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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Thank God for Caviar

Rocco DiSpirito explains why Frank won the fashion forward challenge.

It was a night I will never forget. Two of the most creative fields in the world came together -- Food and Fashion. Did they click or clash? You be the judge. It was a crazy night of poorly-timed servings, mounds of caviar -- and a discussion about whale vomit!!!! I just never know what’s going to happen when I allow chefs to innovate and guests to (hopefully) hit it off.  

The craziness started from the get-go, with three chefs coming from totally different backgrounds. Were they competing on level playing fields? Probably not, but the “field” is a kitchen, and the floor is level the last time I checked. First, there was football player-turned chef Bill Haley, who is a sous-chef at Plaza Food Hall. I love sous-chefs. When I was an executive chef, I couldn’t do without mine. The word sous (pronounced sue) comes from the French word for under or beneath, or, in this case, assistant. He’s the go-to guy, the heart and backbone of the kitchen, and typically the person who puts in the longest hours. To put it in Bill’s language, the sous-chef is the quarterback; the executive chef is like the coach.

Sharon Robustelli is self-trained and has been in the business for only two years. Amazing -- clearly she’s someone who just doesn’t follow her dream; she makes it come true. I love having self-taught chefs in my kitchen and on the show. Because they’re not classically trained, I think people can relate to them. 

Then there was Frank Otte Jr. What a kick he was. If he ever loses his job as an "Executive" private chef, he might do well as a stand-up comedian, or a drill sergeant. He ran his kitchen with military precision, no question.

Well, the pans started clattering right away. Bill’s “Amazing Rack” was pan-seared baby rack of lamb on top of a succotash-like dish of baby carrots, fresh English peas, and herbs. I got on his case because he trimmed too much fat off the lamb. I love the unique flavor of really good lamb, and I know that cooking the perfect lamb rack can be a little tricky. But cooking it without its attendant fat, that’s just crazy. It tasted good, not great. His dish underwhelmed me.

Sharon did something unusual -- and brave: she crusted a New York strip with espresso and grilled it. Maybe you like your express after your steak, but let me tell you, this is one helluva way to grill steak. One taste and I was hooked. I’ll be seeing a lot more of that dish.

Frank got fancy. He wrapped a generous piece of halibut with prosciutto and sage. What a way to blend and lock in flavors in an otherwise mild fish! He served it over creamy sauerkraut and sautéed Granny Smith rings. I usually like my sauerkraut tucked inside a nice meaty Reuben -- and I love every incredibly messy minute of it -- but this worked.

The real standout was Sharon. I awarded her the Signature Dish Challenge, and I sent Bill home with leftover succotash.

With Frank and Sharon left standing, I explained how they needed to translate the fashion theme into their food. They’d have to cook three courses; each course would have two versions: a “ready-to-wear” version, something easily recognizable and that everyone loves and a couture version, something handcrafted, that we’ve never seen before. I wanted them to innovate and be responsible for “designing their own line.” 

For décor, Sharon conceptualized the overall look and feel of a high-style fashion show with contrasting black and white and touches of red. Frank went for a silvery '40s glam look, like the dressing room behind the stage of a fashion show. If I were awarding prizes for décor, this one would be a tie. Second thought, I might give a slight edge to Frank, his room did feel better when we were sitting in it.

My dinner parties are very personal. I care enough about people to make sure I plan a special night for them. And so my guests last night were:

Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano - co-hosts of a great show on NPR called The Dinner Party Download. I knew they’d love this one and have a lot to contribute.

Katrina Szich - TV host and CBS Early Show contributor.

Nikki Blonsky, actress, singer -- and star of Hairspray.

Kara Janx - Fashion Designer.

Nicole Miller - Fashion Icon.

Nicole gave me a great idea just before the party started. She told me that in the fashion world, a designer kicks off the season with a “first look” -- a design that defines the rest of the collection. So I asked both chefs to create a “first look” first course that would preview their subsequent courses. 

Sharon’s dinner party went first. And her first look was a tuna tartare with avocado and parmesan crisps. Very bold move -- there are still some diners who turn pale at the thought of eating raw fish. But I didn’t hear any complaints. Some advice though: If your relatives are meat-and-potatoes kind of folks, don't take tuna tartare for Sunday dinner.

Sharon got even bolder by preparing side dishes for the next course: Her ready-to-wear was Potatoes Au Gratin; her couture dish was caviar in a New Potato Cup. Everyone went orgasmic over the caviar, and I scooted into the kitchen to grab a big tin of it. After I started spooning out heaps of caviar, the feeding frenzy grew. I’ve never seen caviar flow so freely in my life. 

Sharon is a self-proclaimed slow-poke, and we had to wait 44 minutes to get the next course. (Thank God for caviar -- though, it’s an expensive way to pass the time....)

Once the next course came it was tuna: an incredible tuna salad and a sesame-crusted tuna, which flopped because the flesh was tough -- and really, the dish was uninspired. 

My guests had only a matter of minutes to taste Sharon’s desserts: S'mores (or schmores as they are now known #oyvey) and a Chocolate Ganache. In fact we fled to Frank’s dinner party with Sharon’s desserts in hand. I was really pissed off by the poor timing. 44 minutes is a long time to small talk. 

Frank started us off with Roasted Poussin with a vegetable puree -- his first look course. A poussin is a very young chicken, and it has a very delicate flavor and very little fat. It was a hit.

Next he did a classic Caesar salad (his ready-to-wear) and a creative variation on that for his couture. He put anchovies on the plate with some Romaine lettuce and petite crusts of bread. This was scary territory; so many people declare anchovies public enemy No. 1. But not this crowd. If I thought the caviar was a hit, did you see everyone scarf down those anchovies? Katrina, who hates anchovies, loved these. The consensus was: forget the rest of the stuff on the plate, just give us more anchovies.

Frank’s main course was a steak duo: Steak Frites (or as they’re called at McDonald’s, “fries”). His couture dish was Filet of Steak Crusted with Exotic Pepper and served atop a blue cheese sauce. I know Frank labored over that steak. Hell, he was taking its internal temperature so often you’d have thought it had the flu.

Well, I took one bite of the steak that was swimming in the blue cheese, and I visibly gagged. Nicole took a bite and seconds later we were gagging in unison. It was so bad, I'm sure it turned everyone off steak for good. The steak frites was great and the ketchup was a genius move on his part. The blue cheese sauce was his one mulligan for the game.

I was glad to see dessert arrive so I could get that taste out of my mouth. Dessert was a French Apple Tart a la mode (Frank made us homemade vanilla ice cream) and the ready-to-wear version, which was a tad dry Classic Apple Crumble. The tart, though, rocked our taste buds.

Well you saw what happened next. I pronounced Frank the winner, and boy did I hear about it. Seconds after the show aired, I got almost 900 tweets protesting his victory. But let me come to the guy’s (and my own) defense. Sure, he was bald, tattooed, and cocky, but the guests didn’t know that and he got mostly delicious food out on time. Had Sharon the experience to not screw up the timing so badly and make us wait so very long, yes, she would have probably won. I liked her spirit, her energy, but I don’t know about you -- after 25 minutes I start to run out of small talky things to say. When guests are visibly uncomfortable because they waited close to an hour to be served mediocre food it just sucks. I had to help her plate her next course, and leave my guests on their own for a while and all the caviar in the world doesn’t make up for that kind of rudeness. It’s all about who created the best experience for my guests. And Frank did just that. We definitely all had a better time at his dinner party. Plus, my mom (sort of) agrees with my choice, so I can sleep tonight knowing I did the right thing.


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