"Are you sure we don't have to prep for this?" asked Preston Jennings a little nervously.
"'Course not!" enthused Chef William Slocum.
"But Lili and Brian met, like, four times this week," said the former steward. Jennings had been replaced by Lili O'Day, and he had gone to Navigation. It was all done as a part of the crew changes necessary for the NX-01 to fight the Xindi war. This had even included bringing on a complement of MACOs.
"Stop fretting. They probably just met a lot because Brian Delacroix is in Security. But you, Preston, you've got steward experience! We are going to win this, I can tell."
"Sir, I was never a real sous-chef like she is. And I haven't done it in a while."
"We are not gonna lose. Now, chin up, Jennings. This will be a fine diversion for the crew." Will checked the time on his PADD – almost eleven hundred hours. And then the PADD's display slid over to the date – June the twelfth of 2153. "It's almost show time. Let's head over to the galley, all right?"
The small galley contained Lili, Brian and another fellow, Chip Masterson, who worked in Communications. Chip was setting up a video link that could be piped into the rest of the ship. "Now, I don't need to tell you," Chip said, "that this is just for fun. We've got plenty of serious stuff going on, but the captain wanted something light. So be light about it, okay?"
There were huge baskets of foodstuffs. There were all sorts of produce from Shelby Pike, the Botanist on board. Plus the refrigeration unit was packed. Various utensils and small appliances were in view as well. "Brian," Lili said to the young – perhaps underaged – Security crewman next to her, "We'll need to share the microwave and the flash cooker with Chef and Preston. So pick your moments, okay?"
"Sure thing," he replied. They were both short, and he looked around for the step stool, just in case.
There was a communications chime. "Okay," Chip said, answering it, "We're just about ready. Masterson out." He turned to the four other people in the room. "We got a small substitution."
"Oh?" asked Will.
"Commander Tucker said he couldn't do it. It's, uh, I guess it's too soon. So his replacement is Major Hayes."
"Major Hayes?" asked Lili. She gulped a little. The man rarely smiled.
"Yeah," Chip confirmed. "Now, don't forget to smile. You're having fun, right?" He checked the time on his PADD. "Okay, three, two, one!" He turned on a camera for the video link. "Hiya NX-01, and welcome to our first-ever cook-off, between Chef William Slocum and challenger sous-chef Lili O'Day. Chef's assistant for this competition will be former steward Preston Jennings." Jennings waved a little. "Lili's helper is Brian Delacroix from Security. Now I'll turn things over to Hoshi briefly. Hoshi?"
Hoshi was in the cafeteria with a portion of the crew, who were watching on the viewer. "Thanks, Chip. Members of the crew, the judges have been sequestered! They will not be watching. Ah, thanks," she said when MACO Private Eddie Hamboyan handed her a large jar filled with blue papers and a few yellow ones. "You may remember, you were asked to predict who the winner would be. Votes for Chef Slocum are on blue paper. Votes for Ensign O'Day are on yellow. Looks like most of the votes were for Chef so T'Pol won't need to break any ties. Here's how it'll work. Chef and Lili will make three dishes with the mystery ingredient – an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. And those dishes will be presented to our three judges who will judge them on taste, presentation and originality. The winner gets bragging rights. And then we'll pick a correct vote at random and that lucky person will get dinner in the Captain's Mess where, of course, all three winning dishes will be served. Chip?"
"Yes," Chip said, "while you were on, I spoke with Lili and Will and it seems there's a little side wager going on as well."
"Yeah," Will said, "winner eats in the Captain's Mess for that same dinner, and the loser serves." He glanced over at Lili, who shrugged. It was her job to serve, anyway. She had nothing to lose.
"All right," Chip said, "once the secret ingredient is revealed, the teams will have one hour to cook their three dishes. Is everybody ready?" Confirmations came in from the cafeteria, the Observation Lounge, Engineering, Sick Bay and the Bridge. Except for essential personnel, or the sleeping night shift crew, it seemed as if everyone was watching.
Chip went over to a basket and brought over a covered bowl. "I have with me the secret ingredient." All eyes were on him as he lifted the cover. "It's … almonds! Go!"
Lili and Brian scrambled a little out of the gate but then she leaned over to him. "Don't worry; we got this. We'll make couscous on the side like we planned. Get the chicken broth and we'll do that last. Once you've got that, get the almonds and, um," she grabbed a half-liter container, "fill this with ground almonds. Just pound them with a meat tenderizer."
"Got it," he said, dashing to grab the requested items.
"What do we do?" Preston asked Will.
Will leisurely told him, "A mushroom risotto. Then we'll have, let's see, we'll have chicken and dessert will be Chinese almond cookies."
"Appetizer?" asked Jennings.
"Uh, salad. Make sure to take the arugula."
Both teams worked furiously. Lili found a can of figs. She combined them with goat cheese and almonds and placed them all on small slices of French bread which she heated up a little. That was the appetizer.
Preston ran by, with a plate full of replicated chicken. He plunked it down in front of Will. "What else?"
"Uh, crush some almonds," Will said, "and I'll need the Panko bread crumbs."
Brian whispered to Lili, "Main course?"
"Get me the cod, please," she said, "and spinach leaves." She thought for a second. "Oh, and a lemon."
Chip mainly stayed out of their way, but he did provide occasional commentary. "I gotta tell ya, folks, it smells awesome in here. But I won't try to interview anyone while they're working. These people have knives."
Once the cod was ready – it was crushed almonds over the fish and then the whole thing was wrapped in spinach leaves – Lili said to Brian, "Find me the puff pastry, please. And, um, the honey and, no, wait, not the pastry. Get me the phyllo dough. And, erm, from the spices, I'll need the cumin." As he ran off to fulfill her requests, she stared at the counter for a second.
"Penny for your thoughts, O'Day," Will said.
Annoyance furrowed her brow for a second. "Nothing that should be broadcast," she muttered. Brian came back and she said to him, "Throw the remaining crushed almonds under the broiler for a minute and no more."
She laid out the dough and started to brush it with honey. She then sprinkled lemon juice and cumin on what was to be the bottom layer. Brian returned with the now-roasted crushed almonds. She took a few out with her bare hands and then swore under her breath – she'd burned herself slightly. She shook her hand a little, shaking off the sting, and then began adding the almonds.
"Fifteen minutes," Chip reminded them.
Lili finished up the dessert – it was baklava – and placed it into an oven. Then she cast about. "Damn, I need a green vegetable." Brian was busy with the couscous so she went to the produce baskets herself and obtained green beans. She sliced them quickly and threw them into boiling water for a minute and then fished them out with a metal spider. She tossed the fish into the oven and then began zesting a lemon.
Nearby, Jennings was having a bit of a meltdown as the arugula flew off the counter. He couldn't just put it back on, and got a small head of Boston lettuce instead, and then added slivered almonds he had cut himself. And through it all, Will leisurely stirred the risotto and watched the other three of them.
The couscous was done, and Brian and Lili could see that time was running down. "Ready or not," she murmured to herself, turning off the oven and taking out the fish and the baklava. Brian plated the fish and the couscous, and she added the green beans herself.
"Artichokes!" Will yelled and Preston dashed away at lightning speed, plating them as quickly as possible, his hands a blur.
"Okay, and time!" Chip yelled. He flipped open his communicator. "Captain, we're ready for judging."
The three judges filed into the cafeteria, where a long table was set up for them and places had been set. Chip walked in as MACOs carried in trays of food as the four competitors looked on. "Okay," Chip said, "in order to keep you from knowing who made what, I'm going to explain what everything is. First we have a Boston lettuce salad with slivered almonds."
The judges began to eat. Captain Archer nodded a bit in approval, and took another bite. Lieutenant Reed took careful notes. Major Hayes did his best to not eat too quickly.
Lili wrung her hands and Brian tapped a leg and Preston bit his nails. The only one who was at all calm was the supremely confident Will Slocum.
"And the other appetizer is figs with goat cheese and almonds," Chip reported as the plates were placed in front of the judges.
Malcolm made a face. "Oh, God," Lili whispered to Brian, "I bet he hates goat cheese. Or figs."
Major Hayes tentatively took a serving of the French bread with figs, goat cheese and almonds and took a bite. He swallowed and said, "I never had figs before. This is good."
Will just stood there, impassive, without a care in the world.
"Okay, it's time for the main courses," Chip said, "First we have cod with, er, crushed almonds and wrapped in spinach leaves. There are two sides – couscous and green beans."
"It's a little sweet," the captain commented. Malcolm tore into his fish with gusto and seemed to really like it.
"The other main dish is chicken with Panko bread crumbs and crushed almonds. There is a side of artichoke hearts."
This time, the captain was looking dubious. The others ate slowly. Malcolm whispered to the captain, "I believe this is replicated chicken, sir." The captain looked even more dubious.
"And now for the desserts." Chip had both of them brought out on the same plates. "There's an almond baklava with a bit of a surprise. And the other dessert is Chinese almond cookies. Enjoy."
The desserts were finished quickly, and the judges departed. The MACOs cleared the plates. Chip asked, "Hoshi, what's happening?"
She quietly said to him. "There are only three yellow papers."
"So who voted for Lili?"
"Uh," she checked, "José Torres, Craig Willets and Lili's roommate, Jenny Crossman."
"Aw, that's too bad," Chip said quietly.
For her part, Lili nervously wrung her hands again and again. There had been a dish towel in her back pocket. She fished it out and began wringing it until Brian took it from her. "Stop, you'll shred it. Take it easy, okay?"
"Yeah, I should. I just want this to go well. I've only been on the ship for a few months. I mean, it's not like losing will make things too different for me. But I just, you know, I want this to go right. And I want you to look good, too, yanno."
"It's all good," he assured her, "I'll be guarding the Armory either way, I figure."
The judges had decided, and they returned to the cafeteria. "We were very impressed," began the captain. "Let's talk about the dishes. Major?"
"Uh, the appetizers were good. We gave, uh, we had ten points we could award for each of the three areas. The salad got twenty-four points. Six were for originality, nine were for taste and nine were for presentation. The figs got twenty-one points. We gave out nine points for originality, four for taste and eight for presentation."
"Oh, well," Will said, "better luck next time."
"We're not done yet," Preston said.
"Lieutenant?" asked the captain.
"Yes, we enjoyed the main courses. And we did not give out points for the side dishes although we did appreciate them. The cod received seven points for originality, nine for taste and seven for presentation, for a total of twenty-three. The chicken received three points for flavor, six for originality and nine for presentation, for a total of eighteen."
Brian squeezed Lili's shoulder. "I think you just pulled ahead."
"Huh, well, we've still got one more, eh?"
"Captain?" Chip asked.
"The dessert decides it," Jonathan Archer said. "We liked them both. The cookies were given a total of twenty-four points. That breaks down to five for originality, ten for taste and nine for presentation. The baklava was unique," he said, and it seemed he was being diplomatic. "We gave it a ten for originality, seven for taste and eight for presentation, for a total of twenty-five."
"Totaling up the numbers," Chip said, "I see that Chef has sixty-six points. He and Preston made the salad, the chicken and the cookies. And Ensign O'Day has, uh, sixty-nine."
Lili staggered back a little bit. "Holy crap," she said.
The captain came over and shook her hand. "What did you put in the baklava? It was almost smoky."
He walked away, shaking his head.
Malcolm came over. "I'd have given the figs more, but the cheese, it's, eh …."
"It was a risk," she said, shaking his hand. "Sometimes they don't work out."
The Major came over last. "I really liked the dessert. The others were kinda half and half about it. I think it put you over the top." He smiled at her very, very slightly when no one else was looking.
"Well, thanks, Major," she said. She turned to Will. "So, when are ya serving me and the drawing winner?"
Will just stared into space. "What?"
Because there were so few voters for Lili, all three of them were served in the Captain's Mess, and Lili sat with her new friends and smiled at Will as he humbly served figs, cod and a slightly smoky baklava.