I stood backstage, glancing up at the massive crowd. Our match had been publicized in the newspaper as the ‘Superstar Ladies of cooking’ complete with our modeling head-shots. “How the heck did they even get this picture?” I asked out loud. I wasn’t a model, the image was something akin to a school picture where I’d been giving my best ‘reality TV star’ impression. I had made sure to use nearly every makeup item I owned, looking like a sexy wannabe with bedroom eyes and lips that looked like that of a blowup doll. “Mom is going to be pissed. Oh well.” I looked towards the main arena.
The MC took to the mic. For this round, she was a small girl dressed in Gothic Lolita attire. “First into the arena is the goddess of greenery Giovanna Aldini!” Her voice was surprisingly powerful and her energy was truly attention-grabbing.
Gigi strutted in like a model, waving to her fans like a Miss America contestant, before striking a pose under the stage lights. The crowd roared, some whistled. I couldn’t help but look to where her father sat. He seemed calm but did not applause with the same enthusiasm.
“And our second contestant is the princess of fire, Elena Rose Nakiri!”
“Princess of fire?” I made my equally grand entrance making my way directly to Gigi to exchange a high five and a one-armed hug. “This is so cool, right?”
Gigi chuckled nervously. “I can’t believe how scared I am.”
“What? why?” I asked, with a smile, assuming she was being sarcastic.
She looked to where her dad sat with the other alumni. “My dad doesn’t know I’m a vegan.”
“But you won your first-round match-up with a vegan spaghetti marinara.” I knew that argument held no water since spaghetti marinara was pretty much always vegan.
“He thought I was being cute. You know, since the theme was tomatoes.”
“Now you’re joking, right?” I muttered under my breath as I maintained my crowd-friendly smile.
“You’re so lucky, your dad believes in you no matter what. I actually asked my dad not to come to this round.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Well, he didn’t listen.” I motioned towards a tall blonde man in the audience, hoping to catch him smiling, waving, or anything that would show how much he loved and believed in her. But he was stoic. I’d like to think he was focused on the competition at hand and not completely embarrassed by the fact his daughter was the ‘dream girl’ of every student and staff member with a pulse.
Gigi only sighed. “Great. Well, at least your mom is here, too, so we can both be uncomfortable together.”
“Oh piss off.” I looked at where my parents sat. My father was resting his head on his wife’s shoulder, looking physically and emotionally exhausted.
“Is your dad feeling ok?” Gigi asked, her smiling faltering. She seemed truly concerned.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t he be?” As usual, my dad was looking visibly tired. He was even shivering as if coming off of a drug-induced high. But that didn’t stop him from making his way over to Gigi’s father. “Hey Tony, I hear you’re turning your Michelin star restaurant into a salad bar!”
Gigi’s father facepalmed as if he had heard it all before. “So, she likes to work with vegetables. What’s the big deal?” It was clear by his tone that he possibly already knew Gigi was vegan and had to endure jokes and harassment by friends and family.
“She doesn’t even cook pasta!” My father was laughing so hard people were staring.
I looked to see where my mother was. I’d thought she would have wanted to prevent my father from making a scene, but no. She seemed content, pleased with the fact that dad was attacking like a dog on a leash.
“What does she eat at home? And don’t tell me she’s one of those social justice chicks who preaches about the ozone or how all the fish are going extinct.”
Tony Aldini sighed, staring straight ahead. “When’s the last time you cooked beef or chicken?”
“At least I can.” My father’s words caused my mother to laugh.
“Jesus Christ, Dad.” I honestly hoped that was the main reason for his childish behavior; even if she was abusive to him, my mother was still a bad influence. She was like an older sibling, daring her subordinate to act a fool for her own personal entertainment.
My rage was boiling over when, luckily, the buzzer rang to start the timer for the match. I started on my Greek yogurt flatbread. Looking over at Gigi I could see she was making a thin, almost liquid batter that she poured into a pot of oil.
This allowed her to make a cracker-like crust and quickly set it aside. As she got her red sauce prepared (a rather basic mix of oil, chilies, and tomato paste) Gigi took down a tea kettle along with some herbs. At first, I assumed it was part of her dish but to the surprise of everyone, she poured a cup of tea offering it to my father.
“What the fuck, Gigi?” I tried to ignore her but what happened next blew my mind.
“Hello, Mr. Moceanu, I am so honored to make your acquaintance.” Gigi looked like an awkward waitress, waiting for a reply of acknowledgment even as the competition timer was counting down.
My father made no effort to reach for the tea. “What’s that?” He leaned back in his seat, furthering the distance between them.
“It will help with the pain in your stomach,” Gigi explained in a calm, professional tone.
I could see my mother snickering. She patted my father’s leg as if coaxing him to continue.
I was cringing, trying to stay focused on my prep as to not fall behind on my dough and sauces.
The arena was dead silent as the confused MC froze in place. Usually, this was the part when she would narrate what was being projected on the jumbotron. But what was on the jumbotron was my father giving a deadpan, patronizing, smile, like some kind of creepy shark. “Oh, is it that obvious Ms. Aldini?”
“I know a lot more than just vegetables. I know the medicinal properties of herbs- and I know how to cook meat eggs and dairy. Otherwise, I would have never made it through training camp week. The only reason I’m cooking a vegan dish is that the Autumn finals are all about expressing who you are as a chef. You of all people should know that.”
My cheeks went red. “Oh, crap…” Gigi had heard his earlier comments and she was calling him out!
“Perhaps you should express yourself back to the main stage.” My father took the teacup and let it drop to the ground with a shatter and a splat. “Little girl.”
It was all I could do to keep my focus on my seafood, as my best friend violently lunged at my dad.
Thankfully Gigi’s father stood up getting between them. “Giovanna get back to your station before your… sauce burns.” It was clear by the pause that he stopped himself from saying
“You fucking serious, Dad?” she muttered, pushing away.
Gigi’s father grabbed her arm and walked her back to the competition floor. She walked with him, but she was not happy about it. “Has Remy Moceanu always been such an asshole?”
“Yes,” her father replied. “You’re lucky he’s mellowed over the years or I’d be scraping your remains off the ceiling.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. At that moment he was Tony Aldini, the academy student and one of my Dad’s best friends. “Back to cooking,” I muttered as I added the marinated oysters and raw eggs before putting my pizza into a salamander broiler. I then turned to Gigi while snacking on some extra pickles.
I wasn’t about to point out her unprofessional actions (I’m sure the reporters would do that just fine.) Instead, I just sat back and watched her next move.
Gigi started her arugula salad, adding a simple vinaigrette. An oily salad upon an oily sauce on a deep-fried cracker, what was she thinking?
The judges for the round were Aunt Erica, Principal Yukihira, and Gigi’s uncle Ilian ‘Eli’ Aldini.
“You can go first, Elena,” Gigi said as she plated her pizza into individual portions that looked aesthetically beautiful.
“Um, sure.” I present first. Since my presentation depended on the cutting of runny egg yolks mixing with the salty brine of oysters and cheese, I served the three judges from one massive platter. “Ladies and gentlemen, what I have prepared today is an oyster Rockefeller inspired pizza. The creaminess of the runny eggs pair with the oysters on a bed of mozzarella, ricotta, and a buttery sauce. This is all topped with toasted nutritional yeast to cut through the rich flavors.”
Aunt Erica cut into the pizza a gave me a nod of approval. “Very creative, Elena. Just like your father, you know the value of taste and flavor over presentation.”
“Did you just call my pizza ugly?” I forced my best beauty queen smile. “Thank you, Aunt Erica.” I turned to the side, just in time to see my face on the jumbotron. It was actually kind of cool. I blew a kiss at the camera, and then it was Giovanna’s turn.
Gigi handed out three separate plates, without so much as a fake grin. She tilted her head, and simply muttered, “Enjoy.”
Aunt Erica shook her head. “You really should have created more elements. This is dish any five-year-old could make.”
Gigi only nodded. Clearly, she was still upset.
Her uncle Eli, a chubby-cheeked man with a kind smile looked at her with concern. “I’m sorry Gigi, but perhaps you did not make good use of your time.”
“I made what I intended on making,” Gigi said through gritted teeth.
“You know what I mean.”
Those words caused Gigi to finally break. “I was trying to do something nice!”
Principal Yukihira stood up. “Giovanna!”
Gigi crossed her arms, as tears welled up in her eyes.
Our principal sighed. “If that was the case, your act of kindness could have waited until after the match. It is clear to everyone here that you were calling out Elena’s father.”
The crowd started to murmur. This was a side of Gigi that her fans had never seen. “The arrogant bastard said a vegan had no place at the Academy!”
“Did you just call my dad a bastard?”
My father who had been seated nearby stood up. “I said no such thing.” His tone was serious, somewhat offended.
Now I had a choice to make, taking sides between two of my best friends. “G,
you are one of my best friends, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for you.” The argument with Jamie went through my head; there had been so many times when I defended her. It was actually kind of pissing me off. “But you will not insult my father.”
Gigi’s father stood to speak next, “I would have to agree. Remy Moceanu is an esteemed graduate of the academy, deserving of your respect.”
Gigi nodded. “I apologize, sir,” she said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “People cheer for me because of my looks, but when it comes to my cooking I always feel like such a freak.”
A concerned hush came over the crowd.
Remy stepped forward, approaching Aunt Erina. “May I?”
“Certainly,” she replied with a professional demeanor.
The cameras came closer, as he broke off a piece of sauce-covered flatbread and took a bite. “I could make this better.”
“By adding fish?” Erica asked with a chuckle.
“No, from a vegan perspective you could have upped the acidity with kalamata olives or even some cherry tomatoes with red onions would have paired nicely. Even a cream-based sauce using almonds would have added a new layer of flavor.”
Erica nodded in agreement. “That’s actually a very accurate suggestion.”
My father turned to Gigi. “And, Miss Aldini, I would never say a vegan has no place at this academy. As my fellow alumni can attest, the culture of this institute has been molded on the backs of innovation.” He gave a nod to the judges, who seemed to agree. “You are not a freak, Giovanna, you cook the food you want to eat. That makes you truly brave.”
“Thank you, sir.” Giovanna turned to the judges. “If you please, just make the official announcement so we can all go watch Moma and Prayikina.” She reached for my hand. “Elena deserves it.”
Aunt Erica agreed and spoke gracefully into her microphone. “Moving on the finals is Elena Rose!”
The crowd erupted with applause.
Gigi put her arm around me, smiling. It was truly one of the happiest moments of my life, but I just had to ask. “G?”
“Yeah?” she replied with her usual beauty pageant smile.
“Can I ask, what possessed you to make that tea?”
Gigi took a deep breath through her smile, resulting in an akward whistling sound. “I know you love your dad more than anything. I mean, the way you talk he’s Keith Richards, Gordon Ramsey and Jesus all rolled into one.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I need to write that one down.”
Gigi looked off in the distance. “Remember how last summer I did volunteer work in India?”
“Feeding the homeless, and working at orphanages, to use as a platform when you try for Miss Teen Italy. ”
“Yeah, Miss Teen Italy,” she said with a groan. “I learned from the nurses on staff how to identify various illnesses. That’s how I could see your dad suffering from severe anemia. But apparently not severe enough to stop him from talking smack about me.”
Before I could reply, Gig’s father joined us, as we walked backstage. “I hope you now realize, Elena’s father was just screwing around.”
“Yes, Papa,” Gigi replied, a slight Italian accent slipped out as she hung her head in shame. The story would likely be all over the school news.
“And the critique on your food, that was the words Remy Moceanu the husband, and father. If you met him back when he was a student you would be running for the hills.”
Gigi gave a knowing nod. “Then I’m glad I didn’t, Papa.”
The three of us walked back to the smoking area. “So you’re seriously a vegan?” he asked as he lit up. “Does this mean I can’t make you any of the pastries you used to love as a kid?”
Giovanna slugged him in the arm. “Don’t worry dad, I’ll teach you all about the use of egg and dairy substitutions.”
“So you still want to take over my restaurant someday? Or do I leave it all to your cousins?”
“Daddy! I can cook traditional Italian!”
Her father laughed. “I was kidding, but if you want to work in a real kitchen someday you need to grow a thicker skin.”
I knew that was my cue to leave. I went to find out where my father was smoking, but he was nowhere to be found. That meant he was back in the arena awaiting the second match.
Prayikina and Moma would be interesting; the prodigy vs the daughter of the principal. I went back inside, trying to decide on a place to sit. That was when I spotted Jamie standing by the emergency exit.
“Jamie!” I shrieked, rushing into his arms. “Where were you, Babe?”
“I stayed up in student seating,” he said with a shrug. “I didn’t want to distract you.”
“Distract me?” I asked while leaning in for a kiss. I discreetly slipped my hands under his shirt, feeling up his stomach muscles.
“Well, I had no idea that G was going to pick a fight with your old man.”
That killed the mood. “I need to find my dad. Have you seen him?” My hand was still inside my boyfriend’s shirt, as Jamie’s muscles tensed. “You ok?”
“Hello, Mr. Moceanu,” Jamie said loud and nervously.
I turned to see my father standing behind me. “Dad!”
“Not going to lie, I actually would have preferred to catch you two singing,” Remy muttered. “Not that I have any room to talk when it comes to inappropriate behavior.”
“Yeah, that was a little harsh,” I said, biting my tongue. “Did you really have to dump the tea?”
“I think what you meant to say is ‘did you really have to make an innocent schoolgirl cry,” my father replied with a chuckle as if this was all a big joke.
I turned to Jamie. “Can you excuse us for a moment?”
“Sure,” he replied with a nod. “I’ll go see what G is up to.”
Jamie left in one direction so I pulled my father in the opposite. “Are you sick?”
Again, my seriousness was met with laughter. “Come on, now.” But once he saw how serious I was my father sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “You don’t need to worry about it.”
“I think what you meant is you don’t want me to worry about it.”
“Yeah, exactly.” He took my hand, giving it a tender squeeze. It was the kind of gesture that a child gives a parent when they’re truly afraid.
“Ok,” I said with a smile. “Want to watch the next match from backstage?”
“To avoid sitting with your mother?”
“Yeah, exactly.” I rested my head on my father’s shoulder, as we walked together to the backstage area, to a section of the arena behind the spotlights.
Jamie was already sitting crosslegged on the floor. “Saved our spot, El.” He turned to wave and then proceeded to pause awkwardly.
My father sat between us, patting his arm to Jamie’s shoulder. “Jamie, so nice to see you again.”
“Same here, Mr. Moceanu,” Jamie replied with a respectful nod.
“Call me Remy.”
I felt a sense of warmth in the depths of my soul. This was what it felt like to be truly happy. “I love you Dad.”