My kitchen has been good to me over the years. It has provided me ample sustenance and a lively social venue. It has been the site of many intimate dinner dates and parties. On lucky rare occasions I have been rewarded well for my efforts at the end of a decadent meal.
But those stories are boring. Better to share some of my many disappointments and flat out disasters so that you don’t need to make the same mistakes that I insist on repeating over and over.
1) Manage expectations. Unlike a restaurant which does all the work, cooking a meal for a special guest requires not just time and labor, but emotional investment. It is for that reason that a home cooked meal delivers a bigger payoff, but it can also open you up to being more vulnerable if the evening does not go as well as planned. Don’t have a strict agenda or desired outcome for the night. Feeding somebody is an act of joy in itself. (That said, if you feel spurned or under-appreciated at the end of the evening, go have a shot of whiskey; once drained, avoid smashing it against the floor. Cleaning up the broken glass will be just one more chore that you must face alone.)
2) Keep it simple, do it well. You know what’s not sexy? Stressing out while cooking in front of your date and then after all the drama, fucking the meal up anyway. Plan ahead and test out your dish before showtime. A good rule is to prepare something you know and love. One misguided evening I made the poor decision of experimenting with an unfamiliar Indian spice mix in a vegetable and chicken stew. The vomit-colored result was an inedible trainwreck. The sauce was too spicy and the chicken was under cooked. Time could not go pass fast enough as my guest politely shifted the baby spit-up from one side of her plate to the other.
3) Know your audience. In anticipation of a French couple joining me for dinner, I spent some money on a beautiful beef filet. When they entered my kitchen to help cook, I proudly raised the bloody cut of meat. They instantly blanched in horror. A wave of shame washed over me as I then remembered they were observant Hindus. This one’s easy: don’t let your main course violate the religious and ethical beliefs of your dinner guests. Know the dietary restrictions of the people you feed.
4) Don’t be a martyr. You cleaned your apartment, shopped for the nicest ingredients and worked hard on a thoughtful meal. Despite all your effort and best intentions, the meal is all business and no romance. This relationship will probably end at the door when she decides to go home as soon as socially acceptable.
5) Actually feed your guests. Speak to many of my friends and they’ll tell you the following: “We showed up at one of Ben’s dinner parties and left without eating anything.” Did they have a blast and drink all my booze? Yes. But as a chef your job is to put food in stomachs. It’s sometimes harder than you think. A meal can take too long. You might have too many guests, or tasks to manage, and soon enough it’s midnight and everybody is leaving. I once fed sand-covered, under-cooked potatoes and cold corn on the cob to a large party on a windy beach in the pitch dark. Remember to stay on top of the clock and get your meal out. Your friends trusted you to feed them.
6) Make time for her. You throw a dinner party for your friends — with one particular guest in mind — then you end up ignoring her the whole night because you’re running around being a super host. I have been guilty of this many times. Learn to multi-task while being attentive to your date — who may not know a soul among the pack of wolves you call friends.
7) Make it memorable, but not over the top. It’s easy to get excited and want to impress on a first date. I invited a fellow foodie over for dinner and went all out on the meal. Home-baked bread, exotic cheeses, three-course meal and esoteric wine. The parade of plates and pairings of wines ended up being just too much for the occasion and the extravagance communicated a message that was more intense than intended. It scared her off. Be thoughtful about your meal, but on a first date, make it casual. If you have a second date, go bananas and see what happens.
8) Don’t run out of booze. This might seem fratty, simplistic and perhaps even cynical, but alcohol is pretty much critical for the success of a romantic meal. From a gastronomic level, wine and the right beer compliment your food while stimulating appetite. Social anxiety? We know how booze unlocks inhibition. And remember, you’ll never value that next bottle of wine more than the time when you’ve completely run out of something to drink halfway through your night. It’s like somebody throwing on the lights during the slow dance at a middle school mixer. If it doesn’t bring things to a complete halt, it at least changes the momentum pretty fast. Complete the arc of meal and make sure that you have one last sip of something in order to properly close out your night. (It goes without saying that over consumption can open the door to worse problems. Spirits are a tricky mistress that way.)
9) Respect Your Neighbors. Your friends leave at the end of the night, she might leave in the morning, but your neighbors aren’t going anywhere. Take the case study of a pizza party I threw this winter. Many pies, many people, roaring oven all night long. It was not the clang of the music or the din of my friends that pissed off everybody else on my hall. It was the relentless ear piercing pang of the hallway smoke detector triggered by the exhaust from my oven. The pizza was great, but the oven sucked. What was my mistake? Not sharing more slices with all my neighbors. Feed your community and you’ll keep anger at bay.
10) Have fun, be yourself and smell your ingredients. Very few opportunities allow you to put your creative fingerprint on a date experience like cooking a dish for somebody at home. A meal made from scratch is a deeply felt romantic gesture. Because of that you will be on her mind the next day. Just make sure it’s not because she’s barfing all morning because of food sickness. Do the smell test on the food you are about to cook. If something stinks, just toss it out.
Read more from Ben at BK + MTL Kitchens.
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- Hot Date? Stay Cool With Three Summer Drink Recipes
- The Recipe for the Perfect At-Home Pizza Date
- Amazing Post-Date Desserts That You Can’t Screw Up
Top image via Veer; bottom image courtesy of Ben Pomeroy