A Taste of the Good Life

Main Course is a successful chef and restaurant owner. Or he was, anyway, until a fire tore up his life's work and left him adrift. When he visits his sister in the rural backwater town of Ponyville, he discovers an abandoned building that's perfect for a quick fix-up so he can flip it for a profit. But the building comes with an unforeseen tenant, and when he lets her stick around he discovers that maybe, just maybe, there's something out there more important than wealth and fame.

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6. Opening Week

OPENING WEEK

Main Course was missing something, and he knew it. There was some vital detail he was overlooking, and he couldn’t escape the sense that if he didn’t figure it out soon this whole thing would come crashing down around him.

He sighed as he looked over the latest draft of his completed menu. It was... not bad. It hit all the basics without getting too sprawling to fit on two pages. The dinner menu focused on a number of his specialty dishes that ponies would be able to sit down and enjoy at a relaxed pace. He’d tried to pick dishes that would be novel without getting so exotic that it turned ponies off. Only time would tell if Ponyville was ready to embrace, say, curry-roasted carrots, but he liked his odds.

The lunch menu, in comparison, lacked that same panache. Without any help in the kitchen, he’d be counting on simpler items that could be made and assembled quickly, leaving him time to prep for the dinner service. But a pony could get a bowl of soup, a salad, or a sandwich from plenty of places in town. He needed a hook, something that turned heads right away.

“What’cha doing?” asked Scootaloo. She was standing in the doorway with her helmet on but unbuckled, ready to head out on her scooter for an afternoon of ‘crusading,’ which Main Course hadn’t quite figured out yet, but it was clearly important to her.

“Homework,” replied Main Course, tapping the tip of a quill absentmindedly on a pad of paper.

“Wait, you mean even after I’m done with school I’m still gonna have homework?” she asked, horrified.

Main Course grinned. “Yep. Probably,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out something that will make ponies want to come in and have lunch here.”

Scootaloo frowned. “Why wouldn’t they? Your cooking’s really good.”

“Thanks Scoots, but they won’t know that until they’ve tried it. We can give out samples and such, but I’d rather have something on the menu that ponies would see and think ‘I really want to try that!’”

“Well, I can try to think of something. Like, you’re gonna have a lot of soups, right? What about melted ice cream soup? I’d eat it.”

He chuckled. “I’m sure you would, but I don’t think many grown-up ponies would order that. If you think of anything else, though, let me know.”

“Actually, um, Main Course?” she asked. Something in her voice made look up from what he was writing. Scootaloo seemed awfully bashful all of a sudden. “Can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course you can,” said Main Course. “What’s up?”

“It’s... I kinda told Rainbow Dash about how I was living here. Not about the other stuff with my parents and everything, but the basics. She asked if maybe she could come over for dinner tomorrow, and the three of us could talk about it?”

Main Course’s eyes widened. As far as he knew, this was the first time she’d voluntarily told another pony about her situation, and her idol nonetheless. “Of course, Scootaloo. I’d be happy to meet her. Hmm... what should I make?”

“Can you make eggplant parmesan? It was... it was something my mom used to make back when she still cooked for me. I haven’t had it for a really long time.”

“Eggplant parmesan? Sure, that sounds good,” said Main Course. Scootaloo turned to go. “Oh, and Scootaloo? I’m really proud of you for telling her. I know you didn’t want to.”

Scootaloo’s wings buzzed a few times the way they always did when he praised her, and she smiled. “Thanks, Main Course. Sorry I can’t help you with your homework.” She chuckled. “Back when I was out on my own, I would have tried to get into a restaurant like this one for anything on the menu, or just scraps. Heck, I would have eaten the empty bowls if I could have. I gotta go now; Applebloom said she borrowed a book on medieval siege weapons from the library while Twilight was out.”

“You’re doing a school report on siege weapons?” asked Main Course.

“Something like that,” she called back. An instant later he heard the front door slam and shrugged as he turned back to what he was working on. Then he froze in mid-sentence as something Scootaloo had just said resonated with him. Slowly, the gears in his mind began to turn as he mulled it over. That might actually work. Main Course flipped his notepad to a fresh sheet and began to scribble down figures. He reached the end of the page with a flourish of his quill, looked down at the resulting number, and grinned. That filly was a bucking genius.

----------------------

Main Course adjusted the straps on his saddlebag as he stepped into Sugarcube corner, a confident grin across his face. It was the middle of the day, but the only other pony there was a teal mare with three cupcakes for a cutie mark looking bored behind the counter. She perked up as he walked over to her. “Welcome! How can I help you today?”

“I’m here to introduce myself. My name’s Main Course, and I run The Grassy Knoll. We’re hoping to open up in a few days.” He held up his hoof.

Mrs. Cake’s smile disappeared, and she ignored the raised hoof. “Come to gloat about poaching Pinkie Pie away? Or did you just think you could intimidate us? I’ll have you know that better ponies than you have come and tried to take our business. They’re gone, and we’re still here.”

“I’m not here to fight,” said Main Course, shaking his head. “I see mostly cakes and pastries on display here. Tell me, do you make bread too?”

Mrs. Cake furrowed her brow, still suspicious. “We don’t find there’s much demand for it, but we usually make a few loaves a day. Every bit helps.”

“Well, I’d like to buy some. A small bolle, please. Something heavy, with some body to it and a solid crust. Nothing too flakey.”

“Hmm...” said Mrs. Cake, tapping on her chin. “I think we have some sourdough in the back. Two bits.”

“Perfect. And bring a knife out too, would you? If you think you can refrain from stabbing me with it for five minutes,” said Main Course. Mrs. Cake glared at him, but her curiosity overcame her annoyance and she went back to the kitchen. Main Course undid the latch on his bag and pulled out a thermos, which he unscrewed as she returned carrying the small ball of sourdough.

She placed it on the counter and Main Course took an experimental whiff. It smelled fresh. Taking the knife, he cut a ring in the top of the ball and scooped out a chunk of the top. He took a bite. Not bad.

“What are you doing?” asked Mrs. Cake, now intrigued enough to forget that she was upset with him. By way of answering, Main Course poured a stream of creamy red bisque into the bolle. It filled the indentation and began to soak into the bread itself.

“Tomato soup?” he offered, grabbing an ice cream spoon from a nearby container. Mrs. Cake did the same and they both sampled a spoonful. Main Course smacked his lips. He’d probably need to cut down a bit on the pepper so it didn’t get too concentrated as the liquid was absorbed, but other than that it was good. The two ponies finished the portion of soup, leaving just the hollowed out bread.

“And then you eat the bowl,” said Mrs. Cake, catching on. “That’s pretty clever.”

“Pinkie mentioned that things have been a bit slow around here, so why don’t we help one another out? I’ll buy, let’s say, a hundred of these a day until I figure out what my demand is. I’ll even put up a sign advertising that we’re using Sugarcube Corner bread. What do you say? A hundred and fifty bits, every day I’m open.”

“They’re two bits each. That’s two hundred bits, not one-fifty.”

“I’m buying in bulk. Your margins on a two-bit bolle are good enough that you can give a little to win you that kind of volume. Plus you’ll reduce your waste. One-sixty.”

“We aren’t cutting our prices that deep. One-eighty.”

“I’ll go as high as one-seventy-five, if you‘ll sell them to me exclusively. No supplying my competition when they come to you to rip off my idea.”

Mrs. Cake considered the offer, then stuck her hoof out. “You’ve got a deal. I’ll make sure Pinkie’s there with them at the start of her shift with you on opening day, we’ll figure something else out for the days she’s working here or off.” She grinned. “I’m glad I was wrong about you.”

“Me too, Mrs. Cake. Me too.” He grinned right back at and shook it,. “Oh, and I’ll need a chocolate cupcake to go. I know a little filly who earned herself a treat, even if she doesn’t know it yet.”

----------------------

The next evening, the cupcake still sat in its box on the counter, uneaten. Scootaloo's reward had been rescinded when she was dropped off on Main's doorstep by a very irate Applejack, who explained that Scootaloo did not, in fact, have any school assignments concerning siege weaponry. She was also not in possession of any special talent or inborn ability pertaining to the operation of a trebuchet, except insofar as she'd manage to level several of the trees in the Apples' orchard with a large rock.

Main Course was starting to get a bit worried. He hadn't seen Scootaloo all afternoon, and Rainbow Dash would be by for dinner any minute. Then again, he'd been in the kitchen for most of that time. Tomorrow was the big day, when all the hard work he'd put into getting ready would hopefully pay off. There were lots of last-minute preparations to make in the meantime. He turned his head when he heard somepony knocking, not on the front door, but in the back.

He trotted over and opened it. There stood a cyan pegasus who could only be Rainbow Dash. "Hey there," she said, "you must be Main Course. Nice to meet you. Scootaloo says you're kinda cool, although, you know, not as cool as me, obviously."

"Nice to meet you too. I'm glad we'll finally get a chance to talk about her. I'm not exactly sure where she is, though," said Main Course. Why wouldn't Dash have used the front door?

"Oh, she said she'd be a little late when she dropped off your letter," said Rainbow Dash.

"My what now?"

"Uh, the letter you wrote me saying you wanted to talk about Scoots? It did say to use the back door, right? No offense, but you really need to work on those chicken scratches you call mouthwriting. I could barely read it."

"But I didn't-" Main Course began before Rainbow Dash held up a hoof and sniffed the air.

"Oh, wow, is that eggplant parmesan I'm smelling? That's, like, my favorite food ever. Scoots won't mind if we start eating without her, right? She said to come hungry, and I'm starving." Without waiting for an answer, she trotted past Main Course and into the kitchen. She pulled the pan from the oven where he’d left it on low heat to keep it warm and grabbed a spatula to break off a generous portion. Before Main could object, she scooped it onto a plate. Her ears perked up. “Hey, what’s that music?”

Main Course listened, and sure enough there was the sound of violins playing out in the main dining room. Rainbow Dash followed him out of the kitchen balancing her plate on one wing, but both of them froze up when they saw the scene in front of them. A path of rose petals led from the kitchen entrance to a booth in the corner of the room, where two candles were lit against the low light. A dozen roses in the shape of a heart were laid out on the table. On a nearby table, a record player sent out the refrains of a quiet string piece.

“Whoa,” said Rainbow Dash. She looked over at Main Course, who was still staring straight ahead. “Look, Main, you seem like a good guy, and I totally get why you’d want me, but you gotta give a mare a heads up before you spring something like this on her. I mean, even I know that. You could have said something in your letter.”

“I didn’t write a letter,” said Mane. “I have a pretty good idea of who did, though.” He walked over to the record player and lifted the needle. Without the song’s cover, it was easy to discern the three whispering voices whose owners weren’t being as quiet as they thought they were.

“Is Rainbow Dash here? I thought I heard knocking.”

“Ah think they’re in the kitchen.”

“I still say we should have used the love poison for this.”

“Ew! No way! I don’t wanna see Rainbow Dash calling anypony a schmoopy-doopy anything. She’d never take me flying again.”

“Ah’m with Sweetie Belle. We know to fix it, so we’d just have to wait for one of ‘em to get knocked up and then undo it.”

“What’s ‘knocked up?’”

“Ah think it’s like, you remember when Diamond Tiara came up to you on the playground and knocked you down? It’s like that, but instead of getting detention after school you gotta marry the other pony instead.”

“Really? Wow, grown-ups are weird.”

“Hey, where’d the music go? Scootaloo, check the record player.”

“I’m not going to check it. You go check it.”

“This was yer idea, Scootaloo. You should be the one to check.”

“Fine.” Scootaloo’s head popped out from underneath a nearby table, and she discovered the two adults standing next to it looking right back at her with unamused expressions on their faces. “Uh oh.”

Applebloom and Sweetie Belle stuck their heads out too, and rapidly reached the same conclusion. “Uh, hi there Rainbow Dash. Fancy you coming by,” said Sweetie Belle.

“All of you, out from under there. Now,” said Rainbow Dash.

The three fillies tripped all over one another trying to get out from under the table as quickly as possible. “Scootaloo, did you write a letter to Rainbow Dash and say it was from me? And lie to me about Rainbow wanting to come over and talk?”

Scootaloo bowed her head and stared down at the floor. “I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t supposed to lie like that, but... but you two should totally be one another’s special somepony!” She snapped her head back up, tears in her eyes. “It makes so much sense! Main Course likes to cook, and Rainbow Dash likes to eat! And you could sell food at her shows, or she could tell everypony who thinks she’s awesome that they should eat here!”

“Scootaloo...” said Main Course, letting it hang there in the air.

“I just thought... maybe you two would really like each other... and someday...” she looked away from them. “...Someday you might want to be my new Mom and Dad.”

“Is that what this is about?” asked Rainbow Dash. She laid a wing across Scootaloo’s back. “Sweetie, Applebloom, why don’t you two go home? We gotta talk to Scoots here.”

Applebloom and Sweetie Belle hesitated, then they each gave Scootaloo a supportive nuzzle on the cheek and bolted for the front door before the grown-ups changed their minds. When the door closed behind them, Rainbow turned her attention to the miserable little filly at her side. “Hey, you know that I think you’re just about the most awesome little filly ever, right?”

Scootaloo sniffled and nodded. “Yeah.”

“And I’m gonna keep on being like your big sister, and hanging out with you, and going flying, so you don’t have to worry about any of those things going away. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to be a mom.”

“But you’re Rainbow Dash!” cried Scootaloo. “If you really wanted to be my mom, you would be awesome at it! You’re awesome at everything.”

Rainbow Dash winced, so Main Course cut in. “Scootaloo, being a mom or a dad is really hard. If you don’t decide for yourself, from inside, that it’s something you really want to do then you probably won’t be a very good one. Besides, you can’t make two ponies like me and Rainbow want to be together, either.”

“Right,” said Rainbow Dash. “So even though both of us care about you a whole bunch, if the two of us couldn’t work stuff out you’d just get hurt later on. That’s not fair to us or to you.”

Scootaloo sniffled, but nodded. “...Okay. I’m sorry I lied to you. I won’t do it again.”

“I know you won’t,” said Dash, tussling her mane with her wing. “Now you should go get some eggplant parmesan before it gets cold, because I’m still really hungry.”

Scootaloo got up and walked away, her head still hanging despite the pep talk. Main Course moved to follow her, but Rainbow Dash held out a wing and blocked him until Scootaloo had left the room. She was silent for a second longer. “Just... don’t you dare mess her up any worse than she already is, alright? Or we won’t be cool, and you really don’t want us not to be cool. Cool?”

Main Course sat there for a moment. “Yeah.”

“Good. Now hurry up and get a plate or I’m not gonna leave you any eggplant.”

----------------------

It was time.

Five minutes until ten o’clock, and the moment of truth. Already, a crowd of ponies was milling around outside waiting to be let in, and Main Course had sent French Press out with trays of sample portions to whet their appetites, literally and figuratively. The rest of the service staff, including Lyra and three new hires he didn’t really know that well yet, were lined up for a final pep talk from their head chef and owner.

Unfortunately, Pinkie Pie had somehow started giving it instead.

“Alright, listen up maggots and mag-ettes!” she began, pacing back and forth. Main Course briefly wondered where she’d found the army helmet, but he was rapidly discovering why ‘it’s Pinkie Pie’ was considered a legitimate explanation among the citizens of Ponyville. The alternative was madness. At least the cigar she was chewing appeared to be made of bubblegum. “When you walked through that door twenty minutes ago, you were strangers from different walks of life. All of you have your own reasons for being here, but for the rest of your shift, your plots belong to me!

“Pinkie, you don’t actually outrank anypony,” said Main Course. None of the other ponies paid attention to him.

“When those doors open, a horde of ravenously hungry ponies is going to come streaming in here, expecting to be seated and served food. It will be up to you, and you alone, to make sure that happens. Nopony is backing you up. Nopony is coming to help you. Unless, you know, if one of you happens to have fewer ponies in your assigned section and want to help the others out that would be the friendly thing to do. But other than that, you. Are. On. Your. Own. And do you know what will happen if you fail?” She spun around and pressed her face right up to a young, green pegasus stallion. Barely more than a colt, really. “They might only tip twelve percent,” she hissed.

A shudder went down the line, except for one mauve earth pony mare at the end of the line who made the mistake of chuckling instead.

Pinkie was on her in an instant. “You! Is something about what I just said amusing? Do you think you’re here to have fun?”

The mare stiffened and stood at attention. “Ma’am, no ma’am!”

“Wrong answer!” shouted Pinkie. “The Grassy Knoll supports a playful and relaxed atmosphere as long as the work gets done efficiently! You will have fun working here and you will like it!

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

Pinkie resumed her pacing, blowing a bubble with her gum and, somehow, made the way it popped seem menacing. “Some of you might want to give up. You might think it’s all over when a table of twelve with three coliccy foals gets seated in your section. Or you may think it’s over when the customer who ordered the raw tofu chunks complains that they’re undercooked. Nothing is over until we decide it is! Or I guess until we close for the night. Or your shift ends. Or you have some sort of family emergency and have to leave after letting your supervisor know. But other than that stuff, it’s not over! Was it over when the gryphons bombed Yearling Harbor?

“NO!” went up the rallying cry.

“Then let’s feed some ponies!” said Pinkie. She pointed a hoof towards the front doors which, despite being locked, swung open on their own as ponies began streaming in and over to the counter to place their orders.

Main Course slipped over to Pinkie as the others went to the registers. “Pinkie, I think we need to have a quick conversation about the extent of your authority. Specifically, how you don’t have any,” said Main Course.

Before she could reply, a pony rushed up and passed her a ticket. “Order for celery and raisins on rye, Ms. Pinkie. Table gamma-orange.”

“Table what?” asked Main Course.

“Oh, I forgot to mention. I changed your table numbering system. It was super boring, so I Pinkie’d it up a little bit,” she said.

“But you can’t-”

“Hey!” she said, “we have an order, and you’re the chef. Now get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!”

As hard as he tried later, Main Course never was able to recall the next fifteen seconds of his life. He remembered taking the ticket from Pinkie, and then he remembered finding himself in the kitchen. Nothing in between.

Privately, he seethed. He assembled the sandwich and sprinkled a hoof full of potato chips onto the plate before moving it to the delivery window, where he found three new tickets waiting for him. Pinkie had been a mistake, of that he was certain. Every restaurant had stumbles the first week, it was just the nature of putting together so many moving parts for the very first time. As soon as they hit the first snag, he’d call her back here, blame it on her, and fire her. She wouldn’t be here for more than a quarter hour, then the Knoll could finally get serious.

---------------------

Four hours later, he was still waiting for something to go wrong.

This was inconceivable. Even the best restaurants he’d ever worked at had a few plates sent back, or customer complaints about incorrectly prepared food every night. But somehow, against all odds, everything was working perfectly today. On opening day, when the wheels should have come off within the first hour. They had even sold out of bread bowls, despite their premium price.

As the lunch rush died down, he found an opportunity to head over to the delivery window and watch his staff in action. Pinkie Pie was sitting at the counter with her back to him. French Press came up to her. “Ms. Pinkie? Table Rebel-four needs their water refilled.”

Pinkie sighed. “French Press, how many ponies are at that table?”

“Uh, six, I think.”

“Right. And is six a prime number?”

“No...”

“And is today Monday or Thursday?”

“It’s... oh! I meant table Malfunctioning Octagon! Duh.”

Even though Main Course could only see the back of her head, he just knew she was smiling at French Press. “That’s right! Don’t worry, you’re doing great. I’ll get their waters.”

Right then, Main Course felt a little bit more of his sanity slip away. “Eh,” he said with a shrug. “That’s just Pinkie Pie.”

-------------------------

Six very intense days later, it was time at last for Main’s one day off per week. He’d seen what happened to proprietors who tried to run their businesses seven days a week without taking time for themselves. Most went nuts within two or three months. Besides, he felt like he’d barely spent any time with Scootaloo this week. Her absence had gnawed at him more than he’d expected it to.

Today, though, he’d make up for that. She rode along on his back as he trotted into town, hearing all about the latest schoolyard gossip and who the local bullies were picking on this week. He’d promised her a trip to Sugarcube Corner, seeing as how he needed to stop by there anyway and bump up his daily bread order. By the fourth day, ponies had started lining up a half-hour early to be one of the lucky one hundred per day to get their soup in a bread bowl. At seven bits a serving, it added up fast.

“Hey,” said Scootaloo as the Carousel Boutique came into view, “can Sweetie Belle come with us too?”

“I don’t see any reason why not. Let’s go see if she’s home.” He changed course, carefully avoiding the mud puddles in the road. The weather teams had been steadily melting away the snow in preparation for Winter Wrap Up day later that week. Main Course had been assigned the task of providing snacks and small meals for the earth pony laborers, which he’d jumped to accept. He couldn’t imagine a better way to win a new swath of customers.

Main Course lowered his head and leaned forward to let Scootaloo open the door to the Boutique for him while he wiped his hooves on the ‘Welcome’ mat. They stepped inside and heard two voices chatting and giggling in the back. At the sound of the bell jangling, they stopped.

Rarity stuck her head out from the back room, and when she saw it was them she gasped. “Oh! Oh, this is too perfect. Wait right there, Main, I have a client here who I think will be very interested in hearing how you think she looks in her new dress.” The other voice said something Main couldn’t make out, and Rarity turned her head to somepony out of sight. “Yes, it’s your ‘tasty chef’ in the flesh. Oh don’t blush, dear, you look radiant. Here’s your chance to model it for the first time. You simply must. I am not taking no for an answer, now come out here at once.”

“Main Course?” asked Scootaloo. “Who is she talking about?”

Main Course didn’t answer, but he had an inkling. If he was right, this was going to be a very worthwhile detour.

Rarity beckoned the mystery pony forward and stepped out of the door frame. “Presenting, for her suitor’s approval, wearing an original design by moi, the Lady Ebony Glimmer!”

Ebby, blushing furiously and staring at the floor, stepped out into the doorframe. She was still wearing the same orange pendant, but now she had on a slinky black dress with tiny red accents around the hems. It rode just high enough on her flank to tease at the very bottom of her cutie mark without revealing it. “Hi, Main. I-” she looked up and froze, her blush changing to shock.

From directly behind him, Main heard a tiny, choked-off gasp. He turned and saw Scootaloo wearing the same expression of disbelief as she stared at Ebby.

The two stared at one another for several more seconds, until Ebby spoke first. “Citrine?”

Whatever she was going to say next was drowned out by Scootaloo’s shriek of absolute terror.

 

 

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