To the surprise of no one, Qi Xue more and more became the head cook, unofficially and tacitly. Old Man Wu specifically requested her to take the lead during special occasion meals, including the wedding feast for Wu Ruoying and Zhou Zehao.
Qi Xue went all out for this, knowing that if her meal was suitably impressive, she would defeat the kitchen auntie with one decisive strike. She felt a little bad for the kitchen auntie, but Wu Shun would never be cruel to the auntie who had been in the household most of his life.
For such a big event, more servants were pulled in to assist with the cooking, including Fang Wenhui. Qi Xue was delighted at their reunion. She arranged all the sous-chefs such that Fang Wenhui was stationed right next to her wrapping spring rolls and sweet steamed buns. The other servants she barked at and ordered around so severely that some of them went about their work with tears in their eyes. The regular kitchen servants were already used to this and commiserated, but only slightly. There was work to be done!
Grand dish after grand dish quickly came to being under the scrutinous command of Qi Xue. First, there were chicken and vegetable spring rolls to whet the appetite. Then there was a whole roast pig, the sole presence of which would have been sufficient to satisfy the guests as to the wealth of the Wu family. Qi Xue was not satisfied with “wealthy enough” and also made several roast ducks served with delicate thin steamed pancakes and a sweet dark sauce (hey, if she didn’t call it Peking duck, who would know and report her for violating imperial rules?). There were two types of noodles: long, hand-pulled ones in black bean sauce with mushrooms and chives served with salt-fried pork, and deep-fried bird nests filled with stir-fried veggies and boiled eggs and chicken meat. For each table there was a whole steamed fish, grilled over hot flames afterwards to make the skin crispy and delicious. The bones of the carved ducks from earlier were made into soup that helped cleanse the palate after the meal. Finally, soft tofu in ginger syrup and sweet steamed buns were sent up, and the meal was finished.
This time, Qi Xue didn’t even need to bribe the servant boy to figure out if the guests enjoyed the food. Old Man Wu himself came down to the kitchen and requested her presence upstairs. The guests were so impressed that they were clamoring to see who had crafted such wondrous dishes the likes of which no one had ever seen before.
Qi Xue hurriedly took off her apron and smoothed her clothes as best she could. Her hair was still bound under the kerchief, but she wasn’t sure if some of these honored guests would take more offense to the stained headcloth or to her unbound hair as an unmarried woman. In the end, she chose to keep her hair bound and simply washed her face with warm water.
When she hurried upstairs, she didn’t notice that Fang Wenhui also slipped away and followed behind with a worried expression. Who knew what these rich people wanted with her Qi Xue? Maybe they would even want to bribe her to leave the Wu household and become their personal chef, taking her away from Fang Wenhui! Unacceptable!!
When Qi Xue emerged into the banquet hall and was introduced by Wu Shun as the head cook for today’s meal, it was to cheers from all the guests.
“Thank you auntie—ah? This isn’t an auntie, but more a sister?”
“So young and so talented! Thank you for the meal!”
“Thank you sister!”
It was overwhelming and frankly embarrassing. Qi Xue ducked her head quickly and brushed away the comments bashfully, as expected of a servant.
And then she was led to the table of the young lady Wu Ruoying and her betrothed, Zhou Zehao. She could immediately see that Wu Ruoying had no recollection of Qi Xue and stopped worrying about a confrontation. She observed the groom. From what she remembered of her fading memories of the original novel, Zhou Zehao was an upstanding, kind man who had transformed Wu Ruoying from her nasty former self into a sweet peach blossom. When he spoke now, Qi Xue could hear in his voice that malice had never been a thought in this man’s head.
“Dear sister,” Zhou Zehao announced earnestly, “today’s banquet was better than I ever could have imagined for my wedding. Please share with us the secret of your heavenly foods, that our own household might be blessed with an echo of the delicacies you crafted today?”
Qi Xue was hardly about to answer truthfully and say that it was her knowledge of a far-distant future world with superior technology and innovations that allowed her to stand out so much. She had an unpleasant feeling that if she said it was only hometown recipes, this rich gongzi would actually send men to seek out her “hometown” to hire a cook. Her eyes cast about desperately and lit upon Fang Wenhui. Two problems collided into one solution in her crafty mind.
“Young master and young lady’s guests are too kind, ah! In truth, I simply refined recipes from my hometown, which is very far away, and with the addition of Fang Wenhui’s homegrown crops, I was able to have a good result from my attempts. This good meal was truly only possible with Fang Wenhui’s superior farming skills!”
The room erupted into whispers. The uneducated asked who Fang Wenhui was, and the educated informed them of her background. Some of the more observant among the guests noticed the presence of a servant along the walls, but none of these fancy guests connected the gossip to the person behind them. For her part, Fang Wenhui simply stood still and pretended to be a stone statue, though her lips twitched as she fought a smile. Her Qi Xue was surely up to something!
Old Man Wu stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You say that Fang Wenhui’s skill in agriculture is the source of the marvels that graced our table today?”
Wu Shun turned to the bride and bridegroom. “Daughter and now, son, this is a good moment to give some gift announcements. Firstly, I have already built you a separate house a little distance from my own. To this, I now add the ability to request meals from this cook. To enable this, I will build a stand-alone kitchen between our two homes. To Fang Wenhui, I will grant a small space of land solely to grow crops for our consumption. These will be separate from the crops to be sold and are to be used exclusively for meals by—” he turned and looked at Qi Xue.
“Qi Xue,” she supplied.
“—By chef Qi Xue. How does that sound?”
“Father, you are far too generous!”
“Oh, but there are more gifts to be bestowed…”
Qi Xue zoned out as gift after gift was offered and received. She had too much to think about now. Her own kitchen! In a standalone building, where there wouldn’t be any busybodies coming to bother her! And Fang Wenhui would be there too…
Feeling eyes on her, Qi Xue looked up and met the gaze of the one and only Fang Wenhui across the hall. Seeing that she was spotted, Fang Wenhui nodded once and slipped out of the room.
Later, Old Man Wu came to the kitchen while Qi Xue was cleaning and outlined the details of her new position. The standalone kitchen would also have two bedrooms attached, one for Qi Xue and one for Fang Wenhui. She would provide the evening meal for the main family and for Wu Ruoying’s household every other day, alternating between the two. There would be a servant sent with a cart to transport the meal with expedience at a specific time each day, so she wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the food warm. For her troubles, Wu Shun would dramatically increase her pay. He didn’t even mention charging her rent for living on his land, an omission that Qi Xue correctly guessed implied how much he now valued the quality of his meals since she started cooking for his family.
Qi Xue found these terms acceptable and agreed on the spot. Not only would she get her own kitchen, but the salary meant she would be able to save and move out on her own one day. After that, she could work towards opening her own restaurant to make even more money! At the same time, it wouldn’t be so bad being a servant in the Wu household now that she had been promoted. She would hold onto the thought of moving out and simply save her earnings in the meantime.
She didn’t bother to ask Fang Wenhui whether she would accept the position. Qi Xue knew that the other woman would instantly agree anyway if it meant she could farm freely.