Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest dining nights of the year. For guests, it presents the chance to woo and romance a special someone. For chefs and restaurants, it’s game time with nonstop two-tops and the seemingly never-ending sound of champagne corks popping in the dining room.
The Manhattan chefs we spoke with — Mike Price of The Clam in the West Village and chef Aaron Bludorn of Michelin-starred Cafe Boulud on the Upper East Side — say Valentine’s Day is all about striking a balance between offering guests the dishes and luxury they expect and staying true to their typical , a la carte offerings.
“Our energy in the back of the house translates to the front-of-house staff, which translates to the dining room,” Bludorn says. “Make sure you’re keeping that festive atmosphere in the kitchen and it’ll get to your guests.”
Below, Price and Bludorn walk through their step-by-step process of creating and selling Valentine’s Day menus, which all starts with asking the right questions. Here’s what to ask yourself and your team as V-Day approaches, along with advice for chefs planning a menu for the first time.
1. What would you want to eat?
“There are certain ingredients people think about when they think of Valentine’s Day dinner,” says Chef Price. You’d be hard pressed to find a Valentine’s Day prix fixe without oysters, chocolate, champagne, or other luxurious ingredients, but there’s also room for chefs to add their own signature, says Price. “You kind of have to include those things, but also as a chef you should ask yourself, what would you want to eat?” says Price. Don’t just add a foie gras appetizer because you feel like you have to. “I think, what would I order if I was sitting down and eating at this price point?” The Clam’s a la carte menu focuses on seafood (think spaghetti and clams, miso-baked fluke, and Maine lobster arancini), so its Valentine’s Day menu does as well.
Chef Bludorn sees Valentine’s Day as the day to offer guests luxe items they wouldn’t usually order while still providing those signature dishes that guests associate with Cafe Boulud. “I like to go through our a la carte menu and pick what I think guests would want, and add a few new dishes to that,” he says. “We try to offer things that would be a little bit out of reach for guests on a normal night out.” His Valentine’s Day prix fixe is a four-course menu that focuses on providing guests with a true Cafe Boulud experience. Last year’s menu included coq au vin, robiola tortellini, and citrus-cured fluke. “Don’t feel like you have to go outside of your menu because it’s a holiday,” he advises. “Add to it and pick the highlights.”
2. How can I add value?
Cafe Boulud’s Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu is four courses, but Bludorn likes to add extras that aren’t listed on the menu. Each guest starts the meal with a canape trio of lobster, wagyu, and tuna. “I want our guests to walk away feeling like they got value,” he says.
Price also considers value in relation to other restaurants. “In my neighborhood, my price point is right in the middle for Valentine’s Day, which is where I want to be,” he says. Take a look at what the restaurants around you are charging to get an idea of what else is out there. “You have to add up the numbers and make sure it makes sense for your restaurant,” he adds.
3. What can my kitchen handle?
Valentine’s Day can be tricky for the back of the house since you’re typically serving two-tops all night long, so Bludorn and Price recommend planning a menu with that in mind. “Normally we do a lot of large parties, and it’s not uncommon for us to sit four eight-tops at once,” Bludorn says. With V-Day two-tops, there are more tickets, more pickups, and more opportunities for kitchens to get overwhelmed.
“I want to challenge my cooks, but I know it’s going to be busy,” Price says. “It’s a new combination of stuff, and it’s difficult to pick up 50 of something that you haven’t made before.” That’s why both chefs rely on their strongest cooks when planning their Valentine’s Day menu. “I think about who’s strong and who can handle more dishes,” Price says. “It’s a fine balance, and it means that there may be more items coming off of saute than grill, or I may have to take on more at expo.”
4. How can I prepare?
Once a menu is set, it’s time to start thinking about how to help your team best execute it. Bludorn gets his team at Cafe Boulud ready by making sure everyone is on the same page and knows what’s expected of them. “We come up with a prep list and have a kitchen meeting about what days certain items should be prepped,” he says. “The day before, we’ll check that list and go over all of the prep that should be done.” That process makes the cooks accountable for their prep, but it also allows Chef to cross-check the menu and confirm the kitchen has what it needs. “If they’re not ready, it’s on me as the chef,” he says. “Plus, it’s also like an order guide for us.”
Additionally, ordering is a key component of planning a successful menu. It’s a good idea to check in with suppliers about speciality items and quantity. “I know that my supplier is going to have dry scallops so I don’t worry about that,” Price says. “I have to make sure that they have two or three things I don’t normally order, so I give them a little more lead time than I normally would.” Start talking to your suppliers about what you need for Valentine’s Day early so they can be sure they have it, and if they don’t, you can come up with an alternative.
5. How will my guests feel?
A week or so before Valentine’s Day, Bludorn sits in the dining room and puts himself in the mindset of his diners. “As a chef, you really want to understand what they see on their end,” he says. It’s important to do this for any meal, but especially for Valentine’s Day, when the stakes are high and guests want to be impressed. “Have a server hand you a menu and take a look at it from that perspective.”
Price also puts himself in the guests’ shoes and tries to anticipate which dishes will be the night’s bestsellers. “I look at the menu and the amount of reservations and try to pick what’s going to be the most popular.” He uses that information to plan out the night and think about his kitchen and which stations will be busiest.
Help your team prepare for the holiday, too. See tips for training your staff on special Valentine’s Day menus here.