A Valentine’s tip from a top chef: ‘Stay at home’ – Stephen Jardine

Eating out on the ‘most romantic night of the year’ is a mistake, writes Stephen Jardine.
Will your single red rose suffer in comparison to the diamond ring at the next table? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)Will your single red rose suffer in comparison to the diamond ring at the next table? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Will your single red rose suffer in comparison to the diamond ring at the next table? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

Like indigestion, it’s back again. Next week heralds the most romantic night of the year. We know that because the shops are desperately trying to flog us tacky cards, bargain Champagne and red roses just off the plane from Kenya.

If you are not convinced Valentine’s Day is a mug’s game, speak to any chef. They hate the whole thing.

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In theory, it should be fantastic. Every good restaurant in the land will be full of couples enjoying a romantic dinner for two. But there lies the first problem.

Restaurants aren’t designed just for couples. On any given night they will have a few tables for two but also tables for four, six and even eight. And the way they are served affects the flow of the kitchen. Which brings us to the second problem.

If you’ve ever booked a restaurant online, you will know how hard it is to get a table at 7.30pm. That’s because it is the most popular time to eat so restaurants only accept a few reservations at that time and spread the rest across the evening to ensure the kitchen can cope.

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On Valentine’s night everyone wants the best table in the room and they want it at 7.30pm. Not getting it means they already arrive a little bit grumpy.

That situation is likely to be exacerbated when they realise the only way the restaurant can serve strawberries in February is to charge way over the odds. It is the one night of the year misanthropic chefs can get away with just about anything.

You could serve a dishcloth coated in breadcrumbs and drizzled with a whisky sauce to most people without any fear of them moaning because complaining and making a scene would not be a very romantic thing to do.

The worst bit of the evening comes when the surprise gifts are revealed. Years ago I smuggled a bunch of roses into a restaurant to give to my girlfriend at the end of a Valentine’s dinner. Shortly afterwards, the man at the next table produced the distinctive blue of a Tiffany bag from his coat pocket and pulled out a dazzling necklace. Ouch.

It gets worse. At Ondine in Edinburgh, a guest asked chef Roy Brett to secrete a diamond ring inside an oyster that formed part of the seafood restaurant’s spectacular fruits of the sea. When his partner found it, he then proposed.

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Imagine being the bloke at the next table with a card from the petrol station and underwear from Ann Summers in a bag in the cloakroom.

Like so many big calendar events, Valentine’s night simply can’t live up to the billing. It is supposed to be the most romantic night of the year but what is even remotely romantic about every couple eating out at the same time not because they want to but because they feel they have to.

It is forced romance in the same way the office Christmas lunch necessitates a bonhomie missing on any other day of the year. For 364 days a year our restaurants offer fabulous eating out experiences but on 14 February anyone with any sense is listening to the advice I received from a big name Scottish chef with a couple of restaurants.

Asked for his Valentine’s night recommendation he barely hesitated before saying: “Stay at home.”