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True Romance

Famed chefs recount some of the more memorable as well as distressing Valentine's Day dinners they have witnessed
Feb 9, 2018 5:50 AM

FOR ONE NIGHT A YEAR, regardless of race, language or dietary restrictions, real people do not go out to eat in a restaurant. That's the night when mating couples come out into the open, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and over-priced flowers in their hands, and the conversation revolves around "How do I love thee?" and "I paid good money for these roses, didn't I?"

Ridiculed as cheesy, slammed for its commerciality, Valentine's Day continues to be feted by both lovers and the restaurants, chocolate-makers and florists who make a killing off it.

THE HISTORY OF VALENTINE'S DAY

Never mind that the original Valentine's Day involved rituals that would make Harvey Weinstein look like a choir boy. Back in the day, from Feb 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, which involved drunk naked men whipping women with the bloody skins of freshly sacrificed animals in a bizarre pagan fertility ritual.

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After that, young men would draw names of women from a jar, and be paired up for the rest of the festival and maybe even for life.

It wasn't even called Valentine's Day then. Historians suggest one link was that Roman emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine within three years of each other - one of them for officiating weddings of soldiers without his approval. Their martyrdom was honoured by the Catholic Church with St Valentine's Day.

In the 5th century, things got a little more hazy when Pope Gelasius I combined St Valentine's Day with Lupercalia to create a more PG-version of the lewd fertility rituals. But over the centuries, with some creative licence and a sprinkling of Chaucer and Shakespeare mixed in, a vision of Cupid, chocolates and roses began dancing in the heads of the romantically and erotically inclined.

ROMANTIC DINNERS

No fertility rituals may be involved anymore, but the element of seduction remains, especially with chefs who build in aphrodisiacal ingredients in their Valentine's Day menus to set diners' pulses racing.

At Nouri, chef-owner Ivan Brehm works in some "love" ingredients into his S$210++ Valentine's Day menu, although he doesn't quite believe that the commonly-believed aphrodisiacs are what they seem to be. "We did some research and oysters, chilli, chocolate and such haven't really been scientifically proven to be aphrodisiacs," he says.

Rather, "Dates, date pollen and specific types of ginger have measurable scientific powers. Specific types of ginger, and saffron are aphrodisiacal too. The menu has lots of these ingredients. Even if the guests don't go home and make babies, at least they'll have a fun night."

Kirk Westaway of the Michelin-starred Jaan put his creative juices to the test to create a menu focused on seafood and a dish after his own heart - hay-baked celeriac heart which takes two days to prepare and includes marinating in miso, barley and hay, baking it in a salt crust and served with Oscietra caviar.

Meanwhile, Daniel Chavez of Ola and Tono Cevicheria, is parlaying his Latin roots into a sensual menu at Tono that makes use of 19 ingredients believed to get lovers hot under the collar. They include oysters, mussels, avocado, ginger, strawberries, pomegranates and beef; all worked into dishes with suggestive names such as "Indecent Proposal" and "Your Place or Mine".

LOVE OR BUST?

The tables are laid, champagne is on ice and the flowers are in place. But what really happens on the night itself? While most Valentine's Day dinners go according to plan, chefs recall some of the most beautiful, bungled and yes, heartbreaking moments.

Recalls chef Westaway: "Last year, a man asked us to help with his marriage proposal by putting his ring in a box as a surprise. Instead, we created an enchanting dome display just like in Beauty and the Beast. We put dry ice on a plate, topped it with red rose petals. When the server reached the table, he removed the cover and the smoke flowed out, hiding the ring. Another server stood behind the lady, holding flowers. By the time the smoke cleared, the man was on one knee. Our waitress filmed the entire event on her phone so they could have a memory of it - it was beautiful. By the time he slipped the ring on her finger, everyone in the restaurant including me and my team were applauding."

Not all proposals go so smoothly. Chef Chavez recalls working in Ossiano restaurant in Dubai's Atlantis hotel when a customer came to him with an unusual request.

"The restaurant had a view of the aquarium of the hotel. The gentleman requested that in the middle of service, he wanted to go inside the water tank with a sign that said: 'WILL YOU MARRY ME?'.

"All of us in the restaurant knew about this and were told to keep it a surprise. To be honest we were worried about this man as there was a small whale and stingrays. Needless to say, the lady said 'yes'!"

Chef Brehm, in turn, recalls a near miss when he was working in London some years ago.

"The gentleman wanted to propose and asked us to put the ring in an oyster dish. But he forgot that she was allergic to oysters so when we served it to her, she immediately sent it back without seeing the ring. The waiter was about to take it back when the guy quickly stepped in and just proposed."

While there's much love to go around, there are tears too. Chef Emmanuel Stroobant of the one-starred Saint Pierre recalls how a man broke up with his girlfriend over Valentine's Day dinner at his first outlet in Central Mall. "She cried and cried," he says sadly.

These days, "there are many sweet moments such as hiding a diamond ring in dessert; playing a special song or a timely flower delivery". But "there are also times when couples argue and leave the restaurant halfway through dinner; or the same guy appearing for lunch and dinner with different partners."

His restaurant manager Julien Brockers even witnessed a woman use Valentine's Day to divorce her husband. This was in France when he ran his own restaurant. "The woman hired a private detective and confronted him with evidence that he was cheating on her. She showed him all the photos and ended up throwing wine in his face. Then she stayed on alone in the restaurant and talked to me about it until 3am in the morning."

But the best story is told by foodie Alan Wong, who recounts being stuck in New Orleans on Valentine's Day years ago with a male friend. With no choice but to go out to dinner, they ended up sitting between two couples. "Both tables started quarrelling and the ladies got up and stormed off," he recalls. "My friend and I looked at the two gentlemen who were left behind and invited them to join us for the rest of the dinner. In the end we had a very good time!"