On balance I don’t think this season of Shokugeki no Souma has been quite as satisfying as the first, and I don’t think it’s particularly hard to find the reason. There are little things here and there (I really miss the eyecatches and the OP/ED sequences are a step down) but in the end, it really comes down to pace. With only a cour to work with, Ni no Sara is pretty much like a sports anime that only features the games, with almost none of the life that happens in-between. This series is very good at the cooking battles, to be sure, but something of the depth of flavor is lost when you take away the audience’s opportunity to digest before throwing the next course at them. One of the strengths of Shokugeki no Souma is the humanity of the characters, and it’s nice to see them doing something besides cooking for their survival.
Given all that, the Stagiare arc looks like it’s going to be a welcome – and much overdue – change-of-pace. The idea is simple – send the kids out to work at real restaurants, both as a way to earn experience points and as a test of their ability to function in that world. Indeed this is something culinary academies in the real world do, for good reason. Naturally Souma-kun has a leg up in this endeavor, since he grew up in the real world of restaurant cooking – which marks a sharp contrast to his partner for the first stage of the stagiare, Hisako.
For this first stage (which I assume will be the only one that sees the students work in pairs) we follow two teams: Souma and Hisako, and Erina (proving no student is exempt, I suppose) and Megumi. It’s mainly the first, who are sent to a Western-style youshoku restaurant that’s seen its fortunes transformed (not necessarily for the better) by the fact that the local train station has become a Shinkansen stop. The bar the students must clear is a rather vague one – make a “visible mark” on their host restaurant. It’s not totally clear what would constitute a passing grade, but I suspect Souma is correct that simply providing two highly skilled sets of hands for a week wouldn’t cut it.
Some of this is pretty predictable – Hisako is haughty, down on herself, and quite aghast at how much better-prepared Souma is for this than she is. But it tackles the fundamental problem with her character arc head on (something I find this series does a refreshingly high chunk of the time with its cast) – she’s continually defining herself through her “master”. Until she starts cooking for herself and trying to please herself rather than someone else, she’ll always be left behind at a cutthroat place like Totsuki. As for the visual mark, what the restaurant eventually settles on is becoming reservations only – which is certainly a solution that has appeal. But the episode does gloss over the risks in this decision and paints a rose-colored vision of the results – turning away a throng of paying customers every day is arguably as much an abdication of the real issue as simply hiring more staff would have been.
As for Erina and Megumi, their host is the Yin to the Yang of the youshoku – it’s a high-end French place with a snooty chef. Erina is her usual insufferably perfect self and Megumi spends most of the episode washing dishes, so this thread isn’t as rewarding as the other one. I think we all get that Erina is supposedly the greatest genius in the food world, so showing her humiliating professional adult chefs is pretty limited in its appeal. And the sum of Megumi’s contribution is suggesting a change to one course on the tasting menu. In her case the whole working in pairs thing was more of a hindrance than a help, and hopefully things get more involving once she’s forced to cope on her own.