A Taste for Love: Chapter 22


Four days later, on round three of the competition, I shuffle into the break room with drooping eyes. It took everything I had this morning not to burrito myself in my covers. I was up late talking to Grace; she’s decided to stay away for the rest of the contest. After arguing with my alarm for those precious extra minutes, I left the house in a black linen tee and jean shorts.

I expect Mom to disapprove, but she doesn’t spare me a glance.

The contest must be really getting to her. I’ve never seen her look so dejected. We’re only three challenges into this year’s contest, but five contestants down. She’s had to cut half the planned baking days out to compensate. As much as Mom grumbles about the preparation that goes into it every year, she takes great pride in how it comes out. It must have gotten to Chef Anthony too, because he barely musters a half-hearted smile.

“Everyone excited about today?”

Dad is the only one who answers in the affirmative. Mrs. Lee is glued to her phone, dressed in a sleek black pantsuit with freshwater pearls and another pair of sky-high stilettos. Jeannie texts me saying Nathan should be dropping her off soon. Seeing his name on the screen puts me on edge. I need to figure out how to get her away from him so we can talk.

Just like bake day two, Gloria abruptly flies into the room.

“Chef Anthony! Come quick!”

Chef Anthony runs out of the room behind her, and Mom immediately follows. I jog to catch up to them. We arrive at the bakeshop to see contestants and family members gathered outside the doorway. James and Ben are standing next to each other, leaning against the wall. James looks surly, his eyes narrowed as he glances around at the other contestants. Ben’s lips are pressed in a thin line, his eyes pinned to his shoes. I ignore them both as I step into the room behind Mom. She comes to a full stop just inside the open door, and we both gasp aloud.

The entire bakeshop is in shambles. There’s flour and sugar all over the floor. Towels and utensils are strewn across all the workstations, and even with a cursory glance, it’s obvious ingredients are missing off every table.

“Who had access to this room?” Mom demands to know.

Chef Anthony rears back from the death glare she aims his way.

“Uh . . . before competition, just me and the volunteer students. But none of them would have done this.”

“How do you know? Maybe one of them is racist.” She points at her head. “The ones who wear the red hats.”

“Mrs. Yang, that’s a serious accusation,” he intones, squaring his shoulders. “And I don’t take well to you making it. My students are good kids, and they volunteer their free time to be here.”

“Only because you’re giving them course credit.”

His lips press into a tight line. “Even so, getting into this school is extremely competitive. None of our students would risk their spot for something like this.”

“Laˇo pó, let’s not jump to conclusions.” Dad lays a hand on Mom’s shoulder. “We don’t even know when this happened.”

“Did anyone see anything?” Mrs. Lee pipes up.

None of us had noticed she joined us. A minute later, Jeannie walks in as well. Chef Anthony cocks his head toward Gloria.

“Were you the one who found it like this?”

She shakes her head. “No, Chef. One of the contestants alerted me.”

“Which one? Show me.”

We bottleneck at the doorway, trying to get out into the corridor. Mrs. Lee and Mom stop and let Chef Anthony pass first. My heart sinks when Gloria heads straight for Ben.

“He’s the one.”

James tenses as Chef Anthony levels a suspicious look at him.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“It was like that when I got here. As soon as I saw it, I let one of your students know.”

“Was anyone else here with you?”

James straightens to his full height, eyes challenging. “I was. We came in the same car.”

After a pause, Chef Anthony turns his gaze to the rest of the group.

“Did anyone see anything?”

Heads shake around him. I stare at the cousins. Are they telling the truth, or did they do this as some sort of revenge? The thought makes bile rise into my throat.

“Are there security cameras we can check?” Mrs. Lee suggests.

“We only have them at the entrances and exits. There’s never been a break-in until now.”

The contest was scheduled to begin fifteen minutes ago. Now unsettled murmurs rise from the group gathered in the hall. With Mom dazed and staring off into space, Dad takes charge.

“I think it’s best if we get things cleaned up so we can start without further delay. Chef, can you escort the contestants and their families to a different area for the time being?”

“Of course.” Chef Anthony points down the hall. “Everyone, if you’ll please follow Gloria to the auditorium.”

His student leads the crowd away. Mom, Dad, and I head inside to help clean as much of the mess as possible. Mrs. Lee volunteers to stop by the nearby grocery store for more ingredients, and Jeannie offers to go with her.

We manage to get everything swept up decently fast, replacing all the broken and dirty utensils with fresh ones. Once Jeannie and Mrs. Lee return, we distribute the ingredients based on each station’s need. Stepping back to admire our handiwork, Dad smiles.

“Anything else we might be missing?”

“Oh! The recipes for the technical challenge,” Chef Anthony notes. “The copies we made were damaged by the mess.”

“My book’s in the break room,” Mom tells him.

“Okay, I’ll just tell Gloria to bring everyone back in.”

“I can do that,” Jeannie volunteers. “That way you guys can get everything ready faster.”

“I’ll stay here, just in case,” Mrs. Lee adds.

We head in opposite directions: Jeannie to fetch the others, and the rest of us heading to the prep room. As we near, I see something move around the corner at the other end of the hall, but when I look again, there’s nothing. I shake it off and head inside behind Mom, who grabs her canvas bag off the back counter. Her face pales as she sticks a hand into it and pulls items out. Impatient, she turns the entire bag upside down. The contents tumble out unceremoniously—pens, pads of paper, her wallet, her cell phone, and some random knickknacks, but no recipe book. She glances around in a panic.

“Where’s my book? It’s supposed to be here. I swear I put it in here this morning. I even double- and triple-checked it.”

“Maybe you took it out and forgot.” Dad gestures toward the row of metal lockers and boxes of baking supplies that line the perimeter of the room. “Can everyone check the area around you? Look on the floors and behind furniture. Make sure you didn’t also pick it up by accident.”

“It’s a leather notebook with a red cover,” Mom adds, voice shaking. “It has Chinese writing on the inside.”

We search high and low, but other than some dust bunnies and crumbs, there’s nothing to be found. Mom is on the verge of a meltdown, and we all know it.

“Maybe it fell out in the car,” Dad tells her. “I’ll check.”

“No, I’ll do it,” I interrupt. “You stay.”

He reaches into his pocket and tosses me the keys. I jog down the hallway and past the bakeshop. Jeannie is standing against the wall, but I don’t have time to explain.

“I’ll be right back!”

The July heat slams into me like a brick wall as I step outside. I ignore the discomfort and make my way over to the car. Despite searching every crevice, I find nothing. This is bad. This is apocalyptically bad. How am I going to break this to Mom? I decide to text Dad first. At least he’ll know how to calm her down.

I drag myself back to the prep room. As expected, Mom is in hysterics. Jeannie and Mrs. Lee have joined the others, and they’re all watching helplessly.

“Laˇo póare you sure you put it in your bag?” Dad is asking. “Maybe you left it at home.”

“I didn’t leave it,” she says in a stage whisper. “Someone must have taken it. Maybe that’s why the room was trashed too. What if they’re trying to ruin the contest? Ruin my reputation?”

“I’m sure that’s not the case.”

“Why is this happening to me?” She continues wailing like she didn’t hear him. “I’ve worked so hard to make this a success!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix this,” Dad tries again.

“Your husband’s right. I’m sure we can figure this out,” Chef Anthony adds. “Do you maybe have a backup recipe? Or we can google one.”

“No! It has to be the original recipe.” Mom sinks into a nearby chair. “Not to mention we don’t have time to get another set of ingredients.”

He turns to Mrs. Lee. “Do you have a recipe we can use?”

“I’m afraid not. They’re all trade secrets, so we keep the only copies in a safe back at my New York headquarters.”

I rack my brain for a solution. There has to be something we can do. My head snaps up.

“What if we reverse the bake order today?”

Every pair of eyes in the room zeroes in on me. Dad is the first to speak.

“What did you say?”

“What if we have the contestants do the highlight before the technical?” I say with the slightest tremor in my voice. “That would give us time to either find the book or come up with a new recipe.”

“That’s brilliant!” Chef Anthony crows. “What do you think, Mrs. Yang?”

Mom stares at me like I’ve got something on my face but says nothing.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Mrs. Lee fills in. “Let’s do it.”

“Then we should head to the bakeshop and get started,” our host answers.

We trek there as a group, but pause outside as Chef Anthony whispers instructions to his culinary students. As they scurry in and start trading out the ingredients at the stations, he walks into the bakeshop with his brightest smile.

“Welcome, everyone, to day three of the Fifth Annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition. I know we got off to a rough start this morning, so the judges thought it might be fun to shake things up a little bit. Bakers, you will be starting with your highlights today.”

Confusion spreads through the room, igniting mumbles and whispers from the audience already seated along the wall. Chef Anthony continues without pause.

“Why don’t we bring in our esteemed judges? First up is the generous and talented Mrs. Yang of Yin and Yang Restaurant and Bakery!”

When Mom is summoned, she treads in looking stiff and uncomfortable. Mrs. Lee is introduced next, and she puts everyone at ease with a clever joke. I’m the last to be brought into the room, and nerves hit me just before I step inside.

“Our last judge has experience both in front of and behind a baking station. Please help me welcome back Miss Liza Yang!”

Some light applause accompanies my entrance. I take my spot next to the other two judges, consciously avoiding the right side of the room. Mrs. Lee takes a minute to look every contestant in the face before speaking.

“Today’s theme is bread, so knead that dough, heat up that oven, and roll up your sleeves. You have three hours, beginning now!”

There’s a moment where no one moves, as if Medusa herself has rendered them all stone. Sammy is the first to break the spell, dumping some flour out of his jar and sifting it into his mixing bowl. Over the next few minutes, the rest of the contestants join in, but the mood in the room is somber. Dad waves me over to him.

“I’m going to go home and look for the recipe book. Keep an eye on Mom, okay?”

He sneaks out while Mom’s looking the other way. I ease into his seat and cross my fingers. Hopefully, he’ll bring good news back. About thirty minutes into the bake, I feel my phone go off in my pocket. Two words pop up on the screen.

No book.

I swallow a litany of curses as I raise my head to find Mom staring expectantly at me. Her shoulders slump as I shake my head imperceptibly. My heart aches for her. Just like The Great British Baking Show, bread day is the trickiest to pull off. Without a clearly written recipe and properly measured ingredients, the bakers won’t have a chance to get it right. If today doesn’t go as planned, the contest could end here and now. As much as I hate the fact that Mom used the contest to find me a boyfriend, I don’t want her to be publicly humiliated.

That’s when the idea comes to me. It’s tantalizing but also downright terrifying.

It might also get me grounded for the rest of my natural life.

Perfect.

I make my way to Mom’s side and lean down to whisper in her ear.

“Can you come outside with me for a minute? I want to talk to you.”

“Why?” she asks in a tired voice.

“Please. Just trust me.”

Mom excuses herself and follows me into the hallway. My heart pounds loudly in my ears, and the hem of my shirt is bunched in my fists. I rush into speech, afraid I’ll lose the courage otherwise.

“Mom, I want you to let me come up with the technical recipe.”

“Liza, I don’t think—”

“Please, Mom. I can do this,” I tell her. “I won’t let you down. I know how important the contest is to you.”

My words echo through the empty corridor. Mom says nothing, staring at me with an unreadable expression. As the seconds fall away, so does my confidence. So much for not letting anyone steal my shot. I stare down at the ground.

“Okay.”

My eyes bounce back up to her face. “What?”

“I said okay. I’ll let you try.”

Am I dreaming? I reach down and pinch myself. Ow! Shock gives way to a smile so big my cheeks hurt from the effort. This is really happening. I mean, maybe Mom’s only agreeing because she’s desperate and figures things can’t get worse, but I don’t care. I throw my arms around her and give her the biggest hug. She pats me awkwardly on the back until I let her go.

“This isn’t a game, Liza. I hope you’re really taking this seriously.”

“I am! I am!”

“And I get final say on the recipe. If it’s not good enough, then we won’t use it.” She checks her watch. “I need to get back inside for the judging.”

“I’ll start working on the recipe right now.”

She heads inside, and I run back to the break room. I know exactly what I’m going to do, and I text Dad to stop by the grocery store on the way back to pick up what we need. Then I go in search of Gloria and her fellow students. I find them sitting in the cafeteria, playing a board game. Gloria lets me into Chef Anthony’s office so I can type out and print eight copies of my recipe. I thank her for her help and head back to the prep room. Dad’s waiting inside, and he looks at me with a puzzled expression.

“Did you get everything?”

He nods. “Yes, but why does Mom need all these things?”

“She doesn’t. It’s for my technical recipe.”

He stares at me with surprise. “You’re doing the technical? Does Mom know about this?”

“Yeah. I talked to her about it earlier.”

With the recipe copies in hand, we walk to the bakeshop together. I hear Mom and Mrs. Lee critiquing James’s bread, and what I hear startles me.

“I have to admit, James,” Mrs. Lee says. “This is an off day for you. You overworked the dough, then underbaked it.”

“The flavor is good,” Mom adds, “but not as nuanced as your usual bakes.”

I don’t hear his reply. It’s likely he doesn’t give one. With the final highlight judged, Chef Anthony announces the lunch break. People file out of the room, murmuring about the surprising turnout for this morning’s bake. Sarah and Edward walk out together, their hands brushing against each other. She and I share a quick smile as they continue down the hall.

Ben and James trail out last, and the latter’s eyes flit over me as he passes. I keep mine on the papers in my hand until they’re gone. Dad and I then enter the room with everything in tow. Mom and Jeannie are there, along with Mrs. Lee.

I hand the papers over to Mom for inspection with shaky hands. Dad pats my shoulder as her eyes flit quickly across the paper. When she looks up and nods, the tension inside me cracks like a fried wonton, and I finally exhale.

Mrs. Lee raises an eyebrow. “What’s this?”

“Our technical recipe,” Mom explains. “Liza’s going to take the lead on this one.”

“I know we’re short on time, but are you sure this is a good idea?”

A faint smile appears on Mom’s face, and I stand a little taller.

“Yes. I have full confidence in her.”

“Okay, then,” Mrs. Lee utters with surprising ease. “What can I do to help?”

“If you could put a copy of this recipe on each workstation,” I explain, “we’ll work on measuring everything out.”

She accepts the pile of papers, eyes skimming over what I’ve written down.

“You came up with this recipe on your own?”

“Technically, it’s one we use at the bakery, but I made some changes.”

Mrs. Lee peers at Mom. “Your daughter is very talented.”

“Yes, I know.”

I bask in the rare compliment for a second before getting back down to business. Placing one copy of the recipe on the nearest workstation, I set up an assembly line of ingredients and measuring tools.

“Mom, please measure out the bread flour. Dad, you’ve got the sugar, salt, and yeast. Jeannie, if you could help out with the water and milk, that would be great. I’ll take care of the rest.”

When each batch is complete, we transfer it to an open workstation. Once we’re done, we remove the extra ingredients and repackage them. The contestants stroll back in right as we’re putting everything aside. Mom tips her head toward our host.

“We’re ready when you are, Chef Anthony.”

“Great! Let’s do this.”

His booming voice interrupts the various side conversations and brings silence back into the room.

“Contestants, it’s time now for your technical challenge for bread day. Mrs. Yang—”

“Actually, since this is one of Liza’s recipes, she’ll give the instructions.”

“Oh! My apologies.” He tips his head toward me. “In that case, the floor is yours.”

With all eyes now on me, I step into the spotlight.

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