Do the Chefs' Signature Dishes Translate to Signature Design Style?

Jes Gordon can't help but wonder if she could create the chefs' design visions by simply looking at their signature dishes.


I often wonder after watching an episode, if I could design the chefs' rooms just by seeing and tasting their signature dishes.

The answer is "yes" I believe I could…. As a Designer, I like to test myself by searching for people’s signature styles without them even knowing it. Sometimes the answers come to me by looking at their clothes, visiting their homes, and seeing what type of furniture they have and especially by seeking out any piercings, tattoos, or any other form of self expression they may have; in this case cooking….

It’s a pretty intense experience these chefs are having on this show. When you think about it, cooking and designing is one of the most vulnerable positions a creative person can put themselves in and the added pressure is the awesome ca$h prize and of course Chef Rocco himself. How do you make this once-in-a-lifetime decision: putting it all on the table food-wise and all over the room décor-wise in very little time? Some of the confidence comes from experience, and it is apparent to me when someone is experienced and confident about what he or she is doing and in this case, both Corey and Nicole were incredibly secure in their design and cooking decisions. I did not have to try to extract design concepts from either chef and the challenge lies in just getting everything produced in time for their parties. 

At one point in my short discussions with Corey, he actually requested a real piece of farm machinery to be placed in his terrace dining room country environment. I’m good at what I do, but it wasn’t going to happen in the amount of time I had! The idea of farm machinery lends to a lot of different avenues of expression other than actual pieces of farm equipment! I brought in cool vintage photos of farms, families, and, yes, machinery to grace the walls of the Terrace and I don’t know if you noticed this, but I covered one wall entirely in a fiber optic curtain to create a country starry sky. Coming from the city, I wasn’t quite sure what his idea of country would be, and then I felt that stars were needed in Corey’s environment after he explained he comes from the Australian countryside. Something that Corey did all on his own was to create a special parting gift for each guest that doubled as a place card: homemade rhubarb jam placed in little jars. I loved this, for me every event you throw needs to make your guests feel like rock stars and giving gifts is a great passive-aggressive way of making them never forget you long after the party is over! 

I love that Corey wanted the food and the décor to constantly surprise and entertain his guests. His long list of offerings for food and drink during the course of the evening equally matched the enormous assortment of design elements I placed in the room. All in all, the room was very stimulating on all levels, and when folks are seated at a dining table for a long period of time, it's smart to make sure they don’t run out of things to talk about. Some of the details that you might have missed in Corey’s room were spectacular: The authentic farmer’s table and real ranch fencing really gave us a trip to the outback. Corey mentioned that his grandmother always used a real lace table covering for their country dinners growing up, so I made a lace runner to accent his dining table along with fresh arrangements of assorted wild flowers including daisies and thistle arranged within old mason jars. There were even some faux roosters and chickens milling about!

Corey brought in some of his own candles that were known as traditional “home candles” along with his own “home” signage. Even amongst all of the pressure of getting his meal out, Corey didn’t forget his design concept and his personal connection to his dining environment. He stayed consistent and true through out the competition.

When the guests walked into Corey’s room they all said, “Oooh Country!” The whole ambiance screamed it and as the party continued the guests had no question about where they were and where they belonged. 

Corey’s “Mummified Shrimp with Avocado Citrus Salad” were encased in texture and taste; his design concepts and room certainly affirmed his signature style with a playful and gregarious approach.

I don’t know what airline Corey cooks for, but I will certainly be boarding that plane with my fork and knife party ready!


Spring Time in New York!!

After sitting with Nicole, I had to edit out a lot of words and try to hone in on the design. I loved the fact that Nicole was completely convicted, about her décor, but I wasn’t sure if she was listening to herself enough while she was quickly trying to get her concept out into the room. I felt like she was really stuck in the literal definition of "town," and not in the abstract creative versions of what "town" could be, and how to make it a “Nicole version” of the concept rather than what the world thinks "town" should be. This is not a bad thing because what Nicole chose to do was completely lovely and digestible, but I feel like we have all seen this before and it may have been a safe reinvention of the wheel. The color combination she wanted disappointed me a little. Pink and green for a Spring concept is just too obvious for my world. There are so many versions of colors or gradients of pink and green that could have really added some texture and dimension to Nicole’s room that I was just itching to use. Also the use of a rich tone to weigh down the room such as a chocolate brown or a mastic grey accent would have really added some sophistication to the existing color palette.  

The "town" concept was based upon what folks experience in large cities where everything is new and the ultimate in forward thinking trends. Nicole needed to bring her own trend to the table with her cooking and her design concepts. The one area I felt she did this was to request that I use several runners on the table horizontally instead of vertically. She also wanted me to make multiple small floral centerpieces instead of one big one for the middle of the table. Nicole’s taste in flowers was lovely. She requested peonies, ranunculus, pink tulips and for the touch of green; viburnum. 

I added another floral touch for her place cards which were sculpted silver Phaeleonopsis orchid heads to add a touch of silver bling into the room. 

I also felt that the room needed some more texture and warmth so I took Nicole’s love for pink and saturated it in the room through LED lighting. For the texture I brought in two huge cherry blossom trees that the guests would walk under while entering into their new dining experience. I brought in a large hedge to enclose the room a little so the guests felt more of an organic springtime and intimate effect, kind of like finding a lovely corner in Central Park to have dinner in.  Terrance Brennan mentioned that her food was a little '80s and I feel that her décor concepts may have been as well when I think back to Nicole’s signature dish: the Salmon with Black Truffle Butter with Yukon Potatoes, and of the rest of her dinner party menu including the tuna tartare, etc. but hey, who doesn’t love the '80s? 

I feel like if you are going to go into this sort of a competition you need to go in with all four burners on, or go home! Congrats to both chefs Nicole and Corey!!! 

I thoroughly enjoyed working with both of the chefs on this episode, and I particularly enjoyed watching the guests have an awesome time. Mo Rocca kept a smile on my face throughout the entire episode!
twitter: jesgordon
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What the Bleepity Bleep Was in that Maple Syrup?!

Rocco DiSpirito explains the importance of love in cooking.


It wasn’t Valentine’s Day, but last night certainly felt like it. I am still trying to cool off. Ah,  if every day could be Valentine’s Day …

I welcomed to my kitchen three chefs with completely different backgrounds; hell, one wasn’t even an earning chef, but someone who just loves to cook (we should all be like her!) Let me introduce the trio:

Vicki Ferentino  is the owner of Soulfully Good Catering in New York City. She’s a self-taught chef/caterer who does a lot of huge, up-to-600-guest parties. She had to start cooking at age nine because her parents didn’t cook. That tells me she’s a real survivor. Her signature dish was a Buttermilk Fried Chicken Salad with Maple and Mayonnaise Dressing that I found intriguing. I mean, who combines maple syrup and mayonnaise? I like my maple syrup on buttermilk pancakes, not in my mayonnaise. (Plus, it was a visual disaster… if something looks that bad, you don’t want to taste it, but I had to, or it wouldn’t be fair to cast it out on looks alone. OK, that goes for life too: you can’t judge a book by its cover.) And to prove the truth of that well-worn cliché, Vicki’s dish was over-the-top delicious.

My second chef was Chris Thompson, Executive Chef who has worked in fine dining for more than 10 years in Minnesota. He currently hangs his chef’s hat at Smack Shack and has apprenticed under a lot of award-winning chefs. Chris is a “chef of the people.” He does the whole food truck thing where he sticks his head out the window and cooks great stuff at food fairs. 

But not dishes like the fois gras he was cooking for me. I got a whiff of it. Jeez, I concluded it had been around for a long time. It didn’t make me feel better when he said it had to be in a suitcase to get here. I wasn’t feeling very hungry after hearing that remark. Well, his full dish was pancake with fois gras, quail eggs, Serrano ham, and blueberry gastrique. It was a very indulgent and gorgeous-looking, but certainly not a breakfast you’d get at the local pancake shop, that’s for sure. But if you can get this in your town, let me know. OK, I ran my finger over the squiggle of gastrique and licked it. I said  “wow,” but what I really meant was “yuck.” It wasn’t balanced well against the strong flavors of the fois gras and eggs. On second thought, if your local pancake restaurant serves this dish, don’t call me.

Here is the most interesting entry in our signature challenge: Yuki Tsutsui, an investor relations professional with Avenue Capital. She’s a financier who loves to cook! I was freakin’ blown away by her willingness to come to the loft to compete. I am a huge believer in all of us learning to cook at home more often. I don’t care if you heat up tea in a microwave or slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can cook. Hell, don’t get me started, but I think it’s healthier to cook at home, more satisfying, and definitely more economical -- and that’s coming from someone who has been a partner and executive chef in several restaurants. OK, let me jump off my soapbox with a thud, and say Yuki did something very creative and original. In fact, I’ve never seen such a feat before. Her signature dish not only told me how she cooks, it also told me so much about her heritage. She is Japanese with a Venezuelan background, so she prepared a fish taco called a JapaZuelan fish taco. It defined her persona from so many different points of view. BUT, yes there is always a “but”... the flavors of the fish (cod) didn’t combine well with the tomatillo sauce. Yuki flunked Sandwich 101, and she was eliminated. My final advice to her was: Hey, if you love cooking this much, get some formal training. If she takes my advice, I think we’ll see her in the next generation of celebrity chefs.Vicki won the Signature Dish Challenge. She won on taste, but I’ll tell you this: she also won on a fundamental, deep-down-in-your-heart reason: she cooks with love. It’s something you can’t taste, but it’s something you can feel. I don’t care if someone makes you a bowl of oatmeal or a five-course dinner, if they do it because they love you, you can feel it in your core and you never forget it. It is the most important ingredient when you cook for people you care about. 

Well, now that I’ve brought up the “love” thing, I should remind everyone that our theme was Perfect Pairings. I invited three couples to dinner. One couple was celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary (please, do I hear a collective Awww???) Another couple has been together 16 years, and the third couple just got engaged.

So I asked Vicki and Chris to create duets of food: two dishes that are delicious on their own, but when served together create a meal greater than the sum of the two parts. There would be three courses in all. So if I’ve done my math right, they’d have to prepare six different dishes for my guests.

Vicki chose the formal dining room. She made the room sexy and fun with flowers and candles. There were directions to a kissing booth. Formal definitions of love were on the wall. There was a bed with comfy pillows. The whole vibe was giving me ideas.  

Chris chose the terrace room for his dining experience. It had an outdoor picnic feel to it. He wanted it to conjure up an outdoor country wedding, but my party planner Jes Gordon felt that might make some guests feel uncomfortable, and I agree. Give me a kissing booth any day -- but I would let my guests be the ultimate judges.

And speaking of my guests, let me introduce them:

Jonathan Adler, Potter and Designer – and of course, the brainchild behind Jonathan Adler Design. He is an inspiration -- someone who got fired and turned down so many times before one brave company believed in him, and the rest is history.  Jonathan is an icon! He was joined by his life partner of 16 years, the witty and wonderful Simon Doonan. Simon is the Creative Ambassador for Barneys in New York City. Let me make this suggestion: If you have a Simon in your life, please invite him to your next dinner party. He and Jonathan were so delightful.  

And the just-engaged Hristo Zisoviski, the brilliant Sommelier, and his beautiful fiancee Tia Keenan, the Chief Fromager at the Make Room. Can you imagine the romantic evenings these two have… sharing wine and cheese, their passions?

Finally, our amazing couple Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, correspondents for The Daily Show, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary. They have three beautiful children. This is a couple who work together, play together, do it all together. What an inspiration.The love in the room just gave me such pause. As I watched each couple and immersed myself in their connection, I saw how when you love someone more than you need them, you truly make each other’s lives richer. 

Got to get out of that reverie and continue this blog. Vicki served first with a Carrot Ginger Soup and Coconut Shrimp. At this point I should mention a few things:

Tia doesn’t eat shrimp or lobster.

Simon doesn’t eat meat.

Samantha and Jason wanted to have something Cuban to celebrate a great time they had in Cuba during their romance.

So I threw down the gauntlet to Vicki and Chris: Accommodate these requests!

Vicki came through on the first course; she fixed Tia this amazing fried cheese piece of delight in lieu of the shrimp. But I think she cut the grilled cheese sandwich on the same cutting board she used for the shrimp… hope the swelling goes down soon, Tia.

Next up was her Garlic Herbed rubbed Lamb Chops with Roasted Vegetable Risotto. Not a big hit. The lamb was overcooked. She took all the fat off it. Bad choices, all the way around. The worst thing you can do is under dress and overcook lamb. 

For dessert, she served what she thought were pumpkin doughnuts with vanilla bean custard. She waited too long to make the custard, so what we got was a dipping sauce for the doughnuts, which were really beignets or zeppoles or donut holes or maybe fried dough? OK, I won’t split hairs. Doughnuts are fried dough. My mom let me fry dough when I was a kid and sprinkle it in sugar or honey, and I loved it. Fried dough rocks!

Oh, I should add that Vicki made a Cuban sandwich to commemorate Sam and Jason’s anniversary. It was spectacular, with a side of plantains. Hey, of course, I have plantains in my fridge, doesn’t everyone? 

Now, here’s where Vicki started racking up the points: She gave each guest a gift of jam with scones, beautifully boxed. My guests started tasting all of it immediately. When Simon said the jam was orgasmic, I thought I would have to postpone the second dinner party until the next nightWell, fortunately I broke the sexual tension in the air and got everyone to move to Chris’ dinner party in my Terrace Room. He started us off with Tuna Poke and Lobster Salad, but I felt like we had been waiting 10 years for our first course. Chris was completely off on his timing. The worst thing was he served shellfish to someone who is allergic to it. That is scary, folks. Don’t ever do that, unless you want ambulance personnel interrupting your dinner party. I already knew where this was headed. And it didn’t help that one of my guests pronounced Chris as someone who cooks like the “lunch chef.”  In my business, it’s the 3rd or 4th string that gets lunch duty. Ouch.

Chris is a real expert at plating… he loves to design plates… made me nostalgic… because when I was a young chef… excuse me, I am still a “young” chef, that was something I was known for, so I appreciate his plate artistry.

After Chris served his fennel braised short ribs, the most bizarre thing happened and I don’t really know how to process it. Simon doesn’t eat meat, and Chris didn’t make a substitute dish (major faux pas), yet Simon tried it and really loved it. This was the first time he had eaten red meat in 30 years. I think it says something about his impeccable manners, that he politely tried something and was so gracious about it. Yet at the same time I want my chefs to cater to my guests’ every desire and whim. Simon was such an amazing sport… God love him.

And Chris fixed a spectacular Cuban dish too. Roasted chicken and plantains… Yes, of course I am always well stocked with plantains. The dish was a triumph. I got to thinking over the past weeks -- it seems like the dishes I’ve asked these chefs to make on the fly have been their best. I wonder if we overthink food too much? Is spontaneity better, like it is in romance? I don’t know... bring me your comments on this!

Everyone loved Chris’s desserts, Pot de Creme and Crème Brulee

Over dinner, we had some provocative discussions about anniversaries over the course of relationships. Like: do you remember the first date… the first time you had sex… the first anniversary of your first date…. Blah, blah, blah… I will end the debate now: every day that you spend together, every moment, is an anniversary to be celebrated and cherished.

So… at the end of night, Vicki won… again she cooked with love, and love, well, that’s what life is all about.

But I still think she put something in that maple syrup ….


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