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A Gentleman’s Guide to Cooking for a Date

Former chef, TV star and general wise man Anthony Bourdain once said, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together. If your date makes the experience uptight and restrictive, well, the sex is going to be horrible too.”

I’m willing to bet that’s not always true, but for many couples, the act of dining together is something beyond just a path to nourishment. Eating can symbolize excitement, adventure, even something sensual. Done correctly, a unique home-cooked meal can seal the deal for a new lover, or delight a longtime companion who hasn’t seen this side of you.

The implications are probably why cooking for someone you’re courting can be such a nerve-wracking venture, especially if you only cook occasionally. Going out for a meal is usually among the first steps in a budding relationship, but there’s something more intrepid about cooking for someone you’re just getting to know. Working with your hands and feeding another human being is a display of independence and affection in a way slapping down your credit card at a restaurant isn’t.

That said, you shouldn’t view making a romantic dinner as an impossibility. Josh Scherer, a food producer for Mythical Entertainment, recalls crafting a four-course meal for his girlfriend, who he’d been dating for four months at the time. He set up a table on the rooftop of his L.A. apartment, rustled up his stoner roommate to act as a server (“He was violently high on dabs,” Scherer deadpans), and unveiled a series of dishes like charred cauliflower soup and pork belly braised in a sauce with pomegranate and sour orange. “It was a massive success,” Scherer says. “I mean, we’re still dating four years later. These days I’m kinda over fancy cooking like that, but it’s important as a thoughtful gift once in a while. Even if you fuck up, making a big investment of effort and doing something special is a task all guys should try.”

You might not be as ambitious as Scherer with the menu, but that’s fine—it’s the sentiment and execution that counts. Here’s how to navigate making a romantic meal for your date…

Consider the Timing

Inviting someone to your home for a meal is a step up in intimacy, as cooking for them signifies a will to not only spend time with them, but offer up your hard work in an effort to nourish their literal body. On the flip side, inviting someone over too soon can come off a bit creepy. And there are all sorts of tensions that arise with going to a near-stranger’s home when you hardly know their tastes and attitudes.

Amie Leadingham, a master-certified relationship coach in L.A., suggests that three dates is a good marker of whether a relationship is taking off or not. “It has nothing to do with intimacy or sex, just more like whether you’re vibing enough to go to the next stage,” she notes. “When you know someone is maybe relationship material and there are no obvious deal breakers after those initial dates, it can be a benefit to invite them over for dinner.”

Leadingham warns men not to set any expectations about what a successful romantic meal entails, either. Or better put: A romantic dinner shouldn’t be used as a ploy to get laid. Plus, for many women, being in an unfamiliar man’s private space can leave them on edge, especially if the alcohol’s flowing. “Show kindness and an interest in making them comfortable,” she adds. “Or offer to cook at their place.”

Know Your Limits, and Avoid Being a Showoff

Maybe you’re some kind of sleeper Gordon Ramsay, able to whip up a perfect beurre blanc with your eyes closed while juggling three other pans on the stovetop. Good for you! Most dudes aren’t, yet they routinely fall into the trap of trying a recipe that’s too complex, only to beat themselves up when the execution is flawed.

As a rule, the fewer hot pans you have to monitor simultaneously, the better. The risk of losing control is amplified if you’re cooking a dish or recipe for the first time. The state of your kitchen is a good way to gauge your progress: If it’s a mess, with half-used pots and pans and chopped garnishes and raw ingredients everywhere, you’re doing it wrong.

Even if you have real cooking chops, be aware that doing too much to impress someone can be a turn-off. “When I was 21, I was itching to show [a woman] how impressive I was on like, the second date. I made dumb fuckin’ seared lamb chops with a cherry gastrique. It was so over-the-top that she felt a weird amount of pressure,” Scherer recalls. “She made me come over [in return] and made some bad ziti and felt shitty about it. Then I felt shitty about it, because I was the one trying to flex! You don’t need to flex back! But it was ruined.”

As Leadingham points out, the important thing is to consider the desires and tastes of your partner, not to stroke your own ego. She suggests asking them what they like to eat and what they avoid, showing them that you’re interested in being collaborative.

Part of this collaboration is resisting the urge to trot out the “romantic” meal you make for every date. Isa Fabro, a longtime chef in L.A. who has worked in fine dining and today runs her own company, IsaMADE, warns men to not fall into a clichéd playbook for the evening. “I remember being real jaded about going out on dates and noticing men who had a go-to meal that racks up the points, if you will,” she says. “They put on an album and start pouring wine, making it feel real rehearsed. If you do something more organic, and you fuck up and it doesn’t taste perfect, oh well. Then you can go out!”

Planning the Menu

The goal, of course, is to make a meal that does taste perfect. But you don’t have to be the master chef from Eat Drink Man Woman to pull it off. The keys are to streamline the cooking process, work with only a few main ingredients per dish and ground the meal in approachable, crowd-pleasing flavors.

Fabro, Scherer and a number of other pro cooks I surveyed agree: Slow-cooked food, like a braise or stew, is the best method for success for a main course. An accidental extra 10 minutes could ruin a roast chicken, but probably won’t be noticed in a pot of braised short ribs. Slow-cooked meals also allow you to spend time with your date rather than hustling at the stovetop. Stepping away to cook is fine; disappearing for 20 minutes and leaving your date bored is not.

“Even a dish that’s cooked the day before, something like a braise, can improve in flavor the next day,” Fabro explains. “You can start drinking while you warm something up, and since the main dish is already prepped, you can just do a hot vegetable or a salad at the last minute.”

Again, the less you have to do before plating a dish, the better. Critical to this is prepping all of your ingredients before you start cooking. Write a list of everything a dish needs and keep it handy in the kitchen, because odds are you’re gonna forget something without it.

The Appetizer: A starter should be easy to put together and delicious without being too heavy, which is why I like sticking with the idea of a soup, salad or what I call a “room-temp” appetizer.

Anyone with a blender can make a smooth pureed soup, following the general framework of cooking the main ingredient (say, some carrots) in a pot with liquid (store-bought chicken or vegetable stock will do fine) and other aromatics (a lesser amount of chopped onion, maybe a little bit of celery and a few coins of ginger) until everything’s soft. Toss it in the blender, add more liquid if necessary and adjust with salt and pepper.

A salad is even easier, but ditch the boxed mixed greens and cherry tomatoes for something more unexpected. You can roast vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower or beets hours before a date, and then combine them with some fresh greens (arugula or baby kale work well) and a punchy dressing, like a homemade Caesar, before plating. Or go old-school with a classic iceberg lettuce wedge salad, which mostly requires some chopping of garnishes and an easy bleu cheese dressing from scratch.

Other appetizers can be done even more quickly. Three of my favorite options:

  • A hunk of sashimi-grade tuna can be rubbed with some oil and your favorite spice mix, seared on all sides in a red-hot pan for just 90 seconds, and served with a tangy chimichurri sauce.
  • You can smear herbed goat cheese onto some soft baguette or focaccia slices, brown it in a toaster oven or broiler and top with a simple bruschetta mix of chopped tomatoes, basil and shallots.
  • A little salad of crab meat, diced avocado, olive oil and vinegar can be wrapped in warm flatbread.

The key is that these dishes require more assembly than cooking.

The Main Course: We’ve already discussed braises, which can include beef shanks, dark-meat chicken, lamb or vegetables. While these dishes require some thoughtful planning and step-by-step cooking, mistakes usually only happen when you’re in a rush — which you shouldn’t be, if you’ve heeded our advice about spreading the work out. Such saucy main courses can be served with simple sides like mashed potatoes, steamed rice or even just warm bread.

If you want to serve a classic roasted piece of meat, the oven remains your friend. Instead of standing over a hot pan, poking and prodding a steak for 15 minutes and praying it doesn’t overcook, you can roast it low and slow until it hits ideal doneness and put it aside until it’s time to serve the main course. At that point, you just heat up a pan until it’s ripping hot and sear the outside of the already-cooked meat, creating an impressive crust and preserving valuable face time with your date. The technique is called the “reverse sear,” and trust me, it’ll change your life.

The Sweet Finish: As for dessert, well, some of the best I’ve eaten also have been the simplest. Fruit is a trusty resource: Think seasonal berries tossed with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sugar and salt and served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Or maybe a ripe peach, cut in half and broiled with a little brown sugar and black pepper, garnished with a fat dollop of whipped cream. Fancy yourself a budding baker? Try Dorie Greenspan’s brilliant (and super-easy) yogurt cake, which goes great with ice cream. Or embrace your inner child with a pizookie, that famous concoction of a giant cookie topped with, well, ice cream.

My personal favorite? This insane two-ingredient Nutella mousse, which everyone seems to adore. Spoon it into a nice bowl and chill it before serving, and don’t forget a few pretty garnishes: Some nuts, whipped cream, red berries or crumbled gingersnaps all work well.

Don’t Panic, Have Fun

Cooking is stressful because the evidence of failure is so blatantly obvious, and mistakes can feel like they’re sinking what was supposed to be a perfect evening. Fabro’s suggestion is to enjoy the process of learning a new technique or navigating an unfamiliar recipe step-by-step, and worry less about the outcome.

And what happens if you really do fuck up your menu?

Remember to stay calm. Leadingham points out that how you react to disaster can be critical to your date’s judgment of you. “You did your best, you showed up vulnerable,” she says. “Give yourself a high-five. We have a bad habit of defining our self-worth through work or tasks, but if you screwed up dinner, it doesn’t define you. Make it a joke, make it light. Beating yourself up too much is a turn-off, because your partner will imagine how you would react in a more serious situation. We need people to be able to process disappointment.”

In that case, you really can’t lose. If everything goes right, you’ll have shown your date that you can plan something special and follow through in an impressive, adult way. If something goes wrong, you’ll still have a chance to show that you roll with the punches.

Just try not to pull a Principal Skinner and burn down the house.