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Keep Your Knives Ever Sharp

"How's the leg?" Megan asked Simon as they stood in line in the January chill to get into the Unobtainium Chef Competition at the Wonder City Community Studios. It was a fundraiser for restoring the area of downtown that had taken the worst of the damage from Josh Feldstein's outburst, especially the women's shelter that had gotten wrecked a few blocks from the restaurants.

Simon stomped a boot experimentally, leaning on his cane. "It's still sore. Mom thinks it'll always tell me about the weather. After all, it's not really entirely regenerated, just... boosted a little."

"How did your mom keep hold of a device like that anyway?" Megan said, tossing the end of her rainbow-patterned scarf -- knitted for her by Zoltan on the general model of a certain very long scarf worn by a television character -- over her shoulder.

"She invented it specifically to only heal people with a certain combination of genes," Simon said, looking away. "Genes that only appear in people who are descended from her and who are able to shapechange. So it won't work on a couple of Jasmine's kids, for instance. It won't work on Dad. That sort of thing."

"And the government let her keep it without trying to tweak it to work on other people?" Megan said incredulously as they started to shuffle forward through the studio doors.

Simon shrugged with one shoulder, still looking away. "She has to come up with all sorts of dodges to keep most of her things out of government hands. Plus, the government has its own set of mad scientists. Mom isn't the be-all and end-all."

Megan said, "Huh," and took a goodie bag from the tired-looking production assistant at the door. "Thanks," she mumbled, ducking her head as she passed into the overheated interior.

Simon produced their tickets and they were directed down to the center-front of the audience.

"How did you get these seats?" Megan said, wedging herself carefully into the seat.

"They were the only ones rated for your size," he said. Indeed, Simon looked very small in the rather large seat. It gave him room to safely stow his cane out of the way.

The audience's roar rose steadily in the high ceiling of the studio. Simon leaned over to Megan and bellowed in her ear, "So what's up with you and G?"

Megan gave him a disbelieving look, and glanced around. He grinned. "Like anyone can hear us?"

Megan leaned down and said, "We're not seeing each other."

"Cause of the spandex stuff?" Simon said, eyebrows rising.

"Yep," Megan said.

"That's kind of extreme," Simon said. "You guys seemed to get along pretty well."

Megan glowered at him. "You of all people, asking me that? You know what kind of trouble spandex can be."

He made an apologetic shrug, rather than try to apologize over the roar.

"There's... complications," she bellowed in his ear.

Simon's eyebrows rose precipitously, but just then, someone was calling for attention on-stage. "Tell me later," he said.

Megan nodded, and they turned their attention to the older middle-aged white man on the stage. She was delighted to recognize Speed Dugan, a stocky man with an easy grin, a sprawling white beard, and a remarkable arched sprinter's prosthetic in place of the part of his right leg that used to be below his knee.

"Hey, there, folks!" he said as the roar settled down to a whisper. "That's right, we're getting ready to start! Thank you all for coming out to help rebuild important services in Wonder City's downtown, including Mother Necessity's Shelter for Women Young and Old. Mother N's Shelter, as we like to call it, was in a 1930s building with previously undetected structural damage, and only through the intervention of Meteor -- " Megan winced, and Simon glanced aside at her " -- did the inhabitants and staff escape unharmed. Now we need to rebuild, and while Ultimate Construction is going to do the labor for free, we need to afford materials. So thank you very much for contributing!"

Simon poked Megan in the arm and leaned over to whisper, "You gonna be on that project?"

"Oh, probably," Megan said. Thus far, she'd been a gofer on a half a dozen building sites for Ultimate Construction, most of the sites that were currently active. She never knew where she'd be on a given day.

"And with that," Speed Dugan went on, stroking his beard briefly, "I think the cameras are about to start rolling. Yes? Yes." He clapped his hands together. "Welcome to the first ever Unobtainium Chef Competition! Today, three popular food bloggers have kindly agreed to join us and compete for the title of Unobtainium Chef, in a benefit for Mother Necessity's Shelter for Women Young and Old! Our chairman, the one and only Carolus Lew -- " he swept a hand to indicate the dandified white man his trademark white linen suit, standing on a dais behind him " -- will announce the competition's secret ingredient. And then, for the next hour, each of our competitors will create a dinner of at least 3 dishes that use this ingredient. And then, our lucky, lucky judges will get to try each and every one!" The audience applauded thunderously as the judges stepped on-stage. "Please welcome our first judge, the ace food critic of the Wonder City Reflector, the Robot Culinaire!"

A slender, brushed-steel man in a neat black suit and cravat waved. His smooth, rounded pate did not reflect much of the overhead lights, something that must have been a relief for the camera crew.

Speed Dugan went on, "And our second judge, the renowned chef of the Great Bird Restaurant, Baruni Das!" The applause was deafening for the tiny, middle-aged Indian woman in her beautiful dark-blue and silver sari. Everyone knew the Great Bird had been flattened in the battle.

"And you all know our third judge, of course," the speedster concluded, "Wonder City's own songbird, Olivia Valdes, the Fat Lady!"

Simon bounced up and down in his chair as he applauded so hard Megan thought his hands would fly off. The Fat Lady, cool and serene in her black dress, her dark hair in perfect order, smiled and waved and bowed, even catching a flower flung by one of the people close to the stage. Megan thought, perhaps, she had a lot of practice at it.

"If the judges will take their seats," Speed Dugan said, "I'll introduce today's competitors."

The three judges decorously took their seats at the long table and turned to consider the far side of the stage.

"Our first food bloggers, all the way from San Francisco, write under the blog name 'Almonds and Aubergines' -- meet Colby Stakes and Garland Vansciver!" A tall, slender black man and a short, muscular white man, both dressed in button-down shirts -- pink and blue, respectively -- and khakis strolled onto the stage, grinning and shaking hands with Dugan under the cover of applause.

"Our next contestant, from the depths of northern Maine, is known for his beer-themed food blog, 'With a Glass of Stoat,'" Dugan continued after Stakes and Vansciver had lined up behind him. "Here is Eric Ganz, better known to his adoring public as 'Stoatheart'!" A middle-height white man in jeans and a t-shirt strolled onto the stage. His brown hair was thinning on top and greying on the sides, and he had a goatee that looked like it had crawled onto his face after a bad fight; his apron had "Kiss the Cook" printed in a suspiciously low spot. He shook hands with Dugan and nodded to Stakes and Vansciver as he took his place next to -- but a little apart from -- them.

"And finally, from Baltimore, we have a woman who eloquently tells us about homework and working around the home, among many other things: Hanne Blank!" A tall, abundant white woman with dark blue headwrap, striking features, and an easy smile strode out and shook Dugan's hand firmly. Her black dress made Megan look toward the Fat Lady and back to Blank -- apparently, they worked on similar principles of fashion. She and Dugan exchanged a few words, but none were audible over the applause.

Simon made a tiny, muffled squeal of delight upon beholding this woman. "I read her blog!" he said, nudging Megan with his elbow. "I've read all her books!"

"Oh, yeah!" Megan said, realization dawning as she recalled that section of books, among the "frequently read" category of books near Simon's bed. "I've seen them on your shelves."

"You should read them," he said and turned his attention back to the stage.

Dugan was going on. "All right, competitors, take your kitchens and bring on your assistants!"

Stakes and Vansciver moved to a kitchen done up in white, Stoatheart took up residence in a kitchen decorated with bright red highlights, and Blank went into a lavender-themed kitchen. The Almonds and Aubergines pair were joined by a pair of similarly clean-cut and buttoned-down young white men, and all donned clean white aprons. Stoatheart's assistant, a younger white woman with curly brown hair and a slim body encased in pristine red yoga-wear, was wheeled out on a cart, posed luxuriously on a case of beer. Blank was joined by a very perky young boi with shaved head and piercings; Megan vaguely recognized the assistant as a cashier from the local queer bookstore. Blank took up an apron colorfully adorned with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and set a knife block -- apparently her own -- on the counter. She donned the apron and turned her attention to Speed Dugan.

"And now," Dugan said, and the little orchestra just off-stage started a drumroll, "Carolus Lew, what is the special ingredient for today's Unobtanium Chef competition?"

Carolus beamed and spread his hands, as if trying to embrace the audience. A flash of light occurred between his hands, and when everyone's vision cleared again, a vast, bushy bunch of frilled greens was floating there.

"Kale!" he announced cheerfully, catching the greens out of the air and seizing a leaf in his teeth. He ended up shaking his head repeatedly like a terrier to rip off a small crescent of leaf, and then beamed at the audience again, closelipped, as he masticated his prize.

Megan glanced over the reactions among the chefs, even as she joined the general applause. The Almonds and Aubergines crew simply turned back toward Dugan, while Stoatheart and his companion exchanged frowns and whispers. Blank smiled pleasantly while her assistant did a small fist pump.

Dugan grinned and beckoned stage right; the tired production assistant, with another similarly un-thrilled white woman, wheeled a large one-hour clock onto the stage. "The chefs will now have one hour in which to produce at least three dishes comprising a dinner for our judges to try." He nodded up at Carolus Lew.

Carolus Lew, having finished his kale snack, violently boosted the kale up like a bouquet and bellowed, "Allez -- OOP!" He tottered backwards off the dais, overbalanced by his enthusiasm.

Dugan lost a little of his own enthusiasm as the production assistant ran backstage, but managed to stop himself from facepalming and said, with a slightly forced smile, "Chefs, you may begin!"

The chefs and their assistants, businesslike, fell to work.

"I wonder how they're going to fill an hour," Simon whispered.

"Dugan's probably going to go around and chat with people," Megan said in a similar tone, watching things on the three large monitors at the sides of the stage. "Ask them inane questions, talk to the judges as time gets closer."

Fulfilling her prediction, Speed Dugan began a slow amble around the stage kitchens. Drawn as if by magnets, he first made his way to the red Stoatheart kitchen, where Stoatheart and his assistant were chopping things -- he was chopping chicken breasts and she was chopping a head of kale.

"So, Stoatheart," Dugan started, conversationally, "what are your plans?"

Stoatheart grinned manically. "Beer, of course!" He turned his cutting board and cubed his chicken. Indeed, there was already an open can of beer on the counter.

"And stirfrying," his assistant said.

"And boiling!" added Stoatheart, tossing his chicken cubes into an oiled frying pan. "And soup!"

"Sounds exciting," Dugan said, a touch unexcitedly.

Dugan moved on to the Almonds and Aubergines kitchen. As he opened his mouth to say something, Vansciver hit the "on" button on the food processor, which screamed to life and caused feedback in the microphone. Dugan completely backed off after one of the assistants nearly bowled him over getting a steamer set up next to Stakes, who was mixing up what appeared to be bright yellow polenta in a saucepan.

Blank's kitchen was a whirlwind of knifework, as both she and her assistant were chopping kale in different ways. Steamers were already heating on the stove. Dugan hesitantly approached and said, "Ms. Blank, are we going to be treated to some of the dumplings I've heard about from our researchers?"

Blank gave him a smile, and dropped the kale she'd just cut into a bowl and tossed the leaves in oil. "I was considering at least one type, yes. But, not to be typecast, I thought I'd broaden the scope." She spread the leaves out on a paper-lined cookie sheet, scattered a little salt and pepper over them, and slid them into the oven.

Dugan cocked his head to the side. "What will those be?"

"Kale chips," Blank said, seizing another head of kale and wielding her flashing knife on it. "And this will be braised."

Dugan peered over at her assistant, who was cutting kale leaves into long, thin strips and removing the large stems. "And what about --" He stopped, apparently uninformed about her assistant's name.

"Brit is prepping the kale for the salad," Blank said.

Dugan thanked her and drifted over to the judges. "Any early opinions, judges?"

The Robot Culinaire cleared his mechanical throat and said, "Well, Speed, I have to say that I am always open to new experiences, but I have high hopes of Almonds and Aubergines, given that they tend to blog about French and Italian dishes most often. You know me and western European cuisines!"

"Of course," Dugan said.

"Frankly," Baruni Das said, "I'm much more curious about Hanne Blank's ideas. She has blogged about her Chinese cooking, and I'm excited to see what she does with this ingredient."

"And Olivia?" Dugan said to the Fat Lady.

"Oh, I'm fascinated by all of them," she said, her chin in her hand, never looking at her interviewer but watching the events in the kitchens.

"Not waiting to see what Stoatheart turns out?" Dugan prompted.

She finally turned a brilliant smile on him. "Of course," she said, and immediately returned to watching the kitchens.

Dugan apparently made a face as he was turned away from the camera, because Baruni Das gave him a little shrug and a grin.

Suddenly, an armored white man on a floating technological throne, surrounded by small airborne robots, teleported into the middle of the stage. He apparently had his own amplification, because he immediately began broadcasting a rollicking round of evil laughter.

Speed Dugan obligingly said, "Who the -- oh, hell, it's the Duke of Downfall!"

"Sit down," Simon hissed, dragging on the back of Megan's shirt.

Megan, who wasn't aware of having stood up, sat down in her chair again. She noticed that the Fat Lady's attention had shifted from the kitchens to the Duke, though her pose hadn't shifted at all. She could also see, on the large screens, various reactions in the kitchens: Stoatheart and his assistant had ducked down behind the counter; Stakes and Vansciver were continuing to work while their assistants had retreated behind their refrigerator; Blank and her assistant had also ducked for cover, but soon emerged and were alternating between checking the steamer contents and watching the supervillain.

"I am here," the Duke of Downfall intoned, "to obtain for myself a chef! The winner today will come with me and become my generously remunerated personal chef in my secret mountain castle lair! Bwahahahahaha!" The large metal discs on his throne and his oversized, antenna-like headgear glittered in the studio lights.

Dugan braced himself while trying to look calm and collected. Simon nudged Megan and pointed out several other people in the audience who were leaning forward expectantly, either in preparation to attack or to run. The Fat Lady sat where she was.

"Do not attempt to attack me!" the Duke continued after exhausting his latest round of evil laughter, stroking along the collar that reached higher than the top of his head. "After all, you don't want any of these innocents crowded into this television studio to be injured!"

"Then sit down and shut up," Blank said in a voice that snapped across his impending laughter and cut it off. Everyone stared at her, including the Duke. She gestured with her large cook knife over to the judges' table. "Because the longer you sit there and laugh, the more likely it is all the food will be ruined and you won't have a winner to pick from."

There was an awkward silence, broken only by Blank bringing her knife down again and again on a piece of ginger, shearing off sliver after sliver.

The Duke tried another laugh, but it petered out sadly and he floated his throne and his robotic entourage over next to the end of the judges' table furthest from the Fat Lady, who kept watching him. The Duke regained some of his aplomb and waved Dugan on imperiously.

"I think I love her," Simon whispered to Megan.

Dugan slowly began doing the rounds, but couldn't muster even inane questions, so mostly what peppered the rest of the hour were direct quotes from the kitchens, caught by his microphone and cameraperson.

At 23 minutes:
"This stirfry is kind of terrible," Stoatheart's assistant said, drinking from a dark bottle and regarding the pan sourly. "The chicken is all dry."

"Add bacon!" bellowed Stoatheart.

"Really?" she said. "Just... strips of... raw... bacon?"

"Bacon makes everything better!" Stoatheart said as he emptied another can of beer into a saucepan and popped one open for himself.

At 27 minutes:
"Not the balsamic vinegar!" Vansciver shouted at his assistant. "The raspberry champagne vinegar!"

The assistant's response was drowned out by the shriek of the food processor.

At 32 minutes:
"Here," Blank said, handing Brit a jar, a lemon, and a peeler. "Sesame seeds and curls of lemon peel on each."

At 34 minutes:
"Why are we using roasted peppers?" Stakes asked Vansciver. "It is so nineties."

"Because that's how I make the sauce for the swordfish," Vansciver said stiffly.

"Does this even really count as using kale?" Stakes said, peering into the steamer.

"Of course it does," Vansciver snapped.

At 37 minutes:
Stoatheart sampled the stirfry. He manfully attempted to keep his face under control, but finally said, "I think we used the wrong beer." Then he washed it down with a swig of his favorite stout.

"I think we shouldn't have used beer at all," his assistant mouthed to the camera.

At 40 minutes:
"Get me the backup wrapper dough," Blank said. "These tofu skins are disintegrating."

"The kale chips are done," Brit said, handing her a lump of dough.

"Toss half with the za'atar," Blank said, slapping the dough onto the marble board and rolling it out. "And puree the carrots, please."

At 45 minutes:
Stoatheart and his assistant tried the boiled kale and corned beef dish. They chewed thoughtfully. Finally, Stoatheart said, "Actually, this is terrible," and they both burst out in mad giggles.

At 48 minutes:
Vansciver shouted, at one of the assistants, "The oil in the deep-fryer isn't hot enough for you to start with the polenta dishes! Check the thermometer!"

Dugan idly said to Stakes, "Wow, he shouts a lot."

Stakes smiled. "Yeah, he's the Kitchen Top."

Dugan looked as if the comment took him aback. "Really? And you're okay with that?"

Stakes' smile widened and he winked. "Oh, yeah. I top in other ways."

At 53 minutes:
The Duke of Downfall, having finally struck up a conversation with the Robot Culinaire (awkward at first, but somewhat more amiable now), was heard to say, "Kale? Really?"

Meanwhile, Chef Das had noticeably moved closer to the Fat Lady.

At 56 minutes:
"Plates, please," Blank said, and her assistant handed her a stack of three plates. She eyed them dubiously for a second -- they were square, with slightly raised edges, clearly provided by and for the contest -- then she artfully arranged three small, square packages of folded kale leaves adorned with sesame seeds and curls of lemon peel on each plate. Then she turned to a saucepan and dipped out an appetizing mix of kale, beans, and meat, providing a small serving on each plate. "Start the eggs."

As Brit broke large eggs in a frying pan and fried them quickly, Blank hooked a trio of dumplings out of the steamer into a bowl, treated the dumplings with a sauce of some kind, and moved on to the next bowl.

Finally, Brit set the fried eggs atop the kale-bean-meat concoction while Blank filled a basket half with one batch of kale chips and half with another, and scooped an orange sauce into a small, divided bowl.

At 57 minutes:
Colby Stakes dealt out the swordfish, each steak wrapped in kale leaves and pinioned with toothpicks, onto plates -- these were oval and black and mostly flat -- then plucked out the toothpicks. Meanwhile, Vansciver was tossing a salad vigorously with dressing, while the pair of assistants tried not to fumble and/or crumble the deep-fried polenta bowls as they filled them with kale and tomatoes and topped them with a dollop of soft cheese.

They had to use the cheese to paste together one of the bowls that broke in half, one performing the operation and the other distracting Vansciver's attention to the plates.

At 58 minutes:
"Oh, *bleep*, this is so *bleep*ed," Stoatheart said, laughing and downing the last of his latest beer, "but that's all right. Dish it up, darlin'. Maybe we've discovered some *bleep*ing magical new flavor."

At 60 minutes:
A bell rang.

Dugan stepped to center stage. "Well, that's the end of the hour! Let's see what our chefs have created. By random draw before the show, Stoatheart gets first try at the judges."

Stoatheart and his assistant, both a little worse for the wear, set plates and bowls before the trio of judges. "Pumpkin kale soup a la Stoatheart!" he proclaimed over the bowls. "Kale, chicken, and bacon stirfry in a stout and maple sauce! And kale with corned beef!"

The Robot Culinaire's shining brows contracted as the steam from the food reached his olfactory sensors. Chef Das and the Fat Lady kept their faces under better control, bland and pleasant, though the Fat Lady did say, "And which part was terrible?"

"Oh," Stoatheart said genially, "I think it probably all is."

His assistant giggled. "I don't think he's ever cooked kale before in his life."

Chef Das and the Robot Culinaire exchanged doomful looks, and all three judges dutifully began trying each dish.

"Well," said the Robot Culinaire, "the soup is passable."

"I think," said Das, "that with work, the soup could be quite decent fare."

"I concur," said the Fat Lady, "but the bacon did not save the stirfry."

"Oh, no," said the Robot Culinaire, "definitely not. Nothing could save it once the chicken dried out."

"The bitterness is the result of the kale coupled with the beer," Das explained to Stoatheart, who didn't appear to be in any shape to take in the friendly advice.

"Though without the kale," said the Fat Lady, "it might have been all right."

"Oh, god," groaned the Robot Culinaire, "please, ladies, do not try the corned beef and kale. I need to step into the little robot's room to cleanse my sensors."

Das had been viewing that dish with a certain amount of dread. "I'll take your advice," she said, and set her fork down.

"So will I," said the Fat Lady.

"Oh, good," said Stoatheart and his assistant with heartfelt relief.

The Duke of Downfall made a note on a small computer tablet and handed it to one of his tiny robot minions.

The put-upon production assistant came and cleared the dishes as Dugan turned back to the camera. "Well, that's it for Stoatheart -- one passable dish and two rejections by our judges. You okay with that, Stoatheart?"

"Oh, yeah," the man said as he and his assistant retired back to their kitchen. "She's right, I had no idea what I was doing!"

"With anything," Simon whispered to Megan.

Megan nudged him with her elbow. "Shush, you."

As the Robot Culinaire returned from the little robot's room, Dugan said, "And now, Almonds and Aubergines will present their dishes!"

As Colby Stakes set the plates before the judges and gestured to particular parts of the plate, Garland Vansciver narrated: "Julienned raw kale salad in a raspberry vinegar and yogurt dressing. You'll find dried cranberries, toasted pine nuts, carrots, and jicama in there. Deep-fried polenta bowls filled with panfried kale and caramelized tomatoes, topped with goat cheese. And steamed swordfish steaks wrapped in whole kale leaves with a drawn-butter and roasted pepper sauce."

"I like the contrast of flavors in the salad," Chef Das said. "Bitter and sweet and tart in the right proportions."

"It is rather nice," said the Fat Lady, "but I would say that it's not particularly innovative."

"I concur," said the Robot Culinaire. "You could have used just about any bitter green in the salad and it would have had a more dramatic flavor. Raw kale is rather tough on the jaw actuators, and you didn't remove the stems, leaving it somewhat stringy."

"Damn!" Vansciver muttered. "I knew I'd forget something." Stakes elbowed him sharply.

"I do like the polenta bowls," the Fat Lady said, studying hers with interest. "They're crisp and delicate, and everyone I know would eat just about anything deep-fried anyway."

"The kale and caramelized tomatoes are another nice mix of flavors," Das said, "though I'm not sure about the goat cheese."

"I think the goat cheese goes a long way toward making this one truly excellent," the Robot Culinaire said. "I am known to be fond of cheese, though."

"While the swordfish is excellent," Das said, "I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a kale dish."

"That's what I said," Stakes said, and got elbowed by Vansciver in revenge.

"While I adore the swordfish," the Robot Culinaire said, "I'm afraid I must agree with Chef Das."

"Its sauce is a little heavy on the peppers," the Fat Lady said.

"Hmph. Peppers," said the Duke. "Give me gas."

There may have been a tiny but just detectable leaning-away from the Duke of all the assemblage on the stage.

"Well, there you have it, folks," Dugan said to the audience as the dishes were cleared. "Two acceptable dishes and one disqualified."

"Better than me!" Stoatheart called, waving cheerfully to Almonds and Aubergines.

The Duke of Downfall made another note in his computer tablet and returned it to his circling minion.

Hanne Blank and her assistant set their plates and bowls before the judges with smiles. Blank made sure the camera had a good view of Chef Das' plate and pointed to the various items. "Kale salad, dressed with lemon juice and soy sauce and drizzled with sesame oil --" she indicated the little packages "-- kale, braised in homemade beef stock I brought with me, with cannellini beans and smoked maple-ginger bison sausage, topped with a fried duck egg. In the bowl, you have huntuns -- or wontons -- filled with kale, shredded duck, ginger, and grated orange peel, topped with Chengdu ma la oil. I hope none of you fear chilies," she added, looking along the panel with a smile. The trio of judges obligingly shook their heads. "Oh, good. And finally, to top it off, kale chips, some plain and some with za'atar, with a pureed carrot and harissa dip. A small departure from the Chinese flavor of the rest, but I thought no one would mind."

"The presentation of the salad is adorable," the Fat Lady said. "And reminiscent of the way Japanese oshitashi is presented sometimes."

"I like the bite of the dressing," the Robot Culinaire said. "And the mellowing and deepening from the sesame oil."

"I would serve this in my restaurant," Chef Das said. "And the braised kale is astonishing. I like the bi bim bap feel of the fried egg, and using a duck egg is a very nice thematic tie to the huntuns."

"But the duck egg is so beautifully rich," the Robot Culinaire said, "and again, helps to tie together the flavors of the kale, the stock, and the sausage. Where did you get this sausage? No, tell me after the show."

"I could make a whole meal on the --- what did you call them? -- huntuns," the Fat Lady said. "Even as the oil threatens to blow the top of my head off."

"I've used ma la oil in recipes before," Chef Das said. "I love the stuff. And, oh, the kale chips. I could just keep eating them by the handful. They don't even need the dip."

The Fat Lady nodded enthusiastically. "That delightful roasted flavor and the way they shatter in your mouth. Mmm."

"You are certainly bold and know exactly what you're doing," the Robot Culinaire said. "I feel like you've gradually scaled up the heat, from the non-heat of the salad, to the ginger in the braised kale, finishing with a double blow of ma la oil and harissa. If I were human, I think I would be ready to face the world, all fired up from my dinner!"

"Not sure I'd've done the same," the Fat Lady said, "but I really can't fault the choice."

"I think we have a winner!" declared Dugan.

"Definitely," the Fat Lady said, shaking Blank's hand.

"Agreed," Chef Das said, also shaking hands.

"Indubitably," the Robot Culinaire said, joining in the general congratulatory fest.

"Then I have a new personal chef!" the Duke of Downfall declared, his throne levitating once more. "Minions! Seize her!"

"Oh, seize this," Blank said, producing one of her shining knives, the largest from her block, and the minions halted, buzzing amongst themselves. "Do you really want a personal chef who doesn't want to work for you?"

This brought the Duke up a little short. "Generous remuneration!" he intoned.

"And does this include transportation for myself and my household to your no-doubt lovely mountain retreat?" Blank said.

"Um," the Duke said.

"That would be my dog, my entire kitchen, all my books, et cetera?" she went on, describing a horizontal on-and-on gesture with the knife.

"Er," the Duke said. "That could be arranged!"

"Where will I walk the dog?" Blank said. "Isolated supervillain headquarters tend not to have walkable streets in the area, from what I've read. Would we just walk the wall around and around?" She illustrated that tedious circle with casual motions of the knife point.

The knife, Megan noticed, had captured pretty much everyone's attention.

"How about veterinary care?" Blank continued. "Or medical care? Don't tell me, you have a personal physician, generously remunerated, right?"

"Uh, yes?" the Duke said.

"Of course," she said, and the knife blade flashed up with her hands in a despairing gesture. "Is he or she an Evil Physician? Or someone pressed into service? Do you really want a chef and a physician, neither of whom want to be at Club Downfall, working together?"

"Uhrm," the Duke said, watching the steel in her hand with evidence of nerves.

"You do know what else I write, don't you?" she asked sweetly, but somehow menacingly. Before he could answer, she said, "History of medicine, among other things. I'm sure I could come up with some really lovely spices to add to your food." She pointed down at the Robot Culinaire's plate with the knife. Everyone's gaze followed it.

There was a tiny explosion of sound, and the Duke toppled forward out of his throne onto the floor. His minions dropped where they'd been floating, bouncing off the stage with a chorus of clangs.

The Fat Lady cleared her throat. "Thank you, Ms. Blank. That was a lovely distraction. If he had been looking at my face, he would have noticed at once that I was doing something." She gestured to a couple of people in the audience, and a tall black woman and a medium-height white man, both in their twenties or thirties, stepped up on the stage to pick up the Duke.

"I thought one of you bright people would think of something," Hanne Blank said with a smile.

The aftermath, where Speed Dugan presented Hanne Blank with the Unobtanium Chef trophy -- a medium-sized gilt trophy upon the top of which was the Perisphere and Trylon, and the Perisphere was wearing a chef's hat -- seemed almost anticlimactic, but the applause was deafening. Blank shook hands with her fellow competitors, turned down the offer of a beer from Stoatheart, and turned to wave at the camera.

Finally, the lights went down and the broadcast ended. Blank said to the judges, who'd come over to talk to her, "Thank you all, and I hope you don't mind, but I really need a sitdown somewhere. I haven't faced down a supervillain intent on my... cooking before today." She looked thoughtful. "I will say that grad school was good training, though."

"I bet I won't be able to get her autograph," Simon said as the audience began filing out of the studio.

"What would you get her to sign?" Megan said, looking down at him in surprise.

"I don't know," Simon said mournfully. "I can only think of parts of me I'd need to wash someday."

"You didn't bring any of her books," Megan said, shaking her head.

"I didn't know she was going to be here," Simon said, gazing back at the stage, where the Fat Lady and Baruni Das were just going off-stage with Hanne. The Robot Culinaire was chatting with Apricots and Aubergines. The only sign of Stoatheart was his feet, propped up on the half-empty case of beer.

"Tough luck," Megan said. "You'll just have to wait for her next booksigning tour."

Simon sighed mightily, and then they escaped into the freezing, but open, air. He said, "Megan, I'm hunnnngry."

---

From the author:

This extra super-sized episode of Wonder City Stories -- and cameo of Hanne Blank -- is brought to you by a generous donation to the Deb's Liver Lovers Auction, back in May.

I hope you enjoyed the Unobtanium Chef competition! Any errors in the food presentation are mine and mine alone, but I note that the composition of the various menus owe a great deal to my wife, whose food I am fortunate enough to eat on a regular basis and in whose brilliance I am fortunate enough to bask, and to Hanne's blog. The other chefs (Apricots and Aubergines and Stoatheart) are not based on any human being, and any resemblance you might see is entirely accidental.

Surprisingly, I seem to have more time to write with the busted arm, though I have to take breaks more frequently. Once I got off the percocet, writing was MUCH easier. :)



Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Help us get back up the ratings! I'm sure that will make me feel better. :)






Date: 2012-01-28 03:02 am (UTC)
the_leaky_pen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_leaky_pen
You have no idea how much Unobtainium Chef as a title made me giggle. So thank you for that.

And this and the previous episode were a *wonderful* start to the new series!

Date: 2012-01-28 05:16 pm (UTC)
heavenscalyx: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heavenscalyx
Thank you! I had an awful lot of fun giving Hanne her cameo.

Elemental

Date: 2013-02-26 12:03 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Unobtainium, the metal so rare, you can't find it anywhere!

JN

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