It doesn’t matter when Valentine’s Day comes around, chefs never get the day off. Just about everywhere across the nation, restaurants will be crowded Thursday by couples snuggling up for a romantic dinner, reinforced by sparkling wine — maybe even accompanied by roses and a box of chocolates. And it’s chefs who will be making this all happen.
We wondered what chefs would do if they were treated to a day off on Valentine’s Day. Would they spend the day at home with significant other, spouse or family? Or would they pile loved ones into the SUV and head off to some scenic spot for a quality-time picnic?
Curious about what Napa Valley chefs had in mind should they ever get a pass on Feb. 14, we asked more than a dozen to respond to our hypothetical question.
The result is 13 ways to feed your lover.
A true romantic, Perry Hoffman, executive chef at Domaine Chandon’s Étoile restaurant, replied: “Oysters. Duck. Suckling pig with pink peppercorns. Rose petal sorbet. All the delicious dishes I know someone will love. But the reality is when I get home late at night, I’ll make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her and one for me, which is fine because it’s not just about what’s on the plate, it’s also about who you are with.”
You’d think John Burkhard, traveling oyster bar manager for Hog Island Oyster Co., would have his fill of oysters on a daily basis. So what would he order up for himself and his main squeeze to enjoy? “Oysters and a martini,” he declared, “or possibly Champagne. I love our product.”
Asked what he’d make his wife on Valentine’s Day, Jordan Mackey, executive chef of Napa’s Cuvée, quipped: “Disappointed.” That’s because she knows he’ll be preparing meals for other couples on Thursday night. But if he did have the night off, what then?
“First off, call a babysitter,” he said, and then pick up some lobster tails and choice Kobe ribeyes so he could prepare “a simple surf and turf” dinner for his wife. And he’d pop the cork on “an awesome bottle of wine. I wouldn’t want to have to spend a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans ... just have time so we could enjoy one another’s company while our daughter was being cared for by our baby-sitter.”
If Angèle executive chef Scott Ekstrom had the night off, he’d enjoy sharing a simple meal at home, such as roast duck with a glass of wine. On second thought, Ekstrom noted he loves “to do outdoor things. I’d like to go on an early picnic with my wife and daughter ... sharing a meal together because we don’t get to do that often. I think it would be fun for all of us to make something together. ... I’d also include music and a sunset.”
Morimoto Napa executive chef Kang Kuan said, “For my amazingly beautiful wife Megan Elizabeth Kuan, the mother of my amazing son Edward, I would simply make her a meal that we can share alone, since I never seem to get a chance to, not with our 4-year-old always running around.
“I would start with some oysters on the half shell with mignonette, a salad of Brussels sprouts and pomelo. For the main course, a lamb dish, most likely an Elysian field lamb neck slow roasted overnight, served with a wild mushroom risotto finished with a splash of grappa. For dessert, blood orange soufflé, and finish with some Humboldt Fog cheese, candied walnuts and a late harvest wine.”
Jason Kupper, chef de cuisine at The Thomas, noted that he and his wife, Widi, who was born in Indonesia, really love Japanese hot pot, shabu shabu. They’d wait until the kids were asleep — “that’s our quiet time” — and prepare beef shabu shabu as “it doesn’t require a lot of cooking because you do it yourself.”
Kupper said one needs a portable burner to do shabu shabu to heat up the beef broth. You’ll need some thinly sliced beef and thinly sliced shrimp — available at most Asian markets. Start by adding some shredded cabbage and enoki and shiitake mushrooms to the hot broth to give it added flavor, Kupper said. Next, add some firm tofu, swish around the beef and shrimp to cook it, adding baby spinach last.
In addition to steamed rice and sesame sauce, Kupper prepares condiments — “my wife likes spicy stuff” — such as ponzu sauce containing grated daikon, togarashi, minced garlic and scallions.
“We drink hot Ocha green tea — it burns the fat,” he concluded. “Oh, I might have a Sapporo, too.”
Napa resident Mark Dommen, executive chef at One Market in San Francisco, said he and his wife, Debra, are really into crudo dishes lately. So he’d plan a meal with oysters, hamachi crudo and steak tartare, with a chocolate soufflé for dessert. Asked if his young daughters would get the same, he said he’d prepare macaroni and cheese for them. His wife piped up: “I’d make the mac and cheese because I do it better.”
Ken Frank, executive chef at La Toque, responded: “If we ever get Valentine’s Day off — oh never mind, between a florist and a chef that will never happen. But if we did, we would stay home and attack a couple of Dungeness crabs before we split a nice, thick, rare ribeye and get a really good bottle of wine — or two — from the cellar. Of course, there are fresh flowers in our house 365 days a year.” His wife, Sherylle, is both a master gardener and floral designer. It’s her spectacular arrangements one sees in their restaurant at the Westin Verasa hotel.
Although it gives him comfort to prepare food for others, Kelly Macdonald, executive chef of the Napa Valley Wine Train, said he’d want to be with the women in his life, particularly since his mother is battling cancer.
“If I did have the day off, I’d drive up to Sonora with my wife to see my mother, to visit and prepare lunch,” he said. “I learned to cook from my grandmom and mom. ... You can’t cut corners with her.”
Macdonald shared a personal thought about his love of cooking for people. “In the past three years, three people have requested that I cook on the train for a loved one whose last wish was to have one of my meals on the train. That’s humbling ... (and) means more than any award I could receive. Whenever I get a bit whiny, I think about that and man up.”
Executive chef for Lucy at Yountville’s Bardessono hotel, Victor Scargle said, “It would be fun to do a picnic at the beach. I’d grab some cheese and charcuterie and my family and head to some warm beach for a picnic. That might involve travel ... like Hawaii.”
Bistro Sabor restaurateur Ariel Ceja said whatever the occasion, he’d be the guy in charge of “bringing the wine, because when it comes to food I’m surrounded by a lot of talented people both in my personal and professional life. But I could prepare some banana chocolate chip bread that I learned how to do from my mother. I’d accompany that with a tawny Port.”
Brandon Sharp, executive chef of Solbar restaurant at Solage Resort in Calistoga, said he’d plan a menu that includes “Champagne and caviar with buckwheat blini, crème fraîche and smoked salmon. Expensive ingredients but worth it, and prep time is minimal.”
A native of France and owner of Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco, chef Hubert Keller recently published a cookbook and memoir, “Souvenirs, Recipes and Stories From My Life” (Andrews McMeel Publishing) and drew inspiration from this for his ideas for Register readers.
“What makes a great Valentine’s celebration at home?” he mused. “You’ve got to have candles all over the place and create an intimate atmosphere. Champagne is a must, preferably a Champagne rosé. Add caviar, and you can’t go wrong — and you are sharing.
“Now when it comes to cooking something at home, keep it simple but upscale, like Burrata with Sweet Pea Ice Cream followed by Lobster with Lemon-Caper Butter and Herb Salad. As main course, a Rack of Lamb Cooked in Hay, and to wrap it up, the Make-Ahead Chocolate Soufflé. You have to finish with chocolate. Happy Valentine’s.”
Recipes for chef Keller’s dishes can be found in his book.
Grilled Lobster with Lemon-Caper Butter and Herb Salad
Hubert Keller, “Souvenirs”
If you have access to a garden, this is the time to forage for whatever small leaves and flowers you can find for your salad — for example, nasturtium leaves and flowers, borage flowers, chive blossoms and even Johnny-Jump-Ups. Also, baby carrot leaves, lovage, baby arugula and watercress would be welcome additions.
Serve the salad with a crusty baguette or ciabatta.
Makes 2 servings.
2 fresh, lively, whole lobsters, about 1 1/4 pounds each
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
Lemon Caper Butter:
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature
Tomalley from lobsters (optional)
1 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. nonpareil capers, drained
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Freshly grated zest of 1/4 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
Handful of fresh chervil leaves
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 small bunch fresh chives, cut into 1-inch lengths
Leaves from 1 good sprig of fresh tarragon
To cook and clean the lobsters:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare an icewater bath. Drop the lobsters into the pot head-first. Quickly cover the pot and cook for just 2 minutes. Pull the lobsters out of the pot and plunge them into the ice bath to stop the cooking.
To cut the lobster:
Set the lobster belly-down on the counter. Insert a sharp, heavy knife right between and just below the eyes and then cut straight down to the tail through the back, cutting the lobster in half lengthwise. Then, beginning from the same point and cutting toward the mouth, cut through the rest of the head.
Remove and discard the intestine tube that runs down the center of the tail. Scrape the greenish-looking tomalley into a bowl and reserve.
Crack the claws by hitting them hard with the back of a knife just below the knuckle of the two pincers.
Set the lobsters aside while you build a medium fire on the grill. The biggest mistake people make when grilling shellfish is to crank up the heat to the maximum. That’s when the shells burn and the flesh easily overcooks.
To make the butter:
Add the softened butter to the tomalley with the mustard, capers, shallot, lemon zest and a pinch of the salt and pepper. Mash together with a fork until evenly blended. Set aside until needed. Do not chill it, since you want it to remain soft and spreadable.
To make the salad:
Measure the lemon juice and oil into a medium bowl. Add a good pinch of salt and pepper. Stir together with a fork or whisk. Pile the basil, parsley, chervil, cilantro, chives and tarragon on top of the dressing and set aside. Toss the salad just before serving.
To finish the dish:
When the fire is ready, brush the flesh side of the lobsters with olive oil. Place them flesh-side-down on the grill. Sear them lightly, no more than 2 minutes. Turn them flesh-side-up. Smear the butter over the lobsters, cover the grill and cook just until tender, about another 4 minutes.
While the lobsters cook, toss the salad and taste for seasoning. Place two lobster halves on each of two large plates and arrange a handful of salad on top of each. Serve immediately, making sure to have nutcrackers on the table for the claws.
Features Editor Sasha Paulsen contributed to this article.