Day two of the competition started bright and early.
First up, at eight in the morning was Prayikina vs Davis in battle: Kale. The MC made the announcement, putting two hours on the clock like a certain food competition host. And like a proper host, she spent the entire time, attempting to shove a microphone in the contestant’s faces.
Prayikina was more than willing to talk, about her Indian inspired dish. She was close to her dad, Akira Hayama, an Indian chef adopted at ten years old by a faculty member of the institute. He grew up at the school but never turned his back on his heritage of South Asia. He taught his daughter the culture of spices, aromatics and the courage to experiment.
She didn’t even need the entire clock time. Prayikina’s dish of Kale with Indian inspired paneer easily defeated Davis with his Kale wrapped venison.
I knew her secret. The Indian cheese was pretty bland and the fact that she used quick setting gelatin, it often came out even blander. But the texture was spot on, like a fluffy cloud of whipped cheese. I can only imagine what spaces she used to complement the peppery bitterness of Kale.
Prayikina did a victory lap around the arena, shaking hands with her many fans. From our seats, Gigi and I ran up her giving a hug. Gig, looking posh in her was squealing for joy.
At noon was the second match: Tomas vs Moma in battle Winter melon.
“Ew.” I never liked the stuff. To me, it was always one of those vegetables that tasted awful because of its status as a superfood. It had the texture of honey-dew with the taste of unripe cucumber.
Moma created a stew that masked the bitterness of winter melon, at least that’s what I heard from the announcer.
Next was James vs Giovanna in battle Tomatoes. Gigi shook her head with an audible groan. I could see why compared to the previous matches this felt like a slow-pitch in her favor.
The blonde glamour model actually walked over to where Prayikina and I sat, taking out her compact to check her lipstick. “This is bullshit. I’m about ready to walk out.”
Prayikina rolled her eyes. “Or you can walk away with the victory and the entire arena will adore you even more than they already do.”
Gigi leaned her arms backward, looking truly bored. “I don’t know, I’m not feeling it.”
“Just do what you love,” I suggested. “Raw, vegan, you don’t even have to go with an Italian theme.”
“You know what? You’re right. I’m going to go out there and do what I love.” Gigi did what she loved, she made a raw, vegan spaghetti marinara. She was a master of spices and flavors, creating a salad of sorts with a thick tomato-based sauce with flavors that were more Japanese than Italian, offering a more sweet, tangy experience.
I can’t even remember what James made, only that his meat and alcohol-based creation paled in comparison.
I had only a few minutes to give her a hug before my match. I ran to my station just as the MC announced us, “Kyle vs Elena in battle…” There was a pause as if her line on the teleprompter had been changed mid-sentence, “–Beef!”
“Um, what?” I gripped my knives as my mind filled with profanity. How exactly did the first three matches come to be vegetable-based but somehow my match against the son of the billionaire meat industry CEO was based on Beef? I tried to remain calm but then i looked to the judging table. Holy fuck! The three judges were the school principal Samuel Yukihira, Satoshi Isshiki a former alumnus who currently was now a Michelin star chef in New York and Isla Mito- KYLE’S MOTHER!
What kind of sick joke was this? I crossed my self as the opening buzzer started. “Please God, I need some inspiration.” We had just two hours to cook, plate, and serve. So, I needed a battle plan. “Beef.. what do I do with beef?” Needless to say, I didn’t like beef nor did I partake in any red meat in my average diet.
But if I had to use beef I was going to execute a surf and turf of sorts. From my mother, I knew how to Sous-vide, and from my father, I knew how to make bread, (and other pastry) in a superhuman amount of time.
“Let’s do this!”
I had my father’s bandana around my wrist. I could already feel his energy pulsating through me. But what I really needed was the fire. In one swift motion, I ripped the bandana from my wrist and tied the red cloth on my head, securing the knot at the base of my skull.
That was when I first heard the music.
“We came here to run it, run it, run it!”
Like a cheer from a distant land, the words echoed in my head.
“Just like fire, burning up the way,
We can light the world up for just one day.”
I could feel a beat, a tribal sound from my Eastern European fisherman heritage.
“No one can be just like me anyway.”
Time stood still as my mind slipped into a state of euphoria.
There was no one in the area except me. From the supply area, I grabbed sirloin and lobster, I quickly put them into separate poaching bags with butter and herbs. I would cook them both at the same time in the Sous-vide machine, as I started on my puff-pastry. I would make Beef Wellington with lobster and compound butter. I got this!
In a mixing bowl, I added a few sticks of butter. I would have preferred if it was softened but I knew the mixer would smash it to the correct consistency. To the bowl, I added parsley, garlic, and lots of cayenne pepper. The mixer whipped it to a cookie-dough like texture. I wrapped the butter mass into a piece of parchment paper before pressing it into a silicon mold and putting it in the flash freezer. (All in one long chain of movements that felt like a dance.)
I was having fun. Until the silence of the arena was broken by my mother’s profanity-laced shriek. I glanced over just long enough to know the whole story. “Oh fuck.”
Aunt Erica was in the audience with her husband and daughter when my mother stomped over. “Is this how little you think of your daughter?!”
“Whatever do you mean?” Erica asked in her usual calm, lady-like tone.
“You’re screwing over Elena Rose so Prayikina has an easy road to the finals!”
“Are you fucking kidding me, Mom?”
“My Kiki does not require such underhanded tactics,” Aunt Erica said. I really hoped that was the end of it, but I already knew Aunt Erica wasn’t finished. “But, dear Alicia, how is your husband?”
“Remy is just fine,” My mother answered through gritted teeth.
“Erica, don’t do this,” her husband, Akira muttered. I imagined he was gripping her hand, holding her back.
Principal Yukihira looked over, from the judging table. The tall Japanese man had dark red hair that he wore long like his legendary late father. He appeared to have been sleeping, using his arms as a pillow.
The sight made me chuckle.
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the skill level of the academy students, especially this year’s freshmen class. It was like a reunion of sorts since he was my godfather and his wife my godmother. But in regards to my aunt and mother, he seemed to want to wait and see where the cat-fight was headed before calling security.
“How was Remy’s trip to Sweden?” Erica asked.
“Sweden?” the question barely left her lips, but the tone was clear- she had no idea of when or why my father would have been to Sweden. “He’s fine, not that it’s any of your damn business.” And that was when my mother lunged at Aunt Erica and was only stopped by Akira physically pulling her off.
“Ladies!” Principal Yukihira shouted. “Please respect the students. This is their time to focus. You may tear each other’s throats out when the competition day is over.”
I returned my focus to my dish and the music in my head. I pulled my beef, assembling my deconstructed Wellington; beef smeared with mustard, topped with a butter-spiced puff pastry.
Kyle presented first, he made a broiled steak on a bed of garlic rice. The dish was passable. The treatment of the meat was at the level one would expect for the son of Isla Mito.
But I had been cooking at my daddy’s side from the moment I was born. I took off the bandana, letting the nerves flow from my mind like waves on a beach. Part of me wished i could still hear the music, but I needed to calm my mind and present with the poise and grace of a Nakiri.
I took a calming breath and presented my dish to the judges on a large family-style platter. “I made a beef wellington with lobster risotto.”
The judge looked confused. “Did you forget to plate it?” Isla asked.
It was only then I got a good look at what I had plated. there was a bed of puff pastry the shape of a turtle and on it’s back was a sculpted shell. I had no memory of doing that. “Cut into the pastry,” I said with a coy smirk. I assumed my dish was inside the turtle but if I was wrong it would be pretty embarrassing.
Isla reached for her knife and cut into the turtle, like an apple pie. “That is so cool! You wrapped the beef in perfectly cooked risotto so that every bite contains an entire spectrum of flavors!”
“Mom,” Kyle groaned.
I won by a mile. I smiled, laughed, there was joy and pride for one reason, and one reason only; I officially did better than my mother.
“There you have it, folks,” the MC announced. “If you turn your attention to the screen you will see the brackets for the semi-finals.
The arena filled with camera flashes, all ready to report on the next round’s match-ups. Looking up at the screen; I would be facing Gigi in the next round.
Now all eyes were on Principal Yukihira to determine the theme. He pressed a finger to his head, in thought, as the MC held the mic to his face. “Um, for Moma and Prayikina you will be cooking with uh…” Iron Chef Chairman, he was not.
“JUST PICK SOMETHING ALREADY!” Aunt Erica shouted as her husband and daughter looked on in embarrassment.
“Fine- I pick chocolate. Each of your dishes has to highlight chocolate. Now for Elena Rose and Giovanna, your dish will be a pizza. The semi-finals will be held in two weeks, best of luck to all of you, ladies.”
As I hugged Gigi I noticed my father leaving out the fire exit. “What the?”
Principal Yukihira followed, lighting a cigarette before he was even fully out the door.
To stay hidden, I exited out a door a few feet down and around a corner, just far enough to be able to see and hear them
“Your little girl was really impressive,” said Principal Yukihira.
My father’s hands trembled as he lit a cigarette. “Thanks, that means a lot.”
“Have you told anyone about the diagnosis?” Principal Yukihira asked. They had all attended the school together and remained good friends. A true gift since my father otherwise had few friends.
“No, only you.” my father took a long drag from his cigarette as he gripped his stomach in pain. “After the surgery failed, there wasn’t anyone else. I couldn’t burden Elena, not in her first year away from home.”
“It’s ok, man, I’m here for you. But just a heads up, Erica knows about your trip to the pain clinic.”
“Of all people,” my father chuckled and shook his head. “I can already picture what Miss Erica’s going to say at the funeral. ‘Gee Alice, what kind of wife doesn’t know her man has terminal cancer?'”
Terminal cancer? I cupped my hands over my mouth to keep from crying.
“Sam, please promise me when I go you’ll watch over Elena Rose.”
“I might as well since I’m stuck here as interim principal,” he said in his usual jovial tone. “But you really need to sit down with Elena.”
“I’m not ready to tell my daughter I might not live to see her graduate.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know my cancer’s untreatable. Ali’s mother, she’s been a godsend. Without her, I would have taken my own life. She paid for doctors from all over the country, three surgeries, and followed by a few months of chemo. She tried, she gave me a fighting chance but my body just failed me.”
I’m going to tell you what I tell my kids, Sam said in a kind, compassionate tone, “You’re only a failure if you stop trying.”
“The first surgery took out most of the infection, just not the part that was already in my spleen. the second surgery took my spleen, pancreas, and God knows what else. and the third took out over fifty percent of my lower intestine before the doctors found more infection in my stomach. I have been fighting for a long time, I just don’t think I can fight anymore.” Dad finished his cigarette, stomping it to the ground. “The pain’s not unbearable and it’s been a while since a meal resulted in severe internal bleeding. The meds I got at the pain clinic were worth all of my Mother-in-law’s money.”
Apparently, before coming to watch me compete Dad had spent a week at a clinic that specialized in pain therapy for people in the late stages of terminal illness. His kidneys were failing and he was struggling with chronic pain in his bones in addition to a severely compromised immune system.
“Is this the definition of ironic?” Dad asked, shaking his head at the sun. “I devoted my life to food and now I’m going to die of stomach cancer.”
“Could you do me a favor?” Sam asked. “Just sit down and write Elena Rose a letter, something for that poor girl to hold on to.”
“When my old man died on that expedition, I always wished he had left him something other than just memories.”
“I guess I could do that,” Remy said with a sigh. “I have no idea what I’d say.
“And I’m sorry about your father. Ali and I, we, tried to make it to Japan for the funeral but I got hit with a bad fever. My lungs were seizing up, and then something about a medicated coma. I don’t really remember.”
“I got the card Ali sent. It’s hard to believe she doesn’t know how sick you are. I mean, what is she thinking?”
Dad shrugged. “she just thinks I get sick a lot, just part of my inferior genetics. Anyway, Sammy, How did your old man die; surfing in Bali, clubbing in Monaco? No, let me guess, he fell off the Eiffel tower while getting stoned off his ass?”
“He drowned in someplace called Jusenkyo. I think it’s in China.”
“This world is a crazy place. I’m really going to miss it.”
I quietly walked back to where Gigi was waiting. She leaned in to give me a hug, but i quickly pushed her away, leading for the bathroom. Thankfully the majority of stalls were empty, allowing me to run in and immediately commence vomiting while sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe.
“Lena?” Gigi’s voice said into the door. “Are you ok? did your mom do something?”
“I’m fine,” I said, still on me knees, with my hair falling into the toilet.
“You don’t sound fine.” Gig pushed the door slightly, as if to tell me it was unlocked but, she was too good a friend to barge in on me. “What did that cunt-bitch do this time?”
I giggled through the pain. “What woudl your dad think if he heard you swearing liek a sailor?” I got to my feet, pullign my hair into a ponytail.
Gigi handed me a paper towel. “My dad went to school with your mom, he knows what kind of person she is.”
“It’s not my mom. My dad’s sick.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“No, i heard him talking to principal Sam.”
“You ease dropped?” Gigi said in an accusatory tone. As if the fact that I over heard it made the information any less true.
“Then you have to let it go.”
“I can’t,” i said with a nod, knowing she was right.
“You made it all the way to the finals. You came here to make your dad proud.” Gigi held my hand, leading me to the sink to splash water on my face.
Gazing at my reflection, i coudl see how bad i looked. My makeup was smudged, making it look liek i’d been punched in the face. “I can’t let my mom see me liek this.”
“Then don’t,” gigi said sweetly. “Just because your parents are here dosen’t mean you have to spend time with them.”
“Are you blowing off your dad?” I knew her father had flown in from Italy to see his only child.
“You’re not the only one with secrets.”
“The fact you’re a vegan or your new boyfriend?”
“Does it matter? secrets are secrets,” she said with a shrug. “Coem back tot eh dorms and we can eat a meal of vegan junk food while watching horror movies.”
“Do you have the cheesecake?” I asked, referring to a soy yogurt-based no-bake cheesecake that tasted like absolute heaven.
“Yup,” she said with a smile. “With vegan chocolate, and cherry syrup, which should go great with a SAW movie marathon.”
“I do like Saw.” It would be nice to spend the evening away from my worries. “As long as you also have weed.”