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What Famous Chefs Cook for Their Valentines

February 14, 2014

E.C. Gladstone

When it comes to the art of seduction, flowers, poetry, and scoreboard messages all have their places—but nothing has quite the same effect as a specially prepared meal. And when there’s a serious chef behind the meal, well, the romance can get serious, too.

So we called on several prominent chefs and restaurateurs to give us their secrets, asking them to tell us about the meal they served to seal the deal with their mates, which perhaps reveals some secrets behind solid relationships in a challenging industry. Got dinner plans for Valentine’s Day? It’s not too late to change them!

Bobby Flay (Bar Americain, Bobby’s Burger Palace, Mesa Grill, Gato): When it comes to romantic meals with his wife, Stephanie, Flay thinks of two things: oysters and fried chicken. “She’s from Texas,” he says. “She has a great palate, and she loves both of those. I love Blue Points, I love the brininess. To me that’s the classic oyster. Some people say oysters are aphrodisiacs—I always say the foods that are aphrodisiacs are the ones that you want to be aphrodisiacs.” As for the chicken? The Iron Chef offers a quick new recipe: “I marinate it in buttermilk and cayenne, skin on, bone in, overnight. Then I rub that off, bake it in the oven [until] about 3/4 cooked, then I dip it back in buttermilk, dredge in seasoned flour, and fry for about four to five minutes. So it gets really crispy but perfectly cooked. It’s cheating, but I’m okay with that.”

Michael Symon: Michael Symon and his wife, Liz, first met when he moved to Cleveland in 1990 and started cooking at Players, where she was the assistant wine director. They were “just good friends” for three years, before Michael invited her over for dinner on one fateful, snowy night. “It was a really cold night, and I had a ripping fire going,” he said. “I did crab and lobster in the shell with artichokes, all poached in a truffle butter bouillon. Back in those times, I was really poor, so a $20–$30 truffle was a big investment—and I had to use some of my New York connections to get one! We sat in front of the fire and ate it with our hands. To me, there’s something incredibly romantic about food that is eaten with your hands. And what man doesn’t want to see a beautiful woman with truffle butter dripping down her chin?”

SEE MORE: The 11 Most Surprising—and Tastiest—Aphrodisiacs

John Tesar (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, Dallas): Having just taken over the kitchen of the storied Mansion at Turtle Creek, Tesar took the occasion of the last night of service before a major renovation to woo Tracy, the pastry chef at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, whom he’d met not long before. “Tracy was driving up from Austin,” he said, “and I had my crew cook a dinner for her and me in the chef’s room, so I got to know her, test my chef de cuisine, and have the last historic experience at the Mansion. We did the Chilean turbot with gnocchi, baby leeks, fava beans, and mustard greens, mustard caviar. We had beef cheek ravioli with some chicken liver and crispy sweetbreads, red-wine reduction. I really like that dish to this day. Of course we had a Porterhouse for two, with mushrooms and Bordelaise and onion rings—I have an onion ring fetish. And my pastry chef showered my wife with every dessert on the menu, because she has the biggest sweet tooth in the world. She said, ‘Wow, you really can cook.’ Soon after, we got engaged. Married five years in July.”

Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill, Los Angeles): Milliken may have the best story of any chef, and not because of the menu: Her husband of 30 years, Josh Schweitzer, is the ex-husband of her business partner, chef Susan Feniger, who actually introduced them. “We all planned a visit out to Desert Hot Springs, four women and Josh,” says Milliken. “Susan and I collaborated on the meal with food from our tiny City Cafe. It was Easter weekend, so we made a big leg of lamb stuffed with herbs and rubbed with garlic, asparagus, and little baked potatoes. It wasn’t something I was actively pursing, although I was attracted to him. I was trying to be nonchalant. But the next morning he asked me to take a shower with him, so I guess he liked it!”

Pierre Gagnaire: With his typically insouciant sense of humor, Gagnaire reveals that he “seduced” his future wife, Sylvie, when she visited his restaurant Sketch in London, in February 2004. “There is no such thing as ‘aphrodisiac’ food,” he said, “but she keeps on telling me that the lobster she had that night was the best she had ever had. I cooked her dish as usual… I did not know that my future wife was going to eat it. But I would not have changed anything to this lobster with boiled potatoes and brown butter, because it is now part of our story. I have changed the recipe so that she has nothing to compare it with! She doesn’t like desserts but we shared a fruit salad that night with a glass of vodka.”

SEE MORE: How to Win Valentine’s Day Whether You’re Single, Courting, or Taken

Art Smith (Art & Soul, Washington, D.C.; Table Fifty-Two, Chicago): Smith will never forget the moment he and Jesus Salgueiro met—14 years ago, in a South Beach floral shop—but he can’t remember the first time he cooked for his husband. “I was always cooking for Oprah!” he says with a laugh. These days, Smith makes Salgueiro feel special with breakfast—”the only meal I have time to make at home.” Says Smith, “I make him a strong cappuccino, and do a toad in the hole for him, with gruyère and Parma ham—it’s so sappy, but I cut hearts out of the bread. When we are at our farm in Florida, we get farm-fresh eggs, and when I have the Poilâne bread from Paris, that has the right texture and chewiness.”

Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Napa Valley): Food definitely played a center role in the courtship of Pawlcyn and her husband, John Watanabe. On their first date, back in 2007, Watanabe actually offered to cook for her—”And nobody cooks for me!” she says. He made a picnic bento box. On the second date, they switched roles, and Cindy made him a dish she’d been “playing around with” for a supper club series at Backstreet Kitchen. “It was a Kerala curry salmon dish, from the Spice Coast of India,” she says. “There’s cumin, coriander, mustard seed, and cayenne on the fish, and then a wonderful coconut milk broth underneath, with steamed basmati. He took one bite and said ‘This is the best thing I ever ate.’ I think that did it—we got engaged about three weeks later.”

SEE MORE: Foods That Make You Better at Sex

Brian Malarkey (Herringbone, Searsucker, San Diego/Los Angeles): “I took a very easy but sensual approach to wooing my wife, Chantelle,” says Malarkey. He went for an unadorned classic clambake. “I went to the market and got a couple of live lobsters, clams, sausage, corn on the cob, red potatoes… Nothing says loving like shellfish and white wine!” Malarkey continues the tradition every Sunday, now including the couple’s three children. “Minus the wine for the little ones.”

Marc Forgione (Restaurant Marc Forgione, New York): “The way we actually met was her tasting my short ribs when I was a chef at BLT Prime,” Forgione says of his fiancée Kristen Angelilli. “It was an open kitchen, I looked out the window, and this beautiful woman caught my eye. I came up with this concept of treating VIPs with ‘getting forked’—we’d take ingredients, arrange them on a fork, and place it on a plate . So I sent her out a mid-course of black truffle with some short ribs and pasta—and I watched as she took the truffle off. I couldn’t understand it.” Nevertheless, she asked to meet the chef. “No one,” he says, “has been ‘forked’ since.”

See more from Bon Appetit: 
10 Valentine’s Day Recipes for Creating “Lady and the Tramp” Moments
How to Order Wine On a First Date