"Annie, you're up first!" announced the main judge.
Annie bustled up to the judging panel, flustered and flapping, her skirt rustling with each step she took. She grabbed the handle of the silver cloche between pudgy fingers and lifted.
As the once-perfect popsicle began to melt into a puddle of sticky purple goo, the first bead of sweat threatened to make its way down my forehead. Whatever I felt, I knew Annie would be experiencing a million times worse. There is so much waiting around on these TV shows. Make a hot dish and it will come out, at worst, lukewarm, but go for something frozen and… oh Annie, Annie. Your idea was dumb. I saw this reflected in the judges' faces and my smile widened just a touch.
The judges didn't scare me. The audience didn't bother me, despite the bright lights stopping me from seeing their individual faces. The fact I might humiliate myself on national TV was somewhat of a concern but I thought no, that isn't going to happen. I'm too well prepared. Mainly I was just hoping I didn't get caught out not quite playing by the rules.
"It's melting!" wailed Annie, stating the obvious, "it was a blueberry plum popsicle with clotted cream and aniseed. It was propped up and - oh!"
The sorry excuse for a dessert was now half-melted and looked anything but appetizing.
The audience sighed in unison, either commiserating with Annie, or giving their verdict. Annie looked near to tears, one pudgy hand sweeping through her graying blonde curls. The pair of judges tasted the melted offering and pronounced it quite tasty if, well, a bit melted.
Annie returned despondently to join Kevin and I. One down, one to go, I thought to myself. If Kevin had made a hash of things too, it would be me walking away with the $50,000 prize money and 2-week all-inclusive vacation to Hawaii.
Kevin had an arrogant air about him, as though he'd already won and was strutting through the airport, shades hiding his smug eyes and a $50,000 check in his pocket.
I had no idea what he'd even made until he lifted the cloche, thanks to the stainless steel partitions between our work stations.
"Remember this is the final, Kevin!" quipped the second judge, as if we could forget, and as though he could change his dish now. The silver dome was lifted off his dish. The judges gasped.
I tried to crane my neck to see around Kevin's muscular frame. Was it a good gasp or a bad one? Had Kevin also served them a melted popsicle?
"Well, Kevin," I heard Judge Number One exclaim, "that is a beautifully presented dish."
The audience ooh-ed and aah-ed as I fought to keep smiling confidently, flicking a quick glance at my own dish hidden under its metal cloche. The shiny dome covered what I could only hope was this year's winner.
Kevin's offering was certainly impressive. The glistening bacon-wrapped cod perched prettily atop an elegant truffle risotto, as various greens and garnishes decorated the plate.
Yes, Kevin's entry certainly packed a visual punch but how would it taste? Horrible, I hoped. The bacon would be fatty and flaccid, while the cod was dried out and curling at the edges. I hoped the rice was not only over-seasoned but gummy and stodgy. Maybe they'd find one of Kevin's over-preened, over-gelled hairs in there.
The audience held their collective breath awaiting the judges' verdict.
Annie was looking glum. She might as well go home now. She glanced over at me, under the spotlights, and I flashed her what I hoped was a sympathetic gaze.
The judges meanwhile hunched over Kevin's plate and delicately used their silverware to slice and spear a few morsels.
"Mmm," remarked the senior judge, "the fish is beautifully cooked."
My inner groan contrasted with the audience's happy cheer.
"I'm loving the crispy bacon," the second judge chimed in, "and the truffle risotto is amazing."
The first judge even went back in for another forkful.
"There's only one problem, Kevin," smiled the first judge.
Oh good, I thought.
"There isn't enough of it!" he quipped.
As I inwardly face-palmed, the audience, easily amused as ever, laughed. I imagined cooking Kevin. He would be threaded lengthwise on to a skewer and spit-roasted over a low flame for hours and hours, until he was done. Meanwhile, I would be swaggering away with $50,000 in my pocket.
"And last but not least," cried the second judge, "we have Shaun. What have you made for us tonight, Shaun?"
I approached the judges, hoping my now sweaty face, clammy skin and bad case of the shakes won me some sympathy points at least.
Please, please, please, I thought to myself, envisioning God and his serene, wish-granting expression. I never wanted anything more. I need that $50,000. If you knew who was after me, how much my life depended on this, you would be happy to give it to me.
I leaned forward and gingerly gripped the silver dome between trembling fingers, lifting as slowly and dramatically as I could.
The judges were quiet.
The audience was silent.
You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
The judges both looked down at my plate.
The first judge, David, raised an eyebrow.
"Impressive," he exclaimed, admiring my juicy lamb shank, "how did you know lamb shank was my all-time favorite?"
I smiled, trying to look humble. What I really wanted to do was give the second judge, Melissa, a high-five. She had encouraged me to make the lamb shank, to prepare the aromatic lentil rice, to add the juicy fruits and subtle Middle Eastern flavors that David loved.
"Don't worry about Kevin," she'd laughed, her ginger hair splayed over my pillow, "I will set him up to fail."
"And Annie?" I had questioned. She looked at me sideways, raised her perfectly plucked brow and just laughed again.
Melissa had spent the past two days in my hotel room. We drank the finest champagne, ate the best food, and - well, you can imagine the rest. For just half the prize money and a vacation in Hawaii, she would give me the winning formula. It would be a win for us both. She coached me in every tiny detail.
David and Melissa both picked up their knives and forks, cutting into the lamb shank. I knew it was exquisite - juicy and delicious. Melissa had briefed me perfectly.
Feigning surprise, Melissa complimented me on the flavors and techniques.
David, however, wasn't so sure.
"Hmm, well, I don't think the peach goes so well here, Shaun - there's too much going on. Also the nuts and the parsley... the lamb is well cooked but I don't know why you chose these accompaniments. It just doesn't work as a whole, I'm afraid."
I looked at Melissa in surprise but she was still looking down, apparently chewing and thinking, and didn't meet my eyes.
Eventually she looked up, but at David not at me.
"You know, David, I think I agree with you," she said coolly, "the lamb is good but the rest of the dish doesn't really work for me."
"Kevin," David announced a short while later, "you are this year's winner. Congratulations!"
The audience broke into wild raptures and I was just stunned.
I was still stunned a few days later. I had decided to pack up and leave anyway. The guys I owed money to weren't exactly the forgiving type, so I had decided to hell with it, let's just head for Hawaii anyway. It wasn't as easy without the plane ticket, hotel reservation or $50,000 check, but at least I could hide out for a while and plan my next move. That's the last place they'd expect to find me.
So I was in the airport, wearing shades, keeping a low profile and quietly waiting for my flight. I sat in the departure lounge, hoping I could get away and come up with another wonderful idea. The cookery competition obviously hadn't been as genius as I'd believed it would be.
And that's when I saw them: Kevin and Melissa, hand in hand, walking through the terminal. So she'd been serious about wanting an expensive vacation in Hawaii. And when given the option of cute, muscular Kevin, or short, chubby Shaun, I guess she'd chosen the winning dish.