Chapter Six: Lā Miàn
She had been played.
Sakura had let her anger get the best of her and by the time she had calmed down it had been too late.
Ino had waited up for her to return home, but Sakura walked past her to her bedroom, too tired to deal with whatever the hell her friend was excited about. Sasuke had offered her a ride home, but she was too amped up from the insult he had given her.
Looking back on it now, she knew he had just been trying to get her worked up and he was successful. Now Sakura had promised to show him her true cooking skills. She was going to cook for a heavily award nominated chef that cooked in a Michelin star restaurant.
“Mama?” Sakura drummed her fingers against the steel table top. “What do you think is the best thing I’ve ever made.”
“If you stop standing around and get to working, it will be these baozi,” her mother, Mebuki, responded without looking up from the buns she was pinching close.
“I’m serious, Mama.”
“I’m serious too.” Mebuki glared at her and pointed to the workstation with chicken waiting to be ground up. “Get to work on making more filling.”
Groaning, Sakura shuffled over to the sink and washed her hands. She should have known that a visit to her parents’ shop would result in them making her work. She grumbled about how it was her day off and that she didn’t need to be working, but as soon as she began mixing the ground chicken, making sure to stir in one direction, her complaints settled into content humming.
There had always been something therapeutic about making bao. Sakura could get lost in the rhythmic flow of loading the little pancakes of dough with the chicken and chive filling and pinching and twisting them closed. She had been making them with her parents ever since she was old enough for her motor skills to be more refined.
Cooking in her parents’ kitchen had both been an escape and the bane of her existence growing up. It was simultaneously the place she felt the most loved and the place of her nightmares.
Nothing felt better after a good cry like a steamed chicken bun. The comfort of the soft steamed dough and the chicken and chives filling that her father had originally made just for her because she wasn’t fond of the traditional pork filling. Her cheeks would be covered in the salt of dried up tears, the tracks of them cracking under the movement of her chewing.
Sakura would come home from school, defeated and lost, and hide in the back of the shop under the swirling steam and the scents of her parents’ hard labor. What the other kids thought stunk was the comforting smell of safety and devotion to her.
At least until the unfortunate incident when she was caught taking care of a stray cat by some schoolmates that decided to throw racist comments her way.
She had such a complicated relationship with food. She was proud of her parents and all of their hard work. She loved feeling close to her family overseas through the dishes her parents prepared and shared with the world.
“Hey, Auntie.” The bored droll of her cousin’s caught Sakura’s attention. Sasori removed his wool cap and stripped out of his outerwear as he moved through the hot kitchen.
“Hey, Sasori,” she greeted him. He nodded at her in acknowledgement and hung up his clothes on the hook in the back office. He grabbed one of the aprons and tossed it over his simpler than usual outfit. “Helping out today?”
“I happened to have a few days off.” Sasori washed his hands in the sink and shook his hands dry. “Third is renovating the gallery.”
Sasori took his spot across from her and got to work on making the dough for the noodles used for the beef noodle soup. Her father, Kizashi, had been working on the broth since early morning.
Out of all of the dishes on her father’s menu, the chicken and chives bao and the Lanzhou beef noodle soup were the most popular━especially with those that wanted the comforting taste of home when they were over 7,000 miles away.
Lanzhou beef noodle soup was the dish that Sakura loved most on rainy days. She would come home with her skin chilled and her socks wet, ready for a warm bowl of beef and noodles swimming in a fragrant broth.
By the time she was old enough to help make steamed buns, Sasori had already been hand pulling noodles for eleven years. He had been helping out in the kitchen long before the ownership had passed on to her father and mother from her great-aunt Chiyo.
They made a variety of Japanese and Chinese dishes and Kizashi added a few more recipes to the comfort food menu that Granny Chiyo had perfected. Eventually, Sakura had graduated from helping out with the steamed buns and helped with other dishes, but her favorite task was helping her cousin with the preparation of the noodles.
It was an art form. Before Chef Uchiha it was the only bit of cooking she would claim as art. She would watch, entranced, as Sasori and her father made the dough dance as they stretched and pulled it to the right elasticity. They would twirl the stretchy dough and their fingers would weave in and out of it, creating hundreds of thin noodles.
Her first attempt was an utter failure. Sakura had made the dough perfectly but the skill required to pull the noodles from a ball of dough didn’t come in a few hours. It took patience and years until she could pull noodles as well as her family members.
Sakura absentmindedly pinched the bao closed as she watched her cousin take to his simple wood board stage and manipulated the rested dough, twirling and stretching it until he had over a hundred noodles ready to boil. Watching him, she would have never guessed that he was an art gallery curator instead of a chef. It was a talent not many could boast of having, not in the states.
And that was when it all clicked.
He hadn’t expected his mother to be in his kitchen when he came back from his run. She had rolled up her sleeves and had taken over the place. Sasuke caught her in the middle of rolling rice in between her hands, packing it into the family triangular shape of onigiri.
“If I don’t come to visit you, I would never see you.” Mikoto pursed her lips, shooting him a glare as he walked behind her to the sink and washed his hands and all the way up to his elbows.
Sasuke joined her at his kitchen island and took some rice and began to form it into rice balls. They worked in perfect, silent harmony until there was enough onigiri to feed his kitchen staff.
“How is Mrs. Kato?” Mikoto asked.
“Stubbornly refusing to find a new executive chef.”
“She has you. Have you considered that she doesn’t want another head chef when she has you?” His mother gave him a knowing smile. “You take care of her husband’s kitchen much better than any stranger would. She’s fired enough chefs for you to have figured that out by now.”
It had occurred to Sasuke that that may have been the case. When Dan had passed away, they had closed down Wisteria Place while they all mourned and when they were preparing to open up again, the new executive chefs were all selected by Tsunade’s friends Jiraiya and Orochimaru. The couple were recruited by Kakashi because Tsunade was ready for Wisteria Place to open its doors, but not to see someone else in her husband’s kitchen.
Jiraiya had selected a multitude of chefs that he knew from his travels as a food critic, but none of them lasted long. They either didn’t respect Tsunade as their boss and didn’t accept any of her input in the kitchen, shoving her to her usual place in front of house, or Tsunade didn’t believe they were of the same caliber as her late husband.
Orochimaru had suggested that Sasuke take over the position of executive chef. As an investor of the restaurant they knew about Sasuke’s experience and dedication to Wisteria Place. They felt that there was no one better to leave the command of the kitchen to and Tsunade seemed to agree.
“There’s a ready made head chef right here.” Orochimaru had given him one of their unsettling smiles. “Molded perfectly with Wisteria Place in mind.”
As much as Sasuke disliked working under the chefs that Jiraiya found for Wisteria Place, he didn’t want to have all of the responsibilities of being an executive chef. He was barely surviving doing all of the tasks as interim head chef.
He was busy when he was simply a sous chef, but he had at least been able to have a day off or go traveling or have a sex life.
It had been months since he last had sex.
Not visiting his mother was an unfortunate sacrifice, but it came with the silver lining of not having to deal with seeing his father. No matter what accolades he collected it would never be enough in his eyes, not when he was comparing him to his older brother who had followed their father’s plan and had become a doctor.
It wasn’t that Fugaku belittled his chosen profession. He had stopped doing that years ago, but he also never acknowledged anything that proved how successful Sasuke was, that it was a suitable career. There were comments made about whether or not Sasuke could survive on a chef’s paycheck—if maybe his trust fund was what was keeping him afloat. Mikoto wasn’t much help. She would toss in her own questions and backed up Fugaku’s line of questioning.
It got to the point where Sasuke didn’t want to go back home.
“Your brother is dating someone right now,” Mikoto cut into his thoughts as she cleaned up the mess they had made. “It seems serious. He met her at the clinic. The receptionist set him up with the programmer helping the practice with their patient portal. Karin seems nice. I hope he brings her around for dinner soon.”
Not happening anytime soon if he likes her enough to date her.
Somehow even Itachi had found time to have some sort of relationship and Sasuke could barely find time to enjoy a meal that wasn’t made from the scraps of whatever was on the menu at Wisteria Place. If it weren’t for the fact that he ran every day he would end up gaining lots of weight eating so much rich food.
“Take those with you to work.” Mikoto lightly smacked his stomach with the back of her hand and smiled softly at him. “Don’t eat all of those rice balls on your own. Oh, and your dad enjoyed that seafood en brodo from your Valentine’s Day menu.”
She grabbed her purse and coat from one of the bar stools and waved goodbye, leaving as unexpectedly as she had arrived at his apartment and leaving Sasuke unsettled. His parents hadn’t told him that they were going to eat at the restaurant he worked at. It would be just like his father to try and catch him unaware.
Sighing to himself, Sasuke packed up a good portion of the onigiri in a container. It was too much and Naruto and Kiba━and Sakura━would appreciate the food no matter what it was.
What she wanted to prepare wasn’t a quick recipe. Her father always started early in the day before they even opened in order to prepare everything he needed to make the broth for their Lanzhou beef noodle soup.
Sakura set up her tablet to record everything she did, from roasting the soup bones for the stock to preparing hot chili oil instead of using what was already made for the restaurant. Sasuke was a busy man and it was going to take her what was usually a good chunk of her work shift to complete a dish that had five hours of cook time when done properly. He could check out the video she was recording if he wanted to verify that she had in fact prepared the dish herself.
Sasori had helped her out, sitting on a chair, legs crossed at the knees, and recorded her efforts. He kept making comments about the lighting not doing her any favors and telling her that she should go and get a light that would make her glow. He finally stopped making those comments when his boyfriend Obito came to pick him up and he left. Obito had at least been more helpful and had offered to loan her his tripod for his phone.
Her parents worked around her, looking on curiously as she spoke to her camera and explained what she was doing. Mebuki would pop up behind her and watch her work, nodding when she saw that Sakura was properly seasoning.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself.” Her mother sat on a stool, legs crossed and hunched forward, as she ate a small bowl of rice with a fried egg.
Sakura looked up from her work station, but continued to knead the dough she was going to need. “Well, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it somewhat.”
“You seem happier today than usual.”
“Mama.” Sakura narrowed her eyes at Mebuki as she wrapped her bowl of dough in plastic wrap to let it rest.
“You always sound so tired and annoyed when I call you,” Mebuki carried on. “You don’t enjoy studying at all and you took whole semesters off because you weren’t feeling it.”
Sakura rolled her eyes and moved to check on the beef shank she had cooling. “No one enjoys studying, mama.”
“No, but most people don’t come crying to eat their weight in buns and hide in their parents’ kitchen because studying is making them miserable.”
Sakura turned her back on her mother, as she checked on her simmering broth. Her mouth twisted into a pout to keep her mouth busy as she was unable to respond. Nothing her mother had just said was a lie. Sakura would have really great semesters and would be the best student ever and then she would loathe the idea of starting up school again the following semester.
“I wanna help people. Auntie Chiyo was an herbalist back home and she was happy. I can do that with nursing.”
“Sure.” Mebuki set her bowl aside and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “That’s why she opened up a cozy little soup shop instead of an herbalism store when she moved here, huh? You have any idea how much money can be made off of all of those New Age hippies? Every person that thinks they’re a witch?”
“Alright, mama.” Sakura rolled her eyes and bit her lower lip to keep from laughing. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked for any messages from Ino. She had several but cleared them all knowing that Ino would be waiting up for answers anyway.
“Don’t forget to clean up when you’re done.” Mebuki slid off of her stool and grabbed her bowl. “I’m going to close up the shop.”
“Please don’t forget that I’m expecting a visitor here after hours. He should be here soon.”
“This gentleman visitor better be the future father of my grandchildren.”
“We’re not getting any younger!” Mebuki shouted back without turning back as she exited the kitchen.
Even before he had gotten so busy, Sasuke had barely visited J-Town. It wasn’t a part of town that he ever had to pass through and it was out of his way, but Ino insisted that he had to go to a shop called Chiyoshi. He had planned on ignoring her until she had told him that Sakura had asked her to pass on a message to him.
Chiyoshi was a small shop among stores with decals in Japanese and Mandarin in their windows, most of them only had English for their open and close signs. Most of the shops on the street seemed the same. Looking at the store to the right of Chiyoshi, Sasuke was met with the unlit sign that read Yamanaka Hana above a window display of different floral arrangements. Ino’s voice rang in his mind from the other day
“Our parents were shop neighbors. Why are you asking? Why are you asking? Why?”
This was where Sakura Haruno had grown up. Ino Yamanaka as well. Sasuke couldn’t even find it strange that the daughter of a flower shop ended up training to be a chef and the daughter of a restaurant owner decided to go to school for a different profession. Sasuke himself was the son of a rheumatologist and had run away to become a chef.
Sasuke entered the shop, the bell tinkling above his head behind him, and looked around at the cafeteria style floor plan. A blonde woman looked up from where she was sweeping, mouth parting at the sight of him.
She set the broom aside and wiped her hands on her apron as she walked towards him. “Are you Sakura’s friend?”
Was he? He considered himself as her superior if they considered the restaurant hierarchy, but he wasn’t going to tell a woman with the same green eyes as Sakura that.
“Yes,” he replied hesitantly. The word was barely out of his mouth and she was gripping his face in her hands. She moved his head side to side and slapped his cheek lightly.
“Good. You’re handsome. What do you do for a living?”
“Mama, leave him alone.`
Sasuke backed away and looked toward the back of the shop at the sound of Sakura’s voice. She was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, a bandana covering her rose gold hair and bits of flour on her face.
“You didn’t say he was handsome,” Sakura’s mother scolded her, crossing her arms in front of his chest. “And look at you covered in flour.”
“It’s not like that, mama,” Sakura groaned. “He’s technically my boss. Come on, Chef Uchiha.”
Sasuke sidestepped around her mother and followed her into the kitchen. The warm and pleasant scent that had been wafting around the dining area was a lot more concentrated in the kitchen.
“You came just in time.” Sakura rushed around metal tables in the center of the kitchen to a tablet propped up near two pots on the stove, one with a dark colored broth and the other full of boiling water. She picked it up and handed it to him. “I made a video because there was no way you were going to be able to sit and watch the whole process as it happened, but you’re on time for my favorite part.”
“This video is like five hours long, Haruno.” Sasuke winced and pressed play. Sakura in the video was arguing with someone off camera as she cradled a large aluminum bowl full of beef bones.
“Lock up the shop behind you, Sakura!” Sasuke heard her mother shouting from the front of the store. Sakura didn’t respond back and circled back to the center tables, pulling a bowl towards herself.
“You can try the broth if you like.” Sakura gestured to the pot on the stove as she unwrapped the plastic from the bowl. “I’m going to make the noodles right now.”
Sasuke almost dropped the spoon he had picked up into the simmering broth.“You’re going to make noodles?”
“I’m going to hand-pull them.”
The smile she gave him was smug but the twinkle in her eyes made it impossible to be annoyed with it. Instead a warmth settled in his lower stomach that had nothing to do with the delicious beef broth he had just swallowed a spoonful of.
Making fresh pasta was already something some found difficult to do. Sasuke remembered tearing holes in too thin sheets of dough after rolling them out when he was a teenager.
Taking a seat at a stool, Sasuke watched tiny Sakura Haruno throw a ball of dough on the flour covered surface of her work station, twisting it as she tossed it and stretched it. She spread her arms apart, ropes of dough forming between her slender fingers. She continued to dance with the dough, bouncing the dough and pulling hundreds of noodles out of that blob of dough faster than his eyes could track their formations.
Sasuke knew cooking was an art. He had trained for years to master it, traveled to different countries to learn its different forms. The rice porridge had been simple but enough to express something he now knew to be true.
Sakura Haruno was an artist. But did she know it?
Sakura tossed the noodles into the giant pot of boiling water with a grunt of satisfaction. She watched them cook and then served up a portion into a bowl and then fanned slices of beef shank on top of the noodles before ladling a good helping of broth and radishes on it. Sakura was generous with the chopped scallions and cilantro and dolloped a good portion of hot chili oil.
“I know you like your own food spicy.” She stuck her tongue out cheekily at him before turning to serve herself.
The broth warmed his whole system up. It spread down his throat to his stomach and fanned out to his limbs. Unlike the rice porridge this bowl of beef noodles had been made with him in mind, even if it was just to prove a point.
And that made it taste all the better.
“So?” Sakura raised her brows up at him, dimples forming from her eager grin.
She really was too cute for his own good.
Reaching out to wipe flour from her face, Sasuke told her, “Send me the video.”
Green eyes wide, Sakura’s mouth parted in surprise. “What?”
Sasuke laughed through his nose, huffing out an exhale. “I’ll give you my number. And my email. So you can send me the video.”
He continued to wipe the flour off of her face. As beautiful as it was to watch her make noodles, Sakura was a mess. Had no one told her that the only part of her that should get messy was her apron?
“Okay?” Sakura squeaked, handing over her phone. “You can give me your number.”
“So, now that I know that you can cook,” Sasuke typed his number into her phone, “I should probably stop enabling you and stop with all of the free meals.”
Sakura spluttered in protest, cheeks burning a bright shade of red. Sasuke couldn’t help the smile twitching at the corners of his lips. He was mostly joking━feeding Sakura was one of the only small joys of staying at work beyond closing. Watching her eagerly tuck into his food was the most socializing he had done in a while that wasn’t forced.
It also wasn’t lost on him that his mother had told him that his father had eaten a meal━and enjoyed it━from Wisteria Place without his knowledge and that it had been something he had added to the menu with Sakura in mind.
“Well, you definitely owe me for all of those free meals.”
“As if I can afford to pay for anything you make!” Sakura’s voice squeaked again. “You already know how costly it is to dine at Wisteria Place.”
“Hm. That’s true.” Sasuke feigned pensiveness. “You would never be able to afford my rates as a private chef. We’ve really reached a roadblock here for you, huh?”
“I live off of tips, Sasuke,” Sakura whined, grabbing weakly at the front of his army surplus jacket. “You can’t cut me off after getting me hooked on your food, that’s so mean.”
“Well, there is something we could do…”
Sakura perked up, looking at him warily. “What?”
Sasuke grinned at her, knowing she would take the bait just as she had when he had gotten her to prove that she could cook more than just rice porridge.
“Easy. In exchange for cooking for you,” Sasuke clasped his hands together and pointed with both index fingers at her, “you,” he pointed back at himself, “can cook for me.”