Helloooo! I've been working on this for a while, so I hope you like. Let me know what you think. This should be fun! XO
"Do not shock the kale until the last possible second."
"Of course, Swan. I know."
"I know you know. But that's the difference between crispy and soggy—" Emma looked at her sous chef's knowing face. "Fine, August, I know you know what to do. But do we have enough wheat berry for the salad? And how about the adobos?"
"Ok, you're on top of it. Cut me some slack. You know how much I've been dreading this. And she could really hurt us. We are 0 for 2 with this woman, and I just can't stand another letdown. You do feel like this menu is strong enough for tonight, right?"
"Swan, you have asked me that 10,000 times. Listen, your instincts are incredible, and you know it. Here, have some wine," he said pouring her a hefty glass of a Shafer Vineyards cabernet sauvignon."
"Mmm, god that's good," Emma said gratefully.
"Plus we're not exactly 0 for 2. The last review was fairly positive," August said.
"Fairly positive? Which word exactly was positive?"
August put his arm around his head chef's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "She said 'Miss Swan isn't coming close to meeting her potential.' Which means she thinks you have potential. Yay?"
"Pfft. Thanks for the pep talk. Just make sure Killian doesn't get anywhere near me tonight. That kid pisses me off."
"I know, but he's good. Incredible knife skills."
"Sometimes I'd like to chop one of his hands off with a knife," Emma mumbled.
He chucked. "Look, Swan, you know we got this. You look amazing, the food is outstanding, and not even the Evil Queen is going to get in the way of this restaurant succeeding."
"Ugh. I feel like throwing up. I hate that she has this much power over me."
"Yeah, why is that? It's just a review. We get dozens of reviews—some good, some less good."
"Yes, but she is the most respected food critic in this region," she said, taking another healthy gulp of wine and then mumbling, "Plus, it hurts my eyes to look at her. She's fucking gorgeous."
"What was that, Swan? Someone got the hots for the Evil Queen?"
"Come on, August. I have eyes don't I? Plus that woman would eat me alive."
"Sounds to me like you wish she would eat you alive," he said winking at her. "Look, go sit on the back patio, drink your wine, and do that breathing shit that you do. We are going to finish the prep, check the rest of the reservations, and make sure the floor in the dining room is so clean that the Sexy Queen could eat off it."
"Are you sure you don't need—"
"Christ, you're difficult. Go! Get out of my kitchen."
"Pretty sure this kitchen belongs to me."
"Bragging again. Get out."
Emma shot him a smug smile and walked out to the rear patio—her favorite spot on the entire premises. Getting the restaurant up and running had been a protracted and sometimes painful ordeal, but not much in her life had ever come easy, so Emma was up for the challenge. She had to remortgage her first restaurant, a cozy BYO on a pier in Portland, Maine called Charmings. The building itself was easy to miss, but the food was exceptional, the restaurant was popular, and the location on the pier had become valuable real estate, so she was able to pull together enough to open a restaurant in Storybrooke.
It wasn't much to look at initially. She'd spotted an old warehouse by the water almost by accident when she was visiting her best friend Ruby. The stunning brunette was her best friend from culinary school, but she had fallen on hard times and ended up working at a diner in the small town.
She dragged Ruby to the warehouse, dismissing the incredulous look on her face when they pulled up. Just like Charmings, she was able to see past the dingy walls and dirty floors right through to the bones of what could be a cozy and thriving restaurant.
She had enlisted a crew of close friends from culinary school to help her do a lot of the renovations so she wouldn't have to expend too much capital on gutting and demolishing, and instead spent her money on refurbishing and decorating. Her longtime friend and sous chef, August, had helped her design a state-of-the-art kitchen and dining room with warm colors and clean, crisp décor. It was simple but inviting and would let the food be the star of the place.
But it was the spot behind the restaurant, which had initially led to a loading dock, that had captured her heart. Ruby and August had spent long hours helping her regrout the exposed brick wall she wanted to keep, cut tile for the floor, and build charming wooden tables and chairs.
After two years, working on the restaurant every chance she could get away from Charmings, Emma held a soft opening for all her friends who had helped her. On a steamy summer night, her friends stood outside at the front of the establishment, waiting for Emma to unveil the name of the restaurant, which had been covered by a huge tarp for weeks. Emma climbed a ladder, grabbed the end of the tarp, and looked down at her friends who had long ago become her family. "This is my dream come true, and I could never have done it without you. I was an orphan before you guys adopted me, so this place is for you." She pulled on the tarp, revealing the word SAVIORS in thick white letters.
"Nice one, Swan," August yelled from below.
But even from that distance, Emma could see he was truly touched.
Emma took the seat nearest to the water and swirled her wine around her glass. She still had to pinch herself to believe this was real. Having bounced from one foster home to another, Emma had learned to care for herself. She had one foster mother who taught her to cook when she was 8, and from that point on Emma watched every cooking show, read every culinary book, and took every home economics class she could—anything to learn about becoming a chef. She worked at restaurants throughout high school, bussing and waiting tables, sneaking into the kitchen to work with the line chefs.
For three years, she worked nights and weekends at a white tablecloth restaurant outside of Boston called Louie's, and the head chef, a handsome guy named David who she affectionately called Prince Charming, took her under his wing. He taught her knife skills and cooking techniques, like poaching and reducing, emulsifying and blanching. Some nights he would stay an hour or so after close and oversee Emma as she made Guinea fowl over a wood-fire or courgette risotto with girolle mushrooms.
At first, David would give her recipes to follow, but as Emma became more confident in her skills, she would improvise and add her own twists. He was mesmerized by the young girl's creativity and confidence in the kitchen, a contrast from her shy, reserved nature outside. During the frigid winters, Emma would shuffle in from the cold bundled in an old hand-me-down winter coat with holes at the seams, beanie on her head, shivering from the cold. It broke David's heart to see Emma during those months, though she'd muster up a big smile for him and put on a brave face.
The blonde was clearly beautiful—slender build, high cheekbones, and piercing green eyes that reeled you in. But she kept her beauty so in check—hair in a bun or ponytail, eyes often cast down, and lips pursed—that he often thought she'd live up to her name, a duckling that would one day become a swan.
Emma saved every penny she made in wages and tips to fulfill her dream of going to culinary school. She would eat at the restaurant whenever she could and save leftovers for the next day's lunch. By the beginning of her senior year, she had saved almost enough for freshman year, but unbeknownst to her, David made a call to a friend on the board of the New England Culinary Academy and recommended Emma for a fellowship. David filled out the necessary paperwork on her behalf, since he knew she would be too modest to do it herself. The day before Christmas, she hung up her ratty old coat, put on her waitressing uniform, and was tying her apron when David walked over to her with a broad smile.
"You look like the cat that killed the canary. What's up?" Emma said, squinting her eyes at him in interest.
"Put out your hands, Emma."
She hesitated, but put her hands in front of her, palms down. David smiled and flipped her hands so her palms were facing up and laid a large white envelope in them.
"Merry Christmas, Emma," he said, offering her one last smile and walking away.
She waited for him to turn the corner and retreated to the ladies room to open it, her heart nervously hammering in her chest. She opened the latch on the back of the envelope, opened the flap, and peered inside. There was a packet of papers, a large, heavy brochure, a card addressed to MISS EMMA SWAN, and a letter on white NECA letterhead. She pulled it out with shaking hands and began to read.
Dear Miss Swan,
We are pleased to inform you that your submission for the Lagasse Fellowship at the New England Culinary Academy has been accepted, and you are welcome to enroll in the academy for the upcoming fall session. We are honored that you chose the NECA, and we look forward to seeing you in the fall. Enclosed you will find additional paperwork, course material, and housing information. Don't hesitate to call with any questions.
Graham Humbert, President
New England Culinary Academy
Emma's hands shook, tears sliding down her cheeks in earnest. She retreated from the bathroom, clutching the paper in her hands, and wound through the restaurant and into the kitchen, which was already bustling with early orders. She stood stock still in the middle of the line, sous chefs and short-order cooks looking at her curiously.
David whipped around and appraised Emma's confused, shocked expression, a slow smile creeping across his face.
"What does it look like?"
"It looks like you got me a scholarship to culinary school, and I just…"
Seeing how overwhelmed she was, David wiped his hands on a white towel, muttered something to the sous chef, and walked around the line, pulling Emma into a walk-in closet.
"You are gifted, Emma. I just let them know that. You are going to be a sensational chef, or whatever you decide to do."
"But how? I don't even… This is…"
"Emma, look at me."
Emma tilted her tear-stained face up to meet his gaze, shocked at the kindness and caring he saw there, an expression she had rarely seen in her 18 years of life.
"You deserve this. You are an amazing person and a talented chef, and I can't wait to see what you do," he said with a warm smile. "But hey, you can just name a restaurant after me some day."
Emma didn't trust her voice, so she nodded eagerly at him, slinging her arms around his neck for a hug. She sobbed into his shoulder, and David just patted her on the back, offering a soothing "Shhhh, shhhh, it's ok."
"Thank you. I can't possibly say how much this means to me," Emma said through her tears. "I promise I will make you proud, David."
"I know, darlin', I know."
And she did, soaring to the top of her class from the first semester, bringing energy and creativity to every class and graduating with a bachelor's degree in culinary arts and the Accelerated Culinary Arts Degree, the highest possible honor. She also earned her sommelier license and completed two internships, developing menus for an upstart restaurant group and working as a line chef at Asta in Boston, which featured an eight-course tasting menu. Emma was a rising star, but also so humble and sweet, offering help to her classmates whenever they needed it, which made her friends doggedly devoted to her.
Since she had a full ride, Emma was able to stash away the money she earned throughout high school (plus a little extra David slipped into her high school graduation card), so when she found the spot on the pier in Portland, Emma was able to put down a deposit and open her first restaurant about a year later. She hired a few of her friends, including August, and they worked like dogs, essentially working front and back of the house until they earned enough to hire more help. But it didn't take long before Charmings garnered attention. Several positive reviews in local newspapers helped the restaurant gain traction, and soon the joint was filled every night. Emma was written up as a passionate, innovative young chef, if a little raw. About six months in, it was a review in the Boston Globe that left Emma with a sour taste in her mouth and her first run-in with failure.
The critic, known to be formidable and sometimes downright nasty in her writing, was Regina Mills, known to some of the locals as the Evil Queen of the Culinary World. That first time she came to the restaurant, Emma didn't even know who she was. The woman had looked Emma up and down and curtly asked for a table for one from under long lashes.
Emma graciously guided her to her seat and began explaining the day's menu to her.
"Good evening. Thank you for joining us tonight. If you're interested, I'd recommend the prawn fritters with mango carpaccio and avocado tartar with—"
"Your advice won't be necessary," Regina said. "Please send over the server."
Emma learned the woman's identity after the fact, but the meal hadn't be as perfect as Emma would have wanted it. Still, she clamored to find the review in the paper the next day. August sat next to her nursing his third cup of coffee.
"Shit," Emma said, shaking her head in disgust. "Shit, shit, shit."
"What's wrong?" August asked.
"She hated it."
"Hated what, let me see," he said, snatching the paper out of her hand.
Head chef and proprietor Emma Swan's menu is confusing and amateurish, offering a perplexing combination of amuse-bouches and entrees, while viewed by many as inventive, are rather chaotic and leave your tastebuds begging for an explanation. But while the pairings are head-scratching, she takes few risks and is rather predictable in her means of preparing the food.
"Christ on crutches. A little harsh."
Emma just buried her head in her hands. "Evil," she muttered.
About 18 months later, after the restaurant really garnered acclaim, Regina returned, and this time Emma was prepared, making sure every dish that arrived at her table was prepared to perfection. She sent out squid with a garlic-dusted squid-ink aioli, pork rillettes with carmelized onions and lettuce, and squab breast with savoy cabbage.
This time around, Regina Mills called the food "relentlessly rich and erratic," saying the pork rillettes "would be fine enough if they weren't oppressed by its weight in onions."
So now, in the new restaurant she had dreamed of opening since she was 8, Emma was dreading another drubbing from the Evil Queen, fearing having her heart crushed by this woman for a third time. She had thought through her menu, every ingredient, every spice, for 10 days, thinking and rethinking each item. It was a surprise visit from David that had settled her nerves. He told her the food was seriously superb and that she—of all people—should trust her instincts. So she created the menu once and for all and would stand by it, even if the evil Regina Mills didn't care for her food. Screw her. She felt confident, prepared.
That is, until the woman walked in wearing a grey Armani suit, three-inch Jimmy Choos, perfect hair, devastating body, and eyeballed Emma dismissively.
Oh God, Emma thought. I am so screwed.