I gracefully set each dish in front of the three judges, before hiding my hands behind my back. I had barely managed to restrain my nerves before they trembled from tense anticipation.
Eyeing the dishes for a moment, the three men collectively looked at me with a blank stare, as if they had no idea where to begin.
“Please start with the white dumpling closest to you and eat it in a single bite. After you are ready, you can continue with the next one, following the increasing hue of red in a spiral pattern. If you feel like you cannot continue, then I have prepared a dish to cleanse your palate,” I instructed while my finger traced the spiral pattern, ending on the dish of yogurt.
With that cue, the three men scooped the first dumpling into their mouth. The head chef was the first to remark.
“Oh, shaved meat with hints of pizarka? Accents of pepper, ginger and other spices. Not unexpected from your history, but hardly something up to your normal standards,” he said, a bit disappointed.
“Yeah, I’ve had something like this before. Not in its current shape, but in a similar style,” the captain added.
Eryn and the other chefs had a stiff expression on their faces. Ignoring them, I fully expected this.
“Please continue with the next.”
Casually eyeing the second dumpling, the head chef popped it into his mouth. Immediately, he felt a small tingle, followed by a lingering sensation of warmth on his tongue. At the same time, the richness of the meat and seasonings had grown from before.
“What’s this? My mouth is radiating.” The head chef felt the inside of his mouth, but no heat transferred to his fingers.
“Now that’s more like it! Better than the first one!” The captain’s interest started perking up as he immediately popped the third dumpling into his mouth. “Ooh! How exciting! Each one has more bite than the one before!”
Catching on, the head chef joined the captain as they both continued to eat dumpling after dumpling. However, as they both reached the 7th one, the head chef suddenly slowed down.
“The warmth on my tongue is getting too intense. But the taste…it keeps growing!” He exclaimed while fanning his extended tongue with his hand.
The head chef was starting to pant, a layer of perspiration dotting his brow. Hesitantly spooning the next one into his mouth, it looked like tears started appearing in the corner of his eyes. He started unbuttoning his shirt in an attempt to cool himself down.
“It’s so delicious that I’m compelled to continue! But…how can I bear…this burning sensation? What magic is this?”
The magic that the head chef had been referring to had been my secret ingredient, chili oil. Having taken the hot peppers from Gibraltar, I had gone to work roasting them in oil at a high temperature. The essence of the spiciness became infused with the oil, creating a medium to transfer its heat.
The last few days, I had tested each variety of hot pepper to compare the spice level, arranging the jars of oil in a line according to spiciness. Not knowing how acclimated the general population was to this kind of taste, I initially struggled to decide how potent of a chili oil I should use.
A stronger, spicier oil could be complemented with a richer, bolder seasoning, thereby elevating both ingredients in a harmonious fashion. However, making it too spicy for the taster to handle would backfire.
Then I thought, ‘why not just use all of them?’ Let the tasters decide for themselves how much they could handle – how ambitious they wanted to be. As a result, a spiral of increasingly intense spiciness – increasingly intense flavor – would tempt the tasters to venture further, even when facing the prospect of pain. They would decide whether they could grit their teeth and tolerate the heat, with the expectation that the next bite would be even better.
“Of course. If you can no longer bear it, this final dish will alleviate your pain.” I ended my explanation with a reminder of the single dish that would cure them of their burning tongues.
Seeing that there was a safety net offered, the head chef continued to press on, shoving the tenth dumpling into his mouth. Only halfway through, he was desperately urging himself to continue onward.
Ambition – it was one thing that both he and the captain of the royal guards were well familiar with. Neither he nor the captain would have been in their current positions if they had surrendered to the pleas in their mind to quit when things got tough. Regardless of the reason that drove them, their ambitions had led them through much pain and suffering, all in hopes of obtaining something grand.
The burning sensation of spice, the sweat pouring from his brows, the sense of helplessness as he beckoned himself to trudge forward – they were fond memories in his mind. He had gone into this examination wholly unprepared to face this flood of feelings. What impact it had on his very being!
With tears streaming down his cheeks and the urge to continue finally extinguished, the head chef hurriedly grasped a spoonful of yogurt and forced it into his mouth. Seven dumplings remained on his plate.
Immediately, a cool sensation enveloped his tongue, offering instant relief to his agony. A taste of sweetness danced in his mouth, invoking a sense of euphoria as if his body was being lifted out of a battlefield and into the heavens.
“This is…honey?” The head chef realized the taste after snapping out of his hallucination.
“Yes, I thought it would be a nice finish after such intensity. Honey does a good job removing the burning sensation from your mouth by absorbing the chemical responsible,” I said nonchalantly. I had remembered eating something too spicy as a child and turning to milk and honey as a solution. I figured it would be nice not to leave them in agony after they had tasted the dish.
“…I see. I’m impressed by this. I have no issues giving you a passing grade.” The head chef turned toward the other two judges to ask for their options, but what he saw left his mouth ajar and his words stuck.
The captain had eaten every single one of the dumplings.
Though sweat was streaming down his now ruby red face, he had a vacant look of content.
“The pain…the taste…so…amazing…I can’t…get…enough!” He said in between pants.
That had been outside of even my expectations. The last 2 or 3 dumplings had been so spicy that I couldn’t even handle it. For people that had little exposure to spiciness beforehand, I was amazed at the captain’s feat. Though by how he was acting now, was it possible that he was a masochist?
“I think we have our answer. The captain appears to have thoroughly enjoyed Chef Evers’ dish.”
The Duke broke the awkward silence after everyone had stared at the captain’s sorry state.
Strangely, the Duke had hardly touched my dish, as only three of the dumplings had been consumed. This gave me a bit of worry.
“Was it…not to your taste?” I hesitantly asked.
“No, it was quite appealing.” His answer caught me off-guard.
“I am not the type to pursue my ambitions at the risk of pain. It is rather amusing that such a dish could make it clear to our characters so well. In light of that, I will offer you my recommendation.”
Eh? That had not been my intention, but if that was the reason it impressed you, then I could accept that.
The head chef looked over at his subordinates for a moment and nodded with satisfaction.
“With that, we are in full agreement in accepting Chef Evers as a member of the royal kitchen!”
At that moment, I raised a hand to interrupt the scattered clapping that started. Everyone in the room turned towards me in confusion.
“I know this was a test and all, but…I’d like to decline the offer.”
“EHHH???” The chefs in the room collectively yelled.
“Are you…sure?” The head chef stood up from his chair in surprise. “You want to decline a royal position…one that offers a compensation of fifty thousand silver each month!?”
FIFTY THOUSAND A MONTH?! I had gone into this examination not really expecting to pass anyways, so I had not bothered to inquire about the benefits. Since it felt like Eryn didn’t want me to leave, I was going to turn it down even if I had passed. But now, a daunting number floated in front of me. Though I didn’t exactly know the value of money, especially at this magnitude, it gave me the feeling that I would’ve become an instant millionaire.
I glanced over at Eryn, who had an expression full of worry plastered on her face. Seeing that, I firmly had my answer.
“Yes, I am sure about declining,” I said in a soft voice.
“Your reason?” The Duke interjected.
“That’s a lot of money you’re offering…but I wouldn’t be serving under my master anymore. Finding one as good as her trumps any amount of money.”
If I had looked to the side at that very moment, I would’ve caught Eryn’s face turning red.
“Very well.” Seemingly accepting my answer, the Duke got up to leave.
At that moment, the captain finally snapped out of his stupor.
“Huh? You mean I won’t be able to eat this whenever I’m at the castle? No way!” The captain came over to me and put his hands on my shoulders with a begging look on his face.
“Seriously? Can’t I just give the royal chefs my recipe or something?” I quickly said, being put on the spot.
“Oh? That works too!” The captain’s face brightened upon hearing that.
“Not for free though!” Eryn butted in quickly. “Claude’s creations are licensed through the Faulkner trading company!”
Leave it to a merchant to make everything proprietary. Sometimes, I wondered whether Eryn was secretly a natural at it, despite her protesting.
“Oh well, can’t be helped then.” The head chef put up his arms and shook his head. His fellow chefs had looks of disappointment as well.
As the two of us walked out of the castle and into the courtyard, I had a thought.
“Maybe I should start up a restaurant of my own?”
“Eh? But I need your knife for other things, you know?” Eryn instantly rejected that idea.
“Don’t tell me that you expect another demon to show up. Weren’t those supposed to happen every few decades?”
“But…what would I do without you?” Eryn responded, wrapping herself around my arm.
My face reddened as I looked away. I guess when she said it that way, there was no way I could go against her. Having just given up the prospect of a lavish life, going along with her whims was just a minor detail.
With our arms linked, we headed back to town.
“Come to think of it, I never thought of a name for my new dish. What about ‘Deadly Spiral of Ambition’?”
“Your naming sense is still horrible. You know that?”