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Sweet Talk

Local chefs describe their ideal Valentine's Day off

By Stett Holbrook

LOVE AND KISSES are in short supply for chefs on Valentine's Day. While it's not quite as bad as Mother's Day or Easter brunch, chefs are crazy busy on Valentine's Day. Restaurants are booked up well before the Hallmark holiday with dutiful lovers looking for a special night out.

Working on special occasions like Valentine's Day, when everyone else has the night off, is part of a chef's life. But what would someone who cooks for a living do if they had Feb. 14 off? I checked in with a few local chefs to ask how they would spend their Valentine's Day and how they'd go about wooing someone with food.

"I'd probably stay at home," confesses CURTIS VALDEZ, who shares chef duties with his twin brother Russel at San Jose's Seven Restaurant. To make a romantic meal, he'd start with fresh oysters on the half-shell or something decadent like foie gras.

"My girl loves it, but I don't know how other girls would like it," he says. For an entree, he recommends something light and delicate like fresh fish. To woo a woman, Valdez says, it's important to appeal to their tastes with fresh, clean and light flavors. "Keep it simple," he advises.

When it comes to dessert, he's a traditionalist: chocolate-dipped strawberries.

BART HOSMER, restaurant chef at Santa Clara's Parcel 104, said if could get the night off and find a baby-sitter, he'd go out to dinner with his wife. But for him, a romantic night is not so much the roses, boxes of chocolates and other "trinkets" of Valentine's Day but "just time together." When it comes to food, he goes for seductive foods that are flavorful and texturally pleasing. Caviar, figs, fresh raspberries and oysters all top his list of woo-worthy foods: "Anything that has a wonderful mouthfeel to it."

Along those lines, he's preparing a vodka-infused jelly shooter for Valentine's Day at Parcel 104, just the thing to lubricate the evening.

Like Valdez, SHEKOH AINSWORTH, executive chef at Saratoga's Restaurant Gervais, would spend a quiet Valentine's Day at home—"If I were to have a private life and not spend all my time at work."

For her, a crowded restaurant is not the place for a romantic meal and Valentine's Day is best spent at home where she could cook for her husband. "Food is a very intimate thing," Ainsworth says. "I show my love for a person with food."

Her personal Valentine's menu would start with a light, clear consommé followed by a seductive serving of caramelized sea scallops in a rich sauce of shallots, leeks, white wine and cream. Then comes the entree: rack of lamb. "It's my favorite," she says.

For dessert, she doesn't go for the classic sweets, but for foie gras with a fruit compote. In keeping with her French culinary training, Ainsworth would conclude her cupid's-arrow-of-a-meal with a cheese plate napped with a port wine sauce.

But not only should food taste sexy, it should look that way, too, she says. "First you eat with your eyes. You romance the person visually and then you awaken their every sense with the food."

When it comes down to it, though, she says it's not what or where you eat that makes a romantic meal, but the quality of the time you spend with someone. "To me romance isn't a material thing. It's a feeling."

THOMAS CONNOLLY, executive chef at Paragon Restaurant in downtown San Jose, is engaged and his wooing days are over. With a free Valentine's Day, he says he'd go out to eat with his fiancee. But for a seductive meal at home, he recommends the following sybaritic supper.

To start, seared foie gras sexed up in a raspberry marmalade on brioche toast points. For the entree, grilled filet mignon shares a cozy plate with truffled scalloped potatoes. "For dessert, the women want crème brûlée," he says knowingly and suggests perfuming the dessert with star anise.

The guiding philosophy of a romantic menu is top quality ingredients, he says.

"The crème de la crème. That's what women want. ... The key to a woman's heart is through her stomach."

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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