By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Dana De Greff
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By Zachary Fagenson
What's the difference between a Valentine's Day restaurant meal and the same dinner on a normal night? About $50 to $200. Something is clearly wrong with this discrepancy, yet the heart-shape box of Russell Stover candies doesn't quite cut it as a romantic expression, either.
Leave it to a French chef to devise a swoonworthy, scrumptious alternative. A flower-and-blueberry-garnished strawberry heart handcrafted by Nico Jodin, hunky 26-year-old founder of Fresh & French, is equally satisfying to those who hunger for romance ... and to those who simply hunger.
Edible bouquets are not new. Several South Florida companies, including one chain that advertises in Valpak coupons, offer arrangements of fruits or vegetables carved to look like flowers cartoon flowers, anyway. The typical edible bouquet is what you might call, in show-business terms, a novelty act; the blocky faux flowers look like they were stamped out with cookie cutters or assembled from a child's Lego set.
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"And always there is lots of big ribbons. Maybe a coffee mug," sighs Jodin. "Or a teddy bear."
Fresh & French's bear-free creations, on the other hand, are highly dramatic and carefully designed; imitation bouquets they are not. The hearts (which come in two sizes, the larger eighteen-incher containing enough fruit to feed Fort Lauderdale) are the closest any of these arrangements come to cutesy, or even representational. A spectacular strawberry "tree" resembles Japanese bonsai, with the berries standing in for trained foliage. But most items are more abstract, the produce arranged as artful sprays, in baskets or stylized boats. Jodin respects the integrity and natural beauty of fruits and vegetables, and he uses his handpicked, perfect specimens as flowers would normally be used, rather than cut-and pasting produce to mimic flowers.
Taste figures in, too, which is not surprising, considering the chef's background. Schooled in Paris (where he interned at the Hôtel de Crillon's Michelin-rated eatery), Jodin became too traumatized to work in the kitchen after a restaurant oven exploded and burned him severely. After months of hospitalization, the then-21-year-old concocted a bouquet of fresh baby veggies as a wake-up-call birthday present for a friend who ate only frozen dinners. Jodin received his first three orders on his way to the party, from fellow Paris Metro riders. Orders from Fauchon and other prestigious gourmet shops soon followed. Clients in Miami, where Jodin relocated impulsively after a vacation here, include Preston's at the Loews Miami Beach. On its buffet table every Friday, the hotel features a spectacular Fresh & French centerpiece that's both tasty and beautiful.
In fact many Americans, to Jodin's dismay, find his creations too beautiful to eat. "One lady who ordered my work for a big party put chairs all around the table," he demonstrates, building a formidable barricade, "so no guests can touch it." The chef prefers to see his ultimate crudités arrangements decimated by hungry hordes. In fact he'll concoct aioli, vinaigrette, or other tasty homemade dips (not advertised in the firm's showroom or on its Website, www.freshandfrenchusa.com, but available upon request for an extra charge) to encourage destruction. And vegetable bouquets come with a couscous recipe, created by Loews executive chef Marc Ehrler, to use up leftovers.
As for the hearts, says Jodin: "With strawberries I always think of chocolate sauce." Or pair a heart with one of Pommery's hard-to-find "Pops" gift packs three splits of softly inviting champagne, packaged in clever, classy Pop Art-decorated bottles which Jodin acquires directly from a friend in France. Take it all into the bathtub, the chef recommends, "with a drinking straw. We French do." Who says you have to find Valentine's Day romance at a restaurant?