Cooking his way into your heart. Men dish on their recipes for love.
I’ll always remember the guy who got away. Not because of his doe-brown eyes magnified through round glasses, which were cool even before Harry Potter. Not because he was a graduate of Brown and Columbia Business School and could make beautiful furniture by hand. And not because, as I found out years later reading about his wedding in The New York Times, he was sitting on a $100 million real estate fortune. No, what I’ll always remember about him was the dinner he cooked on our third date.
It was a rainy, blustery March evening. In his perfect way, Jake (some names have been changed) called mid-afternoon to suggest that we skip dinner at the latest hip restaurant and grab something at his place instead. I was smitten. (Had he served me frozen pizza and a Bud I would have thought him a culinary giant.) But since he had spent three months at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the menu was creamy pea soup, sea bass with ginger and miso, perfectly charred asparagus, and a rhubarb-pear crumble for dessert.
We never made it to dessert.
"That’s 'the closer,'" my friend Paul told me not long after the guy who got away got away. "You know, the meal that seals the deal. Every guy has one."
The closer is, indeed, an illustrious tradition: the guy's shot to impress a date within the four walls of his home. Some make just one dish—the dating equivalent of the 1950s housewife's company dinner—that's sure to dazzle. My 40-something friend Nick always closed with a chicken curry studded with green apples and raisins that was oh-so-hip back in the 1980s. Others, usually the ones with cooking experience, tailor the meal to their date: Andrew, 34, remembers making an on-the-fly Thai curry—pulling coconut milk, peanut butter, cayenne pepper, lime, and fish sauce from his cupboards—to make an impression on the "hippie chick who liked creative types." But for the self-styled sophisticates, he made grilled shrimp with lime.
"Eating anything releases dopamine and stimulates pleasure and reward centers," says relationship expert Pat Love. "When you eat with someone, your brain associates them with pleasure. That's why we bring candy and food for Valentine's Day. That's why chocolate is an upper. It's all part of the love cocktail."
Both strategies seem to work. Paul, who, as far as I know, invented the term "the closer," is the one-dish type. If he liked the girl, she got the "chicken rollatini"—chicken breast pounded thin and rubbed with rosemary and garlic before being stuffed with fresh basil, mozzarella, and prosciutto. "I have no idea if it’s actually called 'chicken rollatini,'" says Paul, who learned how to make the dish from a friend who grew up cooking with his Italian grandmother. "But it's chicken, and it's Italian—and you roll it."
Clearly, it wasn’t the dish's authenticity that was making Paul's dates swoon. "It's the details," he says. "It's not about going out and making a million courses…it's about showing complexity." To that end, he continues, if he really liked the girl, he'd make her a green salad strewn with edible flowers. "She'd see that, and boom! I'm hand-feeding her flowers before I have the chicken out of the oven," he says, laughing.
Edible flowers are what John would call a "panty remover." An accomplished cook, John has got quite a few of his own. They include: flambé (lighting something—anything—on fire), the old pan flip (where you toss hot ingredients in the pan like a star on the Food Network), even chopping a few vegetables. "I'll precook almost everything, but leave whatever high-heat sautéing or simple chopping I have until she gets here. Then she sits in my kitchen, drinking wine, and watching." His last meal that closed the deal: lamb shanks with creamy mashed potatoes and caramelized carrots—though he admits that his date gave him a nice…er…reward for a great seared salmon dish.
Paul's closer worked so well that today he's married to one of the women who sampled the famous rollatini. But that doesn't mean the closer is a thing of the past. "My wife and I cook together, and I think it's key in the relationship. When you cook together, you're communicating," he says. "Even if something bad is going on, you're working towards a common goal: getting through this conversation, and getting fed."
And when things get really bad? He brings out the rollatini, the edible flowers, and, OK, some jewelry—and closes the deal again.