How to Make the Perfect Valentine’s Day Dinner

This award-winning chef shares his secrets—including the recipe for his mouthwatering braised short ribs.

Images: Dhanraj Emanuel

An intimate Valentine’s Day dinner at home is a cozy way to treat your loved one. But how’s a beginner cook to pull it off? That’s where chef Thomas Lents comes in. He’s worked for “Chef of the Century” Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas and earned two Michelin stars while at an acclaimed restaurant in Chicago. Plus, he recently returned to his home state of Michigan to open the Apparatus Room, an inviting AAA Three Diamond restaurant with new American fare in Detroit.

Sold? We definitely are. Here are his tips for aspiring cooks who want to make the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner for their loved ones:

Consider your cooking comfort level

The last thing you want to do on a big, meaningful night is to try something that’s way out of your wheelhouse and then not have it succeed,” Lents says. Instead, cook something you’ve made before or are comfortable trying for your Valentine’s Day dinner.

Lents continues: “Or, if you have the time beforehand, practice. Cook it for a couple of friends before you do it for your valentine. The biggest thing is to put yourself in a position where you feel you’re going to be successful.”

Personalize your menu

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Before deciding what to cook for your Valentine’s Day dinner, consider who you’re cooking for and take their tastes into account. Know they don’t like raw food? Take sushi off the table. But even if your sweetheart is very particular (picky, even?), Lents says you can still work in some elements of surprise. “Maybe they’ve talked about a dish from their childhood that you could re-create,” he suggests. “As long as it’s personal and it’s coming from the heart, it will be romantic.”

Keep it simple

When it comes to the meal itself, don’t overcomplicate it. Chef Lents has a few suggestions to help streamline the task:

Main dish: Give yourself the best chance at success by choosing a dish that’s forgiving. Lents suggests braised foods—like braised short ribs, cooked very slowly at a low temperature—rather than, say, a steak, which has to be cooked to just the right degree. “Braised items give you a lot more leeway to avoid failure.”

Sides: Consider premade options (Brussels sprouts, anyone?) for your Valentine’s Day dinner. “There’s no shame in finding a good gourmet store to do some stuff for you,” Lents says. “They may have dishes you simply need to bake or reheat. That will allow you to focus on the one or two major items you’re cooking.”

Need after-dinner plans? Treat your valentine to the big screen—and some popcorn, too.

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Dessert: Lents says try a verrine—a French dish made in a glass. “You basically just deconstruct a normal dessert and set it into layers,” Lents says. “So it could be a layer of fruit, then cake, then whipped cream or ice cream. And your cake doesn’t have to be perfect since you’re going to be breaking it up.” The effect is visually stunning but super easy to pull off.

Embrace the cliches (they work)

Don’t skimp on those extra touches that can make a person feel pampered and elevate the Valentine’s Day dinner to something more special than your average meal. “The flowers and the tablecloth and the candles, that kind of stuff,” Lents says. “It’s cliche, but that’s what really sets the mood and that’s what romance is. It’s about the mood that you’re setting.”

Ready to start cooking your Valentine’s Day dinner? Try chef Lents’ recipe for red wine-braised short ribs:

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