With Challenging the Chef releasing in a few weeks, I thought you might enjoy previewing the first chapter!
Summer Creek, Oregon
“You want me to do what?” Chef Owen Thorpe looked up from the lemon beurre blanc sauce simmering on the rangetop to glare over his shoulder at Emery Cole.
The woman’s hand rested on the protruding mound of her belly, and she leaned back slightly, as though the weight of being eight months pregnant threw her balance off kilter. Owen didn’t know much about pregnant women, but Emery looked like she might give birth to a buffalo, considering the way her waistline appeared to expand by the day.
Wisely, he kept that thought to himself.
As though she could read his mind, Emery lifted her chin a notch and pinned him with a steely glare. “You heard me.”
Owen shifted uncomfortably, feeling like a delinquent boy about to land himself in detention. He trailed a spoon through the sauce to buy himself a moment of time and then glanced at Emery again, trying to gauge if she was serious or merely trying to antagonize him.
His reluctance must have been evident in his beleaguered expression because she waddled a step closer to him. “Please, Owen? Your contribution would be the biggest component of the package. It will be fabulous publicity for Summer Creek and your business. It will also raise funds for the children’s hospital in Portland. It’s a great cause.”
“It is a great cause, no argument there, but I …” Owen sighed, realizing it was pointless to disagree with Emery. He wanted to support the children’s hospital. That wasn’t the issue.
What she wanted him to donate to the Summer Creek package she was putting together was the problem.
However, Emery was both determined and persistent. Once she landed on an idea, it would have been easier to move the nearby mountains than change her mind. It was probably a good thing her husband was equally stubborn and tenacious, or Emery might have run roughshod right over the top of Hudson Cole.
Amused by the image in his mind of the burly rancher being henpecked by his wife, Owen turned back to the sauce to hide a grin.
Emery would never nag anyone to the brink of death, but she possessed the ability to bring people around to her way of thinking without them even realizing it.
Mitchell Kane might be the mayor of Summer Creek, but there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that Emery was in charge. She was the one who’d landed on the brilliant idea to turn the run-down old buildings in town into historical tours that drew in flocks of tourists from spring through autumn. Emery was the one who’d come up with ideas for festivals and events that kept crowds surging into their community on the weekends.
Thanks to her vision of what Summer Creek could be, the town was no longer dying. In fact, it was beginning to thrive, at least during the warmer months.
With two feet of snow on the ground outside, though, the tourist business was basically dead until April. Owen didn’t mind, though. The slower winter months gave him plenty of time to test out new recipes, like the one he was working on today.
Most of the residents in town would never order delicate, butter-seared scallops served with lemon beurre blanc sauce and a side of herb-infused asparagus risotto. The regular customers would enjoy the meal only if he gave it a simple, boring label like seafood with asparagus and rice. His friend, Zadie Strickland, would love it though.
Zadie used to live in New York, possessed a cultured palate, and adored anything made with lemon. Over the years, the two of them had become friends, and Zadie was always willing to critique his new recipes. Owen would have to run this one by her since he hoped to add the dish to the menu in the spring, when fresh asparagus would be plentiful.
“Please, Owen?” Emery asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
He looked over at her, at the pleading look on her face, and knew he was going to cave to her request. Another sigh worked its way free before he could hold it back and he nodded once in her direction. “What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
Emery appeared relieved as she took a few steps back and leaned against a counter. “All you have to do is let someone be your shadow for a week. We’ll promote it as an opportunity for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience with an award-winning five-star chef.”
“A whole week?” Owen hated having strangers in his kitchen for more than five minutes. He’d never make it seven days. “How about three days?”
“Six?” Emery asked.
“Five, and that’s my final offer.”
The smile of victory she shot at him made Owen twitch like a fly that had been unwittingly trapped in a spider’s web. He had a feeling Emery had planned on fewer than five days all along. He scowled at her, then dipped a teaspoon in the sauce and held it out to her. She eagerly accepted the spoon, closed her eyes as she savored the taste, then nodded to him in approval.
“That’s exactly why our package is going to raise a bunch of money for the hospital. You could cook anywhere in the world you wanted to, but I’m really glad you stay here in Summer Creek.”
Owen scooped a serving of the risotto on a plate, ladled sauce over the top, and handed it to Emery. She took two bites, closed her eyes with a smile of appreciation, and finished the rest while he took the sauce off the burner and set it aside.
“Who else is being roped into this charity thing?” he asked, cutting open a warm roll, slathering it with butter, and sliding a thick slice of leftover smoky ham inside it. Emery nearly grabbed it out of his hand and took a big bite. He’d heard from her sister-in-law, Jossy Knight, that Emery had been craving ham the past few days.
“So good,” she muttered and chewed the bite in her mouth before she replied to his question. “Dad is donating a week in a suite at the hotel. Maudie has offered to cover breakfasts at the Early Bird Café. Sinclair’s donated a hundred-dollar gift card. Poppy donated a gift certificate to her flower and gift shop, a private flower-arranging class, and flowers for the hotel suite. Parker plans to take the winner on a half-day guided tour of the area with a picnic lunch included. Hud has agreed to host a barbecue at our place the last evening the winner is in town and make his smoked brisket. Jossy is offering to give the winner a riding lesson and a cooler full of her Angus beef. Oh, and Mrs. Russell is contributing a lovely antique jewelry set from her store to include in the prize package basket. I’m still waiting to hear back from Gabe and Dani Gatlin about a donation, but I’m sure they’ll want to be involved.”
Owen smirked. “Considering the fact that they are on their honeymoon in a warm tropical location, I wouldn’t count on them getting back to you anytime soon.” He was thrilled that Dani, a former waitress who was like a sister to him, had found happiness with Gabe. They deserved to love and be loved, even if he would miss Dani’s cheerful presence at the restaurant every day.
Emery shrugged and took another bite of her ham sandwich. “They’ll donate something.”
“What are your expectations for the five days of torture I’ll endure with a wannabe chef bumbling around my kitchen?” Owen asked as he fixed a cup of tea and set it at the high table in the corner of the kitchen where he did most of his menu planning. He had a small closet-sized office with a desk and computer in the back of the building, but when he needed to think creatively, he preferred to be in the kitchen. He took a seat and motioned for Emery to join him.
She shuffled over and hefted herself onto the stool, groaning softly as she cupped a hand beneath her belly to support the weight. Owen slid the cup of tea—a soothing, slightly sweet blend of cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla—over to her, then leaned back in the stool. “What, exactly, in precise detail, do you want me to do?”
Emery took a sip of the tea, offered him a nod of gratitude, then visibly shifted into what he thought of as her all-business mode. He’d seen it in action and knew it always got results. “I hope it won’t be a torturous experience for you, Owen, and certainly not for the winner. The winner should leave here feeling as though they’ve gained insight and knowledge into what it is like to be a successful chef. Teach them a few tips and tricks of the trade. Maybe let them make something you include as a special the last day of the training and we’ll have everyone ooh and ahh over whatever the dish turns out to be. It might be nice to have the winner come in the afternoons to get the busy-paced experience of prepping for dinner service. If the winner is in your way during dinner service that first day, switch to having him or her come in for lunch service. The idea, though, is to let the winner learn from your experience and expertise. Many, many people would be thrilled with the opportunity to receive a few cooking lessons from you. You can certainly choose the number of hours you spend with the winner, but planning on at least four hours each day will keep expectations realistic.”
Convinced he’d just agreed to imprison himself, Owen hesitantly nodded. “Okay. I’ll do my best to give them a memorable experience. Are you sure we can’t dial it down to three days?”
“If you give me one of those brookies I see cooling on the rack over there,” she pointed to the work table near the convection ovens, “I’ll settle for four.” Emery hungrily stared at the restaurant’s most popular dessert.
Owen had created his own version of a brownie mixed with chocolate chip cookie dough and topped with a layer of ganache. He generally sold as many of them as he baked in a day, and had left four dozen of them cooling on racks before he started working on his lemon sauce.
He walked over, picked up three brookies, slipped them into a small sack, and returned to the table as Emery hoisted herself off the stool. She took gloves from her pockets and pulled them on, then accepted the treat sack Owen held out to her.
“You are a good guy, Owen Thorpe. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” She began her slow, swaying walk toward the back door. “Your donation is officially a four-day immersive experience with award-winning Chef Owen Thorpe. If you curb your tendency to scowl and practice being just a skosh friendly, the winner is sure to be thrilled with the opportunity to learn from a former celebrity chef.”
“Thanks, I think.” He rushed ahead and held the door open for her, glad to see she’d parked her pickup close to the rear entrance. Emery used the steering wheel to haul herself onto the seat, waved when she’d started the pickup, and drove off in the direction of Summer Creek City Hall.
Owen closed the door against the winter’s chill and returned to his kitchen. He’d really have to start locking the back door if people were going to randomly wander in when he was closed.
Since it was nearing noon, Owen seared a handful of scallops in butter, topped them with the sauce he’d created, and added a generous serving of risotto to his plate. After pouring a cup of coffee, he sat down at the table and ate his meal, critiquing flavors and textures with each bite.
Not bad for out-of-season produce and scallops that had been in the freezer. It was nearly impossible to get fresh seafood in Summer Creek right now. He made a mental note to add more lemon to the sauce and less asparagus to the risotto, and to serve the meal with a hearty whole-wheat dinner roll on the side. Perhaps he’d check with Gabe Gatlin and see if he’d bring back fresh scallops the next time he was on a coastal trip.
Owen leaned back and glanced out the small window by the table, another reason he liked to work there. His office didn’t have any windows, and the rest of the kitchen was illuminated only by overhead lights.
He watched Summer Creek’s mascot, Ethel, a peculiar goat, meander by with a front leg stuffed into a child’s red boot. She’d often worn that same boot in recent weeks, despite the numerous times it had been removed and disposed of in the garbage.
The goat was only one of the many quirky things Owen had come to appreciate and love about living in Summer Creek.
Six years ago, he’d been a young, hotshot chef in a trendy restaurant in New York City. He’d received Michelin Stars and numerous awards for his cooking. Food critics wrote glowing reviews. He’d even served as a guest judge on a few cooking shows, just for the publicity it generated, and earned the title of celebrity chef.
On the fast track to culinary stardom, he’d had the world wrapped around his finger. Then his uncle had suddenly taken ill and required assistance. Owen had left behind the hectic, successful life he’d created for himself and moved to Summer Creek.
His supposed friends—and competition in the industry—had thought he’d suffered from some sort of mental break to walk away from his career without a backward glance.
Owen hadn’t cared what any of them thought.
The truth of the matter was that Uncle Charles had taught Owen how to cook, had encouraged his passion to be a chef, and had even given him money to pay for his first six months of living when he’d moved to New York City right after high school. Owen had felt a great responsibility to do what he could to ease Uncle Charles’ last days on earth.
As he took a sip of gourmet coffee, Owen glanced around the business his uncle had left for him in his will. The Broken Bucket Bar & Grill featured a restaurant on one side of the building and a bar on the other. Locals were as likely to sit in the bar and never order more than a lemonade as they were to dine in the restaurant.
In the years since he’d taken over the business, Owen had done his best to change the reputation from a dive bar to a place anyone could enjoy dining. He’d had his work cut out for him, though. The Broken Bucket had opened more than a hundred years ago as a notorious saloon. Prohibition saw it converted to a diner, of sorts; then it returned to a bar before becoming a bar and grill, mostly due to the lack of other restaurants in town.
Uncle Charles had served simple, plain food, offering only dinner. Owen kept the favorites the community seemed to enjoy the most, then added nightly specials, and eventually opened for lunch. His idea to offer wood-fired pizzas and flame-grilled burgers that could rival anything found in big cities kept the locals coming back, even if they claimed to love his meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, and apple pie.
When he got the itch to create something the regulars wouldn’t enjoy, he made it for himself and occasionally invited Zadie and her husband, Deputy Knox Strickland, to join him for the meal. Knox was more of a pot roast-and-potatoes kind of guy, but he’d gamely tried the variety of food Owen had prepared and even liked most of the dishes.
Owen finished the last bite of his meal and allowed himself a few minutes of rest as he watched big, fluffy flakes drift down from a pewter-hued sky.
Spring seemed far away, but the weeks until then would pass quickly. If he was lucky, by then the visit from the auction package winner would be nothing more than a bad memory.