February 2009, New York City.
I spent most of my time that year sitting in my bedroom (that was also my office) waiting for the phone to ring or email to bing. No, it wasn’t the breathless anticipation of a romantic caller. Love had taken a backseat to my career at that point. I was waiting for clients.
I remember I was walking on Broadway one afternoon and, as cars honked and I skidded on a patch of icy sidewalk, my phone rang. It was a man looking for a chef to prepare Valentine’s dinner for him and his girlfriend.
Dinner for two is hardly a windfall for a private chef and can also be a bit nerve-wrackingly intimate, but my mind instantly leaped into romantic dinner menu planning. I could do this and do this well.
The client explained that he lived on the Upper East Side and was interested in a multi-coursed meal prepared in his kitchen and served as unobtrusively as possible. This job would take a little more forethought than usual. Though my organizational skills are top-notch while catering, I have been known to shout “FUCK!” loudly from the kitchen if something unexpected happens. When you’re cooking for 50, those exclamations get lost in the crowd’s murmur, but cooking for two is a little different. I’d have to keep my commentary to myself.
There is a very funny adventure that your imagination takes when you speak on the phone with someone you’ve never met. It creates data—sizes, shapes, and histories for people based on very little factual information. This man had an Indian accent, so I pictured a tall, dark-skinned gentleman; handsome, of course, because it was my imagination and I like attractive people, fictional or not. He was very respectful to me on the phone, neither bossy nor over-demanding so I created a man who loves his mother, wants a large family, and finds a great deal of satisfaction at his job. With just the street address, I imagined his Upper East Side apartment to be a pre-war, classic six with views of the East River and a large kitchen stocked with garam masala and cumin sent from his grandmother back in India.
After speaking to the gentleman about how private catering works, I emailed him some ideas for the menu. He decided on a lobster fra diavolo, sparing no expense for his girlfriend. They would start with some champagne and bruschetta three ways—a traditional tomato/ garlic/ basil; a drunken fig spread with fried sage and pepper flakes; and a lemony olive tapenade. They would then move to a shaved fennel, arugula, and parmesan salad with a blood orange vinaigrette. Then I would serve them the lobster with a wine pairing (that he would provide). The meal would conclude with individual chocolate souffle and fresh berries and more champagne.
On the afternoon of February 14th, I arrived at the location with everything I needed. The building was more of a 1970’s remodel than the quintessential New York pre-war I had envisioned.
“Hello, Chef Alison,” my client said as he opened his door. He couldn’t have been a day over 22! “Let me take your bags and show you where you’ll be working.”
The kitchen was minuscule. Like, if you put your arms out wide, you could touch both walls. It had a teeny weeny electric stove and a little fridge. The dining room table was a round, folding patio table for two, set right outside the kitchen doorframe. The building was a few blocks from the East River, but his studio apartment’s view was of the neighboring building’s back end, garbage cans and all. I was shocked for a moment, but there was no turning back (not that I would have anyway). Moments like this (which are never-ending for me) make me much better at my job. While I rely on the breadth of my knowledge for preparing meals, everything shifts with new cooking situations. The wheel needs reinvention every time and it wakes me up. I love to problem-solve so I was eager to make this the best meal ever. I started to unpack the ingredients and equipment. He watched excitedly from the doorframe.
My intuition was spot on about his personality. He continued to be very respectful and positive. He clearly loved his girlfriend very much – setting the wobbly table with candles and a vase of lilies. He placed champagne flutes next to the ice-filled bucket with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot poking out. There was no room left on the tiny table for dinner plates, but I would sort that out later.
While he waited for her arrival, he paced. I finished plating the appetizers and stayed hidden in the kitchen. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. He nodded at me, grinning, and then opened the front door, a bouquet of roses in hand. I listened to her swoon over the flowers and then swoon again when she saw the table. I waited as they kissed and baby-talked for a second and then he led her in and handed her a glass of champagne. They clinked and drank.
Grin on my face, the tray of appetizers in hand, I strolled out of the kitchen to dazzle them with appetizers. The girlfriend… well… she practically had a coronary. She thought they were alone in the apartment. The glass was jettisoned from her hand and exploded on contact with the wall, she let out a horror movie scream that would have earned her an Oscar, and she collapsed.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I’m your chef for the night, and I’m just…” I trailed off because the damage was done. I went to get a broom and dustpan in the kitchen to clean up the broken champagne flute, and he carried her to the futon sofa. I stayed hidden for another minute or two while he explained what was happening. She recovered of course and was unnecessarily apologetic to me. Not as much as I was to her, though.
The dinner was a huge success, coronary aside. The clients were delighted and delightful. I do believe they got married a year later. I’m glad she survived chef-shock.
So this story is my Valentine’s day gift to you, my loyal readers. I spent my entire Valentine’s day on tech support trying to get my broken website up and running again (which took another 5 days to fix). It was probably the least romantic day of my life, but that night I sat on the couch next to my husband, my dog, and my cat watching the Olympics, eating leftover turkey meatloaf. I realized my life is exactly where I want it to be. And that’s the perfect Valentine.
I conclude with a VERY ROMANTIC recipe I’ve been working on recently. It’s the perfect appetizer for this time of year; sweet and salty, comforting and colorful. It takes a while because you’re roasting a squash and caramelizing onions, but it’s worth it. Enjoy with a loved one!
Butternut Squash and Blue Cheese Crostini
- 1 butternut squash
- 1 red onion
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 small wedge blue cheese, broken into small cubes
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped fine
- 1 baguette
- olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. With a sharp knife, stab the squash a few times over the whole gourd. Place entire squash into the oven on a sheet pan and bake for 50-60 minutes.
While the squash is roasting, you can caramelize the onion.
- Peel the onion and then cut it in half. Place the halved onion on the board and cut it into strips (if you’ve got a really big onion, you can cut the strips in half.)
- Heat the butter in a pan until it stops bubbling. Add the onion and reduce the heat to very low. Add a dash of salt and let cook for 10 minutes. Stir. Let cook for another 15 minutes. Stir. Repeat for 45 minutes until you have the onion has truly caramelized. Then add the balsamic and stir.
- Cut the cooled, cooked squash in half. Seed it and peel it. Cut it into ¼ inch chunks and mix it in a large bowl with the onion, the blue cheese, and the rosemary.
- Slice the baguette into rounds. Brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toast them in a 450-degree oven for about 7-10 minutes (watch them because they burn right when you look the other way.)
- Spoon the squash, cheese, onion, rosemary mixture onto the toasted baguette rounds and thank me later.