Here’s the thing — he’s never really understood what it meant to find someone attractive. Prior to coming to Totsuki, he’d had a group of friends that he’d frequently hung around. Often, the guys had split off on their own to shoot the breeze, as boys are wont to do. He’d thought he’d understood what it meant to think a girl was cute, pretty even. He’d even understood what it meant to admire a girl. But talking to his friends, he’d realized that, maybe, he’d never really grasped what it meant to be attracted to a girl. At least not in the way Taka and Kento had always been going on about.
He thinks he might be starting to get it now.
There’s something about Nakiri Erina that he can’t quite seem to take his eyes off of. Some time between the announcement of the pair-offs and the beginning of the start of cooking, he'd realized he should probably be paying more attention to Isshiki-senpai and Eishi-senpai — they are, after all, the cook-off to watch. The First Seat of the Elite Ten versus the former Seventh Seat who, by all accounts, rarely gave his all in Shokugekis, is probably a food battle for the centuries. Not to mention, he should be learning as much as he can about Eishi’s techniques in case they have to face him again down the line.
And yet. There’s something about Erina that is...arresting.
It isn’t to say that a battle between the former Fourth Seat (now Third) and the former Tenth Seat of the Elite Ten would be considered any less exciting. Battles between any two members of the Elite Ten are always a sight to behold. It is simply the fact that, generally, watching Totsuki’s very own Queen of Cute in a battle of desserts is practically guaranteed to be a drag. She would serve her opponent a confection that spelled defeat so decisively it would practically be ordained, as she’d done time and again in the past, and the standing order would remain absolutely unchanged. Her reign over all things cute and sweet has been, after all, nothing short of supreme, and no one would expect anything less.
Or rather, they wouldn’t have, if not for the fact that the challenger in this particular battle is none other than the Ice Queen herself. In fact, because it is Nakiri Erina, their match is possibly the more anticipated one, if the fervor in the audience at the announcement of the two had been anything to go by. Theirs is a clash of elegance versus charm, the outcome of which would decide which monarch would bear the crown.
Adding to all that, it is also the fourth bout of the Régiment de Cuisine, and both of the two queens know what is at stake. He watches as Nakiri assuredly mixes sesame into a bowl of brown sugar before spooning out circles of the mixture into a pan. She then starts separating the yolks of her eggs and, well, he can’t help but wonder if he’s ever seen someone separate eggs in such a...dignified manner. It’s almost funny, he thinks. There’s still a haughty expression on her face, and despite the commotion from her rebel teammates and the reactions of the audience to what her opponent is making, she hasn’t once glanced over at Akanegakubo Momo’s side of the dais. She’s standing there, looking for all the world as though she couldn’t care less about the master pastry chef she’s facing off against, who’d been a prodigy as a child and was now one of the most lauded pastry chefs in the world. No, Nakiri Erina spooned and mixed and beat her now-separated eggs as though it were a day like any other in which she just happened to decide that she was going to exceed her senpai. A queen indeed.
“How can she be so fast?!” At first, he thinks that Arato is talking about Nakiri, who doesn’t look like she’s doing anything hurriedly, but then he realizes she’s talking about Momo-senpai.
Momo-senpai has made a couple hundred decorations, all of them beautifully done and incredibly cute, as befitting her title. His classmates — well, former classmates, he supposes, since they’re technically expelled at the moment — are gawking at the sheer amount of decorations and growing more worried for Erina by the second. There are hundreds of little animal prints, made to perfection and carefully laid atop roll cakes. Then, just as he’s wondering exactly how many servings Momo-senpai is planning to make and if she knows there are only three judges, a collective awe goes through the audience as she starts to pull sugar at lightning speed.
“Is Nakiri-san going to be ok?”
He can feel himself grinning as he brings a cup of Arato’s tea to his lips. “Let’s just sit back and watch her work.”
His fellow rebels start to speculate whether or not Nakiri is actually going forth with making a dessert of some sort, and he has to hold back a snort when he sees her pull out brown sugar and sesame tuiles from the oven after setting aside her egg white and egg yolk batters. The grin on his face does, however, stretch to a full-fledged smirk. Of course she would choose to fight in her opponent’s domain.
“She’s up against the academy’s top patissier!”
“AHHG! She’d totally do it!”
“That might be going a bit too far!”
“No,” Arato cuts in, an edge of finality coloring her tone, “I’m sure Erina-sama has a chance.”
“Mmhm,” he breathes out. He can’t explain it, but he has complete faith that she’s going to win this. Maybe his confidence is unfounded — granted, this is the first time he’s ever seen her in a Shokugeki — but he doesn’t think so.
It isn’t just that she’s confident to the point of imperiousness. She’s always been that way: self-assured and indignant and utterly impregnable, often to his frustration. But this time, there’s something else.
He’s still trying to figure it out when Momo-senpai presents her dish.
Her dessert is...well, it’s honestly kind of a mishmash.
Not that it isn’t cute or impressive, because it absolutely is both of those things. The complicated roll-cake castle she’s made is three feet tall and adorned from top to bottom with animal print garnishment, pulled sugar ribbons, and fruit cabochon. It’s colorful and meticulous and all-around perplexing. He’s certain it’s delicious, and it’s definitely attention-grabbing, but the pause it gives him isn’t quite out of a desire to taste it.
The crowd loves it though, as do the judges. It’s the first time he truly understands the impact Instagram has even in the world of elite cooking. As soon as the judges finish extolling the creation, a line forms to not only get a taste of the cake, but also to pose and take pictures with it.
Huh. Maybe he just doesn’t get it.
“How in the world is Nakiri Erina going to face off against this fortress?” Kawashima Urara’s voice asks the stadium.
The rebels start fretting also, because the overall impact of Akanegakubo Momo really is something else, from the crowd of supporters she’s gathered to the roll-cake castle itself.
He, however, just goes back to watching Nakiri and sipping his tea.
He can see her putting the finishing garnishes on a cake. It’s far smaller than the fortress Momo-senpai created, but even from his vantage point, he can see it’s a beautiful cake, its lack of ostentation somehow making it seem all the more proud in its simplicity. His gaze however, strays to the chef doing the garnishing.
She’s relaxed, her touch delicate as she applies a final pat of butter to the last of her cakes. Then she stands up, back straight, and picks up three of the cakes and walks to the judges.
A murmur goes through the crowd as they note Erina making her way to the judges’ table. Whispers snake their way through the still-looming awe from Momo’s castle.
“Erina-sama’s finished with her dish!”
“It doesn’t look that impressive?”
“Shut up, it’s beautiful!”
The last comment makes him pause.
The thing is, he isn’t a complete idiot. He’s seen his fair share of cute, pretty, even beautiful girls, both in pictures and in real life. And he’s well aware that more than a handful of those girls are at Totsuki. And he certainly isn’t blind to the fact that Erina is fantastic to look at, nor is he deaf to the mutterings in awe of her beauty that linger in her wake every time she walks by. It’s just never been of significance to him.
But now, he can’t help but notice how fitting she looks in chef’s whites. She walks the length of the dais with her head high, poise regal, and three exquisite cakes balanced on her arms.
She’s stunning, he thinks.
When she presents her dish as an elevated soufflé, he smiles in recognition. “Hey, I made one of those before.”
“She’s competing against her opponent’s roll cakes with pancakes!”
“I mean, it’s definitely fancy and pretty, but visually, the impact from the roll cake castle is way too much!”
His brows furrow at the statement, and he finds that he disagrees with Yūki. Sure, the soufflé cake isn’t as visually noticeable as the roll cake castle with all of its whistles and bells, but it looks sweet and enticing. It’s a cake that actually invites a person to take a bite.
To his right, Alice giggles.
“Hmm? What’s up? Is something funny?” he asks.
“Oh,” she giggles again, “it’s nothing.”
The judges each take a bite, and then, one-by-one, exclaim in shock.
“Ah!! This is no ordinary pancake! In between the two pancakes is red bean paste!”
“What? Red bean paste?” Tadokoro Megumi gasps.
Quiet exclamations work their way through the crowd as people catch on to the meaning.
“Yes,” Erina answers definitively. “That is the star of this dish. I created a paste from azuki beans and sweetened it with brown sugar.”
Alice giggles again, her head cocked to the side, and explains, “She used a pressure cooker to reduce the cooking time without losing the flavor.”
Ah, so that was why Alice had been laughing. Erina must have gotten the technique from her.
“Brown sugar bean paste?”
“So that means this dish...”
“It’s two pancakes with red bean paste filling in the middle, which,” he glances over at Megumi, who looks as though she’s in shock, “basically means it’s dorayaki.”
As the judges exclaim over the flavors and Ryōko and Yūki praise Erina’s mastery over Hokkaido cuisine, he chuckles under his breath. He’d heard that one of Erina’s unique distinctions as a chef was the ability to take any dish and elevate it to a level of gourmet and beyond. In this case, it’s clear where her inspiration came from.
The judges, who seemed as though they’d forgotten they were there to judge, finally calm down enough to start deliberating. Urara, after taking a bite herself and nearly fainting in delight, is about to ask them for their verdict, when-
“A moment, please,” Erina interrupts. “There’s one other person I’d like to have try this dish.” She proceeds to pick up another cake and then makes her way to Akanegakubo Momo. “And you will try it, won’t you, Queen of Cute?”
A hush falls over the stadium as Nakiri Erina throws a direct challenge to the uncontested pastry queen. All eyes go to Momo to await her decision, but he keeps looking at Erina.
She’s smirking. There’s a bit of flour on her face and a smattering of yolk staining her sleeve, as well as traces of sesame crumbs on the front of her uniform that she’d missed when wiping herself down, but she pays them no mind. She just stands on the dais with a hand on her hip and the other elegantly extended, holding one of her cakes, looking more haughty and provocative than he’s ever seen her.
Something in his brain must have short-circuited, because it isn’t until after a few moments pass that he registers Momo-senpai has responded and is reaching out for the soufflé cake. And then, just as his brain catches up with him, he — and everyone else in the stadium — watches in anticipation as Momo takes a bite.
Vaguely, he thinks he can hear his heart pounding.
Suddenly, Momo’s eyes light up and she freezes. She looks down at the cake in her hands and swallows.
“This cuteness,” she chokes out, “I can’t dodge it.”
The entire stadium nearly bursts in uproar.
“This deep, complex flavor,” Momo continues, “the secret ingredient is yoghurt?!”
“Yes,” Erina answers, “you are correct." She tips her head slightly forward, as though issuing a proclamation, “And it’s Greek yoghurt, a unique type of yoghurt that’s thickened and concentrated through a straining process. Straining the excess moisture from the yoghurt condenses it, giving its flavor a gentle body that’s reminiscent of cheese.”
Each of the judges notes how the delicate flavor of the yogurt serves to accentuate the flavor of the red bean paste, and he can just barely hear over the din of the onlookers how she used coffee filters to strain the yoghurt, before she announces, definitively, that none of this would have been possible had it not been for Tadokoro Megumi's dorayaki the day before.
“She called her dish ‘Soufflé Léger de Grâce,’ didn’t she?” Alice says to Megumi, explaining, “‘Soufflé Léger’ just means ‘light soufflé,’ and ‘Grâce’ translates to ‘blessings,’ as in ‘Megumi.’”
Megumi draws in a sharp breath and looks toward Erina in wonder.
“Akanegakuba-san, I’m sure you’ve continued to create nothing but perfect dishes with your overwhelming talent up until now. And that’s exactly why you couldn’t acknowledge the dish with unknown brilliance that was completely outside the world you had ruled over. Tadokoro-san’s dish that aimed for 120%, even if that meant abandoning 100% under conventional norms — that irritated you greatly,” Erina says to the older student, arms crossed.
“What’s the big idea?!” Momo asks, raising a fist in the air. “Who do you think you are, going off on me all of a sudden like that?! You know that everyone calls you the Ice Queen, Eri-nyan!”
“Indeed,” Erina nods, “they do. But I-” she pauses, closing her eyes and drawing in a breath, “-am no longer a queen who just sits back on her throne.” When she opens her eyes, she turns and meets his gaze.
He freezes, tea raised halfway to his lips, momentarily forgetting to breathe.
Seconds pass, before she breaks eye-contact with him and turns back to Momo-senpai, who is looking down resentfully at the cake in front of her. She takes another forkful and begrudgingly puts it in her mouth, before admitting, “This dorayaki is super cute.”
The buzzers sound, indicating that the judges have entered their scores.
Erina turns away from Momo to look toward the scoreboard, her every movement brimming with confidence, as though she is absolutely certain of what she will see. However, she turns back one last time to look at the distraught pastry chef, a sly expression on her face, and says, “I’m so glad you liked it.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Soma recognizes the line as a more embellished version of his own catchphrase.
Numbers appear on the jumbotron. 0-3.
Kawashima Urara’s voice rings out.
“Nakiri Erina of the rebel forces wins!”