Mason arrived at the Civic Center in Savannah, Georgia, by 7:50 a.m. on Monday, July 2nd, just as the letter he received instructed. He had been chosen to participate in the local southern cooking competition along with four other amateur cooks chosen from nearly 700 applicants. He was elated to be selected as cooking was his strongest passion.
The competition was to last a full four weeks with cooking challenges three days a week. Luckily, Mason lived right outside of Savannah, so he could research recipes and practice the required dishes at home. He was confident he could win since he had been a foodie since age 13. Now at 32, he had about 20 years’ experience and had applied for the competition to add something unique to his resume. Then, he would apply for a chef’s position in Atlanta at one of the high-end restaurants. This Southeastern Georgia Chefs competition was held every year in Savannah and would provide him, if he won, with prestige in the field of food as well as $10,000 he would use to relocate to Atlanta. His circle of friends included other foodies as well as a dear friend who had competed in the SGC competition the year before and been eliminated in the fourth week; a heartbreaking blow to him as well as Mason.
He parked his car in a nearby parking garage and walked down a couple blocks to the civic center. A huge banner reading Southeastern Georgia Chefs was hung across the front of the nearly 25,000 square foot facility. He trotted up six steps at the front entrance and went in. An easel held a poster with the SGC logo of a wooden spoon with a red gingham ribbon tied around the handle reading Southeastern Georgia Chefs and a large arrow pointing to the right. Mason took the invitational letter out of his pocket and walked toward the door he saw with another easel like the one at the front entrance. A man and woman were in line already and were having their letters verified and then were handed name tags. He stopped at the admission table and handed over his letter. A smiling woman glanced at it briefly and then handed Mason his name tag before instructing him to report to the director.
The room was quite spacious and there were five kitchen stations with black marble countertops and white bases set up in two rows. Each station was equipped as a full kitchen with assorted pots and pans, casserole dishes, baking pans, mixing bowls, a hundred utensils, a large food processor and stand mixer on the counter, a sink, and an electric oven. Everything looked brand new and shiny. Mason was in his element.
There were cameramen with cameras on tall pedestals, electricians fiddling with kitchen stations and people stocking the four refrigerators and pantry shelves he saw.
He spotted a man with a clipboard who looked like the director and walked over to him. He was talking to a group of four people, and when he saw Mason’s name tag, he smiled broadly and put out his hand.
“Mason! Welcome, I’m Trevor,” he said brightly, shaking Mason’s hand firmly.
The other people in the group had on name tags with their names and the word, ‘contestant,’ beneath.
Trevor got their attention and said, “Let’s go and have orientation,” and he led them to a conference room.
The five contestants sat down at a long table, and Trevor sat at the head.
Trevor began by saying with a big smile, “Welcome to the Southeastern Georgia Chefs competition! As you all know, you were chosen from about 700 people, and your preliminary dishes qualified you to compete in this annual competition. That’s no small feat in itself, so feel free to be confident.
“You’ve all seen the kitchen we created here at the civic center. You’ll each have a kitchen area to yourself, they’re all the same. On the first competition day of each week, there will be a skill challenge, which you will perform today. On the second day of competition there will be a baking challenge, and on the third day of competition, you’ll be asked to create a chef’s entree. All the requirements will be explained at the beginning of each week so, except for the skill challenge, you’ll be able to prepare and practice at home for the baking and chef’s entree challenge.”
Mason was listening as Trevor continued with the orientation, but was remembering what his friend, Bryce, had told him about the competition. The skill challenges were just that, a challenge of one’s cooking skills with no notice as to what it would involve. Different time limits were placed on each challenge, and these were a bit short to someone with little experience. Bryce was excited through the whole experience, doing well and using his cooking skills to stay in the competition. He told Mason about careless mistakes he had seen contestants make that eliminated them, and Bryce had assured him, his professionalism prevented him from making stupid mistakes.
“I’m a natural in the kitchen,” he had said with a laugh, “this is a breeze.” Mason winced as he remembered the day Bryce was eliminated. It was the fourth week, and Bryce was one of two contestants left. The two cooks would complete the challenges for the last week, and then a winner would be chosen on the last day after the chef’s dinner challenge.
In the second day that week for the baking challenge, they had been asked to prepare four popovers with pastry from scratch and the filling of their choosing. Bryce prepared the pastry by layering pieces of butter on the pastry dough and rolling it out with a rolling pin, folding it over on itself and rolling it out again to create multiple layers. He created an apple filling with Granny Smith apples for tartness and sugar to sweeten and flavored it with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. His puff pastry was browned to perfection and flaky with a done bottom, no wetness from the filling.
The two judges had carefully examined his dessert creation for technical prowess and then cut into it. They found the filling to be just right and smelling like apple pie. Bryce was proudly smiling, just knowing he was going to ace the chef’s dinner challenge and win the whole competition, but when the judges took a bite of his popovers, their expressions turned to confusion and then a grimace.
One of them touched his finger to the powdered sugar sprinkled over them and tasted it. He looked at Bryce and said, “Ugh, this is baking soda, Bryce, not powdered sugar.”
Bryce stood there dumbfounded, not knowing how this could have happened, but then he remembered the powdered sugar canister was on the right and the baking soda on the left. At the end of the week, even though his chef’s dinner was judged impeccable, it had come down to a stupid mistake that had cost Bryce the competition. Mason consoled his friend as well as he could, but Bryce fell into depression and even refused to try competition again.
Trevor was completing his speech about the competition and said, “Let’s meet the judges!”, and the easily recognizable cooking celebrities entered the room.
They were Doug Cross, known to all from being the host of a cooking show on the Cooking Channel, and Marilyn Carrington, also a show host from the Cooking Channel. Doug was in his late 50’s with gray hair and glasses. Marilyn was in her early 40’s with chestnut hair and a slim and fit figure.
All the contestants gave a collective, “ooh,” when the TV personalities walked in. It was worth it all just to meet them. They had a bright and strong presence in the room just like they did on their cooking shows. Trevor, Doug, and Marilyn encouraged them to do their best, but also to have fun, it was just a competition, and the world of food had more to offer than just this one experience.
Trevor rose from his seat and, motioning for the group to follow him, said, “Let’s go to your stations.”
The five of them followed Trevor to the kitchen islands, and Trevor said, “They’re all the same, pick which one you want.”
Mason went to stand behind the third island in the first row, which had been Bryce’s station. Three cameramen came over and began filming short bios of each competitor at their stations, and then filmed short segments with Doug and Marilyn saying how this local competition was exciting for them to be judges for. Mason had seen last year’s competition televised on the educational channel and was surprised at how many people it took to pull off such a production. In the video, you saw the cooks and the stations, but none of the staff such as the cameramen, the sound men, the director, and the kitchen staff who supplied the stations with food supplies. It was noisy in the large room with voices and equipment noises. He was ready to begin.
Presently, Trevor announced they were ready to begin filming the first segment, and the noise began to die down rather quickly. The cameramen and sound men took their places, and Doug and Marilyn stood on their marks in front of the stations. A make-up girl came over and made the celebrity judges presentable for the camera, and then they stood up straight and prepared to begin. The lead cameraman was holding up three fingers, counting down to when to start. When he pointed silently toward Doug and Marilyn, Doug began to speak.
“Welcome cooks to the Southeastern Georgia Chefs competition. This is your first week, so enjoy yourselves. Your very first skill challenge will be a well-known, but tricky dish: eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce. We ask that your Hollandaise be smooth and silky with just the right amount of tanginess, and your poached egg is done to the point that when we cut into it, the yolk will run down the English muffin. You must have a professional presentation in the dish of your choice.”
Marilyn continued with, “You will have one hour to complete your dish. Get ready, get set, cook!”
Mason began by reviewing all the ingredients he would need for the dish. He went to the pantry and retrieved three large eggs, a slice of Canadian bacon, an English muffin, lemon juice, salted butter, and white pepper. He reminded himself not to get cocky; Hollandaise sauce could be tricky and you could end up with scrambled eggs instead of sauce. He set about making the dish using a foolproof method for the sauce by pouring hot butter into a running blender onto the egg yolks, lemon juice and white pepper instead of carefully cooking the yolks with a double boiler.
Doug and Marilyn approached him as he worked, and Doug said with a smile, “You’re not a double boiler man?”
Mason grinned and replied while he continued to work, “No, I’ve scrambled too many eggs by mistake!”
Doug and Marilyn left him and proceeded to the next contestant to survey their work.
When he was finished making the elements for the dish, Mason carefully assembled his eggs Benedict, checking the plate for fingerprints and neatness. He glanced around at his competitors and saw that they were all attempting to make Hollandaise with the double boiler method. Confident, he added a garnish of twisted lemon peel and parsley and set his dish on the end of the counter.
Marilyn stepped to the front of the stations and announced, “Time’s up cooks!”
Then, they began calling for the contestants to bring their dishes to the judging table one by one. The first one’s Hollandaise sauce was lumpy, much to the disappointment of the cook. The second one was fine, but there was a fingerprint with egg yolk on the plate.
Mason was next called, and he took his eggs Benedict up to the judging table. Doug and Marilyn could find no flaws, and Doug told him, “Good job,” with a big smile.
“Thank you,” Mason replied professionally and returned to his station.
Watching everyone’s judging carefully, Mason was sure he had done well and expected to be named cook of the week on the end of the third day. Working carefully on the second and third days, Mason’s confidence was building, and not surprisingly he was deemed cook of the week at the end of the first week. The cook who had to leave seemed to have little knowledge of cooking, and Mason wasn’t surprised they were the first to be eliminated.
Mason spent his weekend reviewing recipes and brushing up on cooking basics, so when he returned to the civic center the following Monday, his confidence was strong. He continued to work carefully, and his dishes were judged to be well done by Doug and Marilyn. He had noticed they could be a bit overly critical and opinionated, probably due to their fame and fortune he presumed. Mason knew it couldn’t be their chef skills that took them to that level in the foodie world, it must be that they were connected to the right people. He knew he would be a major icon in the cooking world, but it would be because of his skills, not rubbing elbows with the right people in the industry.
He sighed when he thought how Bryce had missed his chance over a mistake that was harshly judged by Doug and Marilyn just a year ago in the very room Mason was competing now. One day I’ll judge you, and then you’ll see what your mistakes are, he thought ruefully, recalling his outrage when Bryce had told him about being eliminated. How could they throw away such great talent over a misplaced sugar shaker, Mason wondered?
Upon completing his chef’s entree on the last competition day of the second week, Mason was thinking, it’ll feel good to be the cook of the week for the second time. When they called him up to the judging table, Mason proudly presented them with his prime rib au jus. At first, Doug and Marilyn were very approving of his elegant dish, but then, very surprisingly, Doug added, “The plating is a bit lacking,” which he said with somewhat of a frown.
Mason restrained himself from saying you obviously don’t know who I am, but instead gave a brief nod of acknowledgment and returned to his station with his flawless dish as far as he was concerned. You’ll regret saying that when you name me cook of the week, he thought with great resentment.
The next contestant was called up, and his entrée consisted of bacon-wrapped smoked salmon with butter sauce.
Marilyn commented with a smile, “You went the extra mile and sprinkled your bacon with sugar to make it crunchy.” Then she quipped, “It’s not baking soda, is it?” and Doug and everyone else in the room laughed as they remembered Bryce’s mistake all the way from a year ago.
Doug went on to say, “What was his name, Bruce?”
Mason took a deep breath, turned his head to the side and glared at the floor. At least have the decency to get his name right; what’s so funny about a simple mistake, he fumed silently.
Presently, Doug and Marilyn were ready to declare cook of the week and who was eliminated. Mason thought, even though they’re mostly actors, they can still see who the best cook here is, and he wiped his hands on a kitchen towel in preparation of accepting his small certificate, but shockingly, Doug called another contestant’s name. Stunned, Mason barely concealed his anger at their arbitrary choice, but immediately gave a smile and applauded the cook they had called. My day’s coming very soon, and I’ll show them what a cook can really do, he thought.
After making his preparations for the third week of competition, Mason arrived at the civic center, determined to show Doug and Marilyn how wrong they had been and what horrible people they were. He shook his head in silence as he thought to himself, stupidity at its worst! Eliminating Bryce when they could have overlooked it! Criticizing my plating! Not naming me cook of the week! I’ll make a dish that will put them in their place today!
Mason took his place at his station with new determination and drive. Today I win, he thought. Doug announced the skill challenge, and Mason couldn’t believe what he had heard.
“Today’s skill challenge will be popovers! It can be sweet or savory, but it must have a very flaky crust of your own creation,” Doug said.
The same dish they ruined Bryce with! I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to show them up with, Mason rejoiced. He then set about making the puff pastry with many layers for flakiness. He chose a savory filling similar to roast beef with vegetables for maximum flavor. When his popover was beautiful and browned, he removed it from the oven and plated it with a garnish of a cherry tomato and parsley sprigs.
He could barely wait for his name to be called, and when it was, he confidently strode to the judging table and carefully set down his plate, smiling proudly at Doug and Marilyn. With their celebrity smiles gleaming, they mentioned the good flakiness and good plating. Then, they both cut into the popover with their forks and commented on the audible crunch of the pastry.
“So far, so good,” said Doug, “but, how does it taste?”
He and Marilyn both took bites of pastry and filling, and Doug said to Mason, “Wonderful flavor,” to which Marilyn agreed with a nod. “Good job,” Doug added with a big smile.
“Thank you,” Mason told them with a sly grin, and then picked up his plate and began walking slowly back to his station. He took his place behind his station.
Doug called up the next contestant and gave a small cough, and then another large cough, suddenly grasping his throat.
Marilyn cried quickly, “Are you choking?” and then clutched her own throat. Doug collapsed across the table and slid off onto the floor, no longer coughing. Marilyn was making a choking noise and fell to the floor just as quickly as Doug had. Everyone in the room was shocked, and many people ran to them, trying to help as best they could, Doug and Marilyn now limp on the floor.
One of the cameramen yelled, “He’s not breathing!”, and then yelled even louder, “Marilyn’s not breathing either!” Shouts to call 911 and to start CPR rang through the room.
Everyone there had gathered around the now cyanotic judges, except for Mason who, ignoring the chaos, was calmly placing the leftover popover into a plastic bag and sealing it up. Holding the bag, he walked out of the room and exited the building to the parking lot. He reached his car, unlocked it and got in, tossing the bag onto the passenger seat.
Smiling a contented smile, he remembered how this whole scenario had come to be and how he had made a sad story end rather well. He gave a little sigh when he remembered how Bryce had come home and, in a defeated voice, had told him he had been eliminated from the competition. Mason’s heart went out to his partner of three years who was standing before him in despair.
Though Mason and many of their friends encouraged Bryce not to give up on cooking, he became profoundly depressed and fell deeper into misery. Sadly, his major setback became a tragedy as Mason came home one day to find a note Bryce left on the kitchen table that said only, ‘I’m sorry.’
Desperately needing a release from the overwhelming grief of losing the love of his life to suicide, Mason planned the scenario that would avenge his beloved Bryce.
He first planned to enter the Southeastern Georgia Chefs competition and win, and donate the $10,000 in Bryce’s name to a suicide prevention group. Then, when Doug and Marilyn made stupid jokes about Bryce’s mistake, he knew what he had to do. He called his friend in Atlanta who worked at the Atlanta Fugu Dinner Club, a posh Asian restaurant where they served fugu: puffer fish, which requires months of training to be able to prepare the extremely poisonous fish safely. With the ruse of extending his culinary skills into the preparation of fugu, he persuaded his friend to give him a tour of the restaurant kitchen. When he saw his chance, he hid a puffer fish liver (having the highest concentration of tetrodotoxin) in a freezer bag in his jacket pocket.
Returning home to Savannah, he decided to bide his time for just the right opportunity to teach Doug and Marilyn a lesson. The opportune time had presented itself that very day with the icing on the cake being the same challenge Bryce had been eliminated from. Mason cooked the beef filling and, as the last step, mixed the diced raw puffer fish liver into the mixture, preserving the full strength of the tetrodotoxin, making for rapid paralysis of the respiratory system.
Mason smiled fondly as he thought, I did it, Bryce. I beat them at their own game. Now, they’re the ones eliminated. Hearing sirens in the distance, he drove away, awarding himself cook of the week.