Social Pantry asks top chefs about romance in the kitchen

Whether or not you buy into the adage “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”, there’s no denying that food is often at the heart of relationships.  It is a powerful means for bringing people together, both as we gather around the table to eat, and because of what sharing food signifies. All around the world, eating together is an important part of establishing social bonds.  It addresses two of our most fundamental needs: to eat, and to experience human connection. In this way, food and romance are intrinsically linked.

We feel a strong connection with people who not only eat with us but are eating the same food as us. It’s less about Lady and the Tramp style romance, slurping on the same strand of spaghetti in one of the all time most iconic restaurant scenes, and more to do with what we’re getting ourselves into when we eat from the same plate.  Sharing food and romance each involves personal, emotional, and physical vulnerability which can lead to intimacy, trust and connection.

The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher once said, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly”. And it’s no coincidence that acts of sharing food – simultaneously reaching into a box of popcorn at the cinema, going out for a date at a restaurant or cooking for a loved one (whether that’s an elaborate meal or simply preparing them a slice of toast just the way they like it) – can often be significant steps along the romantic journey. Of all of these, cooking for someone is often the biggest expression, and labour, of love – not just of the love of cooking, but of the love we feel toward the person we are cooking for. American newspaper columnist and film/television critic Harriet Van Horne puts it this way, “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”.

Cooking for someone else often involves putting yourself out there in a very conscious attempt to give them an experience that stimulates, excites, delights, and satisfies. If you see your food as not only an expression of your love but an extension of you –then if they accept and indeed love your food, they must surely accept and love you.  But the opposite reaction can feel like a painful and personal romantic rejection.

Even chefs who routinely deal with criticism and feedback can feel hurt and rejected if a dish they have cooked for a loved one doesn’t  get the hoped-for response. Many of us also feel the heat of the kitchen when it comes to cooking in a romantic context. And yet, most of us believe the potential rewards are worth it…

At Social Pantry, we see how food can spark deep connections between people and delight the senses, resulting in intimate experiences with and around food. As London’s go to events and wedding catering company, we have a wealth of experience creating tantalising menus and tablescapes to swoon over that set the scene for intimate occasions and celebrations of love. Whilst weddings are a huge part of what we do, we certainly don’t work exclusively with couples. In fact, Social Pantry founder Alex Head has previously hosted a F*** Valentine’s Supper Club – a seasonal, 4 course food-lover’s feast, open to all, based on the principle that people who love to eat are always the best people, and there is no love quite like the love of food. This Valentine’s Day, we asked top chefs to share their experiences of romance in the kitchen.

Here’s what they had to say …

 

Photo credits: Issy Croker

Gizzi Erskine

@gizzierskine
Chef and food writer, owner of Love Café Margate

“I f***ing hate Valentine’s Day! Doesn’t everyone?! I always remember it being a competition at school as to who would receive the most cards and I never won, which I was absolutely livid about so I’ve never really liked it. Although perhaps that’s under-appreciating the romantic element which is ultimately quite sweet. Or is it? I suppose for shy people Valentine’s is the day you might find the confidence to put yourself out there, but we all know love is a game that lasts much longer than a day. As a chef,  no-one ever cooks for me, ever. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. Often if you’re a chef you’re a bit of a control freak in the kitchen so I find it hard to let someone come in and take over my sphere! Would I want to go out? Not, not personally. But are we fully booked at Love Café & Bar? Absolutely, so the demand is definitely there. At the café, we’re more interested in creating a culinary experience based around aphrodisiacs. It’s all about creating that ultimate romantic experience led by the proven powerful effects of aphrodisiacs – a sensual experience involving food that is led by science. Really, I am a scientist at heart, so if we get this right at the café, I don’t even want to know what goes on when our guests go home afterwards! Naturally, because of where we are located near Whitstable, we have access to incredible seafood and will be serving some of the best oysters in the country. My idea of romantic food is food that is shared, that you can playfully feed someone else and be quite animalistic with. Pulling apart a lobster or whole crab is actually really hot, and I think seeing someone get hands on with food could actually trigger some physical romantic responses! For the main course, we will be keeping it old school with a spectacular fillet Rossini. This classic French steak dish is traditionally served with foie gras but of course we don’t use that here, so instead we will be serving it with a slice of fatty duck liver and make a really delicious marrowbone jus. You know that really indulgent, lip sticking kind of richness you get from working with every part of the animal? Exactly that. To finish, it has to be chocolate. We make these really incredible chocolate pudding pots with gooey middles filled with salted ice cream. We serve them with a luscious milk ice cream made with award-winning gold-top milk from Hinxden Farm Dairy in Kent. Of course, all of this needs to be washed down with a carafe of wine. Valentine’s Day is always marketed to couples, but at the café we want to offer more of a culinary experience that everyone can get something out of. Think of this as ‘mood food’ to set the tone for a brilliant evening with girlfriends or whoever you like. It’s about making Valentine’s Day as a really delicious food celebration led by those potent aphrodisiacs!”

 

Photo credits: Create Academy

Thomasina Miers OBE

@thomasinamiers
Chef and food writer, co-founder of Wahaca

“One year at university we decided that Valentine’s should be for everyone, not just for couples so we threw a dinner full of foods that supposedly had aphrodisiac properties.  Saffron, ginger, garlic, chillies and chocolate are high up there on the list – so we had a starter of oysters with a ginger and chilli shallot relish, a delicious saffron risotto with a spiced Osso Bucco, a mineral-rich crisp salad full of toasted nuts and seeds and small chocolate pots for pudding.  We made sure there was not too much food so people didn’t feel too full (always a killer if you want to go dancing after dinner) and I must say it seemed to work as I started going out with someone that night as did a couple of others.  I think when there are so many vegetables, roots, seeds and cacao brimming with essential vitamins and minerals they can’t fail to give people a spring in their step – it was a very fun evening!”

Thomasina Miers has launched her first online cookery course – How to Streamline Your Cooking: Building Blocks of Flavour – at www.createacademy.com 

Photo credits: Feast It Magazine

Terri Mercieca

@terri_mercieca
Pastry chef, chocolatier and founder of Happy Endings Ldn

Bompas & Parr did this competition to win a meat bouquet for Valentine’s, made up of a brace of pheasants, a partridge, roses, garlic and cabbages. To win, I had to write a letter explaining why this would be the perfect Valentine’s gift for my partner, and this is what I wrote.

Ellie, I love you, you’re brilliant. I’m so excited about our lives together. I wanted to get you this love, because you love meat so much and it seemed perfect to go with your excited PhD and the idea of mixed meat, materials, art and science. Plus our shared love of food and cooking together. Remember our hot date plucking and gutting ducks?! I love how into everything you are. You inspire me and I love your witchy intrigue – how you get into stuff and explore it all. Hope we get to do more of this together. Love Terri x

Well, I only went and won! Only problem was I had to go and collect and then traipse around with these dead birds when it came to going to meet Ellie for lunch. The things you do for love! Have to say, it went down a treat!”

 

Photo credits: James Cochran [Official Photo]

James Cochran

@chefjamescochran
Chef and owner of 12:51 by James Cochran

“Back in 2021 I was trying to impress my now current Mrs. We had just started hanging out and were seeing each other in lockdown. It was at the time when 12:51 and Around The Cluck were going full steam ahead doing delivery and dinner kits and we decided to do a Valentine’s kit. We packaged up a 5 course tasting menu and pretty much sold out, but we had a couple extra so I decided to give one to my Mrs to cook for us. I had done the hard work creating these kits and the instructions were very simple… Let’s just say she got absolutely hammered and managed to mess up each course and I don’t think we even made it to dessert. Sure it was a disaster but overall it was f***ing hilarious that all that hard labour and work I put into it was tarnished!”

 

Photo credits: The Modern House

Margot Henderson OBE

@margotehenderson
Chef and co-patron of Rochelle Canteen

Fergus and I had just met; a heady moment. The beginning of a love affair is a wonderful thing, but I remember I was covered in burns because I just couldn’t concentrate.

My ex partner Benny was coming round for Sunday lunch and I didn’t want Benny to know about Fergus so I sent Fergus off to the pub. Naturally, he had to return as if just arriving! All so silly really! It ended up being the first meal I cooked for Fergus and I was so nervous. I made a salt cod and potato bake – one of the best dishes I learnt while cooking at The Eagle. It’s all about layers of waxy potatoes, good olive oil, onions, little garlic, bay leaves and then salt cod to give it that anxious sexiness. I remember feeling quite pleased with it and I think Fergus loved his salt cod bake. It certainly solidified our love. Cooking definitely helps the heart grow stronger.”

 

Photo credits: Patricia Niven

Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer

@honeyandco
Chefs, food writers and husband and wife duo co-owners of Honey & Co

“Love and cooking. Even the terminology overlaps: things can be raw, tender, pliable, sweet till they’ve soured. Things are at boiling point, smoking hot, on a knife’s edge. Dramas by the kitchen sink abound.

After a week of watching too much American TV, it struck me as odd that we never sit down together for a romantic dinner – coming home to a beautifully set table, soft music, candles. It should be easy for us: we can cook and lay a table, and anyone can light a candle. I can do this, I thought, and it’s not often that I think myself capable of things I see on American TV.

Something special. I chose an elaborate recipe for Chinese poached fish in a sweet and sour sauce. I got all the ingredients, the candles, the flowers… I should have known I was heading for a fall. Even on American TV the romantic dinner never goes to plan – he comes home to break up with her, she realizes she doesn’t love him anymore. I had my music on, a glass of wine on the kitchen counter and a recipe that demanded all my attention. Like a low budget sitcom, my dinner would turn out to be a farce, but for now I was oblivious, even as I took a big gulp of the soy marinade, thinking it was my drink.

I made a new marinade and set the table, arranging the house to the best of my abilities. I don’t always see the things that annoy her, so I dimmed the lights to conceal any mess, waiting with the candles till just before she came home from work. Almost done.

My wife was alarmed when she arrived, all her suspicions aroused. What was all this for? What had I done? What was wrong? And she was not the only one alarmed: one of the candles was right beside a dying, shrivelled plant, both under the fire detector, which duly started to blare, drowning the soft music and all thoughts of romance. We ran frantically around in a dark apartment, bumping into each other and the furniture, barking instructions at one another. Turn on the lights! Open the windows! Grabbing whatever we could, we fanned the ceiling in an effort to make that horrible noise stop, while the neighbours came banging at our door – to save us or watch us burn, we are still unsure.

When the sirens had died down and the neighbours had gone home, I was left in a brightly-lit, wind-swept apartment with upturned furniture and an angry wife who was trying to get her heart rate down, calculating in her head how many years of her life she had lost in the last three minutes, thinking perhaps that a shorter life would be a preferable option to the prospect of a long life lived with me.

But still, there was dinner to be had. It looked and smelled glorious, and a bite to eat would surely calm the nerves. I brought out the fish with its glistening sauce on a platter, a pot of fragrant rice. All would be well.

‘A bit salty, no?’, she says. I agree, but I’m puzzled. There was no salt in the recipe, just a bit of soy sauce and four tablespoons of sugar.

‘Did you use the sugar on the shelf or in the drawer?’, she asks, guessing the answer and enlightening me: ‘The shelf is where we keep the sugar; salt lives in the drawer. You’d know that if you ever did anything around this house’. And with that line, romance left our home that night. Date night for us ended with a bowl of plain rice, a heart racing for all the wrong reasons and a fair bit of anger.

Lessons learned: grand gestures are best avoided, and American TV should be consumed in moderation.

Our romance has always been expressed in more quotidian ways, like spending twelve hours in a kitchen together without killing each other, and still wanting to go home together after that. Coming home exhausted to an empty fridge, wanting to collapse on the floor but still walking into that kitchen, and coming out of it with something tasty and easy for your tired and hungry loved one.”

This story can also be found included in Honey & Co At Home by Sarit Packer & Itamar Sruolivich (Pavillion, 2019).

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