BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls
I heard the loud buzz of voices as I approached the door to my homeroom, which all died down as I opened the door to reveal myself. My classmates were all gathered around Salma, who was talking excitedly about her victory the previous day, and their activity died down as they noticed the loser—me—coming in.
“It’s okay,” I said, as I stepped inside. “How are you doing, Salma-chan?”
“I’m all right,” Salma said. “Sorry I had to leave so abruptly yesterday afternoon. I’ve got regular physical therapy appointments.”
I nodded as I hooked my bag to my desk and sat down. “Did you check your ranking yet?” I asked. “They should have uploaded your victory to the server by now.”
Salma smiled. It looked as if she had already been showing her victory off to everyone, as her ranking was showing on the screen of her phone. “Yes, they already have. That was a lot of fun yesterday!”
“It was,” I said. “Do you cook any other countries’ cuisine, Salma-chan?”
“Yes, I did it a lot,” she said. “We had a lot of visitors from other countries, and there were times I’d try to make their country’s favorite dishes. I always asked for cookbooks from abroad, too.”
“Hey, I was wondering. Are you free this Saturday?”
“Saturday? Well…” Salma thought for a second, but shook her head. “Nope. I’m not busy.”
“Would you like to come with me and my family? We’re going to the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest.”
“Oh man, that place is awesome,” one of my classmates said. “They’ve got all sorts of food stalls there. Everything you can think of from everywhere you can think of.”
“Well…I’ll have to see,” Salma said. “I’ll let you know tomorrow. All right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine with me.”
As I was heading back to the culinary arts building after spending a happy lunch talking with my friends, I was approached by Toyota-sensei, one of the many teachers in charge of the Yoshoku Division classes. “Vanilla-san, can you do me a huge favor today?” she asked.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I need one of the teaching program students to assist me today, and I thought of you because we’re doing bechamel sauce today,” Toyota-sensei said. “Can you help?”
“I don’t know. Can I help?” I said, smirking. “I’d be more than happy to.”
A few minutes later, I was standing at the front of a classroom filled with first year Yoshoku Division students. I looked out over the students and noticed a familiar face among them: Tetsuya Shirogane, who I had served at Scarlett the other night. He was in the very back of the room, looking down at his station somewhat forlornly.
“Good afternoon, everyone!” Toyota-sensei said, clapping her hands to get everyone’s attention. “Today, to help us out with our bechamel sauce class, I have Vanilla Saka…oh, you’re Vanilla Koizumi now, right?” I nodded. “Vanilla Koizumi from the third year Yoshoku Division program. She’s a member of the Yoshoku Division teaching track.” She moved towards her computer and pressed the key to transmit the instructions for today’s assignment to everyone’s stations. She glanced over at me and whispered, “Come on, why don’t you try telling them about your experience?”
I shrugged, but looked out to the students looking over the ingredients. “This may seem like a simple sauce,” I said, “but bechamel is considered one of the ‘mother sauces’ in French cuisine. You can dress it up however you like, depending on what sort of recipe you make. If you want to make doria or gratin, there’s always the opportunity to add some broth or flavor to the liquid as you stir it in. And you can add garlic and herbs to it to make an alfredo sauce to put over pasta. All you need to do is remember the proper ratio of flour to butter to milk and the rest is up to you.”
I watched as the students all scurried over to their fridges to grab sticks of butter and bottles of milk, and the dry goods pantry to grab bags of flour. I started walking down the row of counters watching everyone, and found myself watching as Tetsuya opened one of the dry goods pantries to get some flour. Another male student was already there, and as he saw Tetsuya coming, he shoved him out of the way with enough force to knock him to the ground.
“Out of my way,” he muttered.
“Woah, what was that for?” I said, approaching the student that had knocked Tetsuya down.
“A Shirogane has no right to be here,” the student muttered.
“Koizumi-san, it’s all right,” Tetsuya said, from behind me. “Don’t bother with him.”
I looked down to see the face of someone that was resigned to their fate. Tetsuya got up, the front of his apron dusted with flour that spilled out of a rip in his bag. He was trying to hold it in with his hand. I watched as he went to his station in the back of the room and set the flour down, putting it on a sheet pan so the leak wouldn’t go on the counter.
“I’ll be fine. Go and watch over the others,” Tetsuya said as he placed two pots on the stove.
I moved up and down the aisle, watching as students scalded milk in one pot while carefully stirring flour into melted butter inside another. “Make sure the mixture doesn’t get any color, because it’ll affect the finished product,” I said as I watched over a couple of students who were chatting when they should’ve been stirring the pot.
I approached Toyota-sensei and beckoned to her. “Sensei…I noticed that other kid getting physical with Tetsuya Shirogane,” I whispered. “Are you aware of that?”
Toyota-sensei nodded. “It’s nothing you should concern yourself with, Koizumi-san. I’ve been more than aware of what’s been happening.” A voice shouted in her direction at the back of the room. “Excuse me, I think Minamimoto-san has a question.”
“All right,” I said, watching as she walked off to where a girl was furiously waving her hand over a pot where her bechamel sauce had obviously burned. I continued surveying everyone, but found my eyes trained on Tetsuya.
He looked like he knew what he was doing, and the fact that he was in a first year culinary arts class was just a formality. He was watching over his pot like a hawk, carefully adjusting the consistency of the sauce and making sure that it was thick enough to coat the back of his spoon. He set his spoon down on a spoon rest by the pot and opened up a jar containing dried bay leaves, pulling one of the larger ones out and dropping it into the sauce to flavor it. There was also a bit of white pepper and Himalayan pink salt in a couple of spice grinders next to him. But the expression on his face…he looked miserable. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. I didn’t see any passion or excitement in his movements as he stirred the sauce and tested it. It was more like he was viewing his class exercise as an obligation when there could’ve been something better to do.
“Excuse me, Koizumi-san? Can you help me with this?” said a boy that was at the station nearest to me.
“Yes, what’s happening?” I said as I approached. I looked down into the pot to see clumps of flour and butter floating among a sea of milk.
“Well…this is what’s happening,” the boy said.
“It’s better that you add the milk little by little,” I said. “You get clumps like this if you try to add it all at once. Do you have a whisk? We can break everything up and see if we can try again.”
By the end of the class, it looked like everyone had gotten the hang of bechamel, so Toyota-sensei instructed her students on the proper way to safely store it before dismissing everyone for the day.
“We’ll be using our bechamel sauce tomorrow afternoon for our next assignment,” she said. “The list of acceptable applications is on your phone, so please review it and make sure you obtain any ingredients not on the list beforehand. Remember, we only have a finite amount of ingredients available for everyone’s use!”
I noticed a bunch of the people in the back room were leaving while leaving their stations uncleaned. “Hey, what…” That’s when I realized Tetsuya was going up to them and collecting all the dishes from them to bring over to his station, where he had a sink full of soapy water going.
“Shirogane-san, again? Why are you letting these people walk over you?” Toyota-sensei said as she noticed that Tetsuya was washing their dishes.
“They had a meeting to go to. I’m just doing it as a favor,” Tetsuya said.
“The same guy I saw knock you down in front of the pantry?” I said, rolling up my sleeves. “Move over.” I picked up a stack of pots that Tetsuya had picked up and brought them over to another culinary station. “He left his station filthy on purpose, I’m sure.”
“Koizumi-sempai…don’t get involved with me. Please.”
Tetsuya stopped washing dishes and looked at me. His expression was stone cold.
“Listen. I’m not here because I want to be. I have to be here. And…I’m not my brother. I never was. Whatever he did to you, however he treated you…” Tetsuya sighed, chewing on his lower lip. “Please. Leave. I’ll be fine.”
Shocked, I nodded, and picked up my bag and materials before I exited the room. I looked back to see Tetsuya wiping tears away with the back of his hand as he rinsed off one of his classmates’ pans.
The next morning, I was eagerly awaiting Salma’s decision on whether or not she’d be able to come with us on our trip that weekend, and when she smiled and waved as I entered the room, I couldn’t help but smile and wave back.
“Vanilla-chan, I can go on Saturday,” she said. “But I will need to meet you there. Is that all right?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. “Do you know how to get there?”
“I have a driver for that,” Salma said. “There’s one other thing, too.” She leaned close to me and spoke in a low voice. “I…I have a bodyguard. She’s the one driving us in, and she’ll be shadowing me for the day.”
“A bodyguard,” I said, remembering the woman that Salma was talking to after our challenge the other day. “Well…That should be okay. I’ll let my family know so they won’t be alarmed.”
Salma smiled. “I’m looking forward to Saturday now!”
I went back to my seat as Yomogi and Kei came in. “Morning, Vanilla-chan,” Yomogi said.
“Long time no see,” I said, jokingly, as she had come in to Scarlett last night after her Outdoors Club meeting, and I had waited on her table. (She had ordered the spicy cod roe spaghetti set. I didn’t cook for her, though. That was a shame.)
“Yomogi-chan, tell her the good news!” Kei said, sounding excited.
“Something awesome happened!” Yomogi said. “The software company that makes Monster Slayer had a design contest and I was one of the winners!”
“No way! Really?” I said, excited.
“Yes! Check it out!” Yomogi said, pulling out her cellphone to reveal a 3D CGI model of a small, round creature that looked like a living Mont Blanc pastry—a cake with a topping of chestnut frosting. It reminded me of a shaggy dog. “This is the Montblanc Mello,” Yomogi explained. “They’re sweet little creatures that can do magic, and I designed one based off a Mont Blanc pastry! The judges loved it!”
The first bars of the chime sounded, and everyone scurried back into their seats as the days’ classes started.
Today’s weather was a little bit warmer than usual—somewhat unseasonably warm, even—so the four of us met in the courtyard—I mean, the Court of the Four Horsewomen—to have our lunch, when I decided to tell everyone about Tetsuya Shirogane. I told them about our initial meeting at Scarlett, and how I physically reacted to him.
“That’s awful…” Kei said.
I nodded. “Yeah…At least I’m not having nightmares about what happened anymore,” I said. “Still, though…It was really hard to hold myself together. I think being able to cook really helped me calm down.”
“He’s that guy’s younger brother?” Yomogi said.
“Yeah…I remember him mentioning it,” I said. (I didn’t want to think about how I had first heard about it.) “He’s a first year in the Yoshoku Division, but…he talked about how he doesn’t want to be here.”
“Like he’s here against his will? Yomogi asked.
“He told me that he has to be here,” I said. “Whenever I looked at him cooking, he just looked so disinterested. And I don’t think it’s because of the way the other students treat him.”
“Wait, you mean he’s being bulled?” Kei asked.
“I saw another student push him down when they went to the pantry to get some ingredients. And another thing…there was someone’s desk that was dumped outside the other day with a lot of hateful graffiti on it. Stuff like, ‘go to hell.’”
Everyone nodded gravely. Since it was revealed that Taiga Shirogane had orchestrated the manipulation of the Summer Invitational to make him the winner which led to his expulsion and arrest, the name Shirogane was pretty much taboo around here. There were even rumors that the school was boycotting businesses that were owned by the Shirogane zaibatsu in retaliation, which made the fact that another Shirogane was attending Umami Gakuen a little bit of a curiosity.
“Do the teachers know about the bullying?” Kei asked.
“I don’t know if they know and are just turning a blind eye to it, or if they know and just don’t care,” I said. “I was asking Toyota-sensei about it and she was just dismissive of the entire thing.”
“Knowing the kind of reputation this place has had, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Yomogi said. I nodded.
We continued eating silently, but then Hanabi spoke up. “So, um…what’s everyone doing this weekend?” she asked.
“Me? I’ve got babysitting duty for some of Saturday,” Yomogi said.
“Oh yeah? How’s little Kitaro doing?” Hanabi asked.
“He’s going to be two in a few months. He’s a handful.” Kitaro was Yomogi’s nephew; the son of her older sister Yanagi and brother-in-law Hajime. They lived in Mitaka, and Yomogi was a frequent babysitter for them whenever Hajime needed to hold a lecture.
“I’m going with the tea ceremony club to a workshop,” Kei said, “and after that we’re going out to buy some supplies. I need a new whisk.”
“I’m just spending time at home,” Hanabi said. “Hopefully I’ll have some free time to practice some of my vegetable cutting techniques.”
“My stepfather got passes to the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest, and we’re all going,” I said. “And Salma-chan is coming with us, too!”
“That sounds like fun,” Hanabi said. “Tell us all about it, will you?”
The rest of the day passed without incident, and I headed home on the train, eager for what the next day’s adventures would hold. I got home and started work on my homework when Caroline came in, looking dejected.
“Caroline-chan, what’s wrong?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything but sat down on the sofa. I heard Paddington happily running up to her, and he vaulted up on the couch and sat down next to her, wagging his tail and nosing her hand. She didn’t want to move.
“No one wanted to come,” Caroline said. “It’s not like I wanted them to come, anyway…”
I sat down next to her as she looked vacantly into the distance. “Are you all right, Caroline-chan? You know, you can talk to me. There’s stuff that the adults won’t understand.”
“Stop trying to act like you’ve known me all your life,” Caroline snapped. “Just because we’ve got the same last name doesn’t mean we’re family now!”
I flinched. What brought this on? “Look, I want to try and understand you! I know you’re going through a lot, and it helps to talk about it,” I said.
“What’s there to understand? All we have in common is that our parents married each other!”
“Why does that matter?”
“I’m only here because I have to be!” Caroline said, her eyes beginning to glisten with tears.
Déjà vu—Tetsuya Shirogane told me the exact same thing earlier today. I was taken aback, and that was enough time for Caroline to storm off and close the door to her bedroom.
I sat down on the sofa as Paddington trotted over to the closed bedroom door and pawed it. It opened a crack, and he scurried in. I could see Caroline glaring at me through the crack before she shut it again.
I’m only here because I have to be.
I could understand why Caroline was angry. Her father left England because everything there reminded him of his wife, and he had the family infrastructure in Japan that he didn’t have in England. She probably had tons of friends that she had to leave behind to move here, and the fact that she was enrolled in a British school probably didn’t help things any.
As for Tetsuya…I wondered what was going on behind the scenes. I knew he had lost his mother, too, and his older brother was not exactly the type of person anyone would want as a positive role model. I wondered what his dad was like. Was he forcing his younger son into a mold that his older son had once occupied?
I was suddenly startled by the front door opening. My mother was returning from a day at work. “Vanilla-chan, are you feeling all right?” she asked as she entered the room and saw my concerned expression.
“Yeah…but…” I looked in the direction of Caroline’s bedroom. “She’s…not feeling well again. It’s…I think it’s homesickness, but it’s worse than that. She didn’t even want to talk to me about it because we’re not blood related.”
My mother looked forlornly at the closed door. We could faintly hear the sound of crying from inside. “Maybe…maybe you can talk to her?” I said. “I don’t know what to do...”
She nodded. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said. “Can you do me a favor? I got takeout and I need it unpacked.” She held out a brown paper bag from a local Chinese food place.
I set the table and unpacked cartons of Chinese food as my mother knocked on the door of Caroline’s bedroom and tried to come in. She shut the door behind her and I listened for any sounds of noise or conflict. A few minutes later, the door opened, and my mother came out, followed by Paddington. She looked like she had given up.
“Well…you were right about it being homesickness,” my mother said. “She wants to go back to England.”
I nodded. “She told me ‘I’m only here because I have to be’, and I can sympathize with that,” I said. “Being completely uprooted and going somewhere where you barely know the language…”
My mother started loading a plate with fried rice and a couple of spring rolls—she was going to take it to Caroline’s room. “I’m going to see if Ryotaro can come home early and talk to her,” she said.
I started loading a plate with all my favorites: fried noodles, twice cooked pork and a spring roll. “I hope that works,” I said. “I’m really worried about her.”
Meanwhile, at the Shirogane household
Tetsuya was sitting on his bed and leafing through the latest issue of a national food science academic journal, when there was a knock at his door. He jumped up and dropped the magazine behind his bed, then picked up the issue of the video game magazine he used as a decoy where his father was concerned. “Come in,” he said.
Takashi Shirogane entered the room. “Good evening, Tetsuya-kun. I trust you had a good day today?”
Tetsuya shrugged. He couldn’t remember the last good day he had had at school. Maybe there had been one long ago, right after his mother passed away and everyone was suddenly sympathetic to him.
“I want your report, Tetsuya-kun.”
“About Scarlett? It’s nothing special, really…It’s a Western food restaurant. They serve your standard fare there. It’s a little higher up than a working class place.”
“I see…” A smirk crossed Takashi’s face. “You were quite helpful, Tetsuya-kun.”
“Father…” Tetsuya took a deep breath and swallowed. “What are you planning?”
Takashi crossed the room and went back to the door. “Shirogane Real Estate Holdings has been looking to diversify their portfolio,” he said, as he quietly shut the door to Tetsuya’s room behind him.
As Tetsuya listened to his father’s footsteps, he looked down at the magazine in his lap and sighed.
The next morning, I was surprised to see a message from Satoshi Mato on my phone as I was exiting the school building to sit with my friends at lunch:
From: Satoshi Mato To: Me
We will be having an all hands meeting tonight at 5 PM.
It is important that you be here on time.
“What’s this all about?” I said as I read it, and Yomogi looked over at my phone.
“Your boss?” she asked.
“Yeah…I haven’t gotten something like this from him since around the time I started,” I said. “I hope everything’s all right.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice from behind us, “but can I sit with you?”
I turned around to see Salma, carrying her lunch in a wrapped bundle. “Of course you can!” Kei said. “This might be our ‘turf’ but we let anyone eat with us.”
Salma shuffled over to a bench and sat down, leaning her cane across the front. “I’ve finally gotten the chance to do some grocery shopping for myself,” she said, as she untied the cloth around her lunchbox. It was a plain oval bento, made of carved wood and with an intricate pattern burned in the top, and a plastic liner for the placement of different foods. She opened it up to reveal that one half of the box was filled with plain white rice topped with a pickled plum, while the other half was divided between a rolled omelet streaked with bits of chopped spinach and strawberries that were sprinkled with what appeared to be chopped mint leaves.
“Oooh! Those strawberries look good,” Kei said as she looked at the dish. “So where do you go to do your grocery shopping?”
“There’s a market street right near the place I go for my physical therapy appointments,” Salma said. “I went after my last session.”
“Do you mind if I try one? If they’re good, I’ll have to get some for myself.”
Salma held out the box. “Everyone can try one! But you have to let me try a bit of your lunches in return. That’s how we do it, right?”
We started opening our bentos and comparing what we had brought. Kei had brought some steamed mushrooms in herbed butter, Yomogi had some tomato salad with basil and garlic, I had my usual banana slices and Hanabi had some chopped eggplant in sweet miso sauce. It was the type of lunchtime that made me happy to be with my friends, and all of the apprehension of my evening meeting was starting to melt away.
“I’m looking forward to this weekend,” Salma said, smiling as she finished her lunch.
“Me too, but I hope my stepsister is feeling better,” I said. “Caroline-chan hasn’t been feeling that well lately.”
“Is she sick?”
“She’s homesick. She used to live in England before she moved back with her father to Japan,” I said.
Salma nodded knowingly. “I know how that feels,” she said. “Being somewhere because you have to be, not because you want to be.”
That was the third time I heard someone say something to that effect this week. It was sort of an eerie feeling, and I felt the apprehension return as I looked down at my empty bento box…
That evening, I entered Scarlett to see every one of the staff members—Rumi, Hiromu, and even a few other people I vaguely recognized—clustered around a table in the back, where Satoshi Mato was sitting. It appeared they had all been waiting for me. Blushing, I joined them. “I’m not late, am I, Mato-san?” I asked.
“No, you’re just in time,” he said. Then he looked at all of us, watching him with expectant faces. “You’re all wondering why I’ve called you here, and it’s because this morning I was notified by this building’s landlord that he will be selling it at the end of the month.” There were a few surprised gasps. “It appears that the buyers are interested in redeveloping this entire block. I don’t know what this means for Scarlett in the meantime…”
This was a complete surprise, and everyone looked at each other nervously. “For now…we’ll proceed as we normally do. If anyone asks, I would tell them exactly what I’ve told you just now. If it turns out that we’re going to be closing, I will be doing my best to make sure you all land on your feet.” Mato-san glanced at me. “I will definitely be putting your situation at a priority, Koizumi-san, since you need the experience to graduate.” I nodded. “Anyways, for everyone that came in on their day off, I thank you. You’re all dismissed.”
We walked away from the meeting, barely a word being said between us, as I went into the locker room and started changing into my work clothes. I felt so bewildered. What was going to happen to us next?