Local chefs share their most romantic recipes

02/12/2014 12:00 AM

02/12/2014 10:56 AM

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 Chandler

Owners, Fred’s Texas Cafe

It 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 Grill

Nehme 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 Restaurant

All 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 Nwaeze

Owners, Chef Point Cafe

Paula 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.”

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