As a chef, there was always one night of the year I particularly dreaded. The dinner service on 14 February is easily the worst shift of the year.
A quick glance at the booking sheet tells you why. Forty-eight tables for two, all ordering from the special pink menu which features every conceivable pseudo-romantic cliché in cuisine. A red rose on the table and a glass of pink fizz to start - how Laurent-Perrier must love Valentine's Day - and then, inevitably, the allegedly aphrodisiac oysters.
The rest of the meal depends on dragging the rusting heart-shaped cutters and moulds from the smelly plastic tub under the sink, where they sit neglected for the other 364 days of the year. Anything is fair game: heart-shaped terrines, mousses, jellies, gâteaux, ice-creams… anything that can be chopped or squashed into the shape of a heart and bunged on a plate, usually with a few out-of-season strawberries and a raspberry coulis.
The only exception to this rule, curiously, is hearts themselves. I seem to remember the French House in Soho serving skewers of duck hearts, but that was probably attributable to the mordant and entirely laudable humour of its head chef.
At least I could stay in the kitchen for the entire evening - refusing all requests to bury engagement rings in strawberry parfaits - and was spared the cloying sight of couples so engrossed in each other's radiance that they forget to leave a tip. The only amusement of the night is the inevitable row; and innocent fun can be garnered from a sweepstake on which table will explode first.
You may deduce from this that I am a hard-bitten old cynic without a romantic bone in his body. Not at all. There is no reason in the world why a couple should not enjoy a romantic meal, but the usual restaurant version of romance is so schmaltzy it's entirely indigestible. A meal for two at home is a much better idea: just leave the heart-shaped cutters alone. In fact, come to think of it, don't even bother with cutlery.
Valentine's Day: love it or loathe it?
Jonathan Kaye, chief executive, Ask Pizza
"I would have to say I enjoy Valentine's Day. I get to spend a nice evening in with my girlfriend and, from a business perspective, the restaurants tend to fare very well on the 14th. So I'd have to say
I enjoy it."
Sarah Willingham, managing director, Bombay Bicycle Club
"I love it. I love being really soppy, and I love all that pink and fluffy stuff. I don't think you should need an excuse for indulgence, but I must admit that I jump on any excuse to be indulged. It's lovely to have no one else around but the two of you on Valentine's Day."
Greg Lewis, head chef, Chalk Lane hotel, Epsom
"I don't mind it. I can live with it, I suppose. I usually work on the day, so I don't tend to do much else. It will be a lot busier than a normal Tuesday night's dining, but I suppose that's to be expected. As far as special occasions go, I much prefer it to Mother's Day."
David Cavalier, food innovations director, Charlton House
"As a restaurateur, I hated it. If it fell on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, I lost covers, as it was only tables for two. But if it fell on a Monday or Tuesday, it was great, as we made more money. From an individual perspective, I think my wife enjoys it more than I do, as I have to buy her lots of things."