Best of WNC chefs share Valentine’s Day tips

WITH A SIDE OF LOVE: Local chefs Michael Pupillo and Katie Button share their thoughts on Valentine's Day meals and decor. Photo of Pupillo courtesy of the Omni Grove Park Inn; photo of Button by Thomas Calder

Valentine’s Day is around the corner. To celebrate (and perhaps inspire readers with a few holiday ideas), Xpress caught up with chefs Katie Button of Cúrate and Michael Pupillo of Sunset Terrace at the Omni Grove Park Inn to discuss unique recipes, Valentine’s Day fails and essential decor.

The two restaurants placed second and third, respectively, in the 2021 Best of WNC category for “Best Romantic Dining.” Chef Adam Bannasch of Zambra, whose restaurant finished first, was unavailable to participate.

Responses were condensed for length and edited for clarity. 

What is the most romantic dish you’ve ever served, and what inspired it?

Katie Button: Working in restaurants, people come in to celebrate with loved ones. Some of the most memorable experiences are those moments when a guest entrusts you to help them with their surprise wedding proposal. I remember one in particular where the guest gave me the engagement ring to hide inside a special chocolate candy surprise dessert I was making at the end of the meal. I was so nervous about losing the ring or giving away the surprise before it happened.  Those moments are incredible because you realize these guests are writing Cúrate — our restaurant — into their life story forever. It’s an amazing honor.

Michael Pupillo: I’d say heart-shaped lobster ravioli with smoked champagne lobster cream sauce garnished with microarugula and drizzled with lemon oil. The red and pink hues known for Valentine’s Day inspired me to put my love into the dish. It takes two days to prepare this delectable meal. The first day is spent preparing and making the pasta, the filling, deshelling the lobster and more. It’s always best to let the pasta rest 24 hours before cooking when it’s homemade. The second day is for putting it all together. Time is love. It’s about two people sitting at the table having a good conversation and enjoying each other’s company — Valentine’s Day or otherwise.

What has been your greatest Valentine’s Day fail? 

Button: Probably forgetting to celebrate it entirely. My husband, Felix Meana, and I are lucky that our daughter was born on Valentine’s Day, so we always have a super fun and celebratory meal planned. The only issue is that it is planned to appeal to a small child. One day, I would love to find a way to carve out romance again in our Valentine’s Day celebration. Perhaps we’ll take the day off from work in the future and claim a romantic afternoon lunch on a school day without our kids. That way we still have Valentine’s Day as well as our daughter’s evening birthday celebration.

Pupillo: Once while making chocolate lava cake, I attempted to reduce a recipe for 100 people to two people. I miscalculated the salt. It became inedible, and we ended up eating the chocolate covered strawberries only.

For those with limited to no cooking skills, what are some unique but easy meals to prepare on Valentine’s Day?

Button: We came up with a package for Cúrate at Home with this very thing in mind. The gambas de palamos are incredible. They are super easy to prepare: You literally turn on your broiler or heat up a skillet and cook them for just a couple of minutes, then peel and eat them with a loved one. They are insanely delicious; some of the sweetest most succulent prawns you will ever try.

A steak is also always a great go-to Valentine’s Day meal. Buy a nice piece of meat, or something unique like the pluma iberica, which is the most incredible pork steak in the world — it’s as if bacon and steak had a love child. It’s from the famous iberico acorn-fed pigs in Spain. You season it with salt and pepper and sear it like any steak to medium rare. Top it with truffle butter, and it is amazing.

Pupillo: Antipasto. Very simple and shareable. Find and arrange local cheeses, fruit, fig jam and meats, mixed with Mediterranean olives, mustard — you name it! And be sure to pair it with a nice glass of pinot gris.

Another option is to order in from a local restaurant.

Or you can try a crockpot recipe! Find a nice cut of pot roast or short ribs. Combine the meat (about 1 pound) with vegetables, wine, premade beef stock, bay leaf, thyme, one stick of cinnamon, a tablespoon of juniper berries and allspice. Set the timer, and it’ll be done in six-eight hours. Meat should be fork tender. Serve with a loaded baked potato. Vegetables are within the pot roast or short rib dish already.

Outside of food and drink, what are some decor tips you’d offer those preparing a homemade meal?

Button: Flowers and candles! Those seem obvious, but it’s true. They are both pretty attainable decor options, and nothing is better than dimming the lights, turning on some music and lighting candles or a fireplace if you have one.

Pupillo: I recommend the table be set with one candle and one rose. Less is more, and the simplicity of it helps minimize distractions that would take you out of the moment. One of my must-have items is a chocolate truffle and fresh strawberries. Pro tip: Use pop rocks in the tempered chocolate and dip the strawberries in them. At the end of the dinner, you’ll get fireworks in your mouth, and that is a good time for a kiss.



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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