Valentines Day: A Chef’s Perspective

As a young Sous Chef, Valentine’s Day presented me with the first big challenge of my career. When I created my first Valentine’s Day menu, our Executive Chef was out for the entire month of February, recovering from foot surgery, and I was tasked with creating our V-Day specials. I’d been helping to create our Daily Specials for well over a year, spending countless hours at the library reading cook books on my days off ( the Internet was not a thing yet ). But Valentine’s Day was the ultimate challenge: a day when you were called to do your very best work. A higher-end menu was obviously required, and it needed to be extra… sexy. I was to write a five-course menu in which each course would have two items to choose from. The planning and execution that first year really put my skills to the test. I worked three twelve hour-days leading up to the big event. Valentine’s Day itself was a sixteen-hour day. It kicked my ass, but the food turned out to be just right. Against many odds, I pulled it off.

Since then, over the years, I have repeated this process numerous times, almost invariably starting with a list of ingredients: passion fruit, fresh berries, “tear drop” tomatoes, oysters, and ingredients with the words “petit” or “baby” in front of them.

Success, sure, but I have to admit: for one reason or another, Valentine’s Day has always been an ambivalent experience for me.

It’s always a challenge to create a great menu, but Valentine’s Day is also “one of those” holidays that we in the industry refer to as “amateur hour.” On this day, we’re always trying to impress customers who probably only go out to eat twice a year. (The other top day is Mother’s Day, which is the busiest day of the year in the restaurant business) . Frankly, I’m always a little disappointed with the sales. Although we are selling more expensive food, every table is a two-top. The table that fits four to six people on Mother’s Day sits half empty on Valentines Day.

Also, in my younger years, I wasn’t experienced with dating and intimacy, and so there was also always something depressing to me about the Valentine’s Day shift. All those happy couples staring into each other’s eyes was, well, distracting for a guy who rarely ever had time for a date. Later in life, when I had a partner, it wasn’t much better. I’d always explain that I’d do something special with my partner after the long restaurant day was over, but I’d invariably come home exhausted without flowers and gifts, and although they said they understood, my partners and girlfriends were understandably disappointed.

The days of working fourteen-hour shifts are mostly a thing of the past now, but as seems the norm in this time of Covid-19, two of our main chefs are out this year with health issues. So I find myself working long days again to get us through the Valentine’s Day weekend. I put my head down and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

It’s hard while I do it not to remember that three years ago, right around this time, we suffered a tragic loss in our restaurant family. In early February, Rob, one of our owners, slipped and hit his head on his driveway after work. He was in a medically-induced coma until, on February 9th, they pulled the plug. Rob was an amazing leader. He’d been my friend for over twenty-five years and we were all crippled with grief that year. Yet, five days later, Valentine’s Day still arrived as it always does. For three hours that night, we put our grief aside and served a restaurant full of happy couples. That experience gave a whole new meaning to the concept of, “leave your shit at the door.” After the dinner service, when the romantic duos had gone for the night, the staff gathered around the bar and raised a glass to our friend.

I guess you could say that this year is just as weird, although in a totally different way. The restaurant is already socially-distanced and at fifty-percent capacity, so seating two-tops will feel kind of normal. Along with the in-house menu, I’ve put together a three-course video meal kit that guests can follow along with at home and assemble themselves. Usually, seeing the happy faces of our guests is my one real reward for the service on this holiday, but this year I have a reprieve and I’m grateful for it. A smaller, simpler menu will do the trick. Whether at home following my menu with my chosen ingredients, or at our socially-distanced two-tops, lobster tails will be steamed and eaten, oysters shucked and inhaled. Guests will feed each other chocolate-dipped strawberries. A show will go on that will help people forget for one evening the burdens we’re collectively carrying right now.

As always, of course, I’ll be happy when it’s over. This one celebration, with all the expectations attached to it, won’t make our relationships or our lives any better or worse in the long run.

But making this a memorable evening either out, or at home, will be a true and good experience for people who have been burdened with fear and worry and isolation for the last twelve months. So, for the first time in years, I’m happy to be a part of this special day.




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Chef Paolo Neville

Executive Chef and author with 30 + years in the service industry. I have two amazing sons and a passion for food and the restaurant industry.