When Jiho, having spent too many long nights studying with Please Take Care of my Refrigerator on in the background, applied to be a contestant on a new amateur cooking show, she was truly not expecting to make the cut. When she answered the phone to a chipper-sounding production assistant from The Great Korean Cooking Show, Jiho was so taken aback that she flung her phone across the couch, where it had to be retrieved by her sister before the assistant hung up on her.
For the second round, Jiho makes five colorful batches of half-moon rice cakes, kneaded until her hands are sore and the dough is sticky and soft. She abides by tradition, not wavering from the flavors that her mom always preferred growing up, and Jiho thinks it won't be enough. But it is. She's invited to Seoul, where she has to make knife-cut noodles with a cameraman hovering around her and a blinking digital clock fixed above her station to count down the time the producers have allotted. The production crew asks her to talk while she cooks, so Jiho talks about watching her grandmother rolling out the thin dough and folding it over, the fluid way her grandmother used the knife, so quick that she didn't even seem to be lifting her hand. Jiho tells them about the first time her grandmother let her help. No one tastes her spicy soup that day. That's not the point.
When it's down to the last 40 contenders, Jiho will later realize, what matters more than taste is how you look on camera, how well you can speak, and how much of your personality shines through. In between the heartwarming grandmother stories, Jiho makes sure to get in a few jabs at her future competitors, approaching the challenge with the same false bravado that has carried her this far in life.
Jiho is given a 7-day notice before she is expected to pack her bags and move to Seoul for the next two months. There's no guarantee that she will last the full time, but she has to be prepared for it. It doesn't feel like long enough, not when she has to quit her job and buy a new suitcase large enough for two months' worth of clothes, shoes, and skincare products. They've been warned that talking to anyone, even families, will be off-limits during that time. Each competitor will have to hand over their phone and will not be allowed to leave the hotel without the accompaniment of a staff member, even for a late-night snack run. Jiho can't help but feel like she's getting ready to enlist, not taking part in a cooking competition.
She packs her knives last, the most important thing she'll need.
The hotel that the show has put the competitors up in is in the heart of Gangnam and it's nice. It's not like Okcheon is some quaint village, or as though Jiho's family isn't well-off, but the hotel room that Jiho is assigned to is nicer than her entire house.
Jiho's roommate, Chorong, is sweet. She asks Jiho about her studies ("Law school? That's so interesting!") and offers to switch beds, even though she already has her things situated, when Jiho grumbles a complaint about the draft from the aircon.
There are sixteen contestants total, whittled down from the original 40 who were screentested a few weeks ago. Out of all of them, Jiho is the youngest girl. There are sons of chaebols who look polished and cocky even in their casual clothes chatting next to a grandmother and a preschool teacher. One woman, a few years older than Jiho, claims to have been a trainee at SM Entertainment.
There's only so much that Jiho can take before her antisocial tendencies kick in. She slips away from a conversation about French pastries, spotting a hallway leading to a courtyard out of the corner of her eye. Jiho is halfway down the hallway before she realizes that feels someone's presence behind her. She turns, half-expecting to see the failed girl group trainee who wants to keep talking her ear off, but instead it's an unfamiliar girl. She's dressed in all black with a walkie-talkie holstered on her hip and a single earbud fixed in her ear. When she stops, just as abruptly as Jiho has, her long bob swings with the momentum. It's one of the assistants.
"Can I help you?" Jiho asks. She tries not to let any irritation show on her face, but she's clearly trying to get a moment alone here.
The girl gives her a self-conscious smile. "Constant supervision, remember? You're not allowed to go off on your own."
"Not even down the hallway?"
"Nope," the girl says.
Jiho leans back against the wall, sighing. "I guess it's a good thing you're here. I was on my way to sneak off and sabotage someone's knives."
"I think the bosses are more worried about, like, someone posting on Instagram, but knife sabotage? Would be way more exciting." The assistant sticks her hand out. "I'm Yoobin."
The walkie talkie on Yoobin's hip crackles to life, followed by a male's voice. Jiho nearly jumps with surprise. The welcome party is only meters away, but here, down the hall, the noise is just a quiet hum. "Has anyone seen contestant 14?"
"She's with me," Yoobin says into the walkie. To Jiho, she asks, "Did you want to keep walking? I'll hang back. You can have your alone time."
On one hand, Jiho does want the alone time. On the other hand, the romanticism of a solitary walk through an unfamiliar place is a little ruined by the presence of someone who isn't allowed to let you out of their sight. Jiho sighs, pushing off the wall. "No, I'm fine. Let's go back. I can't wait to hear more stories about being a failed girl group trainee."
Yoobin laughs, then stops herself, face settling back into the empty professionalism all of the other contestant wranglers sport. "You're the star," she says. "Lead the way."
For their first mystery box challenge, the contestants lift their boxes to reveal—
"Nothing," Lee Kyungwon announces. He is the head judge, the chef with multiple restaurants in Seoul and a few Michelin stars under his belt. "This is the only time in the competition where you will be given free rein with ingredients and dishes."
"We want you to make your signature dish," Baek Jungah, the restaurant critic with impeccable style, adds. "You will have forty minutes."
Though nothing in the kitchen is quite as frantic as it turns out on TV, the sense of urgency as the competitors rush into the pantry to grab their ingredients can't be faked. Jiho is at least 50% sure that she elbows the preschool teacher in the face in her rush, but there's no time to slow down and apologize. Jiho is running through a list of ingredients in her head. She grabs the pheasant meat she decided on last night and shoves whatever else she can think of into her basket. It's better to have too much than miss a crucial ingredient.
As she works, Baek Jungah hovers over her station for a few minutes, watching as Jiho fillets the pheasant, separating the breasts and setting them on her cutting board.
"Pheasant is an interesting choice," Jungah observes. "What are you planning on making?"
In addition to the cameraman fixed next to Jiho at all times, there's the one following Jungah around and another who is zooming in on the raw pheasant breasts at Jiho's workstation. One of them gestures for her to cut more slowly for the sake of the shot. She tries her best not to let all of this distract her.
"I'm from North Chungcheong and I wanted to showcase something that is unique to the area, so I'm making pheasant yukhwe," Jiho explains.
"Do you think that's the best strategy, making a dish for the first round that doesn't require you to cook anything?" Jungah doesn't say it with malice, but there's a certain detached coldness to her voice that makes Jiho, for a moment, question everything she's doing. But that's half the reason for the judges to visit your workstation, she knows. So the producers can cut the scene right after Jungah's question and infuse the scene with drama.
"That's why I am doing pheasant two ways," Jiho says, flashing a grin up at Jungah. "Yukhwe and dumplings."
Jungah taps her hand against the countertop before she turns to leave. "I'm looking forward to it, Jiho-sshi."
The 40 minutes pass by in an instant. Jiho drenches her yukhwe in a light sweet and sour sauce and plates it over thin slices of apples and pears, the traditional way. Her dumplings are glossy with steam and filled with a mixture of ground pheasant, chives, mushrooms, and kimchi. When she steps back from her plate, she is pleased with what she's produced.
To her left, one of the female contestants has made a puff pastry with an omija mousse. To her right, a tall guy who looks Jiho's age has made clam stew, though his broth doesn't look as dark as Jiho would like if she were the one making it. As she's looking around at the other contestants, Jiho spots Yoobin at the edge of the set, scribbling something down on a clipboard. When she looks up, she catches Jiho's eye and waves.
In the end, the judges only call a few of the competitors up to the front. It's a long affair. Before the judges can taste any of the food, the cameramen have to capture the plates overhead and from the sides, while the rest of the cast waits patiently. Hot food, they've been told, doesn't look as good on film. A man who's made an Italian style pasta gets praised, while one of the chaebols that Jiho found herself glaring at yesterday is criticized for his overly simple and underdeveloped tofu stew.
They eliminate the chaebol, right then and there. Jiho hadn't even gotten a chance to learn his name. The pang of sadness she feels as she watches his exit is more about having to make that walk herself than it is about him.
They wrap up filming for the first challenge well into the evening. Jiho makes it back to the hotel smelling like raw fish, her legs quivering like jelly from standing all day. Chorong is gracious enough to let her take the first shower and Jiho spends five minutes under the spray just thinking about all the things she could've done differently to get her plate up there in front of the judges, winning an advantage for the next challenge.
When she emerges from the shower, it occurs to Jiho that she hasn't eaten anything since the lunch on the set.
She tugs on a hoodie over her wet hair and tugs on a pair of slip-on shoes, then steps out into the hallway.
Yoobin is seated in a chair at the end of the hallway, a book propped open in her lap. She looks up at the sound of Jiho's door shutting behind her and Jiho knows she's been caught.
"Not even a convenience store run?" Jiho asks when she reaches Yoobin. She slides her hand through the kangaroo pocket on her hoodie then back out again. "Look, I'm not sneaking out with a phone."
"What if you're meeting up with someone from the outside?" Yoobin says, pointing her book at Jiho. "Checkmate."
"But I want ramen," Jiho whines. "And to get out of this hotel."
Yoobin closes her book, standing. "Look, I'll go with you. I'll get someone to replace me up here."
She fires off a message on her phone, then they're off. It's only been a few days since Jiho stepped out of the hotel without being a part of a crowd of contestants being corralled by team members, but she can't help but feel like a freed zoo animal. Gangnam is still bright, even at this hour.
"So, do you have to just, like, sit out there all night?"
Yoobin shakes her head. Her hair is in two short ponytails tonight and they bounce with the movement of her steps. "My shift is over in about an hour. Then I come back around mid-day. It's not so bad."
"Oh," Jiho says. She tugs the sleeves of her hoodie down over her knuckles, wishing that she'd worn long pants. The night air is cool and her clothes are thin. "I haven't seen anyone else guarding our door."
"Well, we're not really supposed to talk to the contestants."
"That's kind of fucked up," Jiho says.
"That's the business," Yoobin says, shrugging.
It's only a five minute walk to the 7-Eleven down the road. Jiho picks out a package of eggs and a spicy chicken ramen, along with a slice of cheese to cut the heat. The dining area is mostly empty, too late for the dinner crowd and too early for the drunks. Yoobin sits across from Jiho with her bibimbap and banana milk. Their feet touch under the table.
Jiho likes quiet, but she prefers it on her own terms. Right now she's thrumming with nervous energy in preparation for tomorrow's challenge and she needs to do something with the thoughts racing around in her head. "How long have you been doing this?" She gestures up and down at Yoobin.
Yoobin hums around her spoon, thinking. "It's been about a year and a half now. I worked on Please Take Care of My Refrigerator first after I finished college. Just things like fetching coffee or making sure people were in the right place at the right time. This job is a bit of an upgrade."
"What do you want to do? Like, what's your end goal?" She has to stop herself from visibly fangirling over Yoobin's previous job.
"I want to be a PD or a writer," Yoobin says. "Someone who is responsible for getting a show from real life to something you see on TV."
"That's cool," Jiho says.
"It feels like a long way off, but you've got to start somewhere." Yoobin stirs her spoon into her bibimbap, mixing up the ingredients. The aspiring chef inside Jiho cringes at the limp vegetables. There isn't much freshness to be expected in convenience store produce. "You know, we're the same age."
When Yoobin looks up, her smile is shy, self-effacing. "Don't tell anyone I told you this, but I'm kind of rooting for you. I always want the young people to win when I watch these kinds of shows. It's—I don't know—kind of hopeful?"
"Let me guess, you're not allowed to have favorites?" Jiho asks. Something about Yoobin's earnestness makes her feel unbalanced and she focuses her gaze down at the melting slice of cheese in her ramen.
"Not officially," Yoobin says. "Unofficially? Who's going to stop me?"
The next morning, Jiho sits down in the makeup chair with a bloated face from all of the sodium. The makeup artist chides her, pinching her cheeks before going in with primer, but to Jiho, it was all worth it. She feels more relaxed than she has in the last week.
Their challenge for the day is to work with an iconic Korean ingredient. The contestants are randomly assigned soy sauce, gochujang, dried anchovies, ginger, and doenjang to work with. Jiho ends up with soy sauce. In the mad dash to the pantry, her first thoughts are something like a braised pork belly using the pressure cooker, but as she watches the other contestants, she begins to change her mind. While everyone else is gathering ingredients for savory dishes, she decides to go for something sweet. The plan begins to formulate as she grabs cocoa powder and flour, reaching over Chorong's head to snag a container of almonds. A chocolate soy sauce cake with a roasted almond garnish on top.
For this challenge, they have an entire hour. Baking a cake and letting it cool enough to frost will be tight, but big rewards often come from big risks. If Jiho wants to stand out and establish herself as a competitor to watch out for, she'll need to do something unexpected.
Her first task is preparing the cake batter, divided into two round pans, to go into the oven. The sooner she's able to get baking, the better.
Jiho had gone through a phase a few years ago where she was obsessed with Western baking shows and their desserts. In one week, she made three different trials of chocolate cakes in order to perfect the recipe, until her friends insisted that she stop trying to force feed them cake. None of them featured soy sauce as an ingredient, but sweet and salty are a classic combination for a reason.
They've been instructed to flag down a cameraman if there's an oven door being opened, so Jiho has to get the attention of a passing crew member before she's allowed to put her cakes in the oven. As soon as it's in, she turns her attention to the almonds, tossing them in soy sauce and tossing them on a cookie sheet to go into the oven.
It's a mad rush to get all of the components complete. Jiho has to leave the almonds until the last few minutes of her bake so she won't have to open the oven more than once and risk disrupting her cake. It will take ten minutes to get the almonds roasted until they are ready to go into the brown sugar crisp, which will take ten minutes in the oven itself. At least her chocolate ganache is easy.
By the end of the hour, Jiho is operating on autopilot. There is no time to question if her cakes are cool enough to be frosted with her ganache—she just goes for it. She's just added the almond crisp to the top and cleaned up the edges of the layers when time is called. Jiho steps back and breathes for what feels like the first time in an hour.
She is the last of the soy sauce-assigned contestants to be called to the front. As she expected, the other contestants have made savory dishes, one with a braised short rib dish and the other a glazed salmon paired with a fresh salad. Jiho can feel her hands shaking as she sets her cake down on the counter in front of the judges.
Lee Kyungwon is the first judge to step forward, cutting a generous slice of cake. The inside of the cake looks moist and fluffy, just as Jiho hoped it would. "Jiho-sshi, what made you decide to make a cake for this round?"
Jiho's fingers may be trembling, but her voice is steady when she speaks. "I knew, when you're given soy sauce as a main ingredient, everyone would be expecting something savory," she explains.
"That's certainly true," Kyungwon says. "How long did you bake the cake for?"
"About thirty five minutes."
Kyungwon takes a bit of cake onto his fork and holds it up to his face, inspecting it. "We noticed that you had to open the oven while the cake was baking to put in your almonds. Do you think that affected your baking?"
"I hope not," Jiho says. Her nervous giggle earns scattered laughs through the kitchen.
"I hope not too," Kyungwon says. He finally takes his bite, chewing on it with a thoughtful expression. "Jiho-sshi, I like this cake. It's moist and there's just the right amount of sweetness from the chocolate and brown sugar, but it's not cloying."
Jiho steels herself, waiting for the inevitable but.
"But I am not getting a lot of the soy sauce taste here. For an ingredient that is supposed to be the star of this dish, I'm not sure it's enough."
"Thank you," Jiho says, nodding.
The next judge to step up is Lee Junho, a local chef and their guest judge for this round. He doesn't hem and haw before going in for a bite, making sure to get some of the almond crisp onto his fork. "I agree with Chef Lee," he says. "I'm not getting as much of that soy sauce taste. I think if you had an ingredient that lends itself more to baking, like ginger, a cake may have been a more appropriate dish. This is delicious, but I'm just not sure it meets the challenge."
She bows to the judges before heading back to her station, feeling not quite defeated yet, but pretty close. Without meaning to, she finds herself searching the crew in the background for a familiar face. She spies Yoobin talking to another crew member, laughing and hitting his arm. There's something about Yoobin's brightness that's infectious, even when it's not directed at her, and Jiho's spirits are lifted, just the tiniest bit.
"If we call your name," Lee Kyungwon announces, "please come to the front. Kim Mingyu."
It feels like Jiho's heart has climbed up into her throat when her name is called. She feels lightheaded, propelled forward to the front of the set by instinct and without any input from her brain. Goo Sunyoung, the preschool teacher, gives her a sort of sympathetic nod when Jiho stands beside her.
"If you are down here, it's because you did not give us a dish that properly showcased your given ingredient. Kim Jiho, please step forward."
"Jiho, do you think you could have done more with soy sauce?" Lee Junho asks.
"Yes," Jiho says. "I just wanted to stand out from the others."
Lee Junho nods. "You did stand out, but not in the way that you probably wanted. Fortunately, your cake was very well-made and had a delicious texture. You are safe for this challenge. Please join your fellow contestants in the balcony."
Jiho barely notices the other contestants patting her on the back as she pulls off her apron, heading toward the balcony. She feels like she just dodged a bullet. At the top of the stairs, Chorong pulls her into a hug.
"I thought your cake looked great," she says.
Jiho shoots her a weak smile.
Kim Mingyu and Goo Sunyoung are also saved. Jo Sunghoon, the firefighter from Busan, is sent home for his gochujang marinated steak. His loss is their gain—another day to cook in this kitchen.
Tonight, Jiho doesn't even have to ask. When Yoobin sees her emerging from the hotel room, she automatically closes her book and unfolds her legs, standing. "You trying to escape again?"
"It's not escaping if I am still being guarded," Jiho says. Yoobin is giving her a look like what am I going to do with you? and it occurs to her that she may be taking advantage of Yoobin's kindness. More softly, she adds, "Please? If you want?"
"You're paying," Yoobin says. "Since you're the one going to win ten million won."
Jiho spends the entire walk ranting about the day's challenge and how she should've gone with her original pork belly idea. Yoobin tries to comfort her, telling Jiho that she went for her cake first when the crew members got to eat the leftovers.
"But did you think it was soy saucey enough?"
"It doesn't matter," Yoobin says. "Better to take risks than to be the person who gets eliminated because they always play it safe."
They don't leave the 7-Eleven until close to midnight. Jiho knows she will feel it tomorrow when she has to get up for their 7:30 wake-up call, but it's hard to convince herself to leave when Yoobin is making her laugh with stories from Please Take Care of My Refrigerator until Jiho knocks over a half-empty bottle of banana milk in her excitement.
Yoobin walks Jiho back to the hotel. At the door, Jiho turns back, shouting Yoobin's name. "Thank you for coming out with me again. I appreciate it."
"All in a day's work," Yoobin says.
One by one, contestants leave. After Jo Sunghoon goes Goo Sunyoung, followed by Kim Soyeon, the former idol trainee, and Lim Youngsik, another businessman whose workstation was next to Jiho's.
There's a challenge where they're paired off into teams to see who can make the most perfectly formed dalgonas in ten minutes. Kim Mingyu and the grandmother win that one, and get to assign a meat to everyone to cook with. Jiho makes a eel that doesn't win her the best dish of the night, but receives a good amount of praise from the judges. For a challenge using abalone, she makes an elevated abalone porridge that Kyungwon declares he is going to add to his menu, but her next dish, a Vietnamese-inspired noodle bowl, finds Jiho in the bottom tier again.
Jiho finds herself spending more time with Yoobin than she does any of the other contestants. It doesn't seem like she's had a day off since shooting began because she's always on set or lurking somewhere in the hotel. As they become friendlier, they bicker more, shouting over each other at the 7-Eleven table until the ahjussi watching a baseball game on the small TV shushes them. Jiho's preferred brand of affection is sarcasm and Yoobin doesn't quite dish it out, but she takes Jiho's sass in stride.
At the end of lunch one day, Yoobin slips Jiho some of her favorite convenience store candies and Jiho pockets it. She finds it later when she's waiting for her dish to be called, shoving her hands in her pockets to keep her nervous energy at bay. Her fingers find something smooth—the wrapper of a strawberry milk chewy candy. It's weirdly comforting.
The relay challenge is Jiho's downfall. She's assigned Nam Hangil as her partner, the pastor's son from Busan. The teams are required to prepare a full meal of jjimdak including banchan, with only one partner allowed to cook at a time, switching off every ten minutes.
Jiho hates it. Watching Hangil make careless mistakes drives Jiho nuts and she can only wait, shouting out instructions from the sidelines. She takes the final ten minutes and does her best to fix the array, but it's sloppy at best.
The judges aren't happy either. Baek Jungah tells Jiho that she expected more from her and Jiho feels like she's disappointed her parents.
Two teams end up in the bottom, Jiho's and Chorong's.
"The four of you will be competing in a pressure test," Lee Kyungwon announces. "You will be recreating a signature dish from my restaurant. Braised sea cucumber stuffed with seafood."
He lifts the wooden box to reveal a sea cucumber sitting in an amber-colored broth and garnishes adorning the wide bowl. It's fancy looking. Kyungwon gestures to the contestants. "Each of you are invited to get a taste. From this, you'll need to replicate the dish as accurately as you can."
The sea cucumber has a light, fight taste by itself. It's slippery and smooth on her tongue, though there are crunchier bits on the underside of its body. It's stuffed with shrimp meat. Jiho can taste scallions, ginger, and garlic, maybe a touch of oyster sauce in the filling to keep it moist. There's something crisp that may be water chestnuts. The broth is flavorful, a combination of tastes that has Jiho dipping her spoon back in for seconds and thirds to make sure she's picking up all the potential ingredients. The judges give them ten minutes to taste their dishes while the lighting is changed and the crew wipes down the dirty workstations to prepare for more filming.
"You will have forty five minutes."
The sea cucumbers they are provided have already been soaked for day, but Jiho still has to blanch hers to get started. While the cucumbers are boiling, Jiho gets started on frying up her shrimp for the filling. From the balcony, she can hear the others cheering them on as she grabs ingredients dicing and mixing and checking on the state of her cucumbers like it's life or death.
She adds bamboo shoots and a handful of mixed greens to her filling. After five minutes, she grabs her cucumbers, carefully lifting them out of the boiling water to drain. Her broth is her next focus because she needs all the time she can get to develop the complex flavors she tasted in the original.
"Contestants, you have five minutes left!" Baek Jungah announces.
Jiho's hands are shaking when she reaches for her sea cucumbers. She can feel the disaster happening before it does, like watching a car accident in slow motion. When she extends her arm to grab the sea cucumbers, her elbow hits the bowl with her filling. She hadn't noticed it had moved precariously close to the edge of the counter and all it takes is one bump for it to topple over. Jiho tries in vain to catch it, but the bowl clatters to the floor, glass shattering and filling going everywhere.
The gasp around the room is audible. Jiho feels like her heart has stopped in her chest.
Then, she gets back to work. The crew fusses around her, trying to sweep up shards of broken glass but Jiho works around them. The clock above her is counting down the minutes in fast forward. There's no time to prepare any more shrimp, not unless she wants to have a bowl with only broth to show. She focuses on the ingredients she can dice up and throw into the pan with her final few minutes. Her knife cuts aren't precise and her scallions are a mess when she dumps them into the sesame oil, but it's something.
With her final 30 seconds, Jiho stuffs three sea cucumbers, only getting them on the plate when the judges announce, "Time's up!"
Chorong is at Jiho's workstation immediately, gathering Jiho into her arms. With the momentum gone, Jiho begins to cry fat, ugly tears into Chorong's stained apron. "You did good, Jiho," Chorong tells her. Nam Hangil pats her awkwardly on the back.
Before they go up for judging, one of the crew members hands Jiho a water bottle. She chugs it, wiping her eyes and hoping that her tear-stained face will come out less blotchy on television. She hates to cry in front of other people.
Jiho is the second competitor to be judged. Baek Jungah steps up to the table first, giving Jiho a once-over. "Jiho-sshi, can you tell us what happened at your station?"
"My elbow hit my bowl of filling and the bowl broke, all the filling went everywhere. I couldn't use any of that."
"That's a shame," Jungah says as she prepares a bite. She holds her chopsticks up at eye level, inspecting Jiho's filing. "What is in your second filling?"
"I tried to get everything in there except for the shrimp. There's ginger, garlic, scallions, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and a little bit of bok choy."
Baek Jungah nods. It feels like she spends a full minute chewing on her first bite, but that's just Jiho's nerves. When she's finished, she steps back from the table wordlessly. Kim Kyungwon takes her place.
"Jiho-sshi, how do you think your second filling turned out?"
Jiho winces. "I had to rush everything, so I would say that the filling isn't as smooth as I'd like and some of the ingredients are probably a little under where they should be."
Kyungwon nods. He takes two bites, then steps back. The silence is as loud as criticism.
Chorong and her teammate have replicated the dish to near perfection and they are the first to be sent back up to the balcony. This leaves Hangil and Jiho standing in front of Jungah and Kyungwon.
"Nam Hangil," Kyungwon says. "Your sea cucumber was blanched too long and was very rubbery in texture." He turns to Jiho. "Kim Jiho, you failed to replicate the dish exactly. We understand that you intended to include shrimp in your filling, but we have to judge you for what you presented us, not what you started with."
"Kim Jiho," Baek Jungah says. There is a pause for dramatic effect and Jiho lowers her head, knowing what is coming. "You will not be continuing on in the competition. Nam Hangil, please head up to the balcony."
Contrary to what Jiho expected when she lied awake at night thinking of this, the world doesn't end right there. Her heart doesn't fall out of her chest, she doesn't projectile vomit onto the judges. She nods her head, sucks in a deep breath, and tries not to cry for the second time on public broadcast TV.
When the cameras stop rolling, Jiho is surrounded by the other contestants. Chorong holds Jiho to her chest again, whispering, "You shouldn't be going home." Kim Mingyu gives her a side hug, pulling her in close to him in a way that reminds Jiho of her male cousins, his tall stature comforting. The grandmother wraps brittle arms around Jiho's waist and holds her for a full minute. Still, Jiho thinks she's cried all her tears for the day.
Before she can head back to the hotel, there's still a confessional to film. "How does it feel to be leaving the kitchen?" one of the production assistants asks her.
"It sucks," Jiho says, laughing at her own honesty. "I don't think I should be going home, but mistakes can happen to anyone. I think I showed everyone that I'm a good cook and I deserved to be here."
"Where will you go from here?"
"I'll be going back to school next semester. Still handing out flyers for money, I guess. But I'm not going to stop cooking. I like it way too much."
When Jiho emerges from her hotel room, dragging her roller suitcase behind her, Yoobin is perched in her usual chair. Jiho had thought she had no more tears left, but they come automatically when Yoobin looks up. Yoobin, who is also starting to cry.
Jiho doesn't get to say anything before Yoobin is pulling her in for a hug. "I wish you weren't leaving so soon," Yoobin says into Jiho's collar, wet and muffled. "I'm going to miss you."
"Your unofficial favorite," Jiho says, which makes Yoobin squeeze harder. "Watch out, you're going to break a rib."
Yoobin steps back, her eyes rimmed with red. "It's not going to be the same."
"I don't want to leave either," Jiho admits. She glances down at her watch. "They're expecting me out front in a minute."
"Wait," Yoobin says. She rips a page out of her book and pulls a permanent marker from her pocket. Jiho realizes that she's scribbling down a phone number. "Message me when you get back to Okcheon. If you want, I mean. No more rules."
"I will," Jiho says, tucking the slip of paper into her pocket. "Thank you for everything."
"Thank you for keeping me company," Yoobin says.
It's a long walk back down the hallway to the elevator. She traces over paper, fingers running over the jagged edges where Yoobin had ripped it. She turns when she reaches the end of the hallway, looking back at Yoobin. "Try not to miss me too much!" she shouts.