Ranjit Nayar stared at the short woman as she talked — he did not understand much English, but he was sure he heard her say this was a fight for survival. It didn’t help that many contraptions that looked like torture devices littered the room and the door… locked down, guarded by armored men carrying cattle prods. If anything, blindly waltzing in after only skimming the contract was a horrible idea.
The woman’s speech continued for another minute, then the chefs were lead to their kitchen spaces. Unlike the rest of the building — which looked like it hasn’t been renovated for over 200 years — the kitchen seemed to have all the newest appliances. In fact, a lot of this stuff is newer than what Ranjit was used to working with back in India!
“Open your baskets,” the woman soon commanded, which all the chefs obeyed. In the basket, for better or worse, were four strange ingredients:
> A bag of bean sprouts. A plain vegetable with many cooking methods, and is quite refreshing to eat. Ranjit loves the stuff.
> A package containing a single black truffle. Too expensive for the restaurant to implement, Ranjit never cooked with it, but he has heard that it has a deep, earthy flavor.
> A box of American saltine crackers. A generic soup recipe is on the back of the box, but even if Ranjit could read it he wouldn’t attempt to make it.
> An Aki squid. Ranjit ate it exactly once in his life in a bootleg Asian restaurant, which ended up tough to chew. This could prove to be a disaster.
Out of curiosity, Ranjit glanced at the chefs around him. The Chinese man, the one who should work with most of these quite often, seemed to be quite revolted by the contents. Sadly, picky eaters never last long in the cooking industry. The Italian man seemed to have experience with these ingredients and was already racing to the pantry.
As for the American… well, he was shocked, but for another reason. “What?!” the American asked in disgust, “This show for real?! Oh hell no, I ain’t doing this, I got work! Y’all got me fucked if you think I finna—” his words were cut short by a dagger through his eye.
“My gods,” Ranjit muttered while the Chinese man stared in shock. The Italian man just stepped around the slumped corpse with a handful of ingredients from the pantry, not seeming to care about the death he just witnessed — Ranjit did hear the woman mention something about him being a murderer, but this is insane!
“I figured this would happen,” a chirp could be heard from a seemingly empty seat. “Bring in the replacement.” Taking a second glace, the chair seems to have an extremely small figure on it — almost like that of a grasshopper. The doors opened once again, and a different person was lead inside. Another Indian! Wait… could it be?! Ranjit suppresses the urge to bash his head against the counter. He thought he would never have to see that person again!
“The clock is ticking. Have you two come up with an idea yet?” the woman interrupted the Chinese and Indian men, and with fear, Ranjit glanced at the clock — 24 minutes left.
“Shit!” Ranjit growled under his breath, quickly grabbing a pot and a wok. One of the first few things Ranjit learned growing up was that no ingredient was unfit for the wok — when in doubt, make it into a stir-fry or a curry. Since this is an appetizer, curry wouldn’t go so well, so a stir-fry should work, and hopefully soften the squid some, because hot damn, that thing is HARD.
Filling the pot with water and putting it on a burner set to high was quick and easy. It would take a while, maybe all of 10 minutes for the water to boil. Luckily, he has that time to spare. That is if he doesn’t let his mind wander. He ran into the pantry, and picked up the following items:
> White rice, long grain. Goes great with stir fry, and would absorb any excess flavor.
> Stir fry sauce. Contains a good amount of the necessary flavors for the stir fry.
> Soy sauce. It complements the stir fry sauce and squid exceptionally well and adds salt content for extra umami (savory).
> Butter. Adds flavor to the rice, acts as a nonstick agent, and can help salvage a dish if any catastrophic mistakes are made.
> Ginger. Also goes well with squid, and gives off a bite of its own. Should counteract the salt content.
At this point, Ranjit’s hands were full, so he walked back to his station. Grabbing a cheese grater and several small bowls, he glanced at the clock. 20 minutes left.
No more time to waste! Ranjit grabbed a regular pan and placed it on another burner, which he also set to high. Going back to his station, he shredded the ginger and truffle, which he added in the same bowl. Trying a little bit of the mixture, he enjoyed the contrast of flavors. The squid should go well in a fry, but the saltines is a mystery. Out of curiosity, he checked the back of the box, but the recipe was a jumbled mess, and the picture looked grossly unappetizing.
Glad to remove the packaging, Ranjit tossed around a dozen crackers into a different bowl, which he set aside for later use. Once again, he looked at the clock. 18 minutes left.
This will be a close one! A measured cup of water in one hand and a measured cup of rinsed rice in the other, Ranjit went to the now-heated pan and added the water. Going back for a scoop of butter, he also added that, which dissolved before too long. Satisfied with the heat of the water, he added the rice, then placed a lid on the pan. The pot of water was beginning to bubble over, indicating it was ready for the next step. Quickly, Ranjit went back and placed the squid on a cutting board, and began to dice it into moderately large cubes — with the exception of the tentacles, which he only cut in half.
Carrying the entire board and the butter to the pot, Ranjit added the squid to the pot, then added some butter to the wok. Taking a second to drop off the butter and cutting board at his station, he returned with a colander, which he positioned in the sink. Guessing that almost a minute has passed, Ranjit dumped the pot of squid into the colander, allowing the water to drain from the squid. After taking a second to stir the rice, he added the squid into the wok, and a satisfying sizzle could be heard.
Remembering the bean sprouts and crackers, Ranjit mixed the bean sprouts with the ginger and truffle, and set the bowl near the wok. Picking up the bowl of crackers, Ranjit walked to the food processor and put the crackers in. 20, maybe 30 seconds later, the saltines were reduced to minuscule crumbs. “Perfect,” he couldn’t help but mutter to himself. Aware of the time, he looked once again — and dread began to seep in. 11 minutes left.
Quickly heading back to the cooking station, Ranjit added the bowl of vegetables to the squid and stirred the wok’s contents. Stirring and checking the rice, he was pleased to see it cooking alright, although it won’t be fully complete until near the end of the time limit. With nothing left to do but wait, Ranjit checked the clock. 9 minutes left.
Ranjit sampled a bean sprout from the wok, which gave off a refreshingly cool crunch. However, that was terrible — it needed to finish cooking soon if Ranjit wanted any chances at leaving this place alive!
Grabbing several serving plates from the rack, he arranged them on his counter space. Realizing that a sweet yet tart fruit could go well with the fry, Ranjit ran to the pantry, picking up a pack of dried cranberries.
Alas, on the way back, he found himself being interrogated by one of the supposed workers.
“Chef Nayar, what do you think your chances are of winning?” he asked Ranjit.
“I do believe I stand a chance,” Ranjit responded, trying to get back to his station.
“Nayar, most bets are on Chef Gorbacholi. What are your thoughts on that?” the man followed up.
“Honestly, it will probably be us duking it out on dessert round if he doesn’t somehow screw up,” Ranjit automatically responded, paying lip service while trying to sneak away. Luckily, the annoying man moved on to someone else, allowing Ranjit to go back to his station. Unfortunately, several minutes were lost.
Upon reaching his cooking station, he quickly stirred in the stir fry sauce and soy sauce. With fear, he also found himself glancing at the clock. 5 minutes left.
Now was as good a time as any. Ranjit took the rice off the heat and fluffed it with a fork. Setting the pan on the counter, he got to work. Ranjit grabbed a rice scooper, and carefully added a single decently-sized scoop of rice to the inner edge of each plate. Right next to each rice scoop, he added several dried cranberries and sprinkled good amounts of the crushed saltines to the top of each rice scoop. While speed-walking back to the wok, he looked at the time. 2 minutes left.
Fighting off the urge to panic, Ranjit picked up the wok and carried it to the counter. The end result was cooked through, and the bean sprouts and ginger were cooked to perfection. Sadly, he couldn’t tell if the truffle was cooked correctly (this was, after all, his first time).
“One minute remaining!” The woman announced, adding to the tension in the atmosphere.
Collecting a serving spoon, Ranjit gave each plate one scoop of stir fry, on top of the rice, but over the edge of the scoops so that some of the stir fry could run over the side and onto the plate. However, he made sure none of the fry could touch any of the dried cranberries. The woman gave a 40-second warning somewhere halfway in the serving, but Ranjit ignored it. As the clock neared the last few seconds, Ranjit used a cloth to wipe up any excess spillage on the plate, and as his final move, added a fork to each plate.
“Time’s up!” The woman announced as Ranjit arranged the last fork, and all four chefs stepped back.
The chefs were then lined up in front of the judges with their dishes, and they presented one by one. The first to go was the burly Italian man, who offered what looked like a gourmet Italian dish with a name too complicated to conjure. And the crackers — they were served with dipping sauce! Ranjit barely suppressed the urge to slap himself for failing to recognize such a simple option, but all too soon, it was his turn to present.
“Chef Nayar, what did you make for us as your appetizer?” the woman asked him as he uneasily brought forth a plate.
“Well, as you see,” Ranjit stated as he lifted the cover, “I have made Skveed Hilaakar Talana on Safed Chaaval.” Anxiously, he awaited their judgment — after all, his life was in their hands. His nieces and nephews better be grateful when he returns home because no education was worth their uncle’s life.