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I was in the kitchen whipping up some eggs to make a frittata for breakfast when I heard the sound of rapid footsteps coming down the stairs. Based on the sound I knew it had to be Mom and as she entered the kitchen with a huge grin on her face I already knew the reason for her excitement.

She read the email.

“Maia, honey, congratulations! Why didn’t you wake me up? You just forwarded the email? You should have woken me up as soon as you got it!”

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The email she was referring to was sent by the main organiser of the Cooking Wars event hosted by the Jared Frio Culinary Institute telling me that I had been accepted as one of the five participants competing for the scholarship. The contest will be held downtown and I would be the representative for Oasis Springs while the other contestants would be from places like Willow Creek, San Myshuno, Newcrest and Windenburg.

I read the email at least 10 times before forwarding it to Mom, Dad, Kaleb and Lyra. I didn’t see the point in waking everyone up to give them the news when they could read it in their own time.

“It’s not a big deal Mom. It’s not like I won. I still have to participate.”

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“It is a big deal. They only pick one person from each town and they picked you to represent all of Oasis Springs. That means those preliminary judges were impressed by you.”

“But I still haven’t won anything.”

“Oh trust me,” she beamed, “you’re gonna win. There’s no one else in the world who can cook as well as you do.”

“I just don’t want to get my hopes up.” I had no idea what kind of skill level my competitors were at so I didn’t want to get too confident only to be let down if I lost.

“Win or lose you will always be the best to me but there’s nothing wrong with being a little excited. And if you lose, it won’t be the end of the world. You know we have enough money to pay for your culinary school education. You just do your absolute best and everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

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Mom is always so encouraging. She gets so excited about all of our accomplishments whether big or small. I remember one time in elementary school when I won a badge for being the most helpful student. She was so proud of me that she bought me an ice-cream cone to celebrate. She does the same thing for Kaleb and Lyra too. I used to think it was weird that she seemed so happy whenever we succeeded in something so small but Dad explained how Mom’s own mother never approved of anything she did and then I realised Mom was just trying to give us the encouragement she never had.

I started appreciating her enthusiasm more but I also realised that it would take so little to make her proud of me. Some of my friends have overbearing helicopter parents so I know I have it easier than they do. I guess I just want to do something great to earn her pride and not just have it all the time. I feel like I owe that to her and Dad for being such great parents.

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The day of the competition arrived and I was so nervous. We met with the judges before they allowed us to meet the other contestants. Since I was the first to arrive, I got to meet them first. The judges were all chefs and restauranteurs which meant they would be more difficult to please than my family members and friends since they were experienced and had more refined palates.

The judge on the left was Jeffrey Partner a renowned fine dining expert who was very influential in the culinary world. In the middle was Juliette Samuels who has worked as an executive chef at many famous restaurants and is now a teacher at the Jared Frio Culinary Institute. And then finally, Dave Martinez, who was the co-host of his own outdoor grilling show on the Cooking Channel called Grill Boyz.

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I watch the Cooking Channel all the time and all of them have made appearances as guest judges on different cooking competition shows at some point or the other so it was such an honour to meet all of them in person and get to cook for them.

The first person I met was the contestant from Willow Creek, Tatiana Fyres. We clicked right away for some reason even though in the only thing we have in common is our love for cooking. She was actually born in Windenburg but moved to Willow Creek as a child with her mother and lived there ever since.

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I really liked her a lot. She was so cheerful but had this bold, edginess to her that reminded me of Lyra a little. We spent so much of our free time together that I barely had a chance to get to know the other contestants before the competition started.

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Two of them were really nice. Darren Tidwell was from Newcrest and I could tell right away that he had a little crush on Tatiana. He tried to be inconspicuous but it was so obvious he liked her. He could barely keep his eyes off of her.

Jacklyn Huerta was from San Myshuno. She seemed a lot like me in terms of how driven she was.

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The only person I didn’t get along with was Chad Munch.

He was really nice to me at first but then he became snarky and rude for no reason. It wasn’t just me, he was like that with everyone and he walked around like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I tried not to let him get to me because I knew what he was trying to do. Super competitive people like him try to get into your head to throw you off your game but it wasn’t going to work on me.

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The competition began and we were all enlisted to cook whatever type of dish we wanted as long as it fit into the category of comfort food dinners. Everyone got busy rushing to the pantry to get the items they would need for their respective dishes. Some of them decided to make steak with potatoes or minestrone but I decided to make spaghetti with a tomato-basil ragu since pasta was synonymous in my household with the term comfort food.

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A plate of spaghetti or penne with any kind of sauce, meat or vegetables would be completely devoured with no leftovers to speak of especially if I added some freshly grated parmesan or crumbled feta.

Even though we were encouraged by the judges to take risks I didn’t want to leap too far out of my comfort zone. We had 30 minutes to cook and plate our dishes and I knew my spaghetti would take ten minutes to cook and my sauce would take around fifteen at the most leaving me with sufficient time to taste-test and properly plate my food before time was up.

Everyone was on their A-game and one little slip up was all it took for me to be eliminated so I had to be careful.

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Especially after what happened with Darren!

He decided to make grilled cheese of all things. I know grilled cheese is a popular comfort food for most people but was he seriously planning on serving a simple dish like grilled cheese to the panel of chef judges? Anyway, if that was his choice then that was fine by me. At least I wasn’t going to be the only one playing it safe. But then the fire started.

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I’m still not sure how Darren managed to set the stove on fire with grilled cheese but it happened and that put everyone on pause as we all freaked out over it. The judges stopped the clock as the competition organisers tried to get the fire under control.

Jacklyn and I stepped in to help put out the fire when it looked like it was about to spread.

It was quite exciting, to be honest. I’ve never had to deal with a kitchen fire myself since I’ve always been very careful when cooking so it was interesting to see how quickly I responded towards putting it out.

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The competition resumed once we put the fire out and everyone completed their dish on time. Unfortunately, burned grilled cheese got Darren eliminated. Since he didn’t have enough time to start over from scratch, he had to serve the judges the first batch he made which burnt up in the fire.

Even worse, I was in the bottom two with him! I was almost eliminated because the judges thought I was too safe by making spaghetti. I was lucky that I executed my dish properly unlike Darren otherwise the competition would have been over for me.

I was pissed but not at them. I was pissed at myself because I knew they were right. I decided then, the gloves were coming off. I wasn’t going to play it safe anymore!

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