A Real Crowd Pleaser

Rocco thinks the key to any chef's success is making people happy.

Woo-Hoo! We finally did it. After years of discussions with Bravo, we came up with a show that worked for us both. It was very important to me that the show not only honors the art and craft of cooking but also celebrates why we cook and not just how! My two favorite words in the English language are: Dinner time! Dinner is the time to share treasured moments with people you care about, plus of course, you get to eat! So when Bravo offered me a chance to host my own dinner party (actually two dinner parties and NO check), naturally I was in. And you're invited too. But this isn't any old dinner party. There's a star-studded and a chef-studded twist.

While I'm hosting my celebrity guests at the table, two chefs are back in my kitchen cooking up a big meal. They're responsible for the food, beverages, service, and décor -- in short, everything. I give them all the resources a chef could ask for and they compete against each other to see who will throw the best dinner party. The winner takes home $20,000. Not bad for a night's work, eh?

The parties are always fun, but it's usually the food we can't stop talking about. After dinner, I see if there is anything that draws universal praise from my guests. Whatever the reaction, I'm pretty candid with the chefs.

Honestly, I know they're trying their best. I'll be the first to admit that one of the reasons I love to cook a dinner is to soak up the appreciative ooohs and aaahs from the table. Too bad it doesn't always work out that way. One Thanksgiving long ago, as a young, cocky, an inexperienced cook, instead of a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings I made turkey roulades with sweet potato velouté. My sister Maria was appalled and rightfully so. I was trying to impress with my creativity and skill but really what I should have done was make something delicious.

Cooking for people is a privilege, and for chefs what that really means is making people happy for a living –- and that's the first thing I told the chefs when they walked into my kitchen. I told them that we were throwing a real dinner party, and that I fiercely protect my guests' right to be happy. I said, "If every decision you make is informed by the notion that your job is to make people happy, you will always make the correct decision." The chefs who could demonstrate they shared this value with me got to cook for my guests

So I decided that the first challenge should be chefs preparing their signature dishes, because it's a very revealing process. The chefs get to bring their own handpicked ingredients and cook a dish they are known for and have made a thousand times in a tricked-out, super deluxe kitchen with no limits other than time. 

Today everyone chose a dish with seafood in it. I love seafood but not everyone shares my enthusiasm for sea creatures. Geoff started with a lobster that had one claw in the grave. Yes, I made a big deal over it. A droopy lobster like his is a half-dead lobster. You want them still kicking when they get to the kitchen. And since he brought his own, why not bring the best? Took about three minutes to learn something about his commitment to quality. Lobsters start dying when they leave the tank, because they stop eating and begin to lose weight. I expected more from him. Then when he served it, well, there was some shell in the dish. No one wants to deal with shells at a dinner party. If you're vacationing in Booth Bay Harbor in Maine in July, it's a different story. But if you wore your best suit and tie or your Manolo's to dinner, trust me, you don't want to dismantle crustaceans in front of others. Question: Remove shell or leave shell on the lobster? Answer: Guests will be happier if they don't have to pick apart shells. Like I said the answer is always clear if the intention is right.

Then he undercooked the monkfish. An experienced chef who has cooked monkfish, and more importantly, eaten it, should know monkfish shouldn't be served rare. It's got parasites and isn't tender until its fully cooked, not over-cooked, but fully cooked through. But I liked his demeanor and although it may not have come across on TV, he was actually quite humble and respectful, and the carrot salad was really tasty.

J.J. reminded me of me growing up. He started cooking as a kid watching his mom and grandmother. Just like him I was always curious, and those two wonderful women taught me practically everything I know about food, cooking, and nurturing people. He's extremely confident, and you can tell he puts lots of love into his food. That's one reason why his scallops really distinguished themselves. Normally a commonly-found dish like scallop/corn/bacon isn't a showstopper, but because he paid attention to details like choosing great scallops, seasoning them properly, using a cast-iron pan, and getting it real hot, his dish managed to distinguish itself. I loved his instinct. It's a common dish, but that's for good reason. Everyone loves it. Right then I knew he was the kind of chef who wants to please rather than impress.

Britt was really bold, and I liked her spunk. It took a lot of courage to make a cold dish like Arctic char tartare. I normally wouldn't serve Arctic char raw, because it can be gummy, but she pulled it off. She taught me something, and I was happy to be wrong. It melted in my mouth. It was delicious. But I couldn't get past the slushy avocado puree, the Meyer lemon crème fraiche, and the beets; too many '80s clichés. Plus, who puts avocado in a blender? And I needed to see what she could do when the oven was on. If you're going to work cold, you have to blow minds, and she didn't. She was a very nice person, but I think she should spend some time in a really great kitchen like Jean Georges and learn the skills to back up the spunk.

I'm looking for a chef who has the whole package -- someone who can cook really great food and can create an ambience that is exciting of course. But it's really about a whole lot more. Being able to put aside your own creative vision to make the guest experience your priority is a must, and it isn't always easy. Once you've spent years learning how to cook you want to show it off. But in a dinner party setting at home it is not about showing off.

I really wanted Chef Marcus Samuelsson to be our first guest of honor, because he is a friend and a wonderful chef. He is also one of J.J.'s and Geoff's heroes. Marcus owns and operates Red Rooster, an actual speakeasy in Harlem. So I made the theme Prohibition era speakeasy. Marcus was the perfect choice to help decide which chef threw the best speakeasy-themed dinner party. My other guests were actor Bryan Batt from Mad Men, Broadway legend Christine Ebersol, former host of Top Chef Masters Kelly Choi, from Boardwalk Empire actor Michael K. Williams, and from Forbes.com, my good friend and film critic, Bill McCuddy. Lets get the party started!

J.J. and Geoff got to work creating their own dinner parties, from designing the décor to the to food and service. My good friend, Jes Gordon, was the just the right person to help the chefs execute their vision. She is a genius party planner and a great person! Geoff took the gangster route with liquor crates, model cars, and a pinstripe tablecloth all set against a brick wall -- very '30s Prohibition era.  J.J. chose a Cotton Club-treatment -- classy, natty, and really cool.  J.J.'s scallop was the best signature dish, so J.J. won the challenge and got to choose his room and service time first. That's the advantage of winning the signature dish challenge. He chose the formal dining room and decided to serve second.  It's an interesting choice that could backfire if the guests are tried or a little tipsy by the time you get to serve your food.

Right in the middle of prep, I had to walk in and tell the chefs about my guests' dietary restrictions. They even surprised me. No pork, no alcohol, a vegetarian. I think even I would have been really discouraged at that point. Most of their food was already prepped. I can't believe they had to deal with that just a few hours before dinner. Here's where a chef's mettle is really tested. If, like me, you believe you're job as a chef is to make people happy, then you have to smile, suck it up, and make the changes required.  A few expletives aside, that's exactly what both Geoff and J.J. did. 

Geoff chose the room that's my personal favorite, the terrace, and his dinner went first. He planned a very ambitious five-course meal. It's a great way to show your stuff, but the chefs are only given one hour to serve all their courses (otherwise we'd be there till 5am), and it's a lot to get done in just one hour. He started with the now famous "big ass sea scallops" in tequila. Tequila is a strong flavor and not easy to work with, but if you know what you're doing, you can have some fun with it.  He did both. The dish was sublime. I loved the added detail of serving them in the shell they came out of. And the (un-blended) avocado was a great foil to the sweet scallops. The sweet potato bisque served in a shot glass was inspired; everyone loved it. I almost didn't believe it was intentional. Where Geoff got off track was with the cod. It wasn't black cod like he thought, which was disheartening.  Clearly he was missing a piece of his culinary education if he couldn't pick out black cod in a lineup. He conceived a dish that would have been brilliant for black cod, but unfortunately he didn't actually have black cod. Black cod is rich, sweet, and fatty, while Atlantic cod is very lean and briny, almost polar opposites of each other. It was such a shame, because he was doing so well.

The short ribs, once they got to the table, were delicious. I couldn't believe it; they both picked entrees that take days to cook but pulled it off in few short hours.  I'd have liked to have seen them glazed with the reduced cooking liquid like Marcus pointed out, but those damn short ribs were really good as they were. My guests loved them; that made me very happy.  

Geoff really shined with his dessert. He took two classics -- crème bruleé and Napoleon -- and paired them together. I mean, wow, what a pair! When do you get to have two of your favorite desserts on one plate? Who cares if it had maybe 7,000 calories?  The whole point of going to a dinner party is to indulge in the moment, right?

Geoff had become the front-runner at this point; it was hard to envision how J.J. could beat him. My guests were having a really good time.

Now it was J.J.'s turn. He went with a fairly classic soul food menu to match his Cotton Club scene. His first dish, rock shrimp and grits, were gluey, and I'm not sure why. You can't overcook grits. He was ready way ahead of time and had all his food sitting in a steam table; maybe the moisture evaporated out of the grits? Plus why serve rock shrimp when you can have anything you want? Rock shrimp aren't my favorite. On a good day, they taste like they are made out of algae pressboard. No one liked the first course. Things were looking really good for Geoff. 

His next course was a mushroom salad.  I don't think the jazz and liquor era included a lot of salads.  It got mixed reviews from my guests. Kelly said it was too "citric," but I thought it was one of his best dishes. He made an unusual choice with the ricotta salata; I mean what the hell was ricotta salata doing in a speakeasy dish? Ricotta Salata is one of Italy's most obscure cheeses. It's made from sheep's milk, and it has a slightly spongy texture and a salty, milky flavor like a dry, Italian feta. On paper, it had no place on this menu.  But guess what?  It worked really well. It was a genius choice. He was also smart to focus on two great mushroom varieties instead of getting crazy with all the choices available to him. It brought intensity and clarity to this otherwise simple salad. When J.J. brought out his braised oxtail, I don't think he realized what a huge risk he took with this dish. It's an ingredient that takes many hours to cook, sometimes days. It's also the signature dish of Marcus Samuelsson, our guest of honor. 

If you are in the remotest bit squeamish, beware: oxtails are the tail of a cow. They look like the tail of a cow, and there's no getting round it. You have to work through a few bones and a fair amount of fat to get to the meat, but the reward is morsels that literally melt in your mouth when you find them. I loved it when one of the guests, Michael K. Williams, picked it up in his fingers and started eating. He's no stranger to an oxtail, and he was clearly feeling quite comfortable (with no alcohol mind you), because when you pick up food with your hands, you're having a good time.  Usually in fine dining restaurants oxtail is deboned. I had no idea J.J. was planning to serve them whole. Undaunted, J.J. stood by his version, and it was met with a rousing ovation.  You've got to admire his spirit. This is when I knew J.J. had a real chance at winning and that all his bravado was backed up with real skill and a genuine point of view. Kelly wanted to suck it. 'Nuff said.

Then came J.J.'s dessert -- banana bread pudding. Here's a dessert I'm sure dates back to colonial times, when necessity forced home cooks to make the most of what little they had by finding creative ways to feed their families. Soaking bread in a bath of sugar, milk, eggs, and spices and then baking it did the trick. Bread pudding is incredibly easy to make. You might think for my fancy dinner party, why serve a dish we've seen a million times when there are so many more desserts and all things chocolate available? He literally could have served anything he wanted. I gave them both unlimited resources. But since tasting J.J.'s rendition, I've since seen the warm and gooey light. It was a good call. His creation was -- and I'm not making this up -- the best bread pudding ever. And everyone else just loved it. 

Although Geoff made a strong case for winning based on my guests' reactions to J.J.'s dinner party, J.J. was the clear winner and went home $20,000 richer. As the sole judge I make the final decision, but I have to take into consideration how happy my guests were and in which dinner party they really let their guard down and had fun.

I loved Geoff's décor best, and his food was mostly terrific. But the combo of J.J.'s cool, edgy room and shorter but more focused menu filled with one crowd pleaser after another seemed to resonate most with my guests.  And after all, what my guests like, I like.

Geoff shouldn't be pissed off. He did great. It was a very close competition.

If you've thrown a dinner party lately, you know it can be almost as complicated as crafting a national health care policy! In this case, both chefs created amazing menus, brilliant décor, and even some terrific meatless, pork and alcohol-free dishes at the last minute.  And by the way, you can do the same. One of my hopes is that Rocco's Dinner Party not only entertains, but also inspires you to throw your own dinner party and enjoy the wonderful possibilities in the space between people at a dinner table.  I don't know about you, but most of my life's favorite moments were shared around a table.  Food and drink were involved of course, but that plus the finest china, glassware, and silver in the world in and of themselves do not make for a good time. Remember what's important: the happiness of your guests. If they are happy, you will be happy.  The funny thing is this theory is proven every time I throw a successful dinner party. It's always the case that the amount of fun I have has little to do with what's on the table and much more to do with who's around the table and how comfortable I've made them feel. 

And speaking of who's at the table, I'd like to thank my wonderful guests who made the evening over-the-top enjoyable: Michael Kenneth Williams, who in addition to being a brilliant actor is a great cook; Christine Ebersole, a Broadway legend who brought glamour and a great sense of humor; Kelly Choi, who knows more about food than most cooks; Bryan Batt, whose spirit transcends and has a great eye for design; Bill McCuddy, who is my good friend, a very funny guy and is willing to eat anything I make; and of course Marcus Samuelsson, who was earning three stars while most of us were still learning how to make roux. 

Big thanks to Bravo for their faith in me, this concept, and for helping me reincarnate the art of the dinner party for all the right reasons.

 

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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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