A Taste for Love: Chapter 15

I drag myself to the first station with Mom and Mrs. Lee. Contestant one stands about five foot five, which means his eyes land right at my chin. With shaggy black hair and shiny metal braces, he’s definitely memorable. My smile falters as I notice the dirt under his nails.

“Contestant one, tell us a little about yourself,” Mom encourages.

He scratches his head. “Uh . . . my name is Harold Chang. I’m seventeen, and I go to Memorial High School.”

“Welcome to the competition, Harold! How long have you been baking?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” he mumbles. “Maybe a few months?”

I’m sorry, what? Did he say a few months? I glower at Mom, who steadfastly avoids meeting my eye as she presses him for more information.

“And what are you most excited about baking?”

Someone pushes a camera into his face, and he stares into it, lips opening and closing like a goldfish in a bowl. Mrs. Lee clears her throat, but he doesn’t stir.

“Um . . . we’ll get back to you, Harold!” she says. “Let’s move on.”

At station two, we meet Jay Huang. Dressed all in black, he’s lanky, and his hair is shaved at the bottom and pulled into a ponytail at the top. His nails are painted to match his outfit, making it impossible to tell if he’s any cleaner than Harold.

“Are . . . are you sure you’re Jay?”

He half shrugs. “Yeah.”

“But your picture . . .” Mom swallows. “You look very . . . different in that one.”

“What picture?”

“Um, you were wearing a white shirt and a black tie.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s, like, from way back . . . last year, maybe?” he admits with a roll of the eyes. “It’s the one we send to my grandma every year for Christmas because she has a bad heart. But this is who I really am.”

Mom is aghast, and she struggles to come up with a suitable reply.

Serves you right for trying to set me up.

Thankfully, Mrs. Lee steps in with a composed smile.

“Well, Jay. How do you think you’ll do in the competition?”

He picks up a measuring spoon and frowns. “I’m sure I’ll be the first to go. I’m only doing this because Mom made me.”

“So . . . you haven’t done much baking, then?”

“Only if you count the good stuff,” he quips with a waggle of the brows. “You know, like brownies?”

Someone in the audience lets out a loud squeak. We turn to see a woman—I presume, Mrs. Huang—waving a finger at him. When the camera pans to her, she ducks her head and plays with her earring.

Jay rolls his eyes. “I’m kidding, obviously. My body is a temple.”

Mom can’t decide if she should laugh or frown. I do my best to avoid the former as Mrs. Lee ushers us to the third station. Contestant three is wearing a button-down shirt almost the exact shade of blue as my dress. He’s tall, at least two inches more than me, with thin-framed glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. His brown eyes sparkle as he smiles, and I admit, he’s cute in a geeky kind of way.

Not that I’m ever going to tell Mom.

“Good morning, judges.”

He sticks his hand out for each of us to shake, though he hangs on to mine for a second longer than necessary.

Mom visibly relaxes. “Your name is Edward, is that correct?”

His eyes dart briefly to the camera over her shoulder before answering.

“Yes. My name is Edward Lim. I’ve just graduated high school, and I’ll be studying pre-med in the fall at Rice University. I’ve mostly baked for fun in the past, but I plan on doing whatever it takes to win.”

Edward utters the last part while staring hard at me. Lim . . . Lim . . . wait. Is he related to Reuben somehow? I take a closer look. Nah. He’s too . . . normal.

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Lee replies. “It’s so lovely to meet you. We look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

Next up is a pair of twins, David and Albert Kuan. Honestly, I don’t know who’s who. They’ve shown up in identical clothes and parted their hair in the exact same spot. Mrs. Lee graces them with her signature smile.

“Hello, boys.”

“Hello. We’re really happy to be here, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Yang, and Liza.”

They talk as if they’re one person, not missing a single syllable. I shudder at the major The Shining vibes. Mom must have picked them thinking she’d have twice the chance of success. I’d say she’s twice as likely to fail.

The contestant who occupies station number six is considerably shorter than the three of us. Standing barely at five feet, he spends the entire introduction staring at my chest. Granted, he does the same with the other two judges, but it’s still über creepy. I only catch his name—Timothy something—before deciding I’m going to eliminate him as fast as humanly possible. I’ll take Dirty Harry at station one any day. Mom pulls a face.

“Timothy. Your application says you’re eighteen.”

“That’s because I am.”

Timothy raises his eyes in a silent challenge. If Mom could politely demand proof, she’d have his driver’s license in hand by now. Instead, she flashes a half-hearted smile.

“Um, good luck to you today.”

She quickly steps over to station seven before Mrs. Lee can follow up with a question. The boy looks ready to bolt the minute the spotlight is on him. His dark eyes are wide, and his flat nose and round cheeks are covered with a smattering of freckles that remind me of the sesame seeds we sprinkle on buns. It takes Mrs. Lee several minutes to coax an answer out of him.

“I’m . . .” His voice is so quiet, we all lean in to hear him. “Um, my name is Michael . . . Zhou. Sixteen years old. I just moved to Houston last month. I hope I’ll make some friends here.”

I feel bad for him. No amount of talent will save him if he folds under pressure. Mrs. Lee must sense this too, because she reaches over and pats him on the hand.

“Don’t be nervous, Michael. Just relax, and take deep breaths. It’ll be fine.”

He shoots her a shy smile. “Thank you, Mrs. Lee. I’ll try that.”

We’ve barely come to a stop at the eighth station when the contestant behind it bursts into speech.

“My name is Sammy Ma. I’ll be eighteen in September, and I’m looking forward to the bread round because I’ll be using my grandmother’s recipe.” He turns and smiles into the camera, waving. “Hi, Grandma!”

Sammy’s got the roundest cheeks I’ve ever seen. They overwhelm the rest of his features and look ripe for squeezing. He could totally be related to the son in that Pixar short Bao.

“Good, good. We’ll be rooting for you to get there,” Mom redirects. “Let’s meet our next contestant.”

It’s finally Ben’s turn. While he flashes a smile at Mom and me, it wavers when it reaches Mrs. Lee. Oblivious, Mom greets him.

“Hello! Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”

Charming Ben reappears, though his eyes never stray from Mom’s as he answers.

“My name is Ben Chan. I’m eighteen, and I recently moved from New York City.”

Mrs. Lee interrupts, her voice so low I’m almost sure I imagined it.

“It’s been a long time, Ben.”

He nods politely. “Hello, Mrs. Lee. It’s lovely to see you too.”

“If I remember correctly, you have quite the knack for baking. I’ll be keeping my eye on you.”

It could be my imagination, but there’s a slight sharpness to her tone. When Ben smiles, I can tell it’s fake.

“Thank you.”

I try getting his attention, but he drops his head. With no other choice, I make my way to the last station. James’s apron is too short for his frame, something I hadn’t noticed until now. Despite this, his rigid posture and firmly set mouth encourage no teasing.

“I should have known if Ben’s here, you wouldn’t be far behind.”

I jerk my head toward Mrs. Lee. The animosity in her voice is unmistakable. Mom and I exchange a look. It’s not like her to break out of her effervescent persona, especially in front of a camera. James’s stormy glare is equally intense as he replies.

“Seems to me like you’re the one doing the following.”

“Ah, contestant number ten!” Mom interjects loudly. “What is your name?”

“James Wong.”

Mrs. Lee starts to say something else, but he cuts her off with a sharp look. Thankfully, I’m too stunned to laugh. Chef Anthony breaks the tension with a clap.

“Well, how about we get started?”

Mrs. Lee glowers at James for one more second before marching over to join our host. Mom and I follow and stand on his other side.

“Okay, contestants, listen up! Round one’s theme is cookies. Mrs. Yang, if you please?”

Mom steps forward, projecting her voice so the entire room can hear.

“For your technical challenge, you will be replicating my matcha tea cookie recipe. They should have a powdery texture, be not too sweet, and have just the right amount of matcha flavor. Remember, we’ve given you most of the recipe, but not all. You have one and a half hours, starting . . . now!”

Once all ten contestants start in on their bakes, she swivels her head toward me. I read the challenge in her eyes.

Okay, Mom.

Let the games begin.

A little over an hour later, we’re nearing the end of the allotted time for baking. Mom and I stayed out in the hall to keep it a blind judging, while Mrs. Lee and Chef Anthony remained inside to ensure there’s no cheating.

“What do you think of our contestants this year, Liza?” Mom asks.

I clench my fists in my lap and swallow my automatic reply.

“I think it’s too early to tell how they’ll do. We’ll get a better sense of them after this technical round.”

She frowns. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.”

I resume staring at the opposite wall. The silence between us grows thick with tension. When Chef Anthony counts down the last seconds of the bake, I hop onto my feet.

“Three, two, one, step away from your stations!”

The clatter of bowls and utensils heralds the end of our first technical. We give the contestants a few minutes to arrange their bakes on the table. Mom replaced the gingham altar with a tablecloth printed with the bakery’s logo. She’d shown it to me rather proudly when it came in the mail.

“It’s good publicity.”

I think hosting the contest and naming it after Yin and Yang is plenty, but she’s always been extra like that.

In any case, I fidget with my sleeve until Chef Anthony pops his head out into the hallway. Mom and I take our places behind the table, while the contestants stand facing us in random order. I fight a wave of nausea when I spot the dirt still under Harold’s fingernails. There are two more contestants with equally bad hygiene in the pack, not counting Goth Jay.

Without hesitation, Mom picks up the cookie on the right side of the table. She holds it up and examines it.

“I would have liked to see more of a flower shape,” she comments, “but let’s see how the cookie tastes.”

If this is Dirty Harry’s cookie, he’s doing an admirable job of hiding it. I want to slap it out of Mom’s hand, but cringe instead as she chews. When she side-eyes me, I grab a cookie with great reluctance and nip off a piece just big enough to judge.

She turns to me. “What do you think, Liza?”

It’ll be okay. There’s, like, maybe a seventy percent chance this baker’s hands were clean, after all. But that does little to reassure me.

You can always kill it with antibiotics later.

I force myself to swallow the offending bite before speaking.

“The consistency could be better. I’m guessing you forgot to sift the dry ingredients. The flavor is okay, but too sweet. And the decoration . . . didn’t make it onto the plate.”

Mom smiles almost with a hint of pride. “I agree. Let’s move on.”

The next plate contains soggy blobs of dough, underbaked so badly I wonder if they even got the cookies into the oven. Neither of us is keen on trying one, but Mom sacrifices herself so I don’t have to. Her face tells me everything I need to know. I look at the contestants.

“These are severely underbaked. Too little time in the oven. They also don’t have the shape required. Major time management issues here.”

One plate after another, we taste and I judge. Mom doesn’t disagree with me once, and it makes me surprisingly uneasy. On the second to last batch, I finally lay my eyes on pristinely made cookies. Mom’s eyebrows shoot up as she eats, which looks promising. When I bite down on my piece, it’s like heaven exploding in my mouth.

“Whoever made this knew what they were doing. The thickness of the dough is just enough that it holds the shape of the cutter. It’s baked all the way through, and the matcha flavor is just right. The orange-infused white chocolate stripes on top are clean and precise. This is a delicious cookie.”

The cookies on the plate next to that bake are almost on par, but the decoration lacks the finesse of my personal favorite. We rank the cookies based on our taste test, and step back to announce the results. Mom does the honors.

“Number ten is this one,” she says, gesturing at the dough blobs. “Who does this belong to?”

Jay raises his hand. His pants are covered in flour, and there are streaks of food coloring on his face and arms. Despite initial appearances, he must have put some effort into his bake.

“Ah. Well, it didn’t go well for you this round, but there’s always the highlight bake,” Mom tells him.

Ninth place goes to Timothy. I breathe a sigh of relief when I realize his cookies weren’t the underbaked ones. Mom runs through the rest in quick succession until we reach first and second place.

She points to the last plate we ate from. “Second place goes to the baker who made this batch.”

Ben raises his hand with a giant grin, his nerves forgotten.

“Very nice. Only the slightest texture issue. When the cookie hits your tongue, it should almost dry it out.”

It’s obvious who the winner is before she announces it. I shake my head in disbelief.

“That means the winner of our first technical is James. Congratulations!”

He cracks a smile. There’s a single twitch at the junction of his lips, his dimple making the briefest of appearances. I look away quickly, annoyed at myself for noticing.

“Okay! Let’s take a one-hour break,” Mom commands. “I would encourage you all to make use of the restroom, because once we start the next round, you won’t get another chance.”

All ten guys stream out of the room along with their families. Nervous energy fills the corridor as the contestants steal glances at each other. Chef Anthony steps away to answer a phone call, while Mrs. Lee heads off to check on the progress at her new bakery. This leaves Jeannie, Grace, and Sarah sitting along the wall. Dad pops into the room a few minutes later. He grins and waves two white plastic bags in our direction.

“I brought lunch. Come to the break room.”

The four of us race after him, but I pause in the doorway.

“Are you coming, Mom?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not hungry. You go.”

I step out into the empty corridor. Correction: the near-empty corridor. Someone’s footsteps are approaching me from the other end of the hall. I brighten when I realize who it is.


I wait for him to catch up to me. He grins.

“Hello again.”

“I thought you were busy today.”

“I was, but my shoot ended up finishing early because one of the cameras broke. I was going to pick Jeannie up for lunch, but she invited me to stop by instead.”

“Oh, then you’re in for a treat,” I tell him. “My dad did the cooking today.”

We finish eating twenty minutes before the contestants are due back. By then, Nathan and Dad have traded enough bad jokes to last a lifetime. Despite the puns, Grace and Sarah have decided he’s worthy enough to be saved from future tenderizing. Jeannie walks him back to his car while the rest of us return to the bakeshop.

Mom may not have eaten anything, but she hasn’t been sitting idly by. At least five of the ten stations have been completely cleaned off and readied for the highlight bake.

“I could use your help.” She gestures at the empty carts nearby. “We don’t have much time before they come back.”

Dad and Jeannie each take a station, and I grab one too. We remove all the dirty containers and utensils and wipe down the counters. Then, we replace everything and measure out the ingredients listed on each contestant’s original recipe. Grace and Sarah both jump in to help me, something Mom makes note of. We’re down to our last two stations when Sarah excuses herself to run to the restroom. She passes Ben and James as they walk back in. Ben immediately rolls up his sleeves to clear off his station.

Mom clucks her tongue. “Ben, you don’t have to do that. You’re a contestant. This is our job.”

“Please, Mrs. Yang. I insist.”

He’s looking at her so earnestly she acquiesces. I can tell Mom’s scheming already, and I smile to myself. She’ll figure it out at some point. As I predicted, when Ben tucks an errant lock of Grace’s hair behind her ear minutes later, the glint fades from her eyes. Mom sighs as they talk quietly, their heads bowed together.

I’m so busy gloating I don’t immediately notice James positioning himself on the other side of my station. As he unbuttons the cuffs of his sleeves, surprise heat billows through my body. I’m so sure the oven at the station is on that I double-check the knobs. Weirdly, everything’s in place.

James clears his throat. “How can I help?”

I hesitate for a beat before gesturing at a clean towel on the cart.

“I’ll clear things off if you’ll wipe it down.”

He nods. I remove the used mixing bowls, utensils, and leftover ingredients so he can run the cloth over the stainless steel surface. As he wipes in large swirling motions, I’m fascinated by the way his shirt stretches across his muscles. It’s a second before I realize he’s asked me a question.

“I . . . I’m sorry?”

He tilts his head slightly. “Can I help you do anything else?”

“Oh, uh . . . I just need to replace everything and make sure you have all your ingredients.”

“I’ll do the second part. I know the recipe by heart.”

A few days ago, I would’ve heard conceit in his voice. Today, there’s something . . . different in his words. I catch myself staring again and cough awkwardly.

“Okay, yeah. You check your stuff and I’ll get the rest.”

In my haste to retrieve a fresh set of utensils, I trip over a loose shoelace. My body tumbles forward at breakneck speed, but I’m scooped up and saved from a near face-plant. My heart beats double time as James gently sets me on my feet. With his arm still around my waist, he peers down at me.

“Are you okay?”

His breath, hot like steam from a freshly baked bao, brushes over my cheek. I nod once. I don’t trust myself to speak. His grip loosens, and I pull out of his grasp. Afraid of what I’ll see if I look up at him, I use the cart for support as I walk over to where the clean items are kept. Once everything is loaded up, I check off my mental list before wheeling it back to his station.

I focus on arranging everything in the exact position it was in before. His fingers brush mine when he reaches for the last item—a glass mixing bowl. I yank my hand back and fist it at my side. Something flits over his features before he carefully locks the bowl into place on the mixer.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I mumble.

Surprisingly, he smiles, and I follow the upward curve of his lips. James’s warm brown eyes lock on to mine for a brief second, and heat washes over me a second time. Confused and desperate for some air, I break eye contact and quickly push the cart back to the corner. I duck out of the room, but not before catching Ben and Grace smirking at me nearby.

Once outside, I shut my eyes and lean against the cool wall. Not long after, I sense Grace sidle up beside me. The vanilla and honey scent of her perfume fills my nostrils as she leans toward me.

“So . . .”

“Don’t even think about it.”

She sputters. “How do you know what I’m going to say?”

“Because you’re my best friend, and I know you.”

There’s a pause before she inhales. “Want me to ask Ben about it?”

“Not unless you want this to be your last day on Earth.”

“Oh, come on! You guys would be so cute together!”

I finally open my eyes to look at her. “Please let it go, Grace. I already have one matchmaker on my ass.”

“I just want you to be as happy as I am.”

“Who said I’m not happy? I have the best friend in the whole world.” I yank her into a hug. “That’s good enough for me.”

Grace tries to shove me away, but I hold on tight. Her voice is muffled against my shoulder.

“You’re such a dweeb.”

“But you love me.”

She pulls back and grins. “But I love you.”

Glancing at the door, I square my shoulders.

“All right. Let’s get this over with.”


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