan and it sizzled as it hit the oil.
The next step was the tomato sauce. Satoshi had opened a can of crushed tomatoes for me, and I emptied it into a small saucepan. I added a couple of bay leaves and a few pinches of our signature spice blend (don’t ask what’s in it, it’s Satoshi’s secret) into the pan as well and set it to slowly simmer and reduce. I glanced back at the cooking hamburger steak and flipped it over to brown the other side.
“How are you doing over there?” Satoshi asked.
“All right,” I said. The shaking had subsided. I had something to concentrate on and devote my full attention to. That boy who resembled that person was just another nameless, faceless customer by now.
I poured a bit of water into the pan with the hamburger steak and covered it with a lid as I gave the tomato sauce another stir, then tipped a spoonful into a small dish to give it a taste. It had the right balance of sweet, salty and spicy—a sauce worthy to be served to all of my customers. All I needed to do was to make sure the hamburger steak was cooked through, then deglaze the pan and add the juices to the tomato sauce to kick up the flavor.
Steam had built up on the inside of the lid, and I quickly pulled it off to release a cloud of fragrant steam. I gave the hamburger steak a gentle poke with a cooking chopstick to make sure the juices ran clear, and as they did, I scooped it up with a spatula and laid it gently down on the plate, nestled among the roasted potatoes. I poured a bit of beef stock into the pan and carefully swirled it around, stirring up all the beefy bits, and poured it in the tomato sauce. A few stirs later and it was ready to be ladled on top of the hamburger steak, followed by a pinch of parsley sprinkled on top.
“Hamburger steak with roasted potatoes, order up!” I said, a little loudly.
“Thanks, Koizumi-san,” Rumi said as she took the plate. She delivered it to the boy, who was sitting at a table in the furthest corner of the restaurant, next to the front window. Something about the way he was sitting made me want to watch him. He picked up the knife and fork and removed them from the napkin wrapping, then with careful table manners he cut himself a small chunk of the hamburger steak, dripping with tomato sauce. He carefully lifted the fork to his mouth.
His posture suddenly changed, and I saw his eyes widen: it was the kind of expression that you made when you encountered something that was absolutely delicious. Many, many times I’ve come across a food that made me sit up and take notice, and there were times when I came back as often as I could to experience that taste again. And then there were the times when it was a one-and-done experience, like the night I stopped by a restaurant on the verge of closing and had one of the best rice omelets I had ever eaten. (Looking back on it now, I think that was the night everything changed for me in my life, so that made it even more special.)
A few minutes later, as I was doing some dishes, Rumi came back in with the boy’s plate. “Are you feeling better now, Koizumi-san?” she asked.
“Yeah. Sorry to put you on the spot like that,” I said. “It’s just that…he looks like this guy that once harassed me.”
“Well, if he ever messes with you, I’ll put some ‘special sauce’ into his food!” Rumi said, pointing to a bottle of ghost pepper extract we have on our pantry shelf. It’s something that one of the previous chefs brought back with him after a trip to America.
“Nah, it’s okay. It’s not the same guy,” I said. “Seems like he really liked what I made.”
As Rumi took over washing the dishes, I stepped back and noticed the clock—it was almost the end of my shift. “Mato-san, is there anything you need me to wrap up?” I asked.
“You’re fine,” Satoshi said. “You can leave early.”
“Thank you!” I said, making a deep bow. Having a boss and coworkers like these made even the toughest days worthwhile.
As I left the locker room, I heard a snatch of conversation between my customer and Hiromu:
“…best I ever tasted! I’m assuming you used 80/20 for the meat?”
“I’m not really sure. I’ll have to ask the head chef.”
I looked over to see the boy with a huge, happy smile on his face as he was handing some cash to Hiromu along with his check.
“My compliments to the chef, whoever they are! I’m sure they’re very skilled,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be as good as they are someday…”
I walked towards them, hesitantly. “I was the one who made your dinner,” I said.
“Oh? You look familiar, are you at Umami Gakuen too?” the boy said.
“Yes, I’m in my third year,” I said, hesitantly. “I’m also in the Yoshoku Division, in the teaching track.”
“I see…so you’ll probably be assisting with my classes,” the boy said.
I decided to throw caution to the wind. “What’s your name?” I asked. The boy hesitated, until I continued. “It’s just that you look a lot like someone...”
“Yeah…I get that a lot.” He looked down at his feet. “Shirogane. Tetsuya Shirogane.”
That person had talked about having a brother. “Are you related to—”
“Yes. And I would prefer you never mention his name,” Tetsuya snapped. All the happiness in his expression had been replaced by an ice cold fury.
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for the meal, Sempai.”
Silently, Tetsuya exited Scarlett, his face a stone mask. I watched him as he left, suddenly feeling a pang of guilt.
That kid is living with the fact his brother’s a criminal, I thought as I started to make my way outside. It was still very cold outside, and I zipped up my jacket against the chill. I looked up and down the street, which was calm and lined with budding trees and buzzing street lights, before I started making my way home.
Have I told you about our house? It’s a 4 LDK, which means there’s four rooms along with the living/dining/kitchen. Along with the LDK on the first floor is a room that’s our parents’ office—well, my mother’s office and my stepfather’s reading room—and a water closet. There’s also the bath, which is very lovely—my mother did some redecorating and had the walls paneled in clean blue-white tile, and the tub’s pretty spacious. (Whenever Caroline and I need to talk about something that’s just between us, we share it.) Upstairs are the bedrooms and another water closet, and both my bedroom and my parents’ bedroom have doors that open up to a balcony that gets a lot of sun. Apparently, my mother found this through her family connections, and even my stepfather was surprised when he first toured the place. I’ve really gotten to enjoy living here, although I do miss the little apartment I rented in the Saibara Building. I do keep in touch with Mako though—she got married to her boyfriend Daisuke last summer, so now she’s Mako Honda, and she sends me pictures of whatever cute mischief Kurozato, the little black and white cat they rescued, is getting into lately.
I unlocked our gate and shut it behind me before approaching the front door and pulling it open. “I’m home!” I yelled, and heard Paddington barking in reply.
“Welcome back, Vanilla-chan,” my mother said, as I stepped out of my school shoes and entered the house. Paddington ran up to me and put his front paws on my leg so I could lean down and pat him on the head. “I left you a plate. How was work?”
“Busy, as usual,” I said. I pulled a few books out of my purse and brought them to the dining table to study from as I ate.
On nights when I had to work at Scarlett, I usually took my dinner while I studied, and my mother usually saved me a plate of whatever low-prep meal my family was having that night. I noticed that she had made some ginger pork with a side of steamed broccoli. I poured myself a cup of tea from the dispenser and sat down to eat and study.
“Is Ryotaro—Is Dad having a performance tonight?” I asked.
“He is,” my mother said. She sat down at the table next to me. “Apparently, he’s been getting rave reviews for his performance.”
“I can see why,” I said. “Is Caroline-chan around?”
“She’s not feeling well. I asked her earlier but she didn’t really want to talk…” My mother sighed. I got the feeling that sometimes she felt like she was intruding on Caroline’s mother, even though she had passed away years ago.
“I’ll talk to her later,” I said, as I turned to my book and started studying. My mother went over to the sofa and started calling one of her relatives over the drone of the TV. Usually, I could concentrate fairly well, but I couldn’t shake the memory of the meeting I had with Tetsuya Shirogane. Something about him told me that this kid had a good heart, even though he had the looks of a devil.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Southeast Asia
“Good evening, Mr. Tenmyouji; Mr. Sakamoto. Have you been well?”
The two men were meeting with General Kophi Luac in the Imperial Palace of Ashwagandha. He had seized power in a coup a few years earlier and was working to bring Ashwargandha into the modern era, through making deals with various companies and international organizations. One of the organizations that was more than glad to offer their help was Return to Glory, and two of its representatives were meeting with the general tonight.
“Very well, sir,” Yoshiaki Sakamoto said. He was a man that was legally dead in his home country of Japan. Through a curious set of circumstances, he had been the lone survivor of a plane crash in the Himalayas, and was saved and nursed back to health by a high ranking member of Return to Glory. This led him to shed his old ways and join the organization.
Standing next to him was Shinji Tenmyouji, who was in his early 20s. He was an accomplished computer hacker, and was also connected to the Shirogane zaibatsu—the family that had bankrolled Return to Glory’s hacking attempts into the Japanese National Professional Gourmet Battle Association system, in order to facilitate revenge against the Sakamoto family. Tenmyouji’s support had been conditional; he was secretly under orders from Yoshiaki Sakamoto to protect and watch over his daughter Vanilla, and when he learned that Taiga Shirogane intended to harm Vanilla, he yanked the rug out from under him by exposing his scheme to win the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational, leading to Shirogane’s arrest. Shinji managed to escape Japan before anyone could catch up to him, and had been living in Ashwargandha since then.
“How are you doing on your search for the heir?” the general asked.
“I’m poring through the immigration records from all the countries she could’ve escaped to,” Shinji said, pulling his backpack off his back. He set it on the general’s desk and pulled out a laptop computer. “It’s believed she’s traveling with the credentials of a commoner.”
“The Princess and the Pauper, I see,” Yoshiaki Sakamoto said.
“Right now the only lead we have is the fact that someone matching her physical description arrived in Japan via Naha Airport in Okinawa,” Shinji said, clicking on a folder and pulling up a surveillance video. It was grainy and in black and white, but the picture clearly showed a young woman wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap walking through an immigration terminal, walking with a cane and a noticeable limp.
“That’s her, all right,” General Luac said, his eyes narrowing.
“Escaped to Japan, huh…she could be anywhere by now,” Yoshiaki said. “Are you up to the challenge, Shinji-chan?”
“Of course I am,” Shinji said, closing the laptop. “I’ve still got connections to my old information network. Finding her and where she’s gone will be a piece of cake.”
“Excellent. Keep me posted,” General Luac said. “Dismissed!”
Yoshiaki and Shinji were escorted by two uniformed soldiers out the doors of the general’s meeting room. “Well, what do you say, Shinji-kun?” Yoshiaki said, his voice playful.
“If she really is in Japan…I’ll bet I know where she’s gone,” Shinji said. “Unfortunately, I don’t really have anyone working in that territory anymore.”
“Don’t say unfortunately. That bastard got what he deserved,” Yoshiaki said, his voice turning cold. “You’ll just have to recruit someone new.”
“True…but it’s a lot harder now that I’m so far removed.”
Yoshiaki chuckled. “I don’t think it’s harder. You just need to find someone with motive.”
“Motive…yeah. I have a feeling I know someone who might work out.”
“Remember.” Yoshiaki’s usual jovial face grew stone cold. “No harm comes to her whatsoever. Directly or indirectly. She is the one spoken about in the prophecy, after all.”“I won’t make that mistake again.” Shinji nodded.