The candles are glowing. The romantic music is playing. The other Valentine’s Day couples are holding hands and sharing romantic conversation. But what is the staff noticing and talking about back in the kitchen or behind the bar? We talked to chefs and mixologists across the country and asked them to share their most memorable ― or flat-out craziest ― memories of Valentine’s Days past.
Finding the money spot on V-Day
For celebrity hijinks (plus pure anatomical accuracy), it might be hard to top this reminiscence of Chef Rossi, owner and executive chef of New-York based caterer The Raging Skillet. She was once asked to cater a post-show V-Day event that followed a benefit performance of “The Vagina Monologues.”
“I got to see 600 VIPs and celebs chow down on my edible vaginas.”
The food Rossi served was in keeping with the theme — very much so. Every item was a creative and delicious replica of a vagina. “When I got the gig, I was jazzed,” Rossi told HuffPost. “There were tons of stars who attended, including Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg and Gloria Steinem. I got to see 600 VIPs and celebs chow down on my edible vaginas.”
“We served appetizers like molded tuna tartare arranged along oval-sliced cucumbers with a puff of black seaweed on top, chili-dusted smoked salmon twirled into vaginal roses and crispy fried plantain chips topped with thin-sliced Korean barbecue beef, with a drizzle of red miso strategically placed down the center.”
The centerpiece in the performers’ green room was an anatomical rendering made entirely of fruit, a massive 4-foot display that Rossi called a “fruit-gina.” “I even put one sun-dried cranberry on the money spot,” she said. “The celebrities were daintily picking at the outer layer of the labia, but Susan Sarandon was the best. She saw it, went right over and popped that clitoris into her mouth. It was vagina power at its finest.”
Curtis Stone is the chef-owner of Maude and Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant in Los Angeles and Georgie by Curtis Stone in Dallas. He’s usually working on any given day, including Valentine’s Day, but he does remember 2013 as being a special — and especially romantic — event.
“Right before I opened Maude, I made a meal for my wife, Lindsay, on Valentine’s Day,” he told HuffPost. “Lobster is her favorite food, and I had never made her homemade pasta before, so the menu that night was a hand-cut tagliatelle with lobster.” Aw, Chef. Since that opening, he’s been an increasingly busy guy, but he’s lucky to have an understanding spouse. “Linds is a great sport, and we just pick another evening to celebrate together.”
A proposal from a guy in a bear suit
Atlanta mixologist Keyatta Mincey-Parker, now at Bon Ton, worked for several years at the Glenn Hotel. Its rooftop bar, SkyLounge, is popular with romance-minded couples, especially on Feb. 14. One year, the boyfriend of one of Mincey-Parker’s friends had a proposal idea that really went above and beyond. “He worked it all out with me in advance, and I got our general manager and DJ in on the plan,” she told HuffPost.
“He dressed up in a full-size teddy bear suit and got there before she did. We told the other customers that he was a ‘love bear’ for Valentine’s Day. He was very nervous, so I served him a few shots of tequila while he waited. When she showed up with her girlfriends, who were in on the plan, the DJ started playing ‘their’ songs. Then this bear came over to her, dropped to one knee and took off his stuffed head. Everyone was screaming and high-fiving when she said yes.”
While this wasn’t the first holiday proposal Mincey-Parker witnessed, it was a special one. “As a bartender, I’ve learned that Valentine’s Day usually isn’t a great shift for making decent tips, so it’s usually not a popular holiday to work. Still, seeing someone doing something amazing for the person they love will never get old to me. I was so happy to be a part of this special night and the story they’ll tell their children some day.” All that cuteness was not in vain, she reported: “They’re still married and they have a sassy little daughter now.”
Chef’s night off
While Valentine’s Day is usually a very busy holiday, sometimes a night off can be arranged, if a chef is very lucky — or very pregnant. Allison Arevalo, owner of Pasta Louise in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, remembered the year she was pregnant with her first son. “I was working crazy hours at my restaurant, so my back was aching and I was so tired,” she told HuffPost. “Having a night at home was exactly what I wanted. My husband made me a fantastic fish dinner and bought me a dozen cupcakes from my favorite cupcake shop — all for me. Since then, I really love celebrating Valentine’s Day at home — when I’m not working.”
James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein also will be celebrating at home this year. The author of “Cuisine à Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors From Michy’s Miami Kitchen,” she’s planning to cook a special meal for her husband and son. “I plan to spoil them with all kinds of goodies,” she told HuffPost. For my husband it’s a big, juicy steak au poivre, and for my son it will be steamed artichokes and spaghetti cacio e pepe. For dessert, I’m thinking of banana cream pie or chocolate layer cake. I love to be able to spread my love through cooking. There’s no need for expensive gifts — just a little attention and admiration for the people you love.”
Here, have a cookie
For a holiday that’s supposed to be all about love, Valentine’s Day often ends up being mostly about pressure. Not only do couples try to live up to an unrealistic idea of eternal romance, but chefs can stress on a night when everyone is nervous and the restaurant is jammed.
For John Sugimura, chef and owner of Minneapolis-based PinKU Japanese Street Food restaurant, his first big V-Day came just months after opening his cozy urban eatery. The reservation list for the small space was soon filled with 32 couples. He decided it was time to get creative. “I tried to think of a way to take the edge off the date-night dinner anxiety,” he told HuffPost.
“I baked jumbo sugar cookies and I gave each couple a quarter sheet pan with all the decorating materials so they could custom decorate their own Valentine’s Day cookie,” he said. His customers soon got into the spirit of the thing. “Imagine giddy couples squirting frosting and sprinkling together. It was really fun.”
Like many chefs, Sugimura saw it all that Valentine’s Day. “There were a few people on their first serious holiday dates together,” he recalled. “They were very nervous and you could tell. There was one date that bombed and ended early, and then there was one engagement. To have that perspective into 32 relationships on the same night was interesting and super fun.”
Renee Scharoff is the owner of Boston-based private catering company Blonde on the Run. She has discovered that Valentine’s often brings out the, well, weirder side of some clients. “We’ve done a couple dinner parties in people’s homes where it seemed like they were trying to re-create their high school prom,” she told HuffPost. “I’ve seen everything from pink drinks with dry ice to a raised dais for a ‘sweetheart’s table’ where the hosts sat.”
“We did one party where they spent $1,200 just on white roses, which were everywhere,” Scharoff added. “At another, they’d gone overboard with filling the house with red, white and pink helium balloons. They were all over the ceiling in the kitchen. It’s pretty challenging to try to cook with all that going on — you can’t have streamers in your face when you’re cutting up the lamb chops. My staff was convinced the hosts and guests were swingers. I just wanted to cook, serve, avoid the tomfoolery, whatever it was — and get out of there.”