Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (vols. 1-2) by Yuto Tsukuda, illustrated by Shun Saeki
So I confess I haven’t seen a single episode, but the hubby seems addicted to the TV series, Masterchef Junior. Time magazine recently declared it “the Best Cooking Show on TV,” especially noting that “here are some other things you don’t have on MasterChef Jr. that you do on adult cooking competitions. Viciousness. Spite. Desperation.” Ouch. I guess some of the kiddies here in Food Wars didn’t get the memo, because quite a few are absolutely ruthless; a certain someone who happens to be lounging on that Volume 2 cover could surely make any mean girl cower. Fear reigns for sure – stiff competition is a daily challenge – but thankfully, many of these contestants are also about having fun, breaking rules, and cooking with ingenuity and flavor instead of the pomp and posturing of the gourmet elite.
Soma Yukihara has been battling his father for most of his 15 years – in the kitchen, that is, trying to best his restaurateur dad. He hasn’t yet succeeded, but before he get another chance, the elder Yukihara shuts down the family establishment to chef around the world for “two or three years.” Uh-oh. “It’s time you left the nest,” he informs his shocked son. Rather than train Soma himself, Daddy deposits the boy at Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute, which turns out to be “Japan’s premier culinary school” where he can also conveniently earn his high school credits. That is, if he can graduate … only 10% of the students seem to make it that far. More important than graduation, however, is facing his peripatetic father: “If you can’t make it at that school … then your dream of beating me is nothing but a joke,” he warns his son from a New York City balcony.
Entry is by examination only – in the kitchen, of course. Soma’s fate seems to be controlled from the get-go by Erina Nakiri, who is as talented as she is horrible. The granddaughter of the school dean – and heir apparent to the venerable institution – she “has a sense of taste so refined” that she’s in high demand by all the top eating establishments. She’s soon enough forced to recognize Soma’s cooking prowess – her highbrow gourmet taste buds having unwillingly fallen victim to one of his simple, perfect dishes. Arrogant upstart he seems to be, Erina is determined to throw him out their elite battleground. Soma has other plans, as he plots to get into the ruling Totsuki Council of Ten Masters, challenging the members one by one in the titular shokugeki – a cooking duel with high stakes and life-changing results.
The art of war, played out in the kitchen with edibles, is fascinating fodder. The science and chemistry of toothsome creations even gets revealed in recipes sprinkled throughout the volumes. But … oh, yes, that but. Classified as shōnen manga – aimed at the teen male audience – Food Wars definitely displays some of the less-than-subtle common characteristics of boys’ manga, with an emphasis on ‘display.’ The female characters are impossibly sized, literally bursting at the seams with inhuman curves. One of Soma’s opponents actually cooks in Daisy-Duke-wear which, if nothing else, would be dangerous in a kitchen filled with hot pots and greasy splatter. Most jarring are the taste tests that devolve into soft porn. [Yes, the series is labeled with a “T+: for Older Teen” rating.]
Displays aside, the narrative is certainly flavorful, blending hints of mystery, friendship, generational conflict, agriculture, food history, haves vs. have-nots, and more. Indeed, if you can skip through the prurience, you’ll still have plenty left to savor.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Published: 2012 (Japan), 2014 (United States)
Shokugeki no Soma © Yuto Tsukuda, Shun Saeki
Original Japanese edition published by Shueisha, Inc.