According to the rumors, Hua Cheng sees everything that happens on set.
You cannot slip in pre-prepared ingredients, the rumors say, or Hua Cheng will know. If you whisper a snide remark to your fellow competitor during break, Hua Cheng will make a pointed comment about it in the next judging round and you’ll spend the rest of your competition days breaking out in cold sweat every time you see a flash of red jacket. If you even think about sneaking your phone under the table during the technical, you’re guaranteed to be kicked off that very day. According to everyone who has ever competed on the show, Hua Cheng simply sees everything.
It isn’t completely true, of course. Sometimes he’s busy researching new challenges. Sometimes he’s eating lunch, or back at the hotel. (He does sleep, occasionally, also contrary to popular belief.) But a whole network of crew members report their gossip to Yin Yu, and Yin Yu is Hua Cheng’s assistant. So, in a way, Hua Cheng does see everything that happens in the tent. Which means he hears about it when one of the current season’s star contestants has a spoiled meltdown during arrival and runs the new PA ragged on his first day.
“Which contestant?” Hua Cheng asks, and then doesn’t listen to the answer because they’re all the same to him, in the end. There was a short time, when he was just making a name for himself, that he thought contestants on shows like this really cared about anything other than winning. It was a short-lived delusion, and things are far simpler knowing everyone here is just trying to climb their way to fame. It’s not like Hua Cheng gives a shit—letting them simper for the cameras pays his bills, after all—but he’s not fooling himself about it, either.
“—heard they finally arrived at the hotel well past midnight, after which Lang Qianqiu contacted the producers to complain about the new PA. And ah, yes, we also have a new PA,” Yin Yu finishes. He’s standing two steps from the table, dressed in deep grays and blacks to blend in with the crew. He doesn’t need to do that, but far be it from Hua Cheng to interrogate Yin Yu’s fashion choices. It certainly comes in handy, when the producers seem to think Yin Yu is all but invisible while discussing Hua Cheng’s upcoming contracts.
“Huh,” Hua Cheng says, idly spinning his coffee cup. “Any particular reason you’re telling me this?”
Yin Yu isn’t the kind of person who shrugs, but his placid expression does something that approximates it well enough. “The PA has only been here two days and he’s already in hot water with both the contestants and the producers. Seemed worth noting.”
“I see.” It’s probably nothing—nothing noteworthy, at least. The contestants are spoiled balls of anxiety, and the new PA is probably also a spoiled ball of anxiety, end of story. Still, Hua Cheng looks to his left. “Do you know anything about this?”
He Xuan has his hand resting on his chin, staring off into the middle distance and outright ignoring the hovering makeup attendant trying to get his attention. In front of him are no less than three empty plates from craft services. In front of Hua Cheng, only coffee. Nothing out of the ordinary here, at least.
“No,” He Xuan says tonelessly. After a pause: “…Shi Qingxuan said the new PA was nice.”
Hua Cheng sips his coffee. “Shi Qingxuan said, hmm.”
He Xuan spares him a flat glare before succumbing to the waiting attendant. Hua Cheng watches him go, then drains his coffee.
“PA squabbles aren’t my problem,” Hua Cheng says to Yin Yu. “But keep an eye on him anyway.”
It isn’t a squabble.
Hua Cheng had expected, from Yin Yu’s report, to see a new PA half-assing his tasks or bossing around the contestants or giving unsolicited advice to the camera crew. Something stupid and commonplace to grate on everyone’s nerves, the kind of attitude that might drive an entitled contestant up the wall. But when Hua Cheng arrives for the first day of filming he sees the new PA diligently laying down gaff tape, head down and focused. Every time Hua Cheng glimpses him throughout the morning, the setup, the introductions, the PA is just there at the edges doing one task after another. By the time the crew’s lunch break rolls around, Hua Cheng has tucked away three solid observations:
- The new PA is on the older side for a PA. Rather than a fresh-faced university student, he looks like he might be in his thirties, a few years older than Hua Cheng himself. His dark hair is pulled back in a lopsided knot, his clothes worn and a few sizes too big, and he has none of the shine and sharpness Hua Cheng expects from bottom-rung crewmembers full of ambition. There are career PAs, of course, but from the way the PA fumbles his walkie, Hua Cheng doesn’t think that’s the case.
- The new PA might be a bit hapless, but he isn’t careless. He’s always where he needs to be, appearing when called with a battery pack or a cleaning rag or a cup of tea for Shi Qingxuan. He balances three sacks of sugar in his arms like they weigh nothing and keeps himself busy without complaint.
- When the new PA smiles across the room, small and to himself, Hua Cheng feels an odd pang in his chest.
The crew’s lunch break starts much the same way, with the PA keeping to himself in the little break area behind the main tent. Hua Cheng is on his way to find Shi Qingxuan—because wherever their breezy host is, He Xuan is surely lurking somewhere nearby, and Hua Cheng needs an ounce of sanity before filming begins—and gets waylaid nearby behind a stalled cable cart.
He’s not looking at the PA. Not really. But he’s close enough to hear two of the crewmembers talking, and to pinpoint the new PA as their target.
“—even let something like that on set,” one is saying, accompanied by a cruel laugh. It’s one of the grips, holding a cup noodle in one hand and bracing the other against the plastic table next to the new PA’s elbow. The new PA is cross-legged on the bench, eating something greyish out of a flimsy plastic container. Even from here Hua Cheng can tell that whatever it is it’s somehow burnt and soggy at the same time, and congealed from being improperly reheated.
The second crewmember pulls a face. “What even is that?”
“Meatballs,” the new PA says mildly. “Would you like one?”
“That’s a joke, right?” the grip says. “That’s a joke, or you’re trying to poison us.”
“You know this is a cooking show, right?” their companion adds.
Hua Cheng drifts closer, curious despite himself to see how the new PA will respond. But the PA just gives the crewmembers a bland smile and keeps chewing until his walkie chirps.
“Excuse me,” he says, closing up his container and setting it aside. He slips into the tent, leaving the crewmembers snickering in his wake.
“Hey,” the grip says, “that’s probably a hazard, right? A health hazard.”
“At the very least it’s an embarrassment,” the other crewmember agrees.
“Right.” The grip laughs again. They’re still laughing when they pick up the PA’s plastic container and drop it in the nearest garbage can.
The cable cart in front of Hua Cheng moves. He stays where he is another moment, thinking: not a squabble, then. At least not a two-sided one.
When he does find He Xuan, Hua Cheng asks, offhand: “Is craft services still running for lunch? For the crew.”
“No,” He Xuan says mournfully.
Hua Cheng spares another thought for the PA and his lunch that is now trash in every sense of the word, and then the director sweeps into the tent calling for a station check, and Hua Cheng forgets about the PA once again.
The third time the new PA gets in trouble, Hua Cheng ends up intervening.
He’d nearly put it out of his mind, during today’s filming session, other than the part where Hua Cheng had taken particular delight in tearing apart Lang Qianqiu’s overcooked xiaolongbao without even tasting one (and He Xuan had fulfilled his co-judge duties by eating all of them and then shaking his head once). Nothing Hua Cheng said was untrue--they were disappointingly overcooked--but halfway through the round Hua Cheng had remembered Yin Yu’s report about Lang Qianqiu being rude to the new PA, and decided to lean into his criticism more than he strictly needed to. And, later, Hua Cheng invented a problem with the display table in the judge’s tent, which meant a certain mouthy grip had to stay an extra hour to disassemble it.
(“Off to a particularly exciting start this week, I see,” Shi Qingxuan had commented after filming wrapped that evening, speaking right into her handheld fan so her voice warbled a bit. “Any particular reason? Or are the vibes simply rancid today?”
Hua Cheng just raised an eyebrow until Shi Qingxuan scurried away. Shi Qingxuan, like everyone else who wasn’t He Xuan or Yin Yu, is a bit terrified of Hua Cheng.)
But really, other than that, Hua Cheng isn’t really thinking about the new PA until he makes his way back to the main tent to retrieve his jacket. Evening is setting in outside, but the air still hangs heavy with leftover heat from the stovetops and the muzzy summer afternoon. Only half the overhead lights are on, giving the whole tent the sense of being larger than it is, edges falling away into shadow. The contestants have all been shuttled back to the hotel, leaving just a few crewmembers darting around the property, locking down equipment for the night.
Or, all of the contestants should have been shuttled back to the hotel.
Hua Cheng hears a crash from the cooking floor just as he steps inside the tent. He pauses in the shadowed edge, gaze landing on two figures standing in the middle of the floor, their backs to him. They’re both contestants—Rong Su, who burned her steamer during today’s challenge, and Guo Jinhai, who made a decent but uninspired batch of pineapple buns last week.
“You—I barely bumped you,” Rong Su is saying. “This isn’t our fault.”
“We didn’t even see you,” Guo Jinhai adds, like an accusation.
From the floor, blocked from view by one of the stations, someone says: “It’s fine. You should go.”
Sure enough, when Hua Cheng moves closer, he sees the new PA crouched on the ground, two jars of flour cradled in one arm and a slew of smashed glass spread across the floor in front of him.
“We didn’t...this wasn’t our fault,” Rong Su says again, not moving.
“Really, you shouldn’t be here after hours,” the PA says, and he sounds weary. “Go on.”
“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?” Guo Jinhai breaks in. “Because that wouldn’t be fair. We weren’t even doing anything.”
The PA chooses that moment to glance up. Somehow his eyes find Hua Cheng’s immediately, a flicker of surprise and then amusement passing over his face. He says, “Something tells me I won’t need to.”
Hua Cheng huffs a small laugh. The contestants whirl around, and Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow.
“Su-jie lost her hotel key, we were just—”
Hua Cheng raises his eyebrow even higher, and the two fall silent.
“Our PA is correct,” Hua Cheng tells the contestants, “you’re not supposed to be here after hours. One could think you were trying to...gain an advantage somehow.”
The two stumble over themselves in their haste to assure Hua Cheng they definitely aren’t trying to peek at tomorrow’s ingredients, or hide anything at their stations, or sabotage anyone’s workspace. Of course not. They weren’t doing anything wrong at all, they swear, they don’t even know how the jars ended up on the ground, either, that wasn’t even them—
Hua Cheng lets them panic for a bit, and then holds up a hand. “Go,” he says.
For a moment the tent is quiet, the odd, ringing silence that follows the departure of someone particularly annoying. Then the PA shuffles a bit, and Hua Cheng turns back to him. “Is anyone else here?”
“Ah...no,” the PA says. “The others had to leave early. I’m just clearing the set.”
Hua Cheng nods. “And cleaning up other people’s messes,” he says, neutral, and waits to see what the PA will do. If he’ll shrink back, now that it’s just the two of them. If he’ll press an imagined advantage, try to further ingratiate himself in Hua Cheng’s eyes by badmouthing Rong Su and Guo Jinhai. If Hua Cheng has misread the PA’s character, this is the moment he’ll find out.
(Hua Cheng doesn’t know, exactly, why he suddenly cares. He almost hopes the PA takes the bait, so Hua Cheng can douse this burning curiosity before it gets out of hand. But—)
The PA just laughs awkwardly. “Ah, it’s my own mess too,” he says, shaking his head, and props his elbows on his knees to survey the damage. Broken glass is scattered through a carpet of flour, shards jutting out like shark fins. “But...this might have been worse if you hadn’t shown up. So, thank you.”
The PA stands then, setting the remaining jars aside and moving like he’s about to step right through the mess to get to the back of the tent.
“Wait,” Hua Cheng says, before he’s even decided to say anything. “You just—stay there.”
He turns and walks to the storage closet, flour grinding under his soles. He brings back a broom and giant dustpan.
“What’s your name?” he asks, handing them over.
The PA blinks. Surprised again, but still not scared. “Xie Lian,” he says. With a small smile he adds, “And I know who you are.”
“I should hope so,” Hua Cheng says, and finds he’s smiling too, for a moment.
Xie Lian’s eyes crinkle at the edges, and then he’s looking away, herding broken glass and ruined flour into the center of the floor. Hua Cheng steps back. He should go, now. There wasn’t a second broom in the closet, so it’s not like he can help. He’ll grab his jacket and leave.
Except. He looks at Xie Lian again, the distantly unbothered expression on his face as he tracks the broom in his hands. Hua Cheng remembers that same expression earlier when Xie Lian got called away from his lunch. His lunch that he never got to finish.
Hua Cheng turns on his heel and finds the nearest fridge. It’s still stocked from the signature earlier, leftover ground pork and ginger and assorted vegetables. He stops by the pantry shelves for the shaoxing wine and oil, the sauces, holding three bottlenecks in one hand as he returns to one of the stations.
“Oh,” Xie Lian says, “I haven’t cleared out the fridges yet, sorry. I can do that in a minute.”
“You’re fine,” Hua Cheng says. He sets out the ingredients, catching a carrot as it tries to roll away. “Are you hungry?”
Xie Lian pauses sweeping. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m okay.”
As soon as he’s done speaking his stomach gurgles, loud enough to hear two stations down. One again Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow. Xie Lian doesn’t cower, but he does look a bit sheepish.
“I might be a bit hungry,” he admits. “But please, don’t go to too much trouble. I’ll eat anything.”
Eggs, Hua Cheng thinks. Noodles, somehow. Not fresh—they’ve certainly got the flour, but not the time. He pops back in the storage unit, pulls eggs from the industrial fridge. He finds the pantry shelves where the crew stacks their belongings and steals a cup noodle that he suspects might belong to a certain rude grip, then returns with his bounty. He heats some oil, dumps the pork into a bowl, and starts peeling ginger.
Across the room Xie Lian deposits the last of the glass shards and flour dust into a bin. He washes up at the back station and makes his way back to Hua Cheng’s station, still patting his hands dry, and says, “Can I—help?”
Hua Cheng’s mind flits back to the gray meatballs. Something tells him Xie Lian made those himself, so Hua Cheng should answer with a resounding no—but another, stronger part of him doesn’t want to do that.
He pushes the mushrooms across the station table. “Chop these,” he says. “The width of your fingernail.”
Xie Lian smiles. Hua Cheng has now seen that smile multiple times, but he still feels it ripple through him, the first drop of rain on a still pond. He watches Xie Lian out of the corner of his eye as he preps the instant noodles, shreds the carrots. There’s something about him. The little line of concentration on Xie Lian’s forehead, the easy way he directs his own body, the way he so carefully scoops each chopped mushroom into a pile before moving on. The way—
“Ah,” Xie Lian says, frowning. A line of blood blooms across the tip of his finger. “Oops.”
He pops his finger in his mouth, then glances up to meet Hua Cheng’s gaze. For a long moment Hua Cheng can only stare back.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Xie Lian says. “I’ll wash my hands before I start chopping again!”
“I’ll get you a bandage,” Hua Cheng says faintly.
They get through the rest of it without any blood, tossing together a passable stir-fry. Hua Cheng plates it—there’s not much you can do with this, but he finds himself making an effort anyway, garnishing with green onions and sesame seeds until it looks nice enough to be deliberate, to be done with care. Across the station Xie Lian leans his elbows on the counter, newly bandaged hand clasped in front of him, and watches. His expression has mellowed, somehow happy and sad at the same time.
“You make it look very easy,” he says.
Hua Cheng fishes two sets of chopsticks out of a drawer. “What part?”
“All of it.”
Hua Cheng glances at the stovetop, the cooling wok and cluster of sauces and vegetable shavings. “Everyone thinks there must be some sort of trick,” he says, finally. “Some magic recipe or insider secret, to be a great cook. But it’s just a lot of basic skills put together. People who spend all their time practicing fancy tricks will never cook as well as someone who values the basics.”
Xie Lian nods, like he’s really listening and not like he just thinks he should agree with Hua Cheng. “That still doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he says. “Or maybe it’s just hard for me. But it’s amazing, watching you.”
“Oh,” Hua Cheng says, and hands him a plate.
Xie Lian’s smile is back, the sadness already filtered out. “Thank you, Hua laoshi.”
Hua Cheng watches him take a bite. Xie Lian’s eyes slip shut as he chews, and when he opens them he gives Hua Cheng a thumbs up. Only then does Hua Cheng start eating—and it is good, warm and filling and savory. It would be better with fresh noodles, he decides. More ginger, some pepper. He can improve it next time, if Xie Lian is there to eat it. Hua Cheng thinks this isn’t an unreasonable thing to imagine—after all, here Xie Lian is now, eating across from him, not a hint of nerves that it’s Hua Cheng’s food he’s eating. On a set full of people bending over backward to please or avoid Hua Cheng, Xie Lian seems content to just be here.
“You can call me San Lang,” Hua Cheng says.
Xie Lian swallows. “Ah?”
“If you’d like.” After a pause: “I’d like it if you did.”
Xie Lian seems to consider this, dark eyes steady on Hua Cheng. “If that’s what San Lang wants,” he says, and the warmth in his tone fills Hua Cheng to his fingertips.
Of course, there’s still a job to be done. They finish their impromptu dinner, and then Hua Cheng helps wash the station and clear away the rest of the set, preparing it for tomorrow’s technical challenge. When they’re done, hours after everyone else has left for the night, Hua Cheng walks Xie Lian to his car, an old beat-up thing at the far end of the parking lot with tire treads so worn-in they’re almost smooth in the dull lamplight. The passenger door groans when Xie Lian opens it to drop his bag inside, the overhead light sputtering.
Yin Yu will still be awake, Hua Cheng knows. He could have a second driver sent within minutes. Another one ready tomorrow morning to bring Xie Lian back to set. Cars that will surely be warm and comfortable, where Xie Lian won’t have to vie for a shitty parking spot before dawn.
He holds off. He doesn’t want Xie Lian to think—he doesn’t know, exactly, but he does know this is important. This small, growing thing. Hua Cheng will give it the time it needs.
Xie Lian straightens, shutting the passenger door. “I suppose that’s good night, then,” he says easily. “Thank you again, for dinner and for all your help.”
“Of course,” Hua Cheng says.
Xie Lian rounds the front of the car and Hua Cheng steps back, near-empty lot stretching around them. As Xie Lian pulls open the driver’s-side door, Hua Cheng finds himself saying: “When you were younger, did you live in Zhengzhou?”
He sees Xie Lian’s shoulders tense under his sweatshirt, still facing away. Then, as Hua Cheng watches, Xie Lian settles, drawing a slow breath. When he speaks his voice is even. “Yes,” he says. He glances back at Hua Cheng, eyes curious. “Have you been there?”
“I lived there too,” Hua Cheng says, “for a while.”
Xie Lian nods. He doesn’t seem to expect Hua Cheng to elaborate, just says, “See you tomorrow, San Lang?”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Hua Cheng says, and he means it.
Once, a long time ago, Hua Cheng was a child standing on a street in Zhengzhou, shivering in the rain with a day-old bruise ringing his eye and a yawning pit in his stomach.
He’d run away—not for the last time, but he didn’t know yet how many times he would flee, that the stretches of time he had to fend for himself would grow and grow until he left for good. This was one of the first times, and he was a kid, stubborn and drenched and so, so hungry.
An older boy found him as the sky was darkening between rooftops. He was one of what Hua Cheng thought of as the fancy kids, wearing a clean-pressed school uniform and a bright smile. He didn’t seem to mind that his nice jacket was getting rained on as he crouched down in front of Hua Cheng.
“Are you all right?” the older boy asked. Heavy drops splashed down from the awning Hua Cheng was huddled under, catching the boy’s temple. His dark hair was plastered to his neck. Still, he didn’t move away, meeting Hua Cheng’s wary gaze head on. “If you don’t want to tell me that’s all right.” The boy seemed to think for a moment. “Are you hungry?”
Hua Cheng swallowed. After a long moment he nodded.
The older boy took him to a tiny noodle shop around the corner. A wall of heat met Hua Cheng in the doorway, and by the time they were seated he could feel his toes again. An elderly woman bustled out from the back to fuss over their wet clothes, and Hua Cheng found himself with a towel tucked around his shoulders and the older boy still smiling at him across the table.
“Order whatever you’d like,” the boy said. When Hua Cheng kept staring at him the boy just nodded and ordered four different dishes, pushing three of them over to Hua Cheng when they arrived, keeping just one for himself. “Go on, see what you like best. Or have all of them, that would be even better.”
Hua Cheng moved slowly, still not convinced this wasn’t some sort of joke. He sipped from the bowl closest to him, rich broth and a swirl of noodles. He didn’t even register the flavor at first—just the heat, stinging his tongue and warming him from the inside out.
The boy looked pleased. They ate in silence for a bit, listening to the rain still lashing at the fogged-up windows, the occasional clatter from the kitchen. Slowly, the yawning hole inside Hua Cheng shrank away to nothing.
“I really like it here,” the older boy said when his bowl was nearly empty, swirling his chopsticks through the dregs. “It always feels like home. Though, Mom and I tried to make these once, but we didn’t really get the dough right…” He trailed off, laughing. It was a nice laugh, so Hua Cheng didn’t even tense up as he pulled a second bowl toward him.
“I like it too,” Hua Cheng offered, the first and last time he’d speak that day. The boy brightened and didn’t push him for more, just stayed with Hua Cheng until long after the last of the broth went cold. And that was it—that was the pivot point, the fulcrum on which Hua Cheng’s life had slowly but irrevocably turned. He only realized it much later, because cooking hadn’t been his dream at first. It had been survival—knowing the easiest way to combine remnants of pantry staples, to turn fridge scraps into something edible again, prepared at night in the dark when no one would shove him out of the kitchen. Taste was less of an indulgence and more a necessity, teaching himself how to tell what was fresh, what was passable, and what was beyond saving. He learned how to judge when something was cooked properly because he’d experienced the awful cramps that came with being wrong. How to know which vegetables were about to turn, the difference between unpleasant and poisonous. Later, he learned how to use food to get what he wanted—a meal as a bribe, a dessert as a show of skill, a slew of creative recipes and process videos that rocketed him to a Douyin celebrity who would likely never have to go hungry again.
No, food had always been a necessity, not a dream. But after that evening in the little noodle shop, wrapped in a towel across from a kind boy smiling at him over four steaming bowls, Hua Cheng learned that food could be home, too.
The next day Hua Cheng finds Xie Lian behind the main tent once again, sitting alone at a plastic picnic bench in the crew’s break area. He has another flimsy food container in front of him, set out next to his walkie.
Hua Cheng lets himself be seen, feeling the crew’s eyes tracking him as he slides onto the bench across from Xie Lian. When Xie Lian looks up, blinking, Hua Cheng beats him to a grin.
“I’m hungry,” Hua Cheng announces. “Can I have a bite?”
“Oh,” Xie Lian says, glancing down at his lunch and then back at Hua Cheng. “You—if you want?”
He slides over the container. It holds the same grayish meatballs as yesterday. Hua Cheng doesn’t hesitate before popping one in his mouth, chewing but not really tasting, his attention on the outbreak of whispers around them, the slightly wide-eyed look on Xie Lian’s face.
Hua Cheng swallows and tilts his head, humming in approval. “Really good,” he says. “Thank you, gege.”
If possible, Xie Lian’s eyes go even wider.
Hua Cheng doesn’t give the meatballs back. Instead, he pulls out a glass container from where it’s carefully stowed in his bag and sets it in front of Xie Lian. “In fact,” Hua Cheng says, “I’d like to trade lunches, if gege doesn’t mind.”
Xie Lian slowly opens the lid, the scent of still-warm noodles floating up to greet them. “You made this?” he says.
“Mm,” Hua Cheng says, trying not to seem too eager. “Go on, try it.” He props his chin on his hand as Xie Lian takes a bite and makes a small, happy noise. Hua Cheng feels like he could float away on that noise. “You like it?”
“I do,” Xie Lian says softly. “It reminds me of…” He trails off. “It’s very good.”
“I can teach you how to make it,” Hua Cheng offers, in a quiet tone meant for only Xie Lian. “That, and anything else. If you’d like.”
Xie Lian smiles, and it’s like the sun sweeping aside rainclouds. “I would,” he says. “I’d like that.”
After that, no one dares mess with Xie Lian for the rest of the show.