A Taste for Love: Chapter 16

As the break ends, the other contestants trickle in and join Ben and James back in the bakeshop. Edward walks in last, with Sarah by his side. She giggles at something he says, but when Mom narrows her eyes at him, he immediately abandons her and slips behind his station. Sarah stares at him in confusion before making her way back to her seat.

The reporters settle into their positions as Chef Anthony accompanies Mrs. Lee through the doors. With my part done for the day, I hug the wall to watch along with the audience. Jeannie pats the empty chair next to her in the back row.

“I saved it for you.”

I smile gratefully. “Thanks.”

Grace plops down on my right, and Sarah switches chairs so she’s sitting directly in front of us. From my seat by the wall, I have a clear view of all ten portable bake stations. Jeannie lowers her voice so only the three of us can hear her.

“Am I imagining things, or is there something going on between Mrs. Lee and contestants nine and ten?”

I shake my head. “Definitely not imagining it.”

“What did they say to each other?” Grace asks me.

“Nothing worth repeating.” Then I frown. “Actually, that’s not right. Mrs. Lee made some comment about James always being around Ben. That really pissed him off.”

“Really? What did he say back?”

“Something about Mrs. Lee following them to Houston.”

She frowns too. “That’s weird. We’ll have to ask them about it later.”

“Contestants,” Chef Anthony shouts, “this is your highlight round. Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Yang would like you to give us your interpretation of cookie art. All your individual parts must be edible, and eighty percent of your design must be made from cookies. They’d like to see at least two flavors, and your piece should be nicely decorated. You have three hours. Begin!”

The reporters hang around for the first fifteen minutes to record the baking, and then they leave one by one. Harold, who I’m now convinced will never wash his hands, makes a huge mess of his workspace within twenty minutes. His clumsy pours and careless mixing ensure large amounts of ingredients never make it into his dough. Even so, my heart stops when he sends a full batch of cookies to the floor while trying to pull a hot tray out with his bare hand.

In a flash, the pads of his fingers are covered in white blisters, and he releases a howl that brings everyone to a dead stop. Chef Anthony quickly sends him out into the hallway for medical care. Seconds later, a semi-hysterical woman fights her way down our aisle to go after them. She must be Dirty Harry’s mom. Chef Anthony returns and whispers something to Mom and Mrs. Lee. Too bad I can’t read lips, because for once, they seem to agree, wearing twin looks of concern.

Abruptly, someone utters a loud expletive to our left. Timothy is in the far corner, angrily dumping his tray of half-baked cookies into the trash. He’s grabbed a ball of dough and is preparing to toss it in too when a woman who could be his older sister pops up out of her chair to shout at him.

“Stop it! Just start over!”

Her protest goes unheard. Timothy lobs his leftover dough into the trash. He then picks up the rest of his ingredients and stares directly at her.

She rises out of her chair. “Don’t you dare throw that away, Timothy Allen Gao! You’re here to win!”

“Ma’am, there’s no coaching allowed,” Chef Anthony warns. “If you do it again, you’ll be asked to leave.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Timothy adds snidely. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I quit!”

He proceeds to rip off his apron and toss it on the ground. A stunned silence blankets the room as he storms out. Mrs. Gao tries to play it off.

“He gets like this sometimes when he doesn’t get enough sleep.”

She runs out after him, barely making it to the door before screeching his name.

“Timothy! Get back here right now!”

Chef Anthony turns to the remaining contestants with a tight smile.

“Everyone, please continue.”

For the next several minutes, even the sound of multiple mixers can’t drown out the screaming match outside. Eventually, a door slams in the distance, and Mrs. Gao reappears in the doorway. Her cheeks are flushed and her hair disheveled, as if she’d tried dragging her son back inside. She waves Chef Anthony over, and I manage to make out some of the words she says.

“Timothy . . . not feeling . . . my apologies . . . another day . . . fresh start . . .”

He shakes his head slowly in reply. Mrs. Gao then insists on talking to the judges, repeating whatever she told him. Mrs. Lee tips her head deferentially toward Mom, who shrugs helplessly. Her options exhausted, Timothy’s mom leaves in a huff. Neither of them comes back. I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“What do you think Mom’s going to do now?” Jeannie whispers.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Sarah twists around to look at us. “Has this ever happened before?”

“No. We’ve never had contestants drop out, much less on day one.”

I chew on my lower lip. After making such a fuss about the contest being perfect, why would Mom pick such clearly inept bakers? Either she’s totally convinced I’ll bring home that tattooed Ed Sheeran lookalike or these guys lied about their baking skills. Then again, I wouldn’t put it past some, if not all, of these moms to fill out their sons’ applications.

The rest of the highlight bake winds down without any more drama. Ben, James, Edward, and Sammy all seem to be on track with their cookies. Jay is mixing an inordinate amount of black icing in his mixer, while Michael keeps talking to himself and glancing at his shaking hands. The twins are behind, with one—Albert?—still baking his cookies, and his brother struggling to get his icing to the right consistency and color.

“You have fifteen minutes!” Chef Anthony announces. “Fifteen minutes left!”

The room explodes into chaos. The mothers in the audience can’t help cheering their sons on, shouting encouragement as the contestants frantically put the finishing touches on their cookie art. In comparison, James is parked on his stool, sipping coolly on a glass of water like the eye in a storm. There isn’t even a spot of flour or food coloring on his apron, and his station is clean and organized. I strain to catch sight of his cookie art, but he’s blocking it from view. Shortly after, Ben throws his hands up after laying down his last line of icing, and the two cousins high-five in celebration.

“And . . . time’s up!” Chef Anthony calls out. “Put down the icing and back away from your cookies!”

A few of the contestants mic drop their spatulas. Others are staring at their creations as if expecting them to come to life. Chef Anthony steps forward.

“It’s time for our judges to see how well you did. Harold—”

He cuts off, belatedly recalling Dirty Harry’s oven mishap. “Right. Um . . . Jay, please bring your cookie art to the table.”

I choke back a laugh as he steps aside to reveal a hairy black spider with the letters r.i.p. scrawled in bright red lettering. His piping leaves a lot to be desired, but that’s the least of his troubles. Neither Mrs. Lee nor Mom is willing to come within two feet of it.

“Um, Jay . . . what inspired you to make this piece?” Mom squeaks out.

“I really like Aragog from Harry Potter. It’s my homage to him.”

Chef Anthony is forced to do the honors. He cuts two pieces and hands the plates over to them for judging. Mom has to shut her eyes to take a bite, while Mrs. Lee turns her back to the cookie altogether. We wait in collective silence for their verdict.

“It’s . . . very creative,” Mrs. Lee finally says. “But a bit overwhelming for me. The choice of design is not the most appealing.”

Mom stares steadfastly at Jay. “Did . . . did you make the eyes with chocolate chips?”

“Yep,” he answers proudly. “It brings him to life, I think.”

“That it does,” Chef Anthony agrees amiably. “Thank you, Jay. You may sit down now.”

Jay turns to head back to his station, but Mom calls out to him.

“Please take your . . . Arago with you.”

“His name is Aragog.”

“Sure, sure, whatever.” She waves at it. “Please just take it away.”

Jay does as he’s asked but spends the rest of the judging period glowering at Mom. Perched on his stool with black-lined eyes and a tucked chin, he’s one wand short of a Cruciatus Curse. Meanwhile, Chef Anthony nods at the next contestant.

“Edward, why don’t you show us what you made?”

Edward saunters up to the front and places his entry onto the table. He’s made a cameo out of his cookie and painted its subject completely out of icing. It’s impressive, but it would be more so if he had colored the icing instead of defaulting to all white. Grace squints before slapping me on the arm.

“Oh my god. I think that’s you!”

“No, it’s not. There’s no way . . .”

My denial dies instantly when Chef Anthony tips the giant cookie up slightly for everyone to see. The girl on the cookie is an obvious match to my flyer photo, down to the pained smile on my face. The edges of my vision begin to blur as Mom claps her hands together.

“Isn’t this lovely! The likeness . . . it’s so striking!”

The minute she proclaims this, everyone in the room turns to stare at me. With all the heat I’m taking, it’s a wonder I don’t spontaneously combust.

Come on, Human Torch.

I glance down at my hands. Damn it. Not even a tiny flicker.

Thankfully, Mrs. Lee clears her throat and draws the attention back to the front of the room.

“It is quite detailed, Edward. I’m impressed by the amount of work you were able to pull off. Of course, ultimately it’ll come down to taste.”

I wince as Edward snaps pieces off Cookie Me’s head to feed the judges. When Mom chomps down on an eye enthusiastically, mine twitches in sympathy. I shake off the creep factor and focus on the quality of the bake. The cookie crumbles too easily in my opinion, and the icing layer is far too thick.

“What flavor cookie did you make this out of?” Mrs. Lee asks politely.

“The hair is sugar cookie, and the face is snickerdoodle.”

“I think it was a mistake to choose two flavors so similar to each other,” she tells him, putting the rest of her piece down onto the plate. “If you hadn’t told me, I would have assumed it was all the same.”

Mom’s lips curl. “I was able to tell them apart without a problem,” Mom comments. “You should have scraped off a little of the icing first.”

A feline smile stretches across Mrs. Lee’s face. “Oh, I agree one hundred percent. The icing is quite heavy-handed.”

Mom’s eyes flicker over to the kitchen knives as Mrs. Lee looks out over the room. Lucky for her, Chef Anthony swoops in with a distraction.

“Thank you, Edward. Very nice. Now, David, would you like to bring up your art?”

He makes a face. “Actually, my cookie is only half of the design.”

“Who has the other half?”

Albert raises his hand. “Me!”

Mom pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs as murmurs sweep across the bakeshop.

“What a unique idea.”

“That’s not fair!” one of the moms shouts.

“Is that even allowed?” another one chimes in.

Chef Anthony raises a hand to quiet the crowd. “This is a highly unusual situation. Please give me a minute to consult with the judges.”

They bow their heads together as the two boys wait. A gangly woman sitting in front of us strains to hear what they’re saying. She looks to be in her midforties, and she’s dressed in a custom jersey with the boys’ names emblazoned on the back.

“She must be their mom,” Jeannie says under her breath.

“You think?”

She rewards me with a poke in the ribs, and I clap my hand over my mouth to cover my giggle. The twins’ mother hears it nonetheless and turns around with a scowl. I duck my head as Chef Anthony steps forward.

“The judges have made a decision. Since this is day one, they will allow David and Albert to present their pieces together.” He levels a look at the twins. “However, should you move on, you will each be expected to prepare your own individual pieces.”

David brightens considerably, while Albert’s shoulders droop. The pair escorts their cookies to the table and places them side by side. Mom’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Yin and yang. How . . . nice.”

“No,” Grace gasps. “They didn’t.”

As a matter of fact, they did. Each twin has one half of the symbol—David with yin, Albert with yang.

“I made mine out of lemon cookie and white frosting,” Albert announces. “David’s is chocolate cookie with black frosting.”

“I see,” Mrs. Lee comments. “Are the dots the opposite flavors?”

“Oh . . . uh . . .”

“See? I told you that’s what we should’ve done!” David snaps. “But no, you wanted to make it easy!”

The two of them go from seventeen to seven in three seconds flat, bickering loudly right at the table. Their mom is either speechless or used to their fights because she watches the whole thing without moving a muscle. Mom finally breaks them up.

“David! Albert! This is not acceptable behavior from our contestants!”

They rear back simultaneously. Albert turns to his mom, but she averts her gaze. He crosses his arms over his chest and lets out a loud huff, while David sneers in his direction. Mrs. Lee attempts to get us back on track.

“I like the initiative you two took for your highlight. Using the name of the competition as inspiration. Very creative.”

Albert beams, while David—possibly the more self-aware twin—is only mollified. She breaks off a small piece from each side, and Mom follows suit. Albert’s cookie poses more of a challenge, and we watch the two of them chew for a while before swallowing. Mrs. Lee, after taking a swig of her water, glances at her co-judge.

“Mrs. Yang, what you do think?”

Mom pulls herself to her full height—five foot two—and squares her jaw. Though both boys can look down their noses at her, they cower beneath her intimidating gaze.

“It would have been better if you both added flavor to your icing rather than just coloring it. Albert, your cookie is overbaked and too dry. David, yours has the right bite to it, and the chocolate really comes through. Good job.”

Neither brother clearly expected her forthrightness. Albert’s ears turn scarlet, his cheeks billowing like a half-inflated balloon. David, on the other hand, finally smiles.

“I agree with Mrs. Yang on the icing,” Mrs. Lee starts, “but I liked how much lemon I tasted in your cookie, Albert. If you make it to the next round, I hope you’ll pay more attention to your bake time.”

Chef Anthony shoos them back to their seat before Albert melts down. He then gestures for Michael to come forward, but the contestant shakes his head frantically. Chef Anthony walks over to his station.

“Do you need help carry—”

The rest of the words die in his throat as he stares down at Michael’s creation.

“Aren’t those your technical cookies?”

“I tried my best, but I spilled water on my paper,” he bursts out, near tears. “Momma spent all night . . .”

A stout woman at the end of our aisle suddenly starts coughing violently. Michael abandons his station and rushes to her side.

“Momma! Are you okay, Momma?”

“I’m fine, sweetie,” she says with reddened cheeks. “I’ll be okay. Just go back and present your piece.”

“But it doesn’t look anything like your design!”

Gasps echo through the room. It’s not against the rules to use family recipes, but the contestants must come up with their own designs. With Michael’s cheeks stained with tears, Chef Anthony coaxes him up to the front table with his tray. Mom tugs at her sleeve as she considers what to say. Mrs. Lee steps forward and gives him a gentle pat on the shoulder.

“You were trying to think on your feet. I commend you for that.”

“Um . . . that’s right,” Mom follows. “Very good attempt to recover after a mishap.”

Despite their kindness, Michael folds like a cardboard box. He leaves his tray on the table and treads back to his seat. Chef Anthony quietly moves his cookies back to his station for him.

“Sammy, why don’t you—”

He’s at the judging table before Chef Anthony finishes his sentence. Sammy—or Lil Bao, as I prefer to call him—grins with such unreserved joy it’s infectious.

“My design is called ‘If it fits, I sits.’ It’s a peanut butter cookie with white- and milk-chocolate icing. I dedicate it to my cat, Peanut.”

I lean forward to get a better look. Sure enough, he’s painted a picture of his cat sitting in a cardboard box. It’s crude but also so adorable. When the judges have a taste of his cookie, they go back in for a second bite.

“This is actually quite good,” Mom announces. “Peanut butter and chocolate go well together, and you’ve kept a good balance between the flavors.”

Mrs. Lee nods. “It’s got good mouth feel. I quite enjoyed eating it.”

Their compliments are accompanied by light applause from the audience. Sammy walks back to his station with his chest puffed out. Now there are only two left to present—Ben and James. Ben is up first, and he carefully moves his piece over. Grace and I stand up for a better look, and she lets out a low whistle.

“Wow.”

I agree. Ben’s chosen to make a batch of cookies shaped like blocks to create a Minecraft scene. His piping is pretty neat, and his coloring is on point. Mom has no idea what she’s looking at, so she reaches for something generic.

“You’re the first one in the competition to try 3D cookies, Ben. It’s a more advanced skill, and you nailed it.”

“I wish we didn’t have to take it apart,” Mrs. Lee laments, “but this is a cookie challenge, so let’s get to tasting.”

It’s funny watching them both try to Jenga their way into a piece without breaking apart the entire structure. Ben glued everything down with a sugar solution, but it doesn’t take much to wreck it. I tense subconsciously as Mom bites into her piece.

Her eyes widen. “Now, that’s interesting! I was expecting gingerbread, but this is more of a biscotti.”

“Bold choice, Ben,” Mrs. Lee adds, still chewing. “Crunchy, but not too dry. Did you decrease your baking time?”

He flushes. “Actually, I tweaked the recipe a little so it would be a softer bake.”

Their comments tempt Chef Anthony to indulge in a piece of his own. He makes a happy sound after popping the biscotti block into his mouth.

“Now all I need is some coffee or milk!”

It turns out Ben came prepared. There are two cups of milk on his tray, and he hands one to our host. Chef Anthony gulps it down in three swallows.

“Thank you, Ben,” says Mom. “Please return to your station. James, please bring your highlight up.”

All eyes are on James as he transfers his cookies to the front of the room. Like his cousin, he’s chosen a batch of cookies rather than baking one giant piece. Instead of a build, however, he’s decorated them beautifully with sprigs of rehydrated cherry blossoms. Mom leans in to examine them more closely. She loves an understated presentation, so as long as the taste makes a big impact, he’ll win her favor. Mrs. Lee is a totally different story. With their terse exchange earlier, I wonder how she’ll judge him.

“Tell us about your cookies,” Chef Anthony commands.

“They’re inspired by my travels to Japan. The cookies are a variation on butter cookies and have cherry blossoms mixed into the dough.”

Three cookies disappear off his tray as the judges and host each take possession of one. It’s hard to decipher the play of emotions on their faces as they eat. It’s totally quiet in the room, save for the soft sound of crunching.

“The balance of flavors is exceptional,” Mom proclaims. “The slight saltiness—I’m guessing from pickling the blossoms—keeps the cookie from being too rich. Excellent.”

The energy in the room shifts as jealousy radiates from the other contestants. It only grows when Mrs. Lee reluctantly agrees.

“I have to say, James . . . this is one of the best cookies I’ve ever had, and I’ve tasted a lot over the years.”

You’d think their high praise would garner at least one smile, but James remains stubbornly stoic as he turns stiffly and heads to his seat. Chef Anthony brightens the room with a giant grin.

“The first day of the Fifth Annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition has now concluded. Our judges will take a break to deliberate on who will move on and who will be eliminated. Good luck to each and every one of you!”

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