February 14, 2020 | Frank Bonanno
Jacqueline wrote about Valentine’s Day, starting with a view from 2003. I’m starting with January 31 of this year, because if you’re a cook, Valentine’s Day starts in January. Really, it’s been hanging out there since November. Someone might ask me my favorite way to prepare a turkey or pie, and my answer is, I wonder if a dry aged hangar steak for two would work on the Valentine’s menu? In December the thoughts become more tangible, inked and sourced, because the more exotic the ingredient, the less likely you’re to be able to acquire it in February.
Time to research.
Say you need four lobes of foie gras for Mizuna (I didn’t, but let’s say you do). You want them to be goose, because the flavor is lighter, less gamy than duck. There are only two goose farmers you trust, and you want to make sure they some set aside. Or you want fatty tuna, because that’s the best cut, but hundreds of other chefs feel the same way, and 25 pounds is no small ask, and we’re all ordering from the same few resources. Will Chef’s Warehouse have the Perigord truffles in stock? Who’s got the Turbot, the red snapper, the real caviar? If you’re planning anything flavored with roses, December’s really too late, because edible roses are already a rare commodity, and February 14 is kind of the high holy day for roses. In December it’s all: How many diners will we have? Should we create a prixe fix menu? What price point and turn time should we aim for? What percentage of diners will want fish, or chicken, or meat or vegan options? You want to get fancy, because people are more adventurous on these big nights, and it’s fun to play with sea urchin and heart of palm, or beef heart, but it’s also important to have food that’s familiar and comforting. In December, it’s about sourcing and balancing the exotic and the familiar.
January 31, the rest of the line and the managers step in. Also this: Valentine’s is really three nights. One night you’ll be serving the menu you create, but February 13th and 15th people are still celebrating, they’re just doing so from the traditional menu. So you’re preparing this big celebration menu, but you’re also focussed on your regular, daily routine and the traditional menu. All three nights will be insanely busy, and because the 13th is so busy with pre-revelers, you may not have time to get to all the items you’ll need to prep for Valentine’s night —maybe you don’t have time to confit the squab or break down the ducks. Maybe the sausages weren’t cleaned, cut and stuffed, and those need to hang for at least 12 hours so the casing firms up and they’ll cook evenly. Maybe you go through too much wood for the wood fired oven, and now you have to reach out to the guy for a special delivery, but there are ten other chefs who burned through their wood early, too. So Friday—the actual day—is long and arduous and a shit ton fun. Every sous and chef starts milling around the kitchens at 6am. There’s an energy and a quiet to it, we’re drinking coffee and looking at our lists, and the good ones, the ones who care, will put in 16 hour days, not because it’s necessary so much as it’s fun. Did you write the prep sheet? Has everyone been following the list all week? This is the week of whiteboards filled and erased and filled some more, and you just keep hoping every item gets checked off by 4 in the afternoon. Probably the highest stress point comes around 3. There’s no more running to the walk in or cutting or chopping. Every chef better be set, all the mise en place done, the line clean and sparkling, and the test dinner—the tasting items for the front of house—need to be ready to serve for tasting. You want the front of house to see the way you intend the plates to look, how to place them before the guest. You want them to take note of allergies and restrictions and farmers and sources. You want them to see how long each item takes to prepare so they can plot their flow, and pace the room. They need to be thinking about wines pairings and cocktail suggestions. Sure, some chefs like to dictate flavor and profiles, but come on. That’s no fun.
After the tasting, and descriptions, and suggestions, then we’re all going over the printed guest list together. Who’s been in before? Who’s new? Tonight everyone’s on a special date, and you need to honor that. There are people who expect to see me cooking or talk to me as the owner, and you need to honor that, too. And suddenly it’s a quarter to five.
The music changes, the lights dim, and we go back to the kitchen, double check everything, sweep, mop, and center ourselves for the night ahead. This moment of quiet is why a lot of chefs still smoke. Then, after months of planning, days of checklists and telephone calls and chopping and stuffing and weighing and whisking and tasting and collaborating, all the tension of the search for perfection just. Lifts. It all washes away. You’re set. It’s time to lean in to what you love, what I love, I get to cook for people who are out celebrating love. This is literally what we’re in it for, all the prep and thought and attention leads to this fun, beautiful, precise, dynamic cooking. We get to shine, and
I can’t wait to celebrate my love with you.