For restaurants, Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year.
For chefs, planning a romantic dinner for two on Feb. 14 usually means cooking for strangers, not their own partners. If both of the better halves are in the restaurant industry, finagling a little time for romance on this most important day for lovers may be downright impossible.
There are lots of restaurants in Maine that are owned or managed by couples. What do they do to make their loved ones feel special on Valentine’s Day – or do they celebrate the holiday at all? I decided to ask a few how they handle the Valentine’s Day pressure, and how they romance each other with food at home. Here are their responses:
STEVE AND MICHELLE CORRY
Five Fifty-Five and Petite Jacqueline (Portland)
Michelle Corry, co-owner with her chef husband of two of Portland’s most popular restaurants, says a lot of people who work in restaurants are somewhat jaded by Valentine’s Day.
But the Corrys, who have been married for 13 years and have two sons, always make a point of celebrating the day, even though it never actually happens on Feb. 14. (This year marks the 11th Valentine’s Day in a row the couple will be working on the holiday.)
“We do try to make it special,” Michelle Corry said. “A lot of people get jaded, but I think it’s important. We’ve been together 20 years, so we have to do some work to have some special nights.”
The fact that Michelle’s birthday falls a week before the holiday provides added incentive to celebrate. The chef, apparently, always buys his wife flowers. (Say it together, now: Awww.) But the romance doesn’t stop there. The couple always find a day near the 14th when they can leave the kids with their nanny and get away together for one night.
Even if it’s just down the street.
The Corrys live about a mile down the road from the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth. Last year, the oceanfront inn became their little hideaway.
“We stayed in one of their suites, and Steve got some oysters because all of their suites have little kitchens,” Michelle Corry, 41, said. “He shucked some oysters, and we had room service martinis with the oysters. We walked to the restaurant for a light dinner, and then came back to our room and had a nice bottle of wine and cheese.”
The year before, they bought an ice skating package at the Liberty Hotel in Boston. They went skating, then drank hot toddies before heading off for a romantic dinner.
If they just can’t get away, they’ll at least put the kids to bed and pick out a nice bottle of wine.
This year, Michelle said, Valentine’s has kind of sneaked up on them, so they’ll probably just repeat last year’s visit to the inn. Or break out the caviar and champagne one night after the kids go to bed. (They both love caviar.)
The romance in the Corry household doesn’t just happen one day a year, either.
“Even though we do work together all day, every day, the big thing for us is, no matter what time we get home – 10, 11 or 12 – we always sit down and eat together,” Michelle said. “We have a bottle of wine and make dinner, pretty much every night. I know it’s a little strange to think about eating at midnight.”
If they have three nights off in a week, they’ll spend two having dinner with the kids, then save the third night as a date night for themselves.
Their meals are simple but made with fresh ingredients – pasta and clam sauce with a salad, or a steak and salad. Steve Corry will braise some chicken thighs and put together some enchiladas, or prepare some other kind of comfort food.
“Michelle actually likes to cook as well,” said the 44-year-old chef. “People just assume … that I do all the cooking at home. But she actually does more than half of it. She’s quite talented in the kitchen. She likes to go experiment, and she’ll just show up with a bunch of Vietnamese ingredients one day and she’ll go, ‘I got all this stuff, let’s see what we can do with it.’ She’ll whip something together and it usually turns out fantastic. It is our work, of course, but at the same time everyone has to eat, so you might as well make it pleasurable and interesting.”
CLARK FRASIER AND MARK GAIER
MC Perkins Cove (Ogunquit) and MC Spiedo (Boston)
This year, chefs Clark Frasier, 53, and Mark Gaier, 56, will be spending Valentine’s Day at the helm of their brand new restaurant, MC Spiedo (an Italian word meaning skewer or spit), in the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel.
They said they’ll probably celebrate a different day, maybe in March.
The couple, together 28 years, have spent the holiday a number of ways over the years – working, on vacation, dining out, spending a quiet evening at home.
Whether it’s Valentine’s or not, Frasier and Gaier regularly enjoy taking turns making dinner for each other at home.
“Whenever we have the opportunity to be at home, we try to make it special and enjoyable – light candles, light the fire, all that sort of thing,” Frasier said. “But we definitely will try to make it special for each other.”
Gaier is a native of the Midwest, and Frasier said he particularly enjoys it when his partner makes him “Ohio things” like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. His favorite is Gaier’s barbecued chicken, which he’s “got down to an absolute science.”
“It’s just perfectly smoky and delicious, crispy outside skin, and it’s just out of this world,” Frasier said.”
The couple’s most memorable Valentine’s celebration was more embarrassing than romantic – one of those occasions you look back upon years later and laugh.
It happened just after the pair first got together. They were working at Stars, a well-known restaurant in San Francisco, and had to work on Feb. 14. But shortly after, they decided to drive to Napa Valley and celebrate with a weekend stay at a little inn. This was in the days before Napa became a culinary thing, and before restaurants like the venerable French Laundry began appearing in the area.
Frasier and Gaier told the innkeeper they wanted to go to the nicest restaurant in the area, and she directed them to a lovely French restaurant nearby.
“We were quite a bit younger and more dashing in those days,” Frasier said, chuckling. “We had these two waitresses waiting on us, and they started hitting on us. They said, ‘What are you guys doing afterwards? Do you want to go out dancing?’ And it was like, ‘Uh, not really.’ ”
When the bill came, they put down a credit card, but were told the restaurant did not take credit cards.
“It was an expensive dinner for the time,” Frasier said. “It was a lot. They said, ‘We’ll take checks.’ Mark pulled out his checkbook, and the last one was gone. So then we scraped and scraped through our wallets, and we had not quite enough. Let’s say the bill was $200. We had, like, $195. So then we said ‘Oh, would you mind, one of us is going to go out to the car.’
“Mark went out to the car, scrambling around for change in the glove box. Well, we finally got together, like, $205. Here we had been waited on hand and foot all night long, and we couldn’t give a tip. It was so awful. We said, ‘Thank you very much’ and literally ran out the back door as fast as we possibly could.”
Mortifying? Yes. But, in hindsight, Frasier said, “one of our funniest Valentine’s dinners ever, I think.”
DAMIAN SANSONETTI AND ILMA LOPEZ
Even though Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, both chefs, always have to work on Valentine’s Day, they still make time throughout the day to show each other how they feel.
Whoever wakes up first in the morning makes the other one breakfast. He sends her flowers during the day. And after work, they make dinner together and she presents him cupcakes or some other special baked treat.
All that romance seems appropriate, considering their restaurant was just named one of “America’s Best New Romantic Restaurants” by Travel & Leisure magazine.
Sansonetti, 36, and Lopez, 32, have been together about seven years, and have been married for 4 1/2 years. The couple’s Valentine’s Day is likely to begin with either pancakes with lots of butter and maple syrup (that’s what he makes for her) or her homemade arepas, traditional Venezuelan corn cakes cooked on a cast iron grill and stuffed with sausage or eggs.
“You put them on there dry and let them get really crispy on the outside, and they’re super tender and fluffy in the middle,” Sansonetti said. “Then you stuff them with whatever you want – cheese or some kind of meat or avocado or something like that.”
After work, no matter how late it is, Sansonetti and Lopez make dinner together. They cook most evenings at home anyway, but on Valentine’s Day they make a point of eating together and making it something special. One year, when they were working at Bar Boulud in New York, Sansonetti came home on Valentine’s (technically, it would have been Feb. 15) and made gnocchi and sauce at 1:30 or 2 a.m. They were eating by 3 – it was late, but it was a special dinner for two.
“She makes me cupcakes, too,” Sansonetti said. “Cupcakes or some kind of baked good. I’m a big chocolate and peanut butter and pretzel kind of person, and she always does something a little different or a little riff on that. But every year we’ve been together we’ve worked. There’s never been a Sunday or Monday Valentines Day we could get off.”
Like the Corrys, Valentine’s is a little extra special for the couple because Sansonetti’s birthday falls so close, on the 19th. He said his wife usually goes “all out” for his birthday.
“She made me a Darth Vader cake one year,” he said. “She made me a Scooby Doo cake one year.”
This year, Sansonetti and Lopez will be setting an extra place at their Valentine’s table. Their little family has expanded, and it’s likely their 7-month-old daughter will be served her current favorite meal: a lamb puree made with potatoes and garlic.
CHERYL LEWIS AND NORINE KOTTS
El Rayo Taqueria & Cantina (Portland)
Lewis, executive chef, and Kotts, general manager, have been together 33 years. They are celebrating Valentine’s Day this year as newlyweds.
The couple is traveling together this winter, visiting family, but most years they celebrate the holiday together in Portland. “Birthdays and Christmas often get moved around, but never Valentine’s,” Lewis said in an email.
Lewis and Kotts are “hopeless romantics” who always start their Valentine’s Day touring around Portland, checking out the work of the Valentine Bandit – the unknown person or persons who hangs red hearts all over the city. At some point, they always surprise each other with cards and little gifts.
As for food, they both develop dishes for dinner – they don’t like to dine at restaurants on Valentine’s – and it’s safe to say the menu will include Champagne, oysters, caviar and chocolate.
Although they don’t dine out themselves on Feb. 14, Lewis and Kotts make sure their Valentine’s Day customers get a special experience. They spend a lot of time planning for the day.
“When we had Cafe Always (for 10 years), it was a tradition to make all the food into a heart shape, or at least XOs, and of course chock full of aphrodisiacs,” Lewis said. “Preparation was pretty stressful, considering it was for one day, but we were devoted. Because of my sculpture background, I could both visualize and shape the food. One of the hardest dishes to pull off was a seafood terrine with a salmon mousse heart in the center. We had quite a following.”
They continue the tradition at El Rayo, mostly by using a lot of aphrodisiacs.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at [email protected]