On Valentine's Day, I treat my customers just like I'd treat my wife. Just don't tell her I said that; I already get myself in enough trouble being absent every Feb. 14.
Whether designing a special menu for home or resto, I always turn to aphrodisiacs coupled with sensual, suggestive ingredients and dishes. It's all about titillating the senses: sight, smell and touch are just as important as taste.
For starters, a Valentine's dinner needs to be pretty -- a visual feast as well as culinary. It should quench one kind of hunger, and hopefully replace it with another. Consider food and drink part of foreplay. It's all part of the seduction.
That's why, as an executive chef at four restaurants -- Terra and Sarpa in Richmond Hill, Francobollo in Toronto, and Rusty's in Collingwood -- V-Day allows me to get playful in the kitchen.
To start things off, you can't go wrong with Kir Royale - a French cocktail made with a nice champagne and crème de cassis - or a nice prosecco. I often varnish with a raspberry to set the mood. There's something about that deep red colour set over a drink that's elegant and bubbly.
Like any fine romance, the menu details are important - from warm colours to silky textures.
For an appetizer, my go-to is nature's ultimate aphrodisiac: oysters. We serve combos of shucked, raw oysters from the east and west coasts - typically with habanero-infused Vodka, lemon and lime, and horseradish. My personal preference is a little squeeze of lemon and lime. Another tip? Don't just swallow these delicacies; they need to be chewed to fully appreciate.
Next I'll often serve a silky lobster, shrimp or shellfish bisque, and finish with a thickened layer of cream or grilled corn on top. It's all about adding a bit of playful innuendo to your menu.
Stuffed tortellini served with a velvety, pillowy cream sauce is a great middle course, with ingredients like fresh truffles, mascarpone cheese, a touch of ground veal, foie gras crema -- and then topped with shaved asiago. I actually half-jokingly refer to truffle oil as sex oil in my cooking classes. The smell alone is intoxicating.
For my mains, I like to go with something that signifies togetherness. Maybe a surf and turf combo -- a fish alongside something rare and exotic like ostridge or venison -- or a symbolic twin pairing of, say, two perfectly frenched lamb chops.
Dessert is, in some cases literally, the cherry on top. For a woman, it just has to be chocolate. My ideal dish is a chocolate mousse -- velvety, smooth, bubbly, and airy! For added effect, you can hollow out large strawberries and stuff them with mousse, re-cap, and then dip in white chocolate. Double the chocolate will blow the object of your affections away. To pair with dessert, I suggest a Riesling ice wine. It's refreshing due to the high acidity and popular with women. Your date will appreciate you putting her tastes first!
For those cooking at home, banish the following from your menu: stew or chilli (nothing to homey or motherly!); anything heavy on garlic and onions; and beans (period). Even Don Juans and Juanitas need to avoid bad breath and gas.
For those dining out, this year's Sunday V-Day means many kitchens, including three of my restaurants (Francobollo, Sarpa and Terra), will be offering a three-day holiday menu from Friday onward. Reserve early.
Our menus are always customized. Terra, for example, offers a three-course table d'hôte, and finishes off with a complimentary rose for the lady. Rusty's takes a different approach. There's nothing better than getting sticky with some BBQ ribs or pulled pork. It appeals to your wilder side. After you've satisfied your animal cravings, we serve The Ultimate Cookie, a large cookie baked in a cast-iron dish, full of chocolate sauce, with a scoop of ice cream and toasted marshmallow on top.
Whether dining out or in, small-but-satisfying portions -- and pacing -- are key. You want to indulge -- not overindulge. Nobody feels romantic when they're stuffed and sleepy.
Even your choice in glasses matter. I find that the smooth, thin edges of a crystal glass provide added texture. Everything you think about should be sensual, even if it's not obviously sensual.
For rushed home cooks aiming to please, keep it simple. Enlist the help of your local supermarket's prepared food section, and then BBQ or pan cook a tasty main, or serve a homemade pasta cream sauce over ready-made tortellini. Terra also sells pre-made courses, sauces and soups. We can make your V-Day easy. And if you lie about who cooked the food, I won't tell a soul.
Of course, I'm always working V-Day, so I can never win. For some reason, the leftover roses I bring home from my restaurants never seem to impress my wife.
But there's no reason you can't become Cupid in the kitchen -- or spark a fine romance via your menu choices. Who needs to draw back a bow? It's what you line up on a fork and spoon that's the real way into someone's heart.
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