Like beauty, romance may be in the eye of the beholder. For some, it’s all about flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day. For others, beer and crème brulee are where it’s at. For tips on creating a perfectly romantic meal this February 14th, we chatted up three dozen of the country’s top chefs for advice on everything from setting the table to serving up dessert.
1. If you plan to do the cooking yourself, practice the meal in advance so you get the jitters out and to ensure that your recipes work.
—Kevin Gillespie, Chef/Owner of Gunshow
2. Incorporate hearts wherever possible: Romaine hearts, artichoke hearts, beef hearts, hearts of palm—the options are endless! This is actually something we’re doing with our Valentine’s Day menu at Graham Elliot Bistro…We’re incorporating various hearts and lots of different flavors and colors into two special tasting menus.
—Graham Elliot, Chef/Restaurateur
3. Set the mood with a ton of candles for romantic lighting. I would definitely serve the meal in courses to make it feel extra-special; start out with a great antipasti course, then pasta—essential Valentine’s Day food—and a great, beautiful piece of grilled or roast meat; steak or a beautiful chop. Always, always chocolate for dessert on Valentine’s day, and I’d pour a nice big chianti that pairs well with both the pasta and steak.
4. I’d play some classic crooner music—Frank, Dean, you know the type. My greatest piece of advice is to keep it simple, and don’t overcomplicate. Just enjoy each other’s company.
—Jimmy Bannos, Jr., Chef/Partner at The Purple Pig
5. To really set the mood, handwrite the menu on a nice piece of card stock and personalize it with your names and the date of the dinner. You can even title the dinner “Valentine’s Day Dinner 2014.” This way it makes the dinner more personalized, and the hand-written menu can serve as a keepsake!
6. Make a timeline for yourself. Plan everything. The quickest way to kill the mood is to be stressed and frantic—they’ll feel it. Get the groceries the day before the dinner, and prep anything you can ahead of time. Set a time for dinner and work your way backwards, allowing time for cooking, decorating and, of course, getting dressed up!
—Christina Rakitze, Director of Pastry Operations at Sugar and Plumm
7. Here in New Orleans, the key to a good Valentine’s Day starts with great music. Create a playlist that starts off mellow and leads into something soulful, groovy and sexy. This will set the mood for the evening.
8. When planning your menu, you want to keep it light and aphrodisiac-based. Don’t expect much after a heavy dinner!
—Justin Jones, Executive Chef of Phil’s Grill
9. Plan simple and interactive food that you can dip, slurp and rip. Set up some hibachis and have some marinated skewers with fish, meat and veggies. Fondues are great as well.
10. For decor, I like to go with the heavy, rich colors of reds and deep blues. Velvet and silks for tablecloths and chair/pillow coverings are fun.
11. Preparing a dish for your partner is certainly romantic, but my suggestion is to spend the day shopping and prepping the meal together. Food is much more than just satiation; it’s about sharing the experience from shopping to consumption.
—David Carrier, Executive Chef of The Cloister at Sea Island
12. When a person cooks from the heart you can really tell. Emotion is the real magic in cooking, not carcinogenic powders or by products of soy oil.
—Matt Lambert, Executive Chef-Owner of The Musket Room
13. Flowers are a must. Make sure you get her favorite flowers and get lots of them.
14. Turn the lights off and use only candles.
15. Make your own placemats on a tabloid paper and print a favorite romantic poem, scatter “I love you” hearts, and maybe place a picture of both of you on the table. Be creative. Place chocolate hearts, heart confetti and M&Ms on the table.
16. Bubbles, prosecco, champagne and wine for dinner. Lots of wine.
17. Today is not the day to be on a diet, so don’t skip dessert. Call your local bakery and order an amazing chocolate dessert, or her favorite pastry. If you like to bake and are brave, make one.
—Carlos Buscaglia, Executive Chef of Due Forni
18. On special occasions like Valentine’s Day, dining should be a full experience. I like to create dishes that incorporate different textures to engage the different senses. The meal should be big and full of robust flavors, keeping taste buds on edge.
—Jasper Schneider, Executive Chef at CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa
19. Focus on quality and not extravagant ingredients. That means prime beef trumps truffles. Plan, plan and plan ahead and no experiments on Valentine’s Day. Go with your strengths.
20. Make something your someone special loves instead of something fancy. Call [his or her] mom or dad for nostalgic recipes.
21. Think of a more interesting place to dine: in front of a fire pit or fireplace, a picnic in the park, etc.
—Sarah McIntosh, Chef/Owner of épicerie
22. I would recommend serving food that isn’t too heavy or super fatty. The point of a romantic meal is to nourish and enjoy time spent together, and leave some energy for post-dinner activities!
— Matt McClure, Executive Chef of The Hive
23. If you’re preparing a meal at home, there are two main things to take into account: First, choose dishes that you can prepare in advance. This will allow you to be more present at the table. Second, it’s a special night; break out the fine china, cutlery and glassware. If you don’t have any, borrow some!
24. Make an effort in decorating the table and setting the mood with flowers, candles, lighting and music. Ambiance is one of the most important parts on a meal and will make it feel special.
—Santiago Guerrero, Chef de Cusine of Manzanilla
25. Don’t be a slave to the stove…simple dishes like a delicious soup, a salad and roasted veggies are great ideas that can be thrown together or heated up last minute. This keeps your attention on your date, and not solely on creating a fantastic meal.
26. Nix the routine chocolate and champagne, and opt for an oyster and beer pairing. Oysters are a great aphrodisiac, but besides that, they are just darn good! Try Deschutes’ Obsidian Stout for a smooth, velvety bittersweet chocolate taste paired with a salty, briny oyster.
—Jason McLeod, Executive Chef/Partner of Ironside Fish & Oyster
27. There is nothing more romantic to me than a collaborative meal. My wife and I usually choose a long, slow braise so that we can enjoy the smell of delicious food cooking for hours while we enjoy good wine, good music, and of course, our company in our home. A collaborative meal allows us to plan, prepare and cook at a comfortable pace, without the pressures of a professional pace. It can be quite romantic, as long as she doesn’t invade my kitchen space too much!
28. Bring a vegetable bouquet that you can use for dinner. I brought my wife—restaurateur Vicki Freeman, who co-owns our restaurants—Brussels sprouts on the stalk wrapped up like flowers. You could use purple kale or artichokes on the stem.
—Marc Meyer, Executive Chef of Cookshop, Hundred Acres & Five Points
29. I think it’s important to focus on what it is your Valentine really loves, and share that with them this year. For example, I’ll put together a smörgåsbord of my wife’s favorite foods like charcuterie and cornichons, grain mustard, mixed olives, fresh burrata cheese with olive oil, truffled pecorino, fresh baguette, pate, and figs, and surprise her with the big platter. She loves it, and appreciates that I know what she likes.
30. Something that always bothered me was that I would be in the kitchen cooking a nice romantic dinner, and my wife was kind of just hanging out (and/or sometimes just lurking around like a vulture for scraps), so I thought it would be really nice to surprise her and set up a nice romantic bubble bath with some music, rose pedals, candles for hwe while I cooked. I just told her to relax and unwind while her chef gets dinner ready and the results were amazing.
—Thiago Silva, Corporate Pastry Chef of EMM Group’s La Cenita, The General, CATCH, CATCH Miami & Lexington Brass
31. Valentine’s Day is a chocolate lover’s favorite holiday, however, there are those that just don’t like chocolate. Rather than creating a chocolate dessert, go with a crème brulee. It is equally decadent and satisfies your sweet tooth without the chocolate.
—Katrina Betz, Chef de Partie of Sea Island
32. Make it personal. Find a recipe that you shared together on your first date or during another important event from your relationship…You can also find ingredients to use from a place you visited together. This could be a bottle of wine, a special cookie, cheese or anything else.
I think that one of the great things about food is its ability to build a story and bring back memories. You can create a meal that can become a tradition that you will share together for many years to come—a special little ritual that only the two of you share.
33. Set yourself up for success. Any preparation you can do the night before gives more time for you to finish the dish together. Get your hands dirty.
34. A tip for the gentlemen: Cook ingredients in threes. This gives you the opportunity to offer her the extra portion.
—Florian Wehrli, Executive Chef of Triomphe
35. My perfect romantic Valentine’s Day meal isn’t focused on what is prepared but more importantly on how it is prepared: together. Even if one of you does more of the work or no work at all (that person can just make sure the wine glasses are full). Copious amounts of prosecco will be consumed as the two of you leisurely slice and dice, simmer and sear. All while Curtis Mayfield plays in the background.
—Victor LaPlaca, Executive Chef of Isola Trattoria & Crudo Bar at Mondrian SoHo
36. A romantic dinner would have to start with oysters. I love a woman who enjoys oysters on the half shell. I would serve a Sancerre with them. I know most people think champagne—but trust me.
37. I know everyone thinks of chocolate, but I love creme brûlée. And if you really need to, you can make a chocolate one. One more note: Definitely use the dishwasher tonight.
—John Lichtenberger, Chef of Peche
38. As typical and expected as it may seem, spice up the atmosphere. Marvin Gaye and Barry White may be a bit overt, so tone it down with something a bit more modern and subtle like Colbie Caillat or Michael Bublé. Speaking of Bublé: Have a nice bottle bubbly handy—rosé champagne if you are feeling festive.
39. Greet your date with flowers and, instead of adorning your table with rose petals, have an empty vase on the table for her to put them in while you dine.
40. Add in some unexpected “amuse”-ment. I like to liven up my “amuse” dishes with something unexpected. Instead of classic oysters, we serve an Oyster and Salmon Tartare. It’s a fun twist on this classic aphrodisiac that doesn’t disappoint.
This goes for dessert as well: Instead of the typical chocolate cake, end the evening with something chocolate accompanied by a lavender honey sauce. Not only will the chocolate cause a spike in your levels of dopamine, which induce feelings of pleasure, but the honey has vitamins that will keep you glowing.
—Kevin Heston, Executive Chef at Grape & Vine at The Jade Hotel
41. Call me biased, but I think a Valentine’s Day meal is incomplete without oysters. Oysters and champagne—there’s nothing more perfect.
—Rich Vellante, Executive Chef & Executive Vice President of Restaurants at Legal Sea Foods
42. Do your research and try out recipes ahead of time. Nothing is worse than trying a new dish the day of and having it fall apart on you one hour before your romantic dinner!
43. Spice things up. I know that Valentine’s Day is traditionally associated with sweets and indulgent foods, but I love using chiles and other ingredients to add heat to dishes—it gives the meal depth and shows that you are adventurous in taking your menu outside the box.
44. Get creative with cocktails. Wine is the obvious choice for a romantic meal, but a cocktail can be equally romantic—especially if you use ingredients like pomegranate, the classic “fruit of love.”
—Patricio Sandoval, Chef/Partner of Mercadito
45. Making sushi together is a fun, hands-on activity that couples can do together. Also, sushi is nice and light, so you won’t ruin the mood by feeling too full.
—Fuyuhiko Ito, Executive Chef/Co-Owner of Umi
46. Valentine’s is a day that heavy organization should come in to play. Show that you are cool, calm, collected and ready for whatever could come your way.
–Blake Keely, Head Chef at Benji’s Cantina
47. Keep it on the lighter side, [as] no one feels very attractive after a heavy meal. Definitely pace the meal: I’d start with some champagne and oysters—keep it light. If your date is interested in the actual cooking, you can have the cooking pretty close to done and save a few finishing steps to do together. For dessert I would keep it simple and go with chocolate fondue with fresh fruits, cookies and cake to dip. The interactiveness of the meal will keep it lighthearted and fun.
—Michael Ferraro, Executive Chef/Owner of Delicatessen
48. Nothing says “Be my valentine” more than raw chocolate. I say skip the box of truffles wrapped in velvet. Indulge your senses in this divine superfood and make a centerpiece out of it. With its mood-enhancing properties, experimenting with raw chocolate is a surefire way to entice and enlighten those involved. Preparation is simple yet deliciously untidy. A partner to help indulge is a great way to turn your project into a more hands-on cooperative.
–Philip Doucette, Head Chef at Daily Juice
49. If you are trying to impress your Valentine’s Day date, make sure to use a tried and true recipe that you love. Don’t try to make something too complicated. You will end up being stressed out and the food will suffer.
50. Don’t go overboard with gifts or elaborate romantic decor. As a Frenchman, we like to keep it simple. A little candlelight, some soft music and delicious food is all you need to make a romantic Valentine’s day. Throw in a dozen roses and you can’t go wrong.
—Olivier Souvestre, Executive Chef of Fast Food Français
51. Creating the perfect setting for your Valentine’s Day meal is as important as the meal itself—why not create a wonderful meal together in the comfort of your own home? Go ahead and splurge on really exotic gourmet delicacies for your Valentine’s Day meal together. Extravagant dishes such as filet mignon and shrimp are perfect for this occasion, or oysters, caviar and asparagus, which are considered to be wildly sensual. Go all out with luxurious ingredients; they’ll impress your date and take less time to prepare. Of course, Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be the same without chocolate, so be sure to plan a dessert.
52. Use your best china and lay your table with your finest table linens. Set the ambiance by dimming the lights, or eating by candlelight is even better. Have some soft seductive music playing in the background and a bottle of chilled champagne is the final touch.
—Guillermo Tellez, Corporate Chef of Little Market Brasserie
53. When planning a romantic meal it’s important to pick menus that don’t require a lot of last minute work (a la minute). The preparation can be pretty intense if you want to impress, but once it’s time to eat, don’t hide in the kitchen for 30 minutes. You want to focus on your date, pouring them champagne, lighting candles and engaging in conversation.
54. Keep expectations very low. Seriously! Just ask your date to come over for a pre-dinner cocktail. When they arrive, have the cocktail ready, but also have candles, champagne and the table set. A hearty salad you can dress in advance is much better than leafy greens. That way, the salad is already ready and you just have to plate up the pasta. Make a cake or a pie. These don’t require any work when your date is there.
—Adam Starowicz, Executive Chef of North River
55. Take the time to think of a meal you can execute well without over-complicating things so you can spend time with your romantic guest. If you’re not very comfortable in the kitchen, practice the dish beforehand so you iron out any kinks. If needed, do something where both of you can get involved. The closer you are the more fun you will have.
56. Champagne cocktails are fun, easy and will open up your palate for the food to come. Pick one and have the ingredients ready so you can prepare it together.
—Andreas Schreiner, Owner/Operator of The Pubbelly Group
57. Make a menu and start preparing as much as you can in advance. The goal is to spend more time focused on your V-Day date and less in the kitchen.
58. Make sure to relax while cooking. Play uplifting music and drink a glass of wine, too.
—Carolina Diaz, Chef at Filini Bar & Restaurant
59. Three most important things about cooking for her: 1. It’s about her. 2. It’s about her. 3. It’s about her. Cook what she likes with care and better than she has ever tasted. Pour what she likes and better than she’s expecting.
—Brian Poe, Executive Chef of The Tip Tap Room and Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake
60. I just got married over the Christmas holiday, so I’ll have to make Valentine’s Day extra special. If I wasn’t working, I’d be sure we had some dim lighting, lots of candles and Ray LaMontagne playing in the background. I’d definitely start with some shrimp cocktail, one of our favorites, but I’d spice it up with a winter citrus cocktail sauce. You gotta have some bubbles, too.
–Ryan Shields, Sous Chef at olive & june
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