We’re often told that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in the case of these restaurant couples, the same can be said for the ladies. Food played a starring role in the love stories of the local chefs featured here — each who used their kitchen skills to win the hearts (and taste buds) of their better halves. Here they lovingly recall how they met and special dishes (with recipes) they’ve shared.Terry & Jennifer ChandlerOwners, Fred’s Texas CafeIt was Terry Chandler’s pigtails that Jennifer noticed first. “I thought he was very cute,” says the former attorney, who owned a law firm in Fort Worth. “He had two very long braids. It kept me coming in.”Terry, the fun-loving chuck-wagon cook known as “the Outlaw Chef,” adds, “She didn’t see me in my mohawk days.” It was the mid-1990s, years before Fred’s Texas Cafe, originally opened by Terry’s parents, became widely known as the dining destination it is today. Jennifer was visiting the tiny dive regularly for her crush’s Wednesday and Friday night chef’s specials. She often accompanied a girlfriend, also a lawyer, who was dating the bartender. But Jennifer was different. “I wanted to eat my entire plate every time because I wanted him to know that I ate it all,” she says. “Now I don’t do that anymore!” “I started noticing when she started coming in here. I thought she was cute but, you know, I had cute girls all over the place back then,” Terry recalls with a wink.Eventually, they started dating after Jennifer moved back to her hometown of Oklahoma City. She would visit Fort Worth on the weekends and time spent with Terry was always at Fred’s, where their courtship grew. He cooked for her often, and the meals included everything from lasagna to, on one occasion, a week’s worth of chiles rellenos. One of Jennifer’s favorite dishes has always been Terry’s stacked chicken enchiladas, an entree that she fondly recalls was “the special” one night when she came for a visit and they were just starting to date. “She always had the special,” Terry remembers. “And she knew I would be watching her plate.” The couple celebrates their 15th anniversary this year, along with two more restaurant openings, numerous chuck-wagon gigs and the launch of a fleet of food trucks. Terry, whose braids have been replaced with more conservative curly locks, says that he most enjoys cooking at home for the two loves of his life: Jennifer and their daughter, Adeline. Nehme & Christina Elbitar Owners, Chadra Mezza and GrillNehme Elbitar, a trained chef from Lebanon, was working in the kitchen at Byblo’s Lebanese Restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 1999. The busy night meant he had to pull double duty and help out in the front of the house, too. That’s when he met Christina, who was dining with her family to celebrate the new millennium. “I wasn’t even supposed to be waiting on them,” Nehme says. “I just helped out for that day and it worked out. I liked her then, and then we danced.” Christina recalls: “He was really cute. He had a gorgeous smile. We had a lot of fun.” The two immediately hit it off and, a year later, eloped to Las Vegas. Nehme opened Cafe Chadra shortly after and then Chadra Mezza and Grill in 2008. Today, he says, he works with Christina to brainstorm and test dishes. “I think she has a more creative mind than I do,” Nehme says. “If there’s an idea, I’ll put it to work.” Christina says they have a lot of fun together. “We respect each other and take marriage out of the work part,” she says. “We act like partners here.”When the couple is at home, dinner is rarely planned, so Nehme uses whatever is on hand — usually hummus, sesame seeds, yogurt and garlic — to create dishes. That’s how a favorite hummus-and-sesame-crusted chicken recipe came about, and it’s a dish that Christina notes is shaped like a heart thanks to a butterfly cut. “It’s something we make for ourselves that we don’t serve at the restaurant,” she says. “The hummus keeps the chicken really moist. At home, we don’t really ever have a plan, but it always turns out really good.” Chris & Erica Hight Owners, Aventino’s Italian RestaurantAll Erica Hight wanted was her eggplant parmigiana — the bubbling dish doused in marinara sauce and topped with the gooey, melted mozzarella cheese she grew up with at her parents’ Italian restaurant, Aventino’s. When the longtime west-side institution closed in 2010 after a brief revamp to contemporary cuisine, Erica’s husband, Chris, did his best to re-create the classic dish she longed for.“It was trial-and-error, but lots of error,” Chris says. “But she wanted that eggplant back. I know it’s right when I hear her say, ‘Oh, I love you!’ ” Chris worked for nearly three years to perfect not only the eggplant dish but all of the Aventino family recipes, and Erica’s parents gave the couple their blessing to reopen the restaurant in 2012 with the original menu and concept.“Every time I would try something Chris made, I would just have tears,” Erica says. “I thought, ‘This is my childhood.’ ” The couple, who welcomed a baby girl in December, will celebrate 10 years of marriage this year, although they met nearly 30 years ago when Chris’ parents became regulars at the original Aventino’s and close friends with Erica’s parents. When Erica was in college, they began dating, and both later worked the front of the house at Aventino’s before leaving the restaurant to get married and start their own careers. Eventually, they became interested in reopening the family business, but Erica says her parents were hesitant initially. “We assured them with our business plan and that we were going back to basics,” she says.Now customers are also coming back, many to celebrate anniversaries, to recall first dates, to host rehearsal dinners and even to propose marriage, just as customers have done throughout Aventino’s long history.“This restaurant is the ultimate love story,” Chris says, “about bringing the family back together through the love for this food. Aventino’s is the epitome of what keeps love going.”Franson & Paula NwaezeOwners, Chef Point CafePaula was a life insurance agent, Franson a commercial airline pilot. The two met in Tulsa, Okla., through friends. According to Franson, anyone breathing and eating was a potential client to Paula. “But I wasn’t interested in life insurance,” he says. “I was pretty much interested in getting married.”He was so confident that Paula would be his future bride that he told her so, adding that they would also have two beautiful children. Not only did Franson’s prediction prove accurate, the two wound up partnering both in love and in business when they opened Chef Point Cafe in the back of a gas station more than 10 years ago. They are celebrating 27 years of marriage and have two grown children. But how did Franson know so quickly that Paula was the one?“I was a loner,” he says. “I spent most of my time by myself. When I met Paula, she was the same way. I was very interested in somebody who spent their time like I did.” With Franson showcasing his culinary skills and Paula harkening her financial expertise, Chef Point Cafe has since received national recognition as the “calamari Conoco” and made an appearance on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It’s where Franson creates upscale dishes like New Zealand rack of lamb, crab cakes and, Paula’s favorite, Italian-style cioppino soup, a seafood-packed dish that he once made only for her before adding it to the Chef Point menu. It was a meal Paula first enjoyed at a restaurant back in Tulsa during their dating years, and she was disappointed when the eatery closed. Franson’s full-bodied rendition, she says, is the best she’s ever had. “She loves it,” he says. “It’s one of her favorite things to eat.”
Fred’s Texas Cafe
915 Currie St., Fort Worth, 817-332-0083
3509 Bluebonnet Circle, Fort Worth, 817-916-4650
2730 Western Center Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-232-0111
Aventino’s Italian Restaurant
5800 Lovell Ave., Fort Worth, 817-570-7940
Chadra Mezza and Grill
1622 Park Place Ave., Fort Worth, 817-924-2372
Chef Point Cafe
5901 Watauga Road, Watauga, 817-656-0080
Stacked chicken enchiladas with fire-roasted tomatillo sauce
1 4-5 pound chicken
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 1/2 quarts water
Outlaw Chef Heifer Dust spice rub, to taste
Broth, as needed
1. Place chicken, bay leaf, garlic, chili powder and salt in a stock pot and cover with the water. Simmer over medium-low heat for 45 minutes or so or until the meat starts to pull from the bone.
2. Pull the chicken from the pot and set in a pan or dish to cool. Remove the skin and bones and shred the meat by hand.
3. Place the meat in a small saucepan. Add the Heifer Dust and just enough broth to keep the chicken moist and hot until ready to build the enchiladas. Strain and save the broth to use for making rice as a side dish, if desired.
Fire-roasted tomatillo sauce
3 pounds tomatillos, husks removed
3-6 fresh serrano chiles
4-6 peeled garlic cloves
1 medium onion, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Pinch sea salt
1 cup water
Pinch baking soda
1. Over a hot open flame, roast the tomatillos, chiles, garlic and onion.
2. After these ingredients have some nice color, put them in a small stock pot or large saucepan with remaining ingredients except the baking soda. Simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes.
3. Puree in a food processor and force through a strainer. Place sauce back in the saucepan and finish off with a sprinkle of baking soda to knock the edge off the acidity. (Add a touch of honey if a sweeter sauce is desired.) Reserve on low heat.
30 yellow corn tortillas (handmade, if available)
2 1/2 pounds grated Oaxaca cheese
1 cup crema Mexicana (Mexican sour cream)
1/2 cup pepitas, toasted in a skillet
Dip a tortilla in the tomatillo sauce and place in the center of a serving plate. Add a handful of filling and a little cheese, then repeat each step using three tortillas per plate. Top each stack with more sauce, drizzle with crèma Mexicana, then top with toasted pumpkin seeds and black beans, if desired.
— from Terry Chandler of Fred’s Texas Cafe
2 cups vegetable oil
1/4 cup milk
1 medium purple eggplant
1 cup flour
3 cups Italian bread crumbs
3 cups marinara sauce
3 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
6 slices mozzarella cheese
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. In a frying pan, heat the vegetable oil to 375 degrees.
3. In a deep bowl, combine eggs and milk with a whisk to create a creamy egg wash. Set aside.
4. Peel and cut the eggplant to rounds that are 3/4 inch thick.
5. Dredge the eggplant rounds in the flour, dip them in the egg wash and transfer them to the bread crumbs. Pat the bread crumbs into the eggplant rounds, making sure to cover the entire piece.
6. Place the eggplant into the hot oil, frying each side until light golden brown, then flipping. When both sides are golden brown, transfer the eggplant to a paper towel to dry.
7. Cover the bottom of a single serving dish or a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish with marinara sauce. Place the eggplant rounds on top of the sauce, overlapping them.
8. Top the eggplant with more marinara sauce, sprinkle with grated Romano cheese, cover with slices of mozzarella and place in the oven for 6 minutes or until the cheese starts to bubble.
9. Garnish with freshly chopped Italian parsley.
— from Chris Hight of Aventino’s Italian Restaurant
Hummus-and-sesame-crusted chicken breast with moujadara
For the chicken
Olive oil, for greasing dish
2 cloves garlic
Juice from 1 lemon
1 cup hummus
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, butterfly cut
1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds
Pinch of cayenne or your favorite spicy seasoning
1/2 cup tzatziki (combine chopped cucumber, chopped mint, minced garlic, salt and plain yogurt to taste)
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat a baking dish with olive oil.
2. Mash garlic cloves and combine with lemon juice. Stir into hummus to create a liquid consistency.
3. Dredge chicken in the hummus mixture, then dip in sesame seeds. Coat evenly.
4. Place chicken breasts into baking dish and sprinkle with cayenne or other seasoning.
5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until chicken is done. Serve over moujadara (recipe follows) with a side of tzatziki.
1 cup lentils
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 cup bulgur wheat
1. Boil lentils in 3 cups of water with salt for 10 minutes.
2. In a skillet, heat oil and add onions. Stir until onions are caramelized and become dark brown.
3. Add onions and bulgur wheat to lentils. Simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Fluff with fork before serving.
— from Nehme and Christina Elbitar of Chadra Mezza and Grill
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 small red onions, diced
1 pound salmon, chopped
1 16-ounce can chopped clams with juice
1 16-ounce can stewed tomatoes
6 cups water
2 pounds calamari
Salt and pepper to taste
8 jumbo shrimp
8 U10-size scallops
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and cubed
2 medium zucchini, cubed
2 medium yellow squash, cubed
1/2 cup white wine
12 baby clams
16 green-lipped mussels, debearded
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil and parsley
1. In a medium soup pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Lightly saute red onions. Add salmon, clams plus juice, stewed tomatoes and water and boil until salmon melts to small pieces. Allow mixture to simmer and reduce to about 6 cups.
3. Add calamari and remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. (From here, the soup can be cooled and stored one day in the refrigerator.)
4. Lightly season shrimp and scallops with salt and pepper and grill to medium. Set aside.
5. In a large saucepan, heat remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and carrots and cook until tender. Add zucchini and squash and keep cooking until tender.
6. Combine the broth mixture with the cooked vegetables and add the wine, grilled scallops, grilled shrimp and baby clams. Bring to a boil and add the mussels. Cook until the mussels open. Sprinkle with basil and parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
— from Franson Nwaeze of Chef Point Cafe