BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls
Takashi Shirogane scowled as he noticed the news report.
A picture of a smiling Bunzaemon Furukawa, standing alongside the chef of Scarlett—the same restaurant that she worked at—was front and center on the website for Japan’s leading weekly food news magazine. “The Master Uncovers a Hidden Gem!” read the headline. And sure enough, as he scrolled down, there she was. She had the same smirky smile as her father did; the man whose death overshadowed the loss of his beloved Hibiki.
The screen vanished and was replaced with a phone call notification from the Shirogane Group’s main real estate agent. “This is Shirogane,” Takashi said, his voice bored.
“Good morning, sir…I’m pretty sure you saw the news already,” said the agent, rather hesitantly. “The building owner came back to me with a resounding ‘no’ to our offer, so…looks like we’ll have to switch to redevelopment plan B.”
“Right. Whatever.” Takashi said. He was fuming. “I give my authorization to do so.”
“Are you all right, sir?”
“I will talk to you later.”
Takashi pressed the End Call icon so hard he felt the screen protector flex underneath his finger. He turned to a leather bound planner on his desk and opened it up to his social calendar to take his mind off things when he noticed one particular entry. On the listing for Friday night was a gala dinner for the Muses Awards, which were given out to the best Western plays and theater companies in the region. He was on the board for the Muses Awards’ parent organization. Months ago he had booked the space and a catering company to feed the partygoers, but then an idea crossed his mind.
Perhaps…I should see how well she performs under pressure, he thought.
With that, he picked up his phone and called the catering company. “I’m afraid I will have to cancel the contract to provide dinner for the Muses Awards,” he said after introducing himself to the secretary.
“Sir, you do realize that the deposit is non-refundable,” the secretary said.
“I do realize it. I apologize for the short notice but something has come up that has caused me to change plans.” Takashi smiled.
I was still riding the high from last night’s star studded Gourmet Battle when I arrived at the culinary arts building for lab. Everyone’s eyes were on me and there was a lot of whispering.
“Can you believe it?”
“It’s unreal. He’s like, what, ninety?”
“I think I’m gonna go to that restaurant with my boyfriend if the food there’s that good.”
I tried not to let it get to me, but I definitely felt like I was wearing a long velvet cape with ermine trim, supported by footmen as I strode into the building, ready to start my day.
“Congratulations, Sempai,” said a familiar voice.
I turned to see Momoko Ijuuin leaning against the wall outside one of the second year classrooms. Her quilted knife roll was in her hand, and she was smacking it against the palm of her hand, as if it was a riding crop or billy club.
“Thank you, Momo-chan,” I said.
She looked at me with a disgusted expression. “You must think you’re so special. How’d you get Furukawa-sensei to battle you anyway?”
“It was chance and happenstance, okay?” I snapped back. “I had no idea he even knew about me.”
Momoko snorted and went into her classroom. I was taken aback. The footmen dropped my velvet cape in the mud, and I went upstairs to the lab, bewildered.
“Hey, Vanilla-chan, are you all right?”
I had spent most of my morning in lab staring at an empty notebook, trying to write down and sketch various combinations and tastes that I had in mind, but my thoughts were just empty and filled with uncertainty. Salma had seen the expression on my face and came over.
“You look worried about something.”
“It’s just…last night, and then…”
I told her about last night’s battle and how Momoko reacted. She nodded sagely.
“There’s always going to be people in your life that are jealous of you, no matter the circumstances,” Salma said. “They feel like they missed out on something and decide to take it out on the person who has the most. At least, that’s what I always felt.”
“It’s just…I have this nagging feeling that…” I felt my stomach lurch, as Momoko’s words had brought an uncomfortable feeling to the surface. “What people say about me is true that I’m not in the position where I am if it wasn’t for my father.”
Salma nodded. “I know how you feel. It’s like that for me, too.”
“But at least it’s your career and not what you were born into…” Salma’s face grew dark and distant.
“Can I ask you something, Salma-chan?” I said, quietly.
“Why are you here, exactly? Are you trying to run away from something?”
She paled for a second, then swallowed. “I’d rather not talk about it right now. I’m sorry. I don’t trust you enough yet.”
Before I could say anything, she walked away towards another corner of the room. I blew that one, I muttered, looking back to my open notebook and playing with the button on my mechanical pencil.
I could barely concentrate, so I decided a change of scenery was in order, and headed to the Umami Gakuen library. It’s a huge multi-story building with three whole floors, each of them dedicated to a different discipline: general food science and nutrition, Eastern cuisine and Western cuisine. You could probably get lost in it, and one time I found a note that someone has left as a prank: “You are in the organic chemistry section. Search parties are on their way. Do not burn books for heat. Do not eat books for sustenance.” I scanned my student pass at the gates and looked around to find a place to sit that was quiet. I noticed that a lot of the tables and couches in the library were occupied mainly by first year students—it must’ve been study hall. I looked around for a free spot and chanced upon a slightly open door in the corner of the room leading to one of the quiet study cubbies. I decided to head in there and carefully opened the door to see—
“Oh, excuse me…”
Tetsuya Shirogane was seated at the desk. He had an open book on it—a very complicated looking one, that was full of strange chemical diagrams. He had earbuds in his ears, and I could hear the sound of hard rock music faintly blaring from them.
“I’m sorry. I’ll leave…” I said, but he shook his head as he pulled out his earbuds.
“Can I talk to you?” he asked. “Are you busy?”
“…I guess,” I said, and I closed the door to the study cubby behind me. He switched off his music player and stuck his open notebook within the pages of the textbook he was reading.
“What are you studying?”
“The properties of miraculin,” Tetsuya said. “You know about it?”
“Yeah, that’s…that’s the stuff that makes sour food taste sweet, right?” I asked.
Tetsuya nodded. “It’s a specific kind of protein that binds itself to the taste receptors for sour and bitter and changes those flavors to sweet. I’ve been fascinated about it for years. When I was a kid, my mom got some powdered miracle berry tablets and the two of us experimented for hours...” His face took on a wistful expression.
“My dad and I spent time together making cooking videos,” I said. “You can still see them online…’50 Ways to Cook an Egg’, ‘How To Spiral Peel,’ stuff like that.”
“Yeah…” Tetsuya’s face grew serious. “Listen. I have to tell you something important. Don’t say you heard it from me or anything else, got it?”
“…Um, yeah. Got it,” I said.
“My father’s company is the one that wants to buy Scarlett.”
“Wait, what?” I shrieked, and immediately covered my mouth as Tetsuya shushed me. “How come?”
“He’s still out for blood against you. What my brother did…he didn’t think it was enough.”
“And that’s why…that’s why you told me you were here because you had to be here…”
Tetsuya nodded. “Vanilla-san, promise me if he ever comes to you with an offer or anything like that, don’t even listen to him,” Tetsuya said, urgently. I nodded. “I don’t want any part of his battle. I’m not my brother, and I’m not him…like I told you, I’m only here because I have to be. Otherwise…” He trailed off, and as he was about to speak again, the bell for lunch rang.
“Do you want to come sit with us at lunch?” I asked as I opened the door to the study cubby.
Tetsuya shook his head as he shoved books back in his backpack and tucked his earphones into a pocket of his school bag. “The less you interact with me, the better. Trust me,” he said.
I nodded. “Well…the offer’s always open,” I said, with a small smile.
Salma didn’t really talk to me much during lunch, and I spent the rest of the day with my head in the clouds. I feel like I probably pressed the issue a little too soon, and maybe a few days cooling off between us would set things right again.
The next morning I got to school as usual, feeling a little more like myself again, and buried myself in my menu planning. I remembered Tetsuya talking about miraculin yesterday and wondered about possibly finding out more about it, so I decided to spend some time in the library reading up on its properties. It was hard to concentrate on it. I wonder if Tetsuya-kun just does this for fun, I thought. I don’t think I could ever read something this complicated just for fun…I did check out a couple books that served as an introduction to chemistry that were specifically written for chefs and nutritionists, so that maybe I’d have something to help me with my research.
“Those look interesting. Are they part of your lab work?” Salma asked as she noticed the books I was carrying at lunch.
“Someone was talking about the properties of miracle berries the other day and it got me thinking,” I said.
“Vanilla-chan, I must apologize. I’m sorry for yelling at you yesterday,” Salma added quietly.
“No, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have pried,” I said.
“Hi Salma-chan, Vanilla-chan!” Yomogi said, walking up to us. “How has your day been so far?”
“All right,” I said. “What about you?”
“I had a productive lab session this morning,” Yomogi said, “but…” She held up her hand to reveal a gauze pad taped to the back of it. “I had to cut things short.”
“Oh no! Was it a burn?” Salma asked.
“Yeah…” Yomogi blushed a little sheepishly. “I have to be more careful when I’m working with caramel.”
“There’s a reason why it’s called ‘napalm,’” I added. There were more than a few nicks and burns on the fronts and backs of my hands. Every single one of them was a lesson learned, so I took pride in all my scars.
“Where are Kei-chan and Hanabi-chan?” Salma asked. “I wanted to talk to all of you together.”
“I think Kei-chan had to help out one of the first year Wagashi Division classes,” I said. “And I think Hanabi-chan had a test earlier.”
Salma shrugged. “Well, at least I can tell the two of you. I’d like to invite you two over to my place for a dinner party!” she said. “And Caroline-chan can come, too, in return for your family inviting me out, Vanilla-chan.”
“That sounds great!” I said. “When were you thinking of having it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe before Golden Week? You probably have plans then, right?”
We continued through lunch talking about our plans for the next couple weeks, especially revolving around Golden Week, before we went back to our homeroom and filled Kei in on our plans for the dinner party.
That evening was another shift at Scarlett. I was feeling pretty apprehensive about it, especially with Tetsuya’s warning, and felt my stomach churn as I changed into my work uniform. All the signs pointed to it being a calm evening, until the door opened and a man stepped into the room.
“So this is Scarlett?” he said, looking around at the room as if he was trying to smell where a dog had left some “presents.” Then his gaze met mine, and I felt my blood run cold.
“You must be Vanilla Sakamoto,” he said.
“Vanilla Koizumi, actually,” I said. “But yes. I was Vanilla Sakamoto.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. Takashi Shirogane, of the Shirogane Group.”
So this was the infamous father. He was a tall man with dark brown hair and pale blue eyes—the same color as his sons. The serious look on his face was the same serious look I had seen on Tetsuya while he was studying. They must take after Hibiki more, I thought, and tried to recall what she had looked like.
“Is there anything you need, sir?” I asked.
“A table for one and the menu.”
I wrote down his place on the wipe-off board, and guided him over to a two-seater table, pulling a chair back for him. “Would you like something to drink?” I asked cordially.
“Water would be fine.”
I could barely keep my hands from shaking as I went over to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. Tetsuya’s warning was ringing in my head. Was his father trying to test me? Humiliate me? I tried to calm my thoughts. Let him come at you, I thought. You’re among friends here.
“Here is your water, sir,” I said, as I put the glass down on the table. It wobbled, and a little water slopped out of the top. My hands were still trembling, and I knew he could notice it.
“The Neapolitan spaghetti, if you please,” Takashi said as he handed me the menu.
“Yes, sir. Right away,” I said, as I scribbled something that vaguely resembled handwriting down on my order pad and walked over to the kitchen.
“Koizumi-san, are you all right?” Satoshi Mato said as I entered the kitchen.
“That man sitting at table 14,” I whispered. “That’s the guy who wanted to buy this place.”
“Wait, what? How do you know that?”
“I just know, okay?”
“Koizumi-san, why don’t you go take five and let me handle this,” Satoshi said, taking the order pad from me. “You look nervous.”
I shuffled into the locker room and went inside, feeling like I wanted to scream. What did he know about what his son masterminded and what he tried to do to me? And was seeing me like this all part of his revenge? I sat down on the simple plastic bench and tried to steady my breathing. I should escape out the back door, I thought, but…that’s exactly what he would want me to do.
There was a knock at the door. “Koizumi-san, are you in there? It’s Rumi.”
“Yeah, come in,” I said. The door opened to reveal Rumi poking her head in.
“The guest at table 14 said he wanted to talk to you.”
I got up from the bench and took a deep breath. “All right,” I said, as Rumi opened the door for me. I strode out to the dining room and approached Takashi, who was daintily eating his dish of Neapolitan spaghetti.
“I have to say, this food is quite excellent. The kind of food that would attract a master of Japanese cuisine…” The look in his eyes grew dark as I pulled out the other seat and sat across from him.
“I’m on the clock,” I said. “Keep it brief.”
“Koizumi-san, I would like to hire you to cater a private event,” Takashi said. “An organization that I am a board member of has an awards ceremony this weekend, and unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control, our caterers had to cancel. After hearing about your stellar performance the other night…I thought you would be the perfect choice.”
“What about your son Tetsuya-kun?” I asked.
“He has better things to do with his time.”
“And so do I.” I started to get up.
“I’m willing to pay you the equivalent of a year’s salary here,” Takashi said.
A year’s salary. That would be in the tens of thousands of yen, just for working one night. That was also something too good to be true.
“I appreciate the kind offer, but I must decline,” I said.
“You are turning down the chance of a lifetime.”
“I’m eighteen years old. I’ve got plenty of chances of a lifetime left. Excuse me, I must really get back to work.” I got up and pushed the chair back under the table.
“Your father would be very disappointed in you for passing up an opportunity like this,” Takashi said, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. The words felt like a punch in the gut. I looked back at him, feeling my blood boil.
“And your wife would be disappointed in you,” I said. “For raising a psychopath that gets off on defenseless girls being beaten up!”
“Why you little…!” Takashi Shirogane got up from his chair, pushing the table violently aside and making the place setting crash to the ground. The look on his face was one of pure rage as he faced me, fists clenched. Before I could let out a retort, Satoshi Mato came running out of the kitchen.
“What is going on here?” he asked, seeing the two of us staring each other down, the ruined food on the floor and the entire restaurant staring at us in horror.
“He started talking to her, and…” Rumi started to say, but Satoshi walked past her and stood between the two of us.
“Both of you. Leave. Now,” he said.
Takashi Shirogane picked up his jacket from the back of the chair that had fallen to the ground and put it back on. “Vanilla Koizumi,” he said, “don’t think you’ve won this battle.” I watched him as he strode out of the restaurant, the bells on the door clanging loudly.
Satoshi’s gaze shifted to me as I was watching Takashi Shirogane leave. “I’m sorry, Mato-san,” I said, as I sullenly walked into the locker room to change.
“You’re home early, Vanilla-chan…what’s wrong?” My mother looked up from her reading as I came in the door.
My face was still a mask of anger and I walked quietly past her into the house, not saying a word. I went into my bedroom and flopped facedown onto my bed.
Now I don’t even have to worry about Scarlett closing, I thought.
That little bitch, Takashi Shirogane thought as he strode through the hallways towards his office. How dare she invoke the name of his beloved Hibiki like that!
He opened up his desk drawer and took out a cheap prepaid cell phone—a burner phone he used for one purpose, and one purpose only. He turned it on and dialed a specific number he had committed to memory.
“Shirogane-san! What a pleasant surprise. I haven’t heard from you in a while,” said a man’s voice at the other end.
“I have a job for you,” Takashi said.
“Just say the word, and me and the boys will take care of it.”
“I will send you the name, description and whereabouts of a certain person that I want in your possession within the next 24 hours.”
“I see…important business deal?”
“Of sorts. I’ll tell you the details once that person is in your possession.” Shirogane smiled. He hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, looking at a photograph of his older son.
You served me well, Taiga, he thought, as he touched his face through the glass. But now…I’ll take over where you left off.
The next morning, I felt simply awful. I hadn’t slept a wink all night, thanks to a pounding migraine headache, and I didn’t want to get out of bed, either. I forced myself to get up, get changed and pack a lunch for school before Caroline and I made our way down to the train station.
“Vanilla-san…what happened last night?” Caroline asked as we made our way towards the stairs. “You didn’t even talk to mom or open the door to anyone…”
“I think I’m getting fired from Scarlett,” I said.
“Long story...” We arrived at the turnstiles. “I’ll tell you all about it tonight.”
“Promise? I’m really worried about you,” Caroline said.
“I promise.” I slapped my pass against the reader. “See you later, Caroline-chan.”
As I entered the culinary arts building for morning lab, Toyota-sensei hailed me. “Vanilla-san, will you be able to help me with the first years again?” she asked.
“I think I can,” I said, “but…honestly I don’t know how well I’ll do.” I gave a half hearted smile.
“Well, it’s something easy today, at least. We’re working with fish!” Toyota-sensei smiled broadly, and I merely shrugged.
I went into the first year’s classroom to see that today’s topic was covering different ways of filleting some of the more common fish used in both Eastern and Western cuisine: mackerel, salmon, tilapia, cod. I recognized the class as the same one I had been sitting in on when I saw Tetsuya being bullied by his classmates, but Tetsuya himself was nowhere to be found. Hope he’s not sick or anything, I thought. I had to admit, I was kind of looking forward to seeing him.
“All right then, let’s start the lesson,” I said, as I opened up my knife case and held up the various knives used for the preparation of fish, giving a brief description on the proper use, care and keeping of each one. At the back of my mind, I could hear the nagging voice of Momoko Ijuuin telling me to be thorough. “Now then, remember when you’re filleting, to be thorough with the cleaning. Always have a source of running water nearby so you can thoroughly rinse out the cavity after you’ve removed the internal organs. Especially if you use worms as bait.”
After demonstrating the proper cuts to make, and all the steps necessary to fillet, I walked around the room to watch the students doing their work, and happened upon the boy who had pushed Tetsuya down the last time I had taught. He looked like he was in a good mood as he carefully sliced the head from his fish.
“That’s a very clean cut,” I said. “You look happy.”
“Shirogane’s finally gone,” he said, smirking.
“He didn’t show up in class this morning. Guess we finally ran him off.”
“…I see.” I walked away, wondering if everything was all right with him.
I was still feeling tired at lunch, so I bought myself a can of coffee from a vending machine before I sat down with my friends in the courtyard.
“You feelin’ all right, Vanilla-san?” Hanabi asked as she saw the expression on my face and the can of coffee in my hand.
“Rough night,” I said, sitting down.
“Lots of customers?”
“No…just one. I don’t really want to talk about it, please…”
“Really, Vanilla-chan?” Yomogi asked. She looked concerned. “Did something happen at the restaurant?”
“I met Takashi Shirogane...and I went off on him.”
“You went off on him…how come?” Hanabi asked.
I told everyone about Tetsuya’s warning the previous day, and what led up to the confrontation. “As soon as he mentioned my father, I just…saw red,” I said. “And I’ve got a feeling I’m probably not going to be working there anymore.”
“Has your boss said anything about that?” Kei asked. I shook my head.
“I haven’t heard anything from him. I’m on the schedule to work tomorrow, and he hasn’t got back to me about any changes.”
“Maybe you should go and apologize to him,” Yomogi said.
“I know. I want to. I’ve got to take responsibility for this,” I said, “but…he just made my blood boil so I decided to return the favor. I told him exactly what I thought about his son.”
“About Tai—the older son, right?” Hanabi asked. I nodded.
Salma had been listening quietly to everyone, and looked up from her packed lunch. “Who is this person you’re talking about?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” I said, “and…it’s not one that I really like talking about. Let’s just say that the person we’re referring to hurt me, hurt Yomogi-chan, and hurt some other people as well.”
Salma nodded. “I see.”
“Speaking of which,” I said, “I was teaching in Tetsuya-kun’s class again today and he wasn’t there. And one of those idiots who was pushing him around last time said he was hoping that he was gone for good.”
“…Really.” Yomogi said. Her expression looked extremely severe. She’d been the victim of bullying before starting at Umami Gakuen.
“I just hope he’s all right,” I said.
We gathered in our seats for the first class after lunch and watched as Aiko Kinomoto approached the class podium with a sheet of paper and a worried expression.
“I have an announcement from the headmaster’s office,” Aiko said, somewhat hesitantly. “A first year student, Tetsuya Shirogane from class 1-A, Yoshoku Division, was reported missing earlier this morning.”
Missing?! There were a chorus of murmurs from everyone in the room. “He was last seen around six o’clock this morning walking towards Makino Station. If anyone knows of his whereabouts, or has had any contact with him, please notify the headmaster immediately.”
As Aiko went to sit down, the murmurs increased.
“I heard he was being bullied…”
“Well, no wonder. That bastard’s his brother, after all.”
“Do you think maybe he…” There was a nervous pause. I looked behind me at Yomogi, who was beginning to get an uncomfortable look on her face.
I wished I had his phone number, or some way to contact him…hopefully he was just playing hooky or something like that. With a father like that, I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to run away, I thought.