How it is: Chapter 5

It was almost a nightmare, having to relive this moment on the other side, watching it happen again on national television. “Austin…. you are Warrior Chef! Congratulations! You won the title and the grand prize of $100,000!” Valerie’s heart sank. She was sitting alone, in her room, watching the finale of Warrior Chef. “Not winning the title, and knowing that you were so close, it hurts. I thought that I had it in the bag, but I guess not.” A slightly younger Valerie looked visibly upset as confetti rained down, and everyone in that season went up to congratulate her competitor, a tall young man named Austin. Looking back on her decisions, Valerie felt embarrassed. She knew that pastry was her strength, and in that finale, she wanted to showcase it by preparing four desserts instead of a progressive four course meal. In the first challenge, she won using a mix of sweet and savory, preparing a carrot macaron with goat cheese mousse and sorrel sorbet over dehydrated carrot and oat crumble. But then with her other three courses, she went full-on pastry, and the judges decided that because she refused to follow the challenge rules, she could not win the title. In short, she lost because of a technicality, not because she was actually a weaker cook. Regardless, Valerie felt regret and hindsight settling in.

A buzzing could be heard from her desk as the pastry chef picked up her phone and checked the notifications. “Hey, congratulations on making it to the final two! You did amazing! You were easily the best pastry cook in that competition.” Tarou had sent her a text. “You’re still my favorite pastry chef, even though I don’t like desserts that much.” Timmy messaged her as well. It felt nice to know that they still supported her, even though she lost. One part of her felt relieved, knowing that she can finally talk about this entire experience. But another part of her felt deflated that she lost the way she did. Had she prepared two savory courses and a dessert, she might have actually won. The judges outright said that in their deliberation, that if she decided to do a progressive menu, given the amount of technique and skill she had shown throughout the season and with the pastries she was presenting, she could have easily won the competition hands down. Before watching the finale, Valerie did not know why she lost the title. She did have a gut feeling it was because she chose to go with four desserts, but did not think that it would come back to cost her the title in the way that it did.

At work, Valerie was hoping that her emotions from losing would improve. She still remembered that working here with Namie, she focused on keeping her head down and completing the tasks at hand. It helped her calm down and move past the initial pain of losing. But being the executive pastry chef was just more stress on her. Firstly, it was a Friday, and dinner service was crazy. Secondly, every time she picked up a whisk or a piping bag, she just remembered her experiences in that finale. Preparing mousses, creams, baked components, frozen components, and seeing the judges say that preparing four desserts was her ultimate undoing. Those critiques, it hurt her pride. The last thing she wanted to do right now was prepare desserts, when they costed her the title and $100,000. And on top of that, she felt that losing affected her authority, where she felt like she lacked the confidence and validity to be leading her pastry cooks. Austin is opening his first restaurant with the money he won, while she was working for somebody else. Unfortunately, Valerie’s emotional strain towards making desserts only worsened as the service drew on. “Hey, Val! We just got a petit four sent back. Your macarons were filled with the wrong ganache!” Janice shouted. Oh crap. Her heart just sank. Once again, her desserts were inadequate. They failed her in the finale, and they were failing her here at work. Valerie could just feel her doubts getting louder and louder. And she found herself unable to sound them out. Trying to shake off the doubts, Valerie corrected her macarons and re-sent them out for the guests, much to Janice’s visible frustration.

“Well, that was a crap day.” Valerie sighed to herself as she began the walk back to campus. Normally, she would stick around after service and celebrate with Jacky, Megan, Mako, Joseph, and Janice, but today, she was exhausted and ashamed of her performance. That was nothing that she did that was worth celebrating. The worst thing about this was that she knew that she could do better too. She has had stronger services as an intern than she had today.And in Warrior Chef, she put up dishes that demonstrated her strengths in the savory kitchen. It was not that she was weak with savory, she just wanted to do the dishes that expressed her love and passion for food the best. Having to re-experience losing, it was not fun for her. And there were only a couple of people she felt comfortable talking about this to. “Hey, you made it this far. You have a lot to be proud of.” Austin, the cook who beat her in Warrior Chef, sent that message. Unlike Valerie, when Austin found out he had won, he enrolled in culinary school in the CIA using his winnings, and was already announcing the opening of his first restaurant, which was scheduled for the fall. Winning that title opened a world of possibilities and opportunities for him, just like how it did for Janice all those years ago. And for Valerie, she just felt that much more unaccomplished. Even though it had been an entire year since she competed, compared to Austin, what had she accomplished? Nothing.

A year ago, a slightly younger Valerie, then a senior in high school, walked nervously into the judge’s room, in Tokyo, where the finale was taking place. It felt surreal. Earlier that morning, her, Joey, and Austin were anxiously awaiting the final two challenges. After the first one, Valerie won an advantage of picking her sous-chefs for the final elimination challenge, and Joey was sent home for making a slightly weaker amuse bouche. Even though Valerie got first pick, selecting her close friends Claire and Coco, it was her decisions to stick with pastry that put her in a bad position. There was a part of her doubting that choice to do only dessert, but desserts were how she got on top of challenges, and it was going through the competition and hearing the praise of her pastries that made her realize that she wanted to one day open her own dessert bar.  So in spite of the doubts, she still pushed forward and put up three amazing desserts in just an hour. She was proud of what she was putting out: each dessert looked and tasted impeccable, and showed her true range as a pastry chef. But with each course she saw Austin preparing, there was just a tinge of doubt that she was making a mistake doing only desserts.

It was heartbreaking to hear the judges’ decision. “You did an amazing job. You have a lot to be proud of.” One of the judges in the finale reassured her. “Valerie, you did incredible.” Coco, a small brunette, and Claire, an athletic blonde, hugged her. They were her sous-chefs in that final challenge. “Thank you.” She hugged them back. Even then, she still felt horrible. If she did such a good job, why did she still lose? At that point, she had a gut feeling that her all-dessert menu cost her the challenge, but she did not hear what the judges said. She did not know why her desserts, which she prided herself on, could not trump the menu Austin put up. But then seeing the judges say on national television that regardless of how amazing her desserts were, she could not beat Austin without doing at least two savory courses, it was heartbreaking. She felt idiotic. She basically handed Austin the title by not following the rules of the challenge. She lost on a technicality, and not even one that was out of her own hands. It was her conscious decision to make four desserts. Why did she think it was okay to do that? The answer that Valerie found was not a pretty one. It was her pride. She wanted to stake her ego on that title, and she only has herself to blame for losing a season that she easily had the potential to dominate.

Finally back in her dorm room, Valerie curled up in a ball on her bed and let loose the tears. It was hard to keep them in at that point. She just wanted to get all of her emotions out of the way so that she could move forward with her life. She could not believe she did that. And she knew that everyone would think poorly of her choices too. She would get many people telling her that she was an idiot for trying to bend the rules, and that she was asking to lose that season. Just knowing that the very thing she is paid to do is what cost her the title, it was heartbreaking. It made her feel as if she was less qualified to fill Namie’s shoes as the executive pastry chef because she lost the way that she did. Namie was a Warrior Chef winner, and she was talented enough to move on and start her own business. But what about Valerie? She was stuck with Namie’s old job, and coming in second to yet another winner on the show. She honestly did not expect to take losing this badly. She never really saw herself as a sore loser, but knowing that she lost in a cooking competition when food was all she ever talked about, it was rough. A part of her own identity, she was beginning to question.

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