Enrollment at Food Wars!’s Totsuki Academy is about as difficult as juggling chainsaws, and staying enrolled is about as difficult as juggling chainsaws which are on fire while your annoying cousin tickles your armpits. That’s because the academy has strict standards for prospective students and an educational philosophy of shaping budding chefs into diamonds and culling anyone who doesn’t live up to that standard. A student who does well in her classes and passes all of the school-wide challenges might slip up one time with too much olive oil in a dish and get booted to the curb as a result. It’s cutthroat, intense, and almost certainly wouldn’t meet real-world accreditation requirements, but it’s how the academy’s able to lay claim to graduating the world’s finest chefs. But then halfway through the series, Erina’s father usurps the dean seat out of nowhere and completely overhauls the curriculum to meet real-world standards.
The main cast’s reception to Azami’s new education methods is warm as a porcupine lost in Antarctica, and at a glance, it’s reasonable to side with them. While students under the original curriculum—which I’ll henceforth refer to as Waffles—are strongly encouraged, required, even, to experiment with their cooking styles, creativity under Azami’s curriculum—which I’ll dub Ice Cream—is strictly forbidden, and all prepared dishes must follow to the T and the I a preapproved recipe.
To an extent, the main cast are justified in resisting the influence of Ice Cream. Creativity and free expression are the cornerstones of art, and fighting any force or power attempting to censor it is noble. There’s also the fact that eating the same seven dishes gets real old real fast. Variety is the spice of life, and do any of Azami’s preapproved recipes even include spices?
However, criticisms gotten out of the way, I don’t think Azami is entirely in the wrong with what he’s doing. Sure, I’d get bored if the only thing I was allowed to cook was a burger and fries, even if that burger made me cream my pants every time I bit into it, but there’s egalitarian use to Azami’s curriculum if applied correctly.
Let’s follow the story of a hypothetical student who applies to Totsuki Academy. We’ll call her Carol.
Now, Carol comes from a small-time family-owned restaurant, so she has a healthy culinary background. But, like most of the Totsuki student body, she wants to up her skills so that she can enhance the reputation of her parents’ restaurant and feel worthy of inheriting it. So she applies to the academy and gets accepted. Cue confetti.
The challenges, however, don’t cease at the front gate. Students are pushed through the grinder which is the Hell Camp and stood up for multiple lashings as interns for the Stagiaire, and while it all beats Carol down to within a centimeter of her life, she manages to pull through, sometimes squeaking by with passing results. Then comes the beach exam. Her group just barely misses its target sales goal, and she’s expelled on the spot. No redos, no explanations on what she could’ve done better. Just kicked to the curb with all that effort and experience amounting to, in the academy’s eyes, nothing.
Reading the manga, none of these implied or applied consequences emboss themselves as bad practices on the academy’s part. It wasn’t until Azami came along that it dawned on me just how educationally immoral the expulsion criteria of Waffles truly is. That’s because the academy isn’t unbelievably strict due to conscious worldbuilding decisions but because expulsion adds a real risk factor to the main cast’s challenges.
Take a gander at Soma and Megumi’s shokugeki against Shinomiya, where their loss also meant their expulsion. The stakes in that showdown would’ve been nonexistent without the expulsion mandatory. Real consequences are why the shokugekis against Mimasaka are arguably more nail-biting than the finals of the Autumn Election. If Soma just got a finger waggle when he put slightly too much ranch dressing into his dish, there’d be no will-he-or-won’t-he suspense, because it wouldn’t matter if he passed or failed.
Admittedly, the manga does a good job on selling you on offing the bad or mediocre students in favor of polishing the worthy few. It’s in line with the meritocratic systems pervasive in modern society, but more than that, the manga occasionally steps out of its way to justify Waffles. During the Stagiaire, for example, one page and a half dedicates itself fully and solely to a student who bad-talks his coworkers and brags about the starred shin-ding he was interning at, providing immediate reason for why chefs like him don’t deserve their Totsuki enrollment. From some perspectives, perhaps his expulsion is justified.
The punishment or consequences for some jackass who wants to skirt past the minimum curriculum requirements or a lazy bones who barely puts in the effort is a conversation beyond the scope of this essay. But for those who earnestly break their backs and lose nights of sleep trying to improve, I posit but one question: Is it fair to lump them in, punishment-wise, with cheaters and slackers?
Looking at a medium like video games, the answer seems to be a clear-cut-as-day yes. Since they came onto the scene, video games have functioned like so: get to the goal on your own or get lost. That design philosophy’s still pumping through the veins and hearts of video games today. Can’t get past the Gaping Dragon in Dark Souls? Tough titty, boyo. Better git good before you think about moving on.
But in recent years, coming into prominence when the Wii got your granny into virtual bowling, assist modes and features have become almost commonplace. Luigi takes pity on you and just plays a level if you pitfall too much in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Celeste, built from the ground up to punch you repeatedly in the groin with brass knuckles, offers frustrated players the choice to edit how many Wavedashes they get. Valkyria Chronicles 4 lacks a hard mode, and you have to buy Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s hard mode as DLC, which also comes with a Custom difficulty so that you can make the game as easy or hard as you want it. This helpfulness is even subtly slotted into the mechanics, where JRPGs like the Tales games offer you stat boosts and damage multipliers for achieving combat combos and eating ham sandwiches.
Final opinion on assistive features which make the game easier or more accessible is up to you, your personal play style, and what your goals as a player are, and whether those features are included in the first place is reliant on what specific experience the developers are intending. But at the end of the day, what any player hopes to get out of a game is the chance to enjoy it and share with their friends and buddies what their time with it was like, independent on whether they played “authentically” or got a little help from the game.
Rounding this detour back to Food Wars!, the answer’s fundamentally the same for the students attending Totsuki Academy. They attend the school because they want to become master chefs and gain the culinary skills to make their friends achieve full-body orgasm. The academy encourages these lofty goals, but only so far as they continue meeting their arbitrarily high standards. The second they stop, that pillar of support comes out underneath.
There’s inherently nothing wrong with a school expecting the world of its students, but there’s nothing wrong with also providing them a cushion to fall on when they stumble. That’s where Azami’s Ice Cream comes in as the educational institute equivalent to an Assist Mode.
As it’s set up, Waffles is much too strict. A budding chef is given a selection of recipes to choose from, but they can’t experiment with them at all. It’s the recipe’s way or the highway. All or nothing. They can cook awesomely delicious meals for their friends, fam, and customers, but they can’t experiment with the dishes or reverse-engineer them to find out what it is which makes them so deliciously awesome. Toss that restriction down the garbage disposal, combine Waffles with Ice Cream’s liberty for expression and experimentation, and we might have ourselves a winning recipe: Ice Cream Sandwiches.
A school has every reason in the world to encourage the best out of its students, to teach and train them to be the best, and expect nothing less out of them. Any institution not putting their best foot forward to give kids the skills they want and need out of life should probably have its authenticity and accreditation called into question. But there’s no reason to expect everyone to become the best, because not everybody can become the best, and not everybody wants to be the best. The moment when Azami announced the details of Ice Cream, that students would no longer be at constant risk of expulsion, that they could learn to make great-tasting meals just by following some preapproved recipes, relief washed over so many students’ faces. It’s extremely telling of how stressful it is being a student at Totsuki.
Totsuki Academy isn’t the only school with a rather harsh demeanor toward its less-than-exemplary students. The Advanced Nurturing High School of Classroom of the Elite doesn’t begin its morning announcements by passing out chocolate truffles to its student body. Expulsion is a given threat, but only sparingly. Mess ups are punished through the school’s rigid capitalistic system rather than outright expulsion, though which is worse is its own topic of debate.
One glaring difference between Totsuki and ANHS is that at ANHS, a hard-working student is able to move up from the lower-ranked classes to one in the upper echelons. The cards are stacked against them, but it’s theoretically possible. In a meritocratic system, wouldn’t we praise someone for achieving as much? Don’t we normally write books and base movies on the lives of people who constantly stand back up after getting knocked off their feet? What’s more admirable than someone who endures challenge after challenge, getting beaten, bloodied, and battered through it all, yet is able to defy the odds stacked against them and stand with squared shoulders at having attained the goal they set out for? Learning is all about making mistakes, but Totsuki has no tolerance for even the most minute of mistakes. One boy is expelled at the start of the Hell Camp simply because his shampoo has a citrusy scent which can overwhelm a food’s fragrance. How he was expected to know this beforehand is beyond my grasp.
“Oh, but Soma defied the odds,” you might be saying, which is true. Even when his back was up against the wall, he found some out from his dire straits. But aside from his final results in the Autumn Election and his off-and-on shokugekis with whathisface pretty boy, what he doesn’t do is fail. His cooking record is nearly immaculate. But what about the other students who flunked out? They made one screw-up and weren’t given a second chance. Their personal struggles and turmoils mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. So long as the protagonist is propped up, everybody else is cannon fodder.
From a purely narrative standpoint, Totskuki Academy and ANHS are plenty entertaining, but they’re deeply flawed institutions, so the characters come off with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome when they vouch for a flawed system. They can start off flawed and end flawed, but nobody not benefiting greatly from such systems can reasonably justify their existences when there’re better options available. That’s like hiring a crystal healer to treat your uncle’s leprosy instead of taking him to a real doctor. In which case, I suppose the entirety of these 1,980 words is a long-winded way of saying that Soma and his chums are plainly delusional.