So that dinner date with bae is suddenly canceled and you’re totally bummed. Maybe you can’t find a babysitter or you’re both just homebodies at heart and decided to stay in. Or perhaps you’re self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic. Whatever the reason, date night doesn’t have to be canceled. You can plan the perfect evening with your partner right at home with a little help from a top chef.
Chef David McClure knows a thing or two about setting the scene for the perfect date night. From bussing tables and bartending to working as a sous chef and eventually becoming an Iron Chef, McClure has experienced all aspects of the restaurant business. And now, he’s head chef of two restaurants — Cafe Provencal and Gabriel Archer Tavern — at Williamsburg Winery, one of Virginia’s most romantic lodging options for couples and honeymooners. That’s why we asked him to share a few tips and tricks to creating the perfect at-home dinner date night.
From setting the mood and role playing in the kitchen to adding personal touches to dishes, McClure’s tips can help you plan the perfect meal and ensure you have lots of fun while preparing it. Cheers to staying in!
Nothing quite compares to a night of fine dining and amazing ingredients, but when we’re at home, what are some tips for creating that perfect dinner date atmosphere?
Everyone loves candle light — definitely sets the mood. Then set flowers or something nice in the middle of your table. Google how to set a fine dining silverware setting and do a fun napkin fold — even if you’re using paper towels. Set out a nice bottle of cold water to pour as you like. If you have Alexa or a phone ask it to play classical music or something soft. I love sprinkling flower petals on the table as well.
Working together in the kitchen should be fun (we hope). Any advice for couples cooking together?
If cooking together, I would say give each other a task and a station or a part of your kitchen to cook. It sets boundaries and helps from getting in each other’s way. Figure out together what task you are good at and delegate that way. If you’re up to it, assign a chef. Have fun switching off the role to each other.
If you had to pick the ultimate at-home date night menu, what would it look like?
As far as a menu, pick a really fun salad with an array of herbs and greens, a nice cheese and make your favorite dressing from scratch. Have a fun fruit component and keep light. For entrees, I love one pan cooking. So pick your favorite cut of steak, sear it on both sides to the temperature you like. Cook baby potatoes in the same pan maybe with bacon, remove and finish in the oven. Then you can make a nice pan sauce with garlic, fresh herbs, wine (to cook and drink) and heavy cream. Let it slowly reduce – all in the same pan! If you have a grill, utilize it for your veggies. Then for dessert, an easy classic cake you can have fun decorating together. Even dive right in and make your own ice cream even without a machine. Remember to use as little tools as possible so you have an easy clean up.
What are some tips for choosing the best wine to pair with your meal?
As far as wine, I would drink what you like. If you can source locally and want to pick out flavors, just think of the acidity and sweetness of your food and wine to find a balance.
Maybe we prefer cocktails instead of wine. Do you have a favorite cocktail recipe for two?
I love doing fun lemonade cocktails, especially this time of year. I make a really good lemonade, add fresh basil and fresh berries. You can also do rosemary or thyme. Let it sit for a couple hours and add whiskey. Your ratio is usually how strong you like it, but I do five parts mix to one part alcohol.That’s my favorite go-to premix. You could also use vodka or even gin.
Cooking may be stressful for some people, so how can we make a cozy night in the kitchen fun?
Back to cooking together, pick a chef and go from there. Maybe half way through change positions. I find the less you buy prepared for your dinner, the more interesting it is and the feeling of finishing that meal is almost triumphant. Then don’t take it too seriously. Pour a glass of wine (or whatever you drink and cook with) and relax. Take problems as they come and have fun solving them. Always remember you can usually turn a mess up into something else. That’s part of the fun figuring it all out.
Let’s face it, we’re not all professionals (thank goodness we have you!). Any technical tips that will make prep and cooking a little easier?
Always watch your temperatures. Keep your pans on the stove top on low settings. Keep your oven under 375 degrees and take your time. Also try not to use every kitchen utensil you have. Pick a large spoon, your favorite knife and try to clean as you go. Then when you’re done, you can really enjoy the meal a little more.
Any tips for picking fresh ingredients?
Well I like to look for the vibrant colors and the firmness of the product. Not too soft and not too hard. Then for greens, you want it to be somewhat dry and clean. Of course make sure it’s bright in color. Always rinse at home in ice water.
What are some of your favorite go-to ingredients for cooking at home?
Always keep fresh herbs around. Also very important, use a good olive oil and find a favorite butter. Use both when cooking. The oil helps keep the butter from browning too quickly. Then I use garlic and shallots in almost everything as a base flavor. Then you add on from there.
When we’re shopping for ingredients for our upcoming date night, what are some easy ways to help elevate your pantry staples?
I always look for the odd components. So if you’re buying jars of peppers or tomatoes look for the more fun options. Heirloom tomato, poblanos, jalapeño, sishitos. I also look for nice pastes that last a while to use for flavoring. Find a good olive oil and stick to it. I also look for fun pastas, grains like farro or quinoa, which are so versatile. Good, off-the-wall vinegars are fun too – white balsamic, rice wine vinegar and others you don’t always see at peoples homes.
Check out more on Chef McClure and his work at the restaurants at The Williamsburg Winery.