Chapter 8:

Menu 7: Eggplant Battle! My Opponent's A Living Legend?

BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls

Monday morning meant back to school, and it was our week for morning culinary arts sessions. I didn’t anticipate being called into another class for teaching help, which meant I had the entire morning free for lab. I also wanted to see how Salma was doing. I had thought about sending her a message to see if she was all right after we got back from the fest, but it completely slipped my mind in favor of homework. She’d been in homeroom, though, so that was a relief, but I didn’t really have much of a chance to talk to her before the bell for morning classes rang.Bookmark here

All third years had a final exam that concerned planning a full-course meal to be served and graded on by one of the faculty. Usually, planning took all year, and you were allowed to make whatever you want, and showcase various techniques you had practiced and learned throughout your school life. I had made an outline of what I wanted to serve—from appetizer to dessert—and was trying out various different techniques and recipes in order to figure out what would work best.Bookmark here

Meal planning may seem like a piece of cake, but there’s a lot of factors in play here—the colors of the food, the methods used in cooking, types of sauces, side dishes, the like. Even the way you cut your vegetables gets graded. Ever since everyone in my division received their assignment, we’d been spending days sketching stuff, making test recipes and reading up on various techniques. There was a lot of collaboration going on between the students of my division—we were all working towards a common goal, and not against each other like in a Gourmet Battle.Bookmark here

“Hey, Koizumi-san, what are you doing for the appetizer?” asked one of my classmates, Joji Kanzaki, as he walked past me with a plastic box filled with various root vegetables.
“Me? I thought that maybe I’d start with something adventurous,” I said, as I opened a wrapped package of steak. “Steak tartare!”Bookmark here

“Whoa, really? Meat as an appetizer? Sounds a little risky…”Bookmark here

“That’s because I think I’ll do something pasta based for the main course,” I said. “You wanna try some of this after I’m done?”Bookmark here

“No offense, but I’m not a huge fan of raw meat. Prefer it to be grilled just so,” Joji said, looking up to the ceiling dreamily. “Kobe beef, medium rare. With diamond shaped char marks from the grill and a little sprinkle of freshly ground sea salt.”Bookmark here

“Then why are you lugging around a bunch of vegetables?” I teased.Bookmark here

“I want to challenge myself!” Joji said, smiling.Bookmark here

I went back to the task at hand, scraping bits of raw meat directly from the steak in order to press into a mold along with seasonings. I was absorbed in my work and didn’t notice that Salma had come up to talk to me until she cleared her throat.Bookmark here

“Oh!” I said, fumbling with the spoon I had been using. “Salma-san, how are you?”Bookmark here

“I’m doing all right,” she said. “Everything’s been fine on my end since the other day.”Bookmark here

“That guy hasn’t bothered you again?” I said.Bookmark here

Salma nodded. “Nope. They beefed up security where I’m living, too.”Bookmark here

“I see…By the way, Salma, where do you live?”Bookmark here

“I believe it’s called…Azabu-Juban?”Bookmark here

Wait, what? Azabu-Juban is supposed to not only have some seriously expensive real estate, but it’s the part of Tokyo where all of the foreign embassies have their residences. That likely meant that Salma was either filthy rich, a member of a diplomat’s family, or maybe she really was royalty.Bookmark here

“Oh, yeah, I’ve been through there,” I said, trying to hide my amazement.Bookmark here

“Anyway, the school’s granted permission for Siska to escort me between classes,” Salma said. “So you’ll be seeing her a lot more often now.”Bookmark here

“You really don’t feel that safe here?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Well…it’s a long story,” Salma said. “By the way, what are you making?”Bookmark here

I described steak tartare to her, about its origins as an American dish based on various raw meat dishes eaten throughout Europe, and she nodded. “I’ve never tried raw meat before,” she said. “Although sushi is one of my favorite foods. I especially enjoy horse mackerel.”Bookmark here

“Well…if you want to try this after I’m done, I would appreciate any feedback,” I said.Bookmark here

“I would love to!” Salma said. “And in exchange…I’ll make you a dish from Ashwargandha. It’ll be a little different from our cuisine, though, since there’s ingredients they can’t get here.”Bookmark here

I smiled. “Yeah, let’s do this!”Bookmark here

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Later that morning, I presented a small mound of steak tartare on a plate. The seasoned meat was molded into the shape of a star, with a small hollow in the center, and was laying on a fresh lettuce leaf surrounded by thinly sliced German rye bread from a loaf that I had baked last week. I cracked a fresh egg into a bowl and carefully let the whites drip through my fingers, cradling the yolk gently with the palm of my hand like an orb of pure magical power. I gently poured the yolk from my hand into the hollow in the center of the star, turning it into a meaty magical girl brooch. The thought crossed my mind and made me giggle.Bookmark here

I looked up to see Salma carefully lifting the lid of a steamer and reaching inside with a pair or tongs, taking out several little green bundles and laying them out on a plate. She stirred something that looked like some sort of sauce in a small saucepan, and tipped a little into a small bowl to taste it. Her expression changed, and she put a larger bowl into the center of the plate and ladled the sauce into it. With everything finished, she came over to me and placed the dish in front of me.Bookmark here

“These dumplings are made from our red rice and wrapped with pickled leaves,” she said. “The sauce in the center is sweet and spicy and has lots of the spices we use in our everyday cuisine.”Bookmark here

“Do I eat them with my fingers, or chopsticks, or…” I asked as I smelled the bundles. The rice had a fragrance to it that reminded me of toasted nuts, and I could smell a fragrance like bamboo coming from the leaf. The sauce…whoa. I almost sneezed when I smelled some red pepper in there.Bookmark here

“Chopsticks or a fork,” Salma said. “And I assume I must use a fork to eat this?”Bookmark here

“Yes. Mix the yolk into the meat and spread it on the bread,” I said.Bookmark here

The two of us took a tentative few bites of each others’ cuisine experiments. I decided to try a bit of the green leaf dumpling before dipping it into the sauce. The leaf had a little bit of bite to it, and a fresh flavor that reminded me a little bit of bamboo mixed with mint. Inside was the red rice, which cracked between my teeth. It was a texture I wasn’t quite used to, but it felt solid and not mushy. Binding the rice was what appeared to be some sort of ground meat mixture; I guessed it was likely pork from the color it was compared to the red rice. And the seasoning…it was like lemon and mint mixed together. I dipped the other end of the dumpling into the sauce and bit into it. The first thing that hit my tongue was the heat—I could taste ichimi togarashi right away, but there was also a sweetness from honey and citrus mixed together. And it went perfectly with the green leaf dumpling.Bookmark here

“Well? What do you think?” Salma asked.Bookmark here

“It’s really refreshing!” I said. “And the way the flavors and textures are contrasted is amazing.”
Salma had eaten a bite of bread that was spread thickly with the meat and egg mixture. “The texture of this is like paté,” she said. “I like the seasonings you used in this, and there were a few crunchy bits in there…What are they?”Bookmark here

“Oh, they’re capers,” I said. “They’re little pickled berries. You see them a lot in Italian cuisine.”Bookmark here

We continued eating, and Salma paused. “Um, Vanilla-san? I had a question about your family.”Bookmark here

“Yeah?”Bookmark here

“I didn’t want to be rude about it, but I was wondering…Your father isn’t your, um, birth father, is he?”Bookmark here

“Huh? Oh, yeah, he’s not. He and my mother got married little over a year ago,” I said.Bookmark here

“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your birth father?”Bookmark here

“He was lost in a plane crash and declared dead two years ago,” I said. “He was one of the main reasons why I enrolled here to become a Gourmet Battler.”Bookmark here

Salma nodded, her face looking a little distant. “You must’ve thought very highly of him.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…although my opinion of him has kind of changed over the years,” I said, as I bit into another leaf dumpling. “Sometimes…you find out about the bad stuff only after someone you love is gone.”Bookmark here

Salma stopped eating for a second, looking down at her plate. “Thank you, Vanilla-chan,” she said. “It was really good.”Bookmark here

“Your dumplings are really good, too,” I said. “Do you mind if I take these with me to lunch this afternoon?”
“Yes…” Salma said, still looking very distant. “If you’ll excuse me…”Bookmark here

I watched silently as Salma went back to her station and started cleaning up. She seemed to be fighting back tears, and I wondered if maybe I had accidentally touched a nerve.Bookmark here

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“It’s tasty, although I’m not really a fan of spicy food,” Yomogi said, as she swallowed.Bookmark here

“Thank you,” Salma said. “They’re a popular street food in Ashwargandha.”
The five of us were sitting together in our usual lunch spot, and I was sharing the leaf dumplings that Salma had made. (My leftover steak tartare had turned into a hamburg steak and was being saved for tomorrow’s lunch.)Bookmark here

“So, how was your day trip this weekend?” Kei asked. “Where did you end up eating?”Bookmark here

“Well, we had Salma-chan choose the restaurant, and we ended up getting curry,” I said. “Oh, and Yomogi-chan, get this: I ran into Nadeshiko Enomoto and her little sister.”Bookmark here

“Her little sister?” Yomogi squeaked. “Oh no, don’t tell me she’s just like her older sister…”Bookmark here

“Well, she’s also in the Yogashi Division, and she’s the Gothic to her Lolita, if that makes any sense,” I said. No one seemed to understand, until I clarified, “She was dressed all in black, and she had really pale doll makeup on her.”Bookmark here

“Oh, Sumire-chan?” Hanabi said. “I know her. Her boyfriend’s in my class.”Bookmark here

“I wonder what the boyfriend’s like,” I mused, thinking of a pale boy with blood red eyes that was a little too obsessed with the occult and vampires.Bookmark here

“He’s pretty cute. Like a prince,” Hanabi said. “His name’s even princely. Makoto Wakaouji. He’s in the Yogashi Division too.”Bookmark here

“Were you thinking of a goth boy, Vanilla-chan?” Kei asked, and I blushed as everyone giggled.Bookmark here

“What’s ‘goth?’” Salma asked. “Is that how Sumire-chan was dressed when we saw her this weekend?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, but sometimes there’s also influences from horror movies and blood and stuff like that,” I said.Bookmark here

“So did you find out how Nadeshiko-sempai is doing now?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“Her pastry shop’s been doing very well,” I said.Bookmark here

“That’s so great! I’m really happy for her,” Yomogi said. “It’s always nice to hear about a sempai that is doing well after graduation.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…by the way, I may not have a place to work at by the end of the month,” I said.Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” Salma asked.Bookmark here

“The restaurant I work at part time may be closing. Something about there being a developer wanting to buy it up.”
“What? That’s terrible,” Kei said. “I’ve only heard good stuff about Scarlett.”Bookmark here

“Well, there’s a ton of new developments going up in my area. Guess the whole place is gonna get a facelift.”Bookmark here

“What are you going to do?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“Well, my boss said that helping me out is my top priority if we do close,” I said. “He knows people in the industry, so it’s not like I’m going to be down and out for long.”Bookmark here

Hanabi got up and started packing. “Sorry, but I need to leave you guys early. I’ve got to get to the culinary building! We’ve got a guest lecturer for class,” she said.Bookmark here

“Oh, really? Who’s coming to talk to you?” I asked.Bookmark here

Hanabi smiled excitedly. “Bunzaemon Furukawa!”Bookmark here

“WHAT?” Kei, Yomogi and I chorused. “No way!”Bookmark here

“Who is he?” Salma asked.Bookmark here

After the initial shock wore off, I explained him and his legacy to Salma: he’s a living master of Japanese cuisine. He’s a five-star Gourmet Battler that was one of the graduates of the very first class of Umami Gakuen, and has cooked for the imperial household as well as ambassadors and heads of state, even religious leaders when they’ve visited Japan. He’s got to be in his early 80s by now, and still loves to be in the kitchen. For him to come back to give a talk at Umami Gakuen is a real honor, and usually reserved for the students in the Washoku Division. It’s everyone’s dream to go up against him.Bookmark here

“I’m so jealous!” Kei said. “I’ve read so much of his essays on the tea ceremony and traditional sweets. I wish the Tea Ceremony Club knew about this beforehand…”Bookmark here

“You’re meeting this afternoon, right? You might be able to get to meet him, too!” Hanabi said, and Kei smiled happily.
“Oh my gosh, if I do…it would be so cool,” Kei said.Bookmark here

The bell for the end of lunch rang, and we started packing up. “We’ll see you later, Hanabi-chan!” I shouted as the five of us parted ways.Bookmark here

“See you!” Hanabi chorused back, sounding really happy.Bookmark here

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I arrived at Scarlett for my first shift since the fateful news. Apparently, word has gotten around that we were possibly going to be closing, and things were busier than ever. I rushed into the locker room and got on my uniform in record time before opening the door to the main dining room. Imagine my shock when I saw Bunzaemon Furukawa sitting at the table that I was assigned to.Bookmark here

“W-w-w-w-w—” I stammered, and I felt a light tap from Rumi on my shoulder. “Welcome to Scarlett!” I said, a little loudly and forcefully. “How are you tonight, sir?”Bookmark here

“Excellent,” he said. He looked like the kind of grandpa that everyone wanted to have: cheerful, with a great sense of humor, but firm when the situation warranted. I looked down to his table to make sure it was set properly, and saw that everything was in its proper place.Bookmark here

“Would you like some water, sir? Or would you like to order a beverage?” I asked. No use in being nervous—I needed to put my work face on.Bookmark here

“I am fine with just water, miss,” Bunzaemon said. “And I am ready to place my order.”Bookmark here

“Yes, sir!” I said, pulling out my notepad. My hand was trembling (with excitement!) as I clicked on my pen and prepared to write.Bookmark here

“I would like to challenge Vanilla Koizumi to a Gourmet Battle,” Bunzaemon said.Bookmark here

You could hear a pin drop in the restaurant as I looked up from my notepad and locked eyes with Bunzaemon. I was shocked. How could one of the foremost experts in traditional Japanese cuisine know about me—and want to challenge me, even?Bookmark here

Oh my god, was Hanabi-chan talking about me in the lecture? I thought.Bookmark here

My boss, Satoshi Mato, ran from the kitchen, his face a mask of disbelief. “Sir…You wish to challenge one of my staff?” he asked.Bookmark here

“I do. Is that too much of an imposition on your time and kitchen?” Bunzaemon asked. Bookmark here

“N-n-no sir, not at all,” Satoshi stammered. “In fact, I’m honored that you have chosen this humble establishment as the site of your challenge!”Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san, do you have any objections to this?” Bunzaemon asked.Bookmark here

I didn’t really know what to do, so I nodded. “I accept,” I said, smiling and reaching my hand out for a handshake with Bunzaemon. OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING WHY AM I BEING CHALLENGED BY A MODERN MASTER OF JAPANESE COOKING? I thought as he smiled and shook my hand.Bookmark here

We started inputting the details of the challenge. His eyebrows raised as he saw my NPGBA rating. “Four stars? You are quite accomplished for your age and level,” Bunzaemon said.Bookmark here

“Sir, before we begin, can…can I ask you a question?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Of course, Koizumi-san.” He smiled. It reminded me a little bit of Ryotaro’s smile.Bookmark here

“Why me, of all people?” I asked.Bookmark here

“How about I tell you if you manage to win a point from me?”Bookmark here

“I’ll…I’ll do my best,” I said, as the spinning wheel for our challenge came up. We watched it as it continued spinning and finally landed on the topic of our challenge: Eggplant.Bookmark here

“Eggplant? I see. I’m quite looking forward to this,” Bunzaemon said.Bookmark here

“Me too,” I replied. I was trying to calm myself down. At least it was something simple. I could think of so many ways to cook eggplant, but the only thing that mattered now was not making a complete fool of myself in the kitchen.Bookmark here

By now, everyone that was in the restaurant was gathered around, watching and listening as the clock ticked down. I could see through the sunshade over the windows the silhouettes of people gathering outside—obviously here to see our challenge.Bookmark here

I’d been on TV before; I’d performed under pressure. But right now, my heart was racing and I felt more nervous than I ever felt before in my life.Bookmark here

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“Hey, look! Koizumi-san’s having a challenge right now!” said a student who was waiting in the train station.
“Wait, did he say…” Yomogi glanced down at her phone and looked at the alert. Her eyes widened. She stuck her train pass back in her pocket and dashed upstairs. I hope Yanagi-san and Hajime-san don’t mind me being a little late, she thought as she ran towards Scarlett.Bookmark here

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In the club space for the tea ceremony club, Kei’s phone vibrated as she finished washing up the cups used that afternoon. She put down the cup, dried her hands, and pulled her phone out. Kei gasped as she read the text.Bookmark here

“Midorikawa-san, take over for me,” Kei said. “I’ve got to go! Vanilla-chan is having a challenge!”Bookmark here

“Who’s she going up against—OH MY GOD!” Midorikawa, a girl in the second year, shrieked as she saw who it was on the phone. “I’ll finish things up! You go and support her!”Bookmark here

Kei dashed from the room, shouldering her school bag. This was something she did not want to miss.Bookmark here

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As Hanabi was looking at a greengrocer’s stand, her phone vibrated. Her eyes went wide as she noticed the alert on her phone. No way, she thought. He really did go check out Scarlett! “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I need to leave,” Hanabi said to the clerk, an old woman who was wiping the inside of a scale. “But I will get some of those delicious greens from you tomorrow! I promise!”Bookmark here

“That’s fine, sweetie,” the old woman said. Hanabi made a quick bow goodbye and dashed off.Bookmark here

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The match had started in earnest. I was chopping eggplants up into small pieces that would hold up well during the stir-fry process. Behind me, at the other cooking station in the back of the kitchen, Bunzaemon was cutting eggplant into long, thin strips. I barely had time to stop and wonder though—there were lots of steps that were essential to this plan and I needed to make sure they were set in motion.Bookmark here

I decided that my eggplant dish would be mapo eggplant, a variation on mapo tofu. It’s a dish where ground pork and eggplant are stir-fried together in a spicy sauce, with plenty of flavor from garlic and ginger as well. Mapo tofu shows up on our menu occasionally, so I knew we had these ingredients on hand. I wonder if it’s an advantage for me to be cooking in familiar territory, I thought as I started measuring out the ingredients for the sauce and combining them in a bowl: oyster sauce, a little sugar, bright red spicy doubanjiang and savory deep brown tienmienjiang, with a little bowl full of starch slurry to thicken the sauce. I also measured out a good amount of chicken stock from a carton we had in the refrigerator.Bookmark here

As I went to the fridge to grab the meat mixture, I saw Bunzaemon opening up a bright yellow can of tomatoes. We serve a lot of Italian inspired pasta dishes here, and I recognized the can as being full of a certain kind of sweet Italian tomato that was a staple part of our sauce. He emptied the can into a saucepan and lit the burner underneath it, measuring out bits of spices from various jars as he waited for the tomatoes to start breaking down.Bookmark here

I returned to my work, ripping the cellophane off the cover of the ground pork mixture and dropping it into a frying pan for it to cook and render. I turned to a cutting board and started chopping onions furiously, then carefully did the same to a small bit of peeled ginger and a couple cloves of garlic, making sure to stir the pan frequently so nothing would get overly browned. As the juices started to run clear, I grabbed the garlic, onions and ginger and dumped them inside, stirring them around. Bookmark here

“All right!” I said, as I grabbed another pan and squirted a good amount of oil into it. “It’s time to see how good this eggplant holds up.”Bookmark here

“Did you say something, Koizumi-san?” Bunzaemon said. I looked over to see him stirring his tomato sauce—it smelled really good.Bookmark here

“No, I just…I like to talk to myself when I cook. To psyche myself up,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yes, I remember seeing you do that on television,” Bunzaemon said.Bookmark here

I blushed as I went back to my cooking. I held my hand a few centimeters above the hot oil, and satisfied that it was hot enough, dumped the eggplant pieces into the pan and listened to them sizzle. I gave them all a good toss to make sure they were evenly coated, and stirred them vigorously. My pan for the sauce looked and smelled like it was good to go, so I grabbed a rubber spatula and dropped the sauce mixture into it, followed by the chicken stock, little by little. I chanced a quick glance up at the clock to check my time before I started dividing my energy between the two pans.Bookmark here

I smelled the telltale signs of Italian cooking from Bunzaemon’s station—lots of garlic, tomatoes and oregano—and heard cheese being grated. Looks like it’s eggplant parmesan or something like that, I thought, smiling to myself. It’d be interesting to see how a master Japanese chef and Gourmet Battler could interpret an Italian dish. I returned to my pans and switched off the burner under the pan of eggplant, spearing one of the chunks with a fork and taste testing it for tenderness. The texture was perfect. I turned to my pan where the mapo sauce was simmering away, and carefully poured the starch slurry in, stirring everything as the powder clouded the sauce and began to thicken everything. I gave it a quick taste: a bit of sweet with a little bite from the garlic, and then the heat from the doubanjiang to finish everything off. I picked up the pan with the finished eggplant and carefully tipped it in, stirring everything around to make sure it was thoroughly coated. I took another taste of the coated eggplant—delicious. (Of course, I wasn’t the judge of that.)Bookmark here

With everything complete, one last step needed to be taken, and I grabbed a bunch of green onions and reduced them into tiny pieces with the thunder of knives. I sprinkled the pieces throughout the mapo eggplant before taking out a ladle and pouring a serving out on three plates, giving everything a garnish with a sprig of kinome—the plant traditional Szechuan pepper comes from.Bookmark here

“Finished!” I said, stepping back with a few minutes left on the clock.Bookmark here

“Done already?” Bunzaemon said. He was waiting at the door of the oven, where inside I could see a single use aluminum pan. “You must be confident in your skills.”
“I’m not confident in my skills,” I said, “but I am confident in the fact that I can hold my own against someone of your caliber.”Bookmark here

Bunzaemon nodded. “Was it fun?”Bookmark here

I stepped back and thought about his question, mulling the words over and over in my mind. Was it fun? Of course it was fun. I was in my element—competing in a kitchen that was like competing in a home stadium against someone that I looked up to and admired.Bookmark here

“Of course it was fun!” I said. “I love feeling the spirit of competition.”Bookmark here

The oven buzzed, and Bunzaemon opened the door with an oven glove, carefully pulling out the aluminum tray. “So that’s what you consider the most fun? That’s quite admirable.” He set the tray down on one of the unused burners, and started cutting into whatever was in the tray with a spatula. “To me, what I consider the most fun is the look on the judges’ faces when they taste something I’ve made.”Bookmark here

Yeah, that can be fun, too, I thought, as I saw Bunzaemon lifting what appeared to be small rolls from the pan filled with tomato sauce and placed four of them on each of the plates. The final seconds ticked down as he picked up a handful of grated cheese and started sprinkling it all over the rolls, making it look like they received a light dusting of snow.Bookmark here

Three…two…one…BING! The timer finished and the two of us stepped away from our stations. We heard applause behind us, and the two of us turned around to see that the kitchen staff was applauding.Bookmark here

“It’s time,” I said.Bookmark here

“May the best chef win,” Bunzaemon said, giving me a smile and a cordial nod.Bookmark here

Two of our waiters approached us and loaded our three plates under cloches onto trays, and followed us into the main restaurant where a standing-room crowd had gathered. I looked into the faces of everyone there and saw my friends almost immediately—when Kei is with them, you can easily find them in a crowd—and smiled. I must’ve looked like I just ran a marathon or something, because Hanabi handed me a bottle of sports drink.Bookmark here

“Thanks,” I said, as I opened the lid and took a good gulp. I felt so much better as my thirst was quenched.Bookmark here

The judges had been seated, and they consisted of a woman who appeared to be a housewife, a younger woman who was wearing the uniform of a convenience store, and a man who was in his 30s and was wearing the uniform of a local pizza parlor. All of them were in awe of the Master, who was standing in their presence—I was hoping that they’d judge the two of us impartially.Bookmark here

I looked over to Bunzaemon, and held up my phone. “Ready for the coin toss?” I asked.Bookmark here

He nodded, and I pressed the button to activate the flip, choosing Tails for myself. The coin landed on Heads.Bookmark here

Ah well, at least our dishes are radically different, I said, as I took another swig of my sports drink and sat down, feeling the pressure of that evening finally lifting and leaving me completely exhausted.Bookmark here

“I present to you tonight a little novelty of Italian cuisine that I discovered when visiting an Italian restaurant on a trip to America,” Bunzaemon said. “What you have before you are called ‘eggplant rollatini.’ Instead of using a lasagna noodle, I’ve instead used thinly sliced eggplant, which I’ve filled with a mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheese. They’ve been baked in a marinara sauce, which I’ve concocted from San Marazano tomatoes and a blend of various Italian herbs and spices.”Bookmark here

Bunzaemon stepped back and waited for a second. The man from the pizza parlor hesitantly picked up their fork and knife, and started slicing into one of the rollatini. I saw the cheese ooze out the end and mix with the fragrant red sauce as he speared the piece he cut and put it into his mouth.Bookmark here

“It’s…different,” he said. “But the way you prepared the eggplant…it’s still got all of its flavor, and no bitterness whatsoever,” he said. Bookmark here

“This is such a wonderful harmony of such simple ingredients,” the housewife said. “There’s so much flavor in everything.”Bookmark here

“It’s really creative,” said the woman who was the convenience store clerk. “I think…I think it’s the kind of dish I could serve my family and not feel guilty about.”Bookmark here

They finished their “rollatini” and pushed their plates aside. I signaled for my waiter to come up, and he placed my three plates in front of the judges.Bookmark here

“I have here something from the other side of the globe from Italy and America,” I said. “This is mapo eggplant, a variation on mapo tofu that uses eggplant instead of tofu. It’s got a different texture and bite to it than mapo tofu does, and I’ve flavored it with plenty of aromatic ginger, garlic and a bunch of different sauces for a sweet, spicy flavor. Please try it with some Szechuan pepper sprinkled on top.”Bookmark here

Each of the judges started to scoop up some of the mapo eggplant. It was still piping hot, and I saw a few people blowing on the bites before putting it in their mouth. Everyone’s expressions changed.Bookmark here

“Hmm. Quite a good amount of spice in this,” said the convenience store clerk. “It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, and I like how the eggplant is soaking up the flavor.”Bookmark here

“I think it works pretty good with the eggplant instead of tofu,” said the housewife. “It’s not as soft, but it still soaks up all the good flavor.”Bookmark here

“It does soak up the flavor, that’s true,” the man from the pizza parlor said. “But it doesn’t have that same heat-and-cool factor that regular mapo tofu has. That’s what I like about it.”Bookmark here

The three of them finished their dishes, pushing them aside. Bunzaemon came up to me, smiling.Bookmark here

“Curious how we both made dishes that are contrary to our cooking specialties,” he said.Bookmark here

“That just goes to show how well-rounded we are as chefs,” I said, smiling.Bookmark here

I looked around nervously at the crowd gathered around me, and then glanced at my boss and the other waitstaff. I wondered what they were thinking—were these people watching me going to stick around, or…I checked my watch and saw that my shift still had an hour left. I was completely spent.Bookmark here

My phone buzzed with the announcement that the judges had made their decision, and everyone was riveted to their phones as the results were posted.Bookmark here

Beep. A vote for Bunzaemon. To be expected, after all.Bookmark here

Beep. There it was—a second vote for Bunzaemon. It was already decided, but there was one last question—was this going to be a unanimous victory?Bookmark here

Beep. No…a vote for me was cast. I stared down at my phone, wide eyed.Bookmark here

The restaurant filled with polite applause as Bunzaemon stepped over to me and shook my hand, smiling. “You took a point from me, Koizumi-san,” he said. “That’s very rare.”Bookmark here

“I…I can’t believe I did that,” I said. “I mean…I had no idea I could hold my own against a master like you, and…” I started smiling broadly. “Wow…I can’t believe it.”
I ran over to my friends after he let go of my hand, and there were hugs all around. “I saw the announcement on my phone and I couldn’t believe it,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“Hanabi-chan, did you tell Furukawa-sensei about me when he lectured in your class?” I asked.Bookmark here

Hanabi blushed. “I…I did,” he said. “And I mentioned to him about the restaurant closing, too…”Bookmark here

So that’s why he showed up, but why did he challenge me? A master of Japanese cuisine battling against a high school student? Someone like me probably barely showed up on his radar.Bookmark here

“You’re in your final year of high school and you’re a four-star rank. That’s still pretty rare,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I know! But there’s probably zillions of people better than me he could’ve challenged.” I looked over at Bunzaemon and noticed that a crew from Ginga TV had arrived and was interviewing him.Bookmark here

“I’d…I’d better get everything cleaned up,” I said, as I looked down at the empty dishes at the table. At least they ate every bite, I said, as I picked them up and began to take them into the kitchen.Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san, you put on a truly admirable performance this evening,” said Bunzaemon from behind.Bookmark here

“Sensei,” I said, turning around to face him. “You said you’d tell me about why you challenged me. Please, let me hear it.”Bookmark here

Bunzaemon chuckled. “All right, then,” he said. “That young lady with the short hair told me about your situation…and it just so happens that I remembered my grandson speaking so highly of you.”Bookmark here

“Grandson…” I tried to think about all the boys I knew who were gourmet battlers, and then my mind suddenly drifted to one name in particular…Bookmark here

No way, I thought, with a big smile on my face.Bookmark here

Bunzaemon smiled. “He’ll be quite happy to hear how well you’re doing, I’m sure.”Bookmark here

Bookmark here

That night, after I had finished my shift, I sat up in bed and opened my laptop computer to compose an email to Michael Furukawa Valentine. I emailed him every so often; his line of work didn’t leave him with a lot of free time or the freedom to answer any questions I had for him, but I liked reporting little things that happened in my life to him.Bookmark here

Dear Michael,Bookmark here

How are you doing? Spring’s coming to Tokyo. We’re all planning a huge hanami party sometime this month. Today I had the surprise of my life: I found out that the Master, Bunzaemon Furukawa-sensei, is your grandfather! And he challenged me to a gourmet battle and I won a point from the judges! It was amazing! He made a dish that was Italian-American (eggplant rollatini) and I made mapo eggplant.Bookmark here

I stopped writing to think about what else to talk about, but then realized that I hadn’t told him about Salma yet.Bookmark here

There’s a transfer student in our class from Ashwargandha, her name’s Salma Zhimalan. She’s a really great gourmet battler that beat me in her first battle last week! It was kind of a major scandal here (lol) but they don’t have a gourmet battle federation in her home country. Anyway she’s really nice and she came with me and my family last weekend to the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest. Did you ever go there when you were living here?Bookmark here

I hope everything’s going well for you. Everyone misses you. Talk to you again soon.
Vanilla Koizumi
Bookmark here

I sent the email, set my laptop to sleep, and then set myself up to sleep as well.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Meanwhile, just outside of Washington, DCBookmark here

Michael smiled as a pop-up notification of an email from Vanilla appeared on his screen. Then his phone vibrated, and he realized that it was an international call. He vaguely recognized the number.Bookmark here

“Hello?” Michael said, switching into Japanese. He smiled as he heard the familiar voice of his grandfather at the other end.Bookmark here

“So, she was just as phenomenal as you said,” Bunzaemon Furukawa said to his grandson.Bookmark here

“I told you so, ojii-sama,” Michael said. “What do you think? Do you think she’s up to the task?”Bookmark here

“Yes. I think she’ll be able to hold her own in international competition.”Bookmark here

“That’s good. It’s precisely what we’ll need her for.”Bookmark here

“Oh, your secret government work? Is she going to become like James Bond?”Bookmark here

“No, no. I couldn’t let that happen to her.”Bookmark here

Bunzaemon cackled with laughter. “You sound like you’re her lover.”Bookmark here

“Sh-shut up!” Michael said, his face coloring slightly. “I already told you, I’m seeing someone!”Bookmark here

“I won’t keep you. Please give your mother my regards.”Bookmark here

“I will,” Michael said. “She’s still planning to visit later this year.”Bookmark here

“It’ll be so nice to see her again. Would you be joining her?”Bookmark here

“Maybe. If I can get the time off work.” Michael sighed. “I’ve got to go. Vanilla-kun just emailed me. I’m pretty sure she’s excited about having battled you.”Bookmark here

“Take care, Michael-kun.”Bookmark here

Michael pressed the End Call icon and went to read Vanilla’s email, smiling to himself. He scrolled down and started reading the paragraph that mentioned Salma, and his expression changed to one of shock.Bookmark here

No way, Michael thought. She’s in Japan…this could be bad. Really bad…Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.