Nine years earlier…
When I was six years old, daddy had been sent to Greece to meet with seafood suppliers. He’d been gone for a week, but that Saturday would be the day he returned.
In my adorable little mind, I knew I wanted to make daddy something special, using the vast extent of my skills. So, I put on a pot of boiling water to melt chocolate.
You can probably see where this is going.
I had watched mommy, nanny, and our dozens of maids plenty of times. Step 1: Reach the stove. I stood on a chair, wearing the long-sleeved dress mother put me in. Step 2: Grab the largest pot you can find and put it on the stove. It took a little trial and error but I got an empty soup cauldron on to the gas burner. Step 3: Fill with water, this was also difficult since I had to make several trips using a large drinking glass. Step 4: turn on the flame to its max setting (to help it boil faster.)
I was about to leave and search for some dark chocolate when I heard the distinct sound of my mother’s screech. “ELENA ROSE YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE KITCHEN UNSUPERVISED!”
I spun around, knocking the pot off the stove. Thankfully the water was nowhere near-boiling. I fell off the chair, landing hard on my arm. The initial impact hurt like hell, but it took a moment for me to realize the severity of the situation: my arm was on fire.
Mother was frozen in place, perfectly willing to watch me burn. A younger maid pushed past and quickly extinguished the fire with a towel. But I was still sobbing.
“Oh you poor, dear,” the maid said rocking me in her arms.
Mother grabbed the woman by her neck. “Get out!”
“I shall send for a doctor,” the frightened woman said as she rushed to the door, leaving me alone with my mother.
“You do that,” mother grumbled. Once the door closed, she slapped me across the face.
“I’m sorry mommy!” I cried but it was of no use.
She proceeded to lift my little dress and hit my back and legs with a wooden spoon. I cried and screamed for what felt like hours. And I know for a fact I was covered in bruises for the next month.
“Alicia Blair Nakiri!” My grandma stood in the doorway. “You get away from that poor little angel!”
My mother threw up her hands and obliged. But as she left she turned to me with a scowl. “You just wait until your father gets home.”
Grandma rolled her eyes as she picked me up. (Since that statement was the complete opposite of a threat.) She carried me to her bed where we waited for the doctor. Our family physician arrived, bandaged my wrist, and gave me some liquid medicine for the pain. I went right to sleep.
When I awoke hours later my dad was by my side. “That’s going to leave a pretty gnarly scar,” he said as he walked his fingers down my arm.
“I’m sorry, daddy.” I reached my arms out for a hug.
My father didn’t disappoint. “All good chefs have scars. We wear them with pride.”
I nodded. I’d always admired the scars on my father’s hands. Some were from cooking, but many were from the bad people who sold him after his own parents died. “Why doesn’t mommy have scars?”
That got a laugh. My daddy stroked my cheek, wiping a tear away. “That’s because I said, good chefs.”
Semi-Finals match, present day-
I sat with Dad and Jamie, in our special hidden place, to watch the next match.
The judges were Principal Yukihira, Uncle Akira, and food-tech heiress Alicia Blair Nakiri, my mother respectively. It was an odd choice, to say the least. But the judges had been selected months prior regardless of their relations. Unfortunately, this meant Prayikina and Moma would be cooking for both of their powerful, influential fathers.
Aunt Erica somehow found us and took a seat behind my dad. “Hey, Remy.”
“Hey, Erica,” he replied, patting her hand.
“I wish that was you instead of Alice, it would be a reunion of the three kings.”
Dad chuckled. “You’ll have to wait for the finals.”
“Wait, really Dad?” I honestly had no idea. “I get to cook for you!” I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest.
Aunt Erica pinched my cheek like a small child. “Aww, Elena is such a great kid, she really takes after her daddy.”
“So does Prayikina,” my father pointed out. It was not uncommon for bi-racial children to favor the darker of the two nationalities. My cousin had Akira’s dark skin, green eyes, and even his white-blonde hair. “No offense, Erica. Your daughter, of course, has your talent.”
“No offense taken, Remy,” Erica replied with a smile. “I’m glad Prayikina takes after her father. Akira is, and always has been, a wonderful man.”
Despite the emotion behind my aunt’s statement, my father was apparently not through joking around. “How did you end up falling for Akira? He’s great and all, but when the baby shower announcement went out, it really took everyone by surprise.”
Aunt Erica blushed as she looked at her husband. “Everything about Akira took me by surprise.”
I always figured they’d fallen in love because Uncle Akira was the very definition of tall dark and handsome. He was rescued from the streets of rural India, as a child. So, I always assumed he was Indian. As a young student, he looked very exotic. But as Akira Hayama aged, growing into the husband and father he would become, he developed distinctly European features.
Erica continued, “After graduation I expected Sammy to stick around, run his restaurant, be someplace I could always find him.”
Jamie choked back a giggle. “Did you just call Principal Yukihira- Sammy?”
My father turned to Erica, inviting her to sit between him and I. “So you’re saying you wanted Sam to come back to you, like a loyal pet?”
“Well, I certainly didn’t expect him to head to Singapore, Spain, France, China, and God knows where else, only to come back years later to elope with Megan.”
“It is what it is.” My dad shrugged. “So, what did you do for those two years?”
“I stayed at the school, working as Granddad’s assistant, taking the occasional tasting gig. To all of our high society friends, I looked like the good little girl, staying to help her aging grandpa. But in truth, I wanted to stay in one place, just in case Sam ever wanted to find me.” She glanced back at Akira with a loving gaze. “Akira, of course, stayed to help out his adoptive mom. He enjoyed helping with her research even during times when she traveled abroad, leaving him at the school. One day he asked for an appointment with Granddad, he wanted to apprentice towards becoming a teacher. So Granddad asked me to be Akira’s mentor.”
“Because he wanted you to get over Sam,” my dad added with a knowing nod.
“I guess,” Aunt Erica sounded genuinely sad. “I mean, I was pretty depressed at the time. And well, I always had respect for Akira. In addition to identifying ingredients, he can actually identify freshness. And his academic passion…”
My father bit his lower lip to keep from laughing. “Go on.”
“We hung out, he cooked for me,” she said as she closed her eyes. “And I swear to god every time he made me…” her lips transformed into an involuntary smile. “You get the picture.”
I shook my head, blushing. “Yeah, Uncle Akira is hot, we get it.”
Erica bit her lip, pulling her legs together as if getting aroused by the very mention.”One time, on Valentine’s Day, we each cooked one dish, something that would blow our senses. He prepared Fish Vindaloo.”
“And what did you make?” My dad asked.
Erica seemed hesitant. “You just want to embarrass me, I won’t give you the satisfaction.”
“No,” my dad replied with an innocent face. “Seriously, I’ve never heard this story before.”
“Fine.” Aunt Erica crossed her arms over her chest. “I made him a herb-crusted salmon with rosemary potatoes. That was the night little Prayikina was conceived.”
My dad cupped his hand over his face, but he could not stop himself from making one last joke. “But who were you picturing when you made love to your Indian spice genie?”
Erica slugged my dad in the arm. “Real mature, Remy.”
I expected him to say he was kidding, but nope.
He looked at her with his innocent, puppy-dog eyes. “Erica, as friends, let’s be serious, if Sam’s wife dropped dead later today, you would slit Akira’s throat in a heartbeat.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you for real, Dad?”
Thankfully, Aunt Erica only laughed. “I’ll admit, I have a little girl crush on Samuel, and I always will. But rest assured, I would not murder the father of my child.” She sat up a little straighter, looking toward the judging table. “But if both Akira and Sam’s wife were to die of natural causes, that would really be more of an act of God.”
My father’s eyes went large. “That look! Your little sadistic glare, that’s why you and Ali could never get along.”
Erica slugged him playfully. “Shush, you.”
“I know you as well as I know her, which is why I know for a fact it wasn’t just a crush. And if you ended up with Sam I will bet you anything your kid’s name would not have been hyphenated.”
“Better hyphenated then nonexistent,” she muttered. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”
“My name doesn’t mean anything. My family is gone. With the name ‘Nakiri’, Elena is royalty, with my name she’s the daughter of a Pub cook.”
“No, she’s the daughter of an academy graduate.” She held my father’s hand, “I’m going to make a promise to you, Remy. I’ll be the one to watch over Elena Rose. She’ll stay with me and Akira every summer. She and Prayikina will live as sisters. You know how much the girls love each other. Maybe when they’re older they can travel together.” Erina wiped tears from her eyes. “I’ll protect her. If she wants to take your last name I will file the paperwork myself.”
“I appreciate your kindness,” my father said, shaking her hand, “but Sam is her godfather.”
“But Prayikina is her best friend.”
The mention of Prayikina’s name caused me to finally pay attention to the match.
The time was nearly up, Prayikina presented to the judges her dish, an ice cream sundae. She made three plates, each decorated with colorful, rustic, dried spices.
“Since the theme of the battle was chocolate, I made a caramel-vanilla ice cream made with Indian inspired spices. This is served over chocolate rum cake topped with spiced chocolate sauce.” Prayikina spoke with confidence and professionalism until her eyes met my mother.
Unlike the other judges, my mother was moving the dish elements around with her spoon like a bored toddler, not even trying to taste.
“Aunt Ali is everything ok?” Prayikina asked, maintaining her smile since the cameraman had put a closeup of her on the jumbotron.
My mother scoffed. “Everything is quite up to standard.” It was clear by her tone, she meant that as an insult.
“Was it my presentation? I was trying to focus on the flavors.”
“To impress your father, I assume?” My mother muttered directly into her microphone.
Before Uncle Akira could say anything Principal Yukihira turned to her with a roar, “Just taste it already before I ram it down your throat!”
“Excuse me!” My mother stood up as if she was about to take a swing at him.
“Prayikina is not Erica and shall be judged as such. You are on this panel to be fair and unbiased.” He stood with arms crossed, waiting for my mother to sit down.
She threw up her hands and sat down, taking a large bite of Prayikina’s icecream dish. This immediately resulted in a visible expression of brain freeze (or icecream headache.) My mother looked mortified, especially when she saw her face on the jumbotron.
My father laughed so hard there were tears in his eyes. “And that’s why I chose Sam.”
Erica smiled in agreement. “Sam Yukihira certainly has a way of cutting through the bullshit.”
Next Moma presented her dish: a strange black soup that seemed to bubble in a cauldron of dry-ice. She presented the judges with three empty bowls and ladled a massive black tumor-like chunk of stew into each. “It’s a surprise, daddy,” Moma said sweetly. At that moment she looked down rigth creepy (which was not her style at all.)
Erica giggled. “I bet Sammy can hear our old principal’s ghost whispering in his ear, ‘She’s your Daddy’s granddaughter’.” True, Moma (and her older brother) were third-generation pranksters, but this was a major competition.
Uncle Akira, clearly wanting to be polite took a spoonful to his mouth tasting the evil, possibly poisonous, stew faster than he should have. The camera focused on his face, putting him on the jumbotron as he went pale. His throat was convulsing and his mouth was making a sound that was a combination of vomiting and a deep, wet cough. He was clearly trying to swallow the bite but it was truly painful. He placed a napkin to his mouth, spitting out the black liquid as professionally as possible. “Moma?”
“Yes?” she replied with a curtsey.
“What do you call this creation?”
Moma raised her eyes, smiling a sinister smile. “Caramel Squid and peppermint octopus in a chocolate mole sauce.”
My jaw dropped in shock, but Dad and aunt Erica were doubled over laughing.
“Oh, God!” Erica said, grabbing her side. “I guess you made the right choice to not be a judge.”
But Moma’s father was no amused. Principal Yukihira shook his head before slamming his fist on the table. “I should expel you for pulling a stunt like this.”
“Dad,” Moma sighed in her usual disenchanted voice. “Everyone knows I stood no chance at beating Prayikina.” She turned to offer her opponent a handshake. “No offense Kiki.”
Prayikina took a step back. “Don’t call me Kiki.”
Moma’s father shook his head. “Well, now Prayikina’s win is tainted by the fact that you didn’t even try. You would have been better off not showing up.”
The crowd started to jeer. “BOO! You don’t deserve to be in the semi-final!” “Your brother would have at least tried!” “You’re a disgrace!”
“That’s enough!” Principal Sam stood up, “For the final matchup between Prayikina and Elena Rose- the theme will be Eggs!”
As the crowd exited the arena, Moma returned to her station where she sat under the table in a fetal position. I knew I had to at least talk to her. “Hey, Jamie, want to come with?” I turned to my dad, to offer the same invitation. “Dad?”
“Oh hell yes,” my father turned to Erica. “I’ll catch up with you later go congratulate your lovely daughter, and maybe get your husband some anti-nausea medicine.”
“I most certainly will.” Erica gave dad a hug and patted my shoulder. “Great job today, Elena Rose.”
We carefully approached Moma’s hiding place. She seemed more annoyed than upset. Dad and I sat down beside Moma, with Jamie blocking on-lookers. I put my hand on her back giving a supportive slap. “That was kind of funny.”
My dad smirked. “It was more than funny, that shit was legendary.”
Moma smiled. “I know about the ramen battle where you blew my mom’s cooking out of the water. Every step of the way you accused her of not being a warrior at your level.”
My father nodded. “And she wasn’t, but she tried her hardest because cooking was her passion. Do you actually want to be a chef?”
I was shocked by the directness of his question, yet Moma seemed her usual quaint self. “I don’t know, food is all I’ve ever known. I’m the daughter of two alumni and my brother is on the student council. It’s kind of overwhelming.”
“This is your life. If you don’t want to be here you don’t have to. Hell, even your grandfather walked away from the Academy.” My Dad leaned back, crossing his arms behind his head.
“You’re right! I’m only fourteen, there is so much I want to do!”
“Then talk to your Dad, I’ve known Sam for a long time, trust me he’ll understand.”
“Thanks,” Moma shook his hand as she moved to stand up. “Elena’s lucky to have a dad like you.” She finally turned to me. “But you have to admit Prayikina’s dad is a lot hotter, total DILF.”
I chuckled nervously. “If you’re into dudes with bleached hair.”
“If Professor Hayama’s hair is bleached then why does Prayikina have the same color?”
“You just had to go and call him Professor Hayama.”
“Well, he isn’t my uncle.” With that statement, Moma got up and left. “See you back at the dorms.”
By the time we got back to our feet, the arena was mostly empty. “Should I be nervous about Prayikina?” I asked Dad and Jamie.
My dad remained resting comfortably on the floor. “I think she’s the one person you shouldn’t be nervous about. You girls are like sisters.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. No matter what happens at least I get to cook against my cousin it’ll be like when we were kids.”
“Yup.” Dad reached for his wallet. “Now do me a favor and take Jamie out for dinner. If you run into your mother, just tell her I’ll meet her back at the hotel.”
“So you plan on hiding in the arena?” I asked.
“Maybe I’ll catch a nap, or perhaps a smoke.”
“Ok, cool.” I decided to take him up on the offer. “See you tomorrow?”
My dad replied with a thumbs up. I knew that was all I could ask for.