"The real secret to exceptional cuisine," Ben Bennani writes, "is romance. It is romance that inspires the imagination and turns a good meal into a memorable event. It encourages us to lavish loving care on every detail so that the meal excites all of the senses."
So goes the introduction to Bennani's recently self-published cookbook, "The Cuisine of Romance."
The Costa Mesa resident, a charter airline pilot and chef, put together 200 pages of recipes and pensees (including "Magic of Herbs in Your Love Life" and "Honey--The Medicine of the Soul") so "practicing romantics" and "aspiring romantics" can "benefit from my knowledge of cooking and love," he said.
Born in Taza, Morocco, the eldest of eight siblings, Bennani was a child with wanderlust.
At 16, he left home for Canada, settling in Montreal, where he worked in restaurants and hotels. In 1975, he graduated from the Institut de tourisme et d'hotellerie du Quebec.
Recrossing the Atlantic to sink his chops into the kitchens of Europe, Bennani finished the '70s working as a cook in Germany, England, France and Switzerland. At the request of a friend opening a restaurant in Garden Grove, he came to Orange County seven years ago.
"This is the first time I have stayed so long in one place," he said. "I came here thinking I would be here for maybe a year, but I have made it my home.
"I like the weather--I was born under the sun and I want to live in a sunny place," he said. "And here, I can fly all year long. This is what I love to do--to fly and to cook. When you are flying or when you are cooking, there is always a challenge, there is always change."
One change Bennani hopes for soon is a romance of his own.
"That's the thing I am missing in my life right now," he said. "I have a lot of friends, but nobody special."
Should romance come his way, Bennani can flip back through his tome for tips. Here's the one that accompanies his recipe for filet mignon:
"When you're looking for a special way to say 'I love you,' this beef flambe is the perfect choice. Flaming an entree at the table is very dramatic and in an instant you've captivated your love with your culinary skill. The rest is romantic history."
Or insurance claims, if you're careless.
Happy Valentine's Day.
FILETS MIGNON MA CHERIE Ingredients
2 8-ounce filet mignon
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon fresh chives, chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 teaspoons brandy Preparation
Combine butter, chives, Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms in a small dish and set aside. Saute the filets in a skillet for about 5 minutes or more, turning once. Just before they are done, pour in brandy and tilt to ignite. Shake the pan until the flame dies down. Then add the reserved ingredients. Cook for a few minutes more. Pour the pan juices over the meat and serve immediately.