A/N: So!!! This is a much longer chapter because it's late but the full chapter is a complete of, like, 10k words and I'm not even done yet so I just thought you guys wouldn't want to wait for another week and decided to put half of it up here first.
I'll be updating on Instagram when I post the possible 21.3 so look out for it ;v; the reason why its so long is because... we're getting that yummy romantic goodness real soon. REAL SOON OK SO PLS BE PATIENT YAY.
Cutting to the chase wasn’t a bad idea but it conversely made the two of them slow down and further waste my time. There was little to figure out and zero clouds to part. I’d laid it out in simple fucking elementary words that a baby would understand. I raised a brow at the expressions on their faces. “What?”
“Uhhh,” the girl continued to exchange looks with the photographer. “Are you referring to Xu?” Even the photographer pinched the bridge of his nose. I was about to advise her on listening to her own questions when the subject of our conversation neared us with a basket of maito ready to be grilled. Of which one seemed to be done already.
“Leroy, I need you taste this. I’ve added to the mushrooms chopped chillies and bits of minced wild garlic to cook but there’s—o-oh. Oh, was I… sorry, are you…” He squinted at the two standing before the stone slab. “Jael! And Sarah. Good god, I didn’t… I’ll just leave this here and you can go on with the interview. Sorry for interrupting. I didn’t mean to.”
His club members shook their heads and moved aside, telling him we were just about done. I was already staring at the cooked maito he’d unwrapped, hit by the fragrance of garlic, spice and oils. The entire thing was packed with flavours from being cooked in the natural juices of its contents. Added to that the char-grilled scent of banana leaves infused into the mushroom mix, it turned heads.
“My hands are dirty,” I said before leaving my mouth open. Close enough for him not to squint. His jaw dropped.
“I’m sorry Leroy, but as you can most probably tell with your twenty-twenty vision, we’re in the middle of a rainforest without the luxury of utensils.” He held the maito up in my direction. “If you think that I can somehow conjure for you a fork like your very own fairy godmother, you are terribly mistaken.”
How glasses without glasses could solve calculus shit in his sleep and yet never get my subtext was the greatest fucking mystery of all time. I reached for his forehead and after flicking it, laid the words out in easy mode. “Feed me, dumbass.”
This took him a moment to register and another moment to look around, freezing up when he noticed the two other journalists still hanging around. He turned back to me with what he must think was his stern face, whispering. “Absolutely not! Only a fool wouldn’t learn from their mistakes and I’m clearly not one of them. Falling for the same trick of yours you pulled at the cafeteria would be an embarrassment. Goodness, the pictures… I shrivel up and die just thinking about it.”
He pushed the maito in my face and I gave up, tearing a strip of the barbecued leaf and using it to pick up a couple of mushrooms and peppers. Ate the whole thing in one go.
“Camera-shy?” It was good. “This is done. Add half onion rings in there if you can. Or a bell pepper strip. But apart from that,” I gave him the green. He nodded, taking a nibble of an oyster mushroom.
“The natural juices turned out well. Oh! And about the dining arrangement Bank just did… I was wondering if I could advise him otherwise? He hasn’t started the bonfire just yet, or the smoke and wood grill for the fish. I’ll help with the table setting and be done in less than ten. After which, I’ll… um, either start cooking the bamboo dish or is there anything you…?” He left the question open, seeming to have read my mind.
“Help me taste the fish after you’re done,” I told him. “Let Si Yin do the bamboo solo. She knows what she’s doing.”
“So I’ll leave Nabila with the maito too. Perhaps I’ll simply make rounds tasting everything for now,” he’d sorted things out on his own in the shortest time possible. “Alright, I should, um, go start the arrangement with Bank.” He met my gaze briefly, then was about to leave with the half-finished maito when his fellow journalists started gathering around him.
“Do you mind if we taste this?” “For research. Research.” “It smells so good.” “Did you get the shot of the original?” “Yeah also part two of feeding boyf—uhh, yeah.” “Wow, this tastes really good. How did you get the idea of…”
With timing being one of the key factors to making this work, we banked on the facilitator giving us an accurate time frame before the judges arrived, deciding to only get to the actual cooking of the mains when they were seated. Since our team wasn’t working with a three-course meal, there wouldn’t be a separation between the appetiser, entrée and dessert. All eight dishes (save the dessert) had to be on the table at the same time or we’d risk having the judges eat something cold.
While waiting, the photographer from before came up to me. He asked if I wanted to look at his shots. I didn’t say anything, but he began scrolling on his phone and showing me a couple of his best. They looked good. He let me have his phone to see the rest.
It kept vibrating and notifications popped up at the top of his screen non-stop, all social media platforms and all comments or likes on his post; whatever it was. He noticed and told me to ignore them. “I’m logged into the school press account and everyone’s been keeping track of the teams, so.” He turned off his connection and handed it back to me.
“So, uh… I’m super glad you like my work so I was, you know, just thinking… if you have any upcoming events or interesting stories you’d like someone to cover, I could, like, be your personal photographer or something. Exclusive rights, I’m saying,” he cut to the chase. Business.
He could have a deal. “If you send me the ones from the other day,” I told him, fore deciding to include those from today. He agreed and asked for my number.
“I’ll send you a link to the whole Google drive. Got it all ready for you man,” he retrieved his phone after I typed my number into it. “By the way, not sure if you already know this but posts with you and White get a whole lot of attention. Tenner and Chen’s teams were done with the judging some time ago but the traffic’s blowing up since the judges are headed here now. Tenner’s capped at a hundred and… something watching the stream but you guys are about to hit double that. Not counting the ones waiting on Twitter for updates though. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube live streams for you guys might be approximately, like, five hundred in total.”
I was listening but also looking out for drops in energy level across the team. Already, it had been a long day. We were standing in a row before our prep, delegated dishes assigned to each one of us and waiting for the six judges to show up. Behind, Bank had already got the fire going. Everyone was involved in some form of quiet conversation. Jael moved on after taking the hint.
Beside me was the only person trying to concentrate, staring at a spot on the ground that he probably couldn’t even see. He was chewing on his bottom lip. Thinking.
Then suddenly, people were turning to look at something in the distance. “That’s them.” Movement. Glasses without glasses continued to squint. No one was quiet for a second. Slowly, several instructors came into view, accompanied by the dean and some other members of the student union. And bigger cameras.
They made their way downhill, coming towards us with clipboards and faces that did not look like they were ready to eat. It was part of the challenge; having to impress instructors who just had their fill of the other teams. Tenner would be first, then Chen. Birchwood, last. Some of them seemed to notice our set up from afar.
“Um, Leroy?” A tug on my sleeve.
I turned, waiting. He was looking at me blankly. “Would you be so kind as to provide me basic information of what’s happening?” He rolled his eyes. I reached over to flick his forehead.
He groaned under his breath. “Any names? Who’s judging?”
I named the first few starting towards us, noting that there were a couple of others lagging behind. “The dean. Marseille—”
“Which dean?” He had to ask with a second frown. “We have four. One for each major, if you aren’t aware.”
That was not a question I knew the answer to so I thought for a while before concluding that I didn’t know his name either. “He’s the only one I see around.”
“Alright, Chef Allan, then. Associate dean of culinary arts.” He was overestimating my ability to remember names again and it was cute. “And Chef Marseille. And then?”
“Romanov. Someone… two… someone’s… don’t know them.” I felt him pinch my arm. It was mild. “A local and. Oh. Doña Brazi. And Lindy.”
He registered this with a blink, pausing for a second before looking up at me with a startled expression. “Miss Doña Brazi’s here, too? Perhaps acting as an unofficial judge. Or, well. I wouldn’t be too sure—but, did you say Chef Lindy?”
I turned back, checking. Wasn’t wrong. “Yeah.”
He stared at me with wide eyes. “Chef Lindy?” He looked like he was waiting for me to get that something was wrong. And then he glanced at one of the baskets in front of us.
“Fuck.” I mapped backwards, knowing that we’d already used some of them in the rub for the fish. Then turned to him. “The maito too?”
He nodded, gaze resting elsewhere. “I told Nabila to put in a strip after consulting you. But, perhaps this isn’t a species that she would react… good god what nonsense am I saying,” he let slip a sound that I almost mistook for a squeak. “The maito should be fine. All we have to do is remove the strip from—”
“Heeey guys, what’s with the scary faces?” Raul. He noticed only after ending his conversation with Rosi on the other side, alternating between glasses and me. “You look like we’re gonna lose.”
He received a good lecture. “That’s ridiculous! We’re not going to lose, Raul,” he insisted under his breath. “Leroy and I were just, well, we were concerned how Chef Lindy’s one of the judges and the facilitator must have… she must have missed her out or something, not knowing… good god, how unprofessional.”
“Wha, but isn’t that great?” Raul was high on nerves. He looked drunk. “She can see how good we are.”
“No.” “Absolutely not!”
It’s not like we planned for this to happen, but he was perfectly in tune all of a sudden and it made it all very sexy. My lodge mate stared and already, the judges were less than fifty feet away and likely within earshot. “I, like, I don’t understand.” Glasses huffed, folding his arms and fingers tapping on the sides.
“Bell peppers.” “She’s allergic to bell peppers!” Guess we’re pretty compatible.
I wasted no time in confronting the facilitator about her mistake, asking if she’d be responsible for us not knowing about the allergy or how else we could resolve the issue. She, too, hadn’t seemed to be expecting Lindy.
“I wasn’t informed of a bell pepper allergy,” she said.
I frowned. “You mean you didn’t know there would be someone with a bell pepper allergy or you didn’t know Lindy was going to come?” Her answer was vague and useless. It wasn’t worth spending any time getting hung up on this instead of actually thinking of solutions. I turned to Nabila, telling her about the maito. The rest had moved up front to welcome the judges.
“What about the fish?” She hissed. “This is unfair.”
“You just deal with the maito,” I told her. “I’ll think of something.”
We had intended to serve whole smoked fishes on banana leaves before grilling it with peppers for flavour. Otherwise, river fish would taste bad on its own. There weren’t enough ingredients for a garlic-only flavouring unless we covered the entire thing in ants. That wouldn’t be appetising, even if the locals might like it. I wouldn’t want to remove the smoked fish with peppers either. It was a good display of technique. So I looked at whatever we had left from the Tambaqui ribs.
“What’s with the set up?” Lindy. She was looking around our campsite and pointing at the long table put together by Bank. They were made up of three stone slabs put together, elevated by bamboo stems he’d cut earlier on.
“It’s to look local, Chef. We are going for Brazilian and Amazon Cuisine mix so we want you to feel the experience, sit like local, eat like local, taste like local. Okay I think I say too much I let him say,” he shuffled aside for Vanilla before hiding behind his wood grill, where he would be helping Nabila.
“Mm, so we sit here?” Romanov pointed at the rocks we got over from the river. They were arranged in a row on one side of the stone table, facing the bonfire and grill. Live cooking.
“Yes,” it had all been his idea. He also nearly tripped on some branch trying to sit everyone down. I grabbed his arm in time. “Please make yourselves comfortable and I’ll explain everything in a minute. We’ll be starting service in about five to seven minutes.”
At my signal, everyone except our servers began working on their dishes at separate stations. I started with Lindy’s, since it would’ve taken up some time. Doña Brazi had given up her seat to the other local beside her and was squatting. Her eyes went to the cone of saúva ants we’d left on the table. She was smiling.
“Hello everyone,” he started, and I was surprised to see him bow. “I’m Julian White, your server for the evening.”
The dean blinked, glancing down at his clipboard. “I don’t recall seeing any requirement for roles…” Here goes. I hadn’t the luxury of looking at a nice nape all day while he had his back against me so I prepped while listening.
“You’re right sir, there isn’t one,” he sounded very calm. “We’ve decided upon this ourselves. Will you let me explain?”
“Yes please do.” Romanov. Gave me my first A-; also apparently the highest grade he’s ever given.
“This is our attempt to present a recreation of a dinner table here at São Gabriel da Cachoeira, an experience we hope you will find authentic and homely on our last night of the camp. Of course, we understood that there were rules and regulations to the cross-year segment but it is in light of our passion and love for the local food here which we’ve come to learn about for the past couple of days that we decided to create a heartening meal in honour of people like Miss Doña Brazi.”
I almost laughed. He really was a fucking dictionary.
“And so we have for you this evening, eight… dishes,” he paused, seemingly waiting for some form of resistance or verbal fucking that we’d all braced ourselves for. It didn’t come.
“Eight,” the dean repeated, snorting. “Okay. Impress us if you’re breaking the rules. Maybe you can give us a moment to discuss how we should be judging these… eight dishes then.”
I assume he nodded, because when I looked up he was bowing and turning back to say something to Rosi. The judges began speaking quietly. They looked over at us and then back to their papers.
“Hey,” I felt a tap on my back. Raul. “Okay so all this… this allergy thing. Can’t she just eat the rest of the stuff that don’t have peppers?”
I snorted. “She could. And miss out our best dishes and mark us down for that. You gotta think about what he said. It’s an experience we’re selling, not the points for individual dishes. Even if she liked the rest, it’s a zero for two out of eight. That’s twenty-five percent.”
He slapped aside my middle finger. “Okay, okay, I know your math improved after those playdates, okay. So what do we do, make, what, a ninth, dish?” He narrowed his eyes.
I shrugged, dumping the remaining lantern tomatoes and onions into Rosi’s skillet. “That’s what I’m doing now.” He watched for a while, then stopped me from throwing in the river fish I cleaned. It was the one I wanted to smoke.
“Wait. Wait—you’re making… what?”
“Moqueca,” I told him. “There’s nothing we can do. I’ll just give up on smoking the fish.”
His eyes said he had an idea. “No. Do Bouillabaisse. Marseille loves your technique and it’s from her hometown! Just use the leftover cuts from the ribs you made. I thought you brought the uh… the… what’s it called. There was two of them. With the crabs.”
“Yeah, those,” his hands were doing the Italian thing. Funny, since he was talking about a traditional Mediterranean fisherman’s stew from France. “Use that. Bouillabaisse doesn’t need the best cuts. Moqueca you need… so?” He snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Hey, think. I need to get the drinks.”
“So you actually have a brain,” I told him and he was doing the hand thing again. “Go off. I’ll do Bouillabaisse.”
Raul did not sound very happy. “I’m telling playdate you used the middle finger and bullied me. It will be great.”
“So,” Chef Allan, seated in the middle of the table and giving the spread before him a quick survey, seemed mildly surprised. There were nine in total, as per the menu we’d come up with and added to that the Bouillabaisse that Raul and Leroy had come up with. Each dish, piping hot and steaming on their platters of banana leaves each had their own unique flavour. Put together, they would, theoretically speaking, compliment one another; or at least according to my knowledge, they would. Either way, I was desperately hoping that none of these doubts were showing up on my face clear as day since, well, since I was the one who’d designed the meal. “Who made what?”
The logical thing first step to take would be to explain every dish while the judges dug in. Miss Doña Brazi and the chief of her village were looking rather pleased with what we’d presented, and it would be unwise to hold them back with lengthy descriptions. So I didn’t.
“As mentioned earlier, our primary goal is to recreate an authentic experience of Brazilian and Amazonian Cuisine in what we consider a humble and homely environment. And so by doing away with a three-course, dish by dish meal, we decided to present nine at once—comparable to family reunions of the region.
“In the middle of the table, we have the grilled Tambaqui fish ribs with a mixed bell pepper, Baniwa chilli and wild onion rub, with a side of Miss Doña Brazi’s secret dark sauce. Or, um, at least, my take on it. I’m hoping it’s close,” I glanced in her direction, and she winked, already halfway through a rib herself. The ants had been terrifyingly troubling without my glasses. “Lero—our captain was responsible for the ribs and the dish beside it.”
Chef Allan turned to the whole smoked river fish in drowned in peppers, chillies, garlic and a squeeze of lime. He tore a section from its side. “It’s smoked perfectly.”
“Every dish is meant to taste great with fibre at its core, so if you would pair the fish, maito, or vegetables with the bamboo steamed rice…”
Everyone at the table reached for the cups of bamboo at once, undoing the dried bamboo leaves that we’d used to secure the banana leaf on the opening and uncovering a cup of steaming, fragrant rice.
“And so this is the ingredient, then.” Chef Lindy used the pair of chopsticks we’d prepared (hard and thin branches we’d washed and smoothen the surface of) to send a portion into her mouth. She chewed, then nodded. “You picked rice. Simple but clever. Another team picked uni. And Chen’s had caviar.”
“There’s fried garlic bits in there for fragrance. And chopped up wild scallions from the onions because we didn’t want anything to go to waste too,” Si Yin couldn’t resist adding, understandably proud of her improvisation that certainly added to the flavour of the bamboo rice that I’d initially thought of.
“This one,” Chef Romanov had his hands on a grilled soft shell crab, pulling it apart and handing the other half to Miss Doña Brazi seated beside him. “Lucky catch?”
“We caught the blue crabs in the middle of shedding just this morning,” I explained, pointing in the general direction of the stream. “Under some rocks. Bank grilled it in brazil nut oil and wild garlic. The lime and chilli dip on the side was our captain’s idea.”
They each sent a portion of the crispy snack into their mouths before nodding away, noting the odd honey-like aftertaste of the dip. I turned to Leroy, blinking. Neither the Persian lime or the Baniwa chillies would have a sweet aftertaste in it, so he must have added something without telling me about it. He returned my questioning look with a teasing flicker in his eyes—which was my cue to look away.
“Try.” Miss Doña Brazi held up the shallow bamboo cup we’d used to contain the dip, looking at me. Surprised by this, I looked around for signs of disapproval. In front, the judges seemed to be tasting and writing and reaching for the sweet sautéed vegetables (a mix of custard apple leaves and watercress) while behind, most of the team had watering mouths.
Tearing a square of an unused banana leaf, I dipped it into the cup and tasted the end. All throughout this, Leroy seemed to be waiting for my answer with the kind of expectations he had for… well, for me.
“Some kind of fruit,” I said after thanking Miss Doña Brazi for the offer. Then looked over my shoulder for a clue. “Wild pineapple?”
He laughed shortly. Which probably meant I didn’t—oh, it was right. Good god, why does he love teasing me so much?
And after confirming that our spicy mixed mushroom maito did well with all six judges including the chief of Miss Doña Brazi’s village (who said it reminded him of his younger days after a good evening hunt and coming back to a night time snack), Rosi was finally able to serve up the dessert we’d taken the whole twenty-four hours of prep time perfecting.
“Custard apple puree in a cacao shell, topped with brazil nut milk and a saúva ant for your first spoonful,” she described, handing out wooden scoopers we’d tried our best to make from the bamboo stems we had left over. She had reason to be nervous about this; I’d pressured her into actually serving a whole ant, in plain sight, on a dinner table for dessert. Which, naturally, wasn’t the safest thing to be doing at any culinary competition but, well. The number of rules we’d already broken was near impossible to count anyway. Having a reddish brown ant standing on top of a white-capped, orange-yellow mountain of custard apple puree with a core of cacao beans that gave the sweet fragrance a rounded, bitter bite could in no way harm us anymore than what we’d already done.
This was an analogy. An ant, small and seemingly insignificant in the world standing on top of a mountain after a long and arduous journey represented the team over the past twenty-four hours. Added to that the disadvantages and handicaps we’d received, it was an appropriate symbol.
And having come up with all this, I was, very naturally, fazed by the silence that followed suit and the rest of quiet tasting in the midst of an occasional scribble on paper. The entire thing had taken a total of thirty minutes and down to the very last five, blank expressions and unspoken opinions were simply frightening at this point.
“So, um,” I began after noting that they were beginning to stand. Rosi herself looked entirely defeated, unsure if the judges had meant to convey words of disappointment or, well, had nothing pleasant to say. “Is there anything we could perhaps improve on—”
“An entire report will be issued to the team captain on our flight back to school tomorrow morning,” said Chef Allan, holding up a hand to stop me from going on. “The results will be announced tonight after dinner, during the final briefing. So just pack up for now, go back to your lodgings and get yourselves ready for the campfire dance.”
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