Rocco DiSpirito explains the differences between Natalie's and Vanessa's French-inspired dinner parties.
Finally, French! While some of you may be intimidated by French food, it’s really not that unusual at all. You get to eat soups, salads, seafood, beef, and more in a variety of preparations that will please just about anyone. The French are the best when it comes to making great sauces or, heck, anything made with milk, cream, eggs or butter. Hell, I moved to france when I was 18 to learn how to cook from the French, I should totally be French. Pass me a beret and a baguette, please.
The party last night was wilder in the kitchen than in the dining rooms when I invited not one, but three caterers to compete -- a first-ever for the show. Think about it though: when you throw a dinner party, you typically hire a caterer. So I was really psyched to stack the deck with pro dinner party people.
The caterers were Daniel Rader, the executive chef of his own catering company, Daniel Rader Fine Catering; Vanessa Contave, owner of Yum Yum Catering; and Natalie Stone, mother of five, homemaker, “occasional caterer” (uh-oh, what was I thinking?), and entrepreneur (she recently started her own biscotti company).
Daniel caters to the famous: Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Bette Midler, to name just a few. I felt like the competition would be a cake walk for him. He’s in this celeb milieu all the time. Vanessa is grad of the French Culinary Institute -- a good thing since the party theme was French Cuisine. She’d be in her element. Then there was Natalie. OMG, she was manic, zany, and going in so many directions. She didn’t even know how to use some of my cooking equipment. Could she stand up to the heat? I liked her attitude: she affirmed that she wanted to not just meet but exceed my expectations for the party And I believed it was more than just her fronting for the camera.
The Signature Dish Challenge went from panic to plate in 30 minutes. Daniel’s Chicken Ballotine was something he cooks all the time for celebs and they swoon over it. Not me. All he did was stuff a chicken breast with some cheeses and vegetables. It sat on a potato pancake, white asparagus, Tarragon Buerre Blanc, and a signature-dish-within-a –signature dish of Daniel’s, Panko Forofa (a Brazilian dish made with tapioca starch). He had a lot going on the plate, much less going on on the palate.
Vanessa did Porcini Dusted Scallops over Creamy Leeks. She used sunny-side-up quail eggs as a garnish, a surprising and mild counterpoint to the rest of the dish.
And then there was Natalie’s Pan Seared Alaskan Cod, served over white sweet potatoes, turnip puree, and roasted corn. Of the three dishes it tasted the best, but it looked like it had been hit with a bomb, a real mess. I was really concerned about having her anywhere near my guests. I feared for the future of French cuisine.
In the end Daniel was out -- I felt he was more interested in making an impression than making a memorable evening for my guests.
So I’m down to Vanessa and Natalie who are as opposite as the oil and vinegar they’d be pouring into food. I asked Vanessa to tone down her technical perfection, take some risks, and be more crazy. I asked Natalie to be less crazy, and at least learn how to use my beloved vita prep blender.
Vanessa won the Signature Challenge because her dish tasted good, and it looked good. Natalie failed the “look-good” part of the test.
Their assignment was to put their personal stamp on French classics popularized by the iconic Julia Child in her famous book, The Art of French Cooking. For more than 35 years, Child sliced, diced, and whisked into our homes through TV, and I’m a huge fan. Having hardly set foot in a kitchen until age 34, she nevertheless raised the bar on home cooking. She wasnt just a great TV chef, she was a great woman. At a time when most women on TV were portrayed as either a homemaker like June Cleaver or a dumb blonde like Goldie Hawn played on Laugh-In she was a real standout. She was skilled, articulate, and strong. She wasn’t happy playing into the stereotypes, a first for women on television. She also happened to pave the way for chefs like me. I love to cook, and I love to teach others how to do it. Unlike many TV chefs, she embraced incompetence and you got the feeling that she was saying, “Hey, if I can do this, you can, too!” cooking great food is for everyone and she embodied that.
Vanessa chose the intimate dining room and added a Haitian spin to it (she is of Haitian descent), and there’s a huge French influence in Haiti. Once Jes Gordon got through with it, the room was energized with blues, aquas, and dashes of yellow accents. The toile tablecloth and the key lime centerpiece were great touches. I was happy to learn what toile is. Its not a towel and its not tulle. Glad we cleared that up.
The formal dining room was Natalie’s to command. Jes had a hard time pinning down Natalie’s ideas, but in the end, the room was transformed into something (I’m not sure what) out of Paris in the Twenties. Right?
Under the right circumstances, a dinner party is not just a dinner party, but an experience that makes life better. A great dinner party also helps you enjoy others’ company, nurtures relationships with friends and family, and helps you experience different cultures. Which is why I wanted to invite several people with a true “French connection.” My guests were:
Julie Powell – author of the runaway best seller (and movie of the same name): Julie and Julia. (Julie cooked her way through all of Julia Child’s 500+ recipes in The Art of French Cooking, so I knew she’d have a unique perspective on what the two caterers served up.)
Leah DeWavrin – the beautiful French high fashion model
E. Epatha Merkeson – one of the stars on the long-running crime drama, Law & Order
Alain Sailac, Executive Vice President and Dean Emeritus of the French Culinary Institute
Michael Ian Black – comedian and podcast co-host for the show “Mike and Bob Eat Snacks”
Marcy Blum – celebrity event planner
OK, party time. While I was sipping champagne with my guests, I found out that Marcy is a vegetarian – which meant that Natalie and Vanessa would have to do some quick-thinking in the kitchen to accommodate her.
Natalie’s dinner party went first. She started us off with the ever-popular small bite of food, typically known as amuse-bouche, which means, roughly, “amuse the mouth.” Hers were Prosciutto Wrapped Dates with Gorgonzola cheese. Marcy’s were made sans prosciutto (hey, I’m brushing up on my French here.) Alain wasn’t “amused” or at least his mouth wasn’t. He felt there was too much prosciutto in it, that the appetizer should have been lighter, as if wrapped in a “little cloud.” Beautifully put, and with his great French accent too. Michael, in his great American accent, felt it took too much chewing.
Between courses, Epatha told us she started cooking because she had recently fallen in love. I was touched. The minute you fall in love, the first thing you want to do is cook for that person – OK, a lot of guys may want to do something else, but that’s what I want to do, and you can quote me on that.
Natalie’s next course was Bacon and Onion Gnocchi, which was mistakenly served to Marcy, even though Natalie was in the kitchen stirring up a vegetarian version. Huge blunder; Marcy was not happy. But all was soothed over minutes later when the proper dish came out of the kitchen just in time.
For the main course Natalie served sole, stuffed with mushrooms. It was lightly covered with a white wine Parisienne Sauce and sat on a bed of sautéed spinach. Honestly, it was magnificent. She cooked it with a lot of love.
We were mesmerized by her dessert: Gateau a L’Orange with orange butter cream and a thick, fudgy chocolate ganache on top. Even Leah, the model, savored bite by glorious bite. I asked Julie what her favorite part of the meal was, and she pointed to French nude painting on the wall. That reaction wasn’t boding well for Natalie.
On to Vanessa’s party: She served her amuse bouche, which was raw Red Snapper with habenero and lime vinaigrette. Epatha doesn’t eat raw seafood, so Vanessa sauteed some snapper for her and served it with the same accompaniments.
Next was a French Onion and Truffle Soup. When Julie announced that “truffles taste like sex,” everyone just about lost it, mid-slurp.
Vanessa did exactly what I asked her to do: go a little crazy and take some risks. Little did I know she’d do it with the main course! She made Braised Short Ribs, which normally take three hours to cook. As I demonstrated on Michael, short ribs come from the center portion of the steer, where muscle development (and hence toughness) is low and fat content (and hence rich marbling) is high. At its most fundamental, braising refers to the long, slow cooking of meats in a covered pan with some liquid. How Vanessa pulled off tender juicy ribs like these in such a short time, I’ll never know. They were served Haitian-style with stewed legumes and lots of truffles. It really was really tender, juicy and flavorful, and Alain said they were the best short ribs he’s ever had. ‘nuff said.
Next up was Vanessa’s Banana Tart, made with a vanilla bean pastry cream and rum caramel sauce. Did you notice how my eyes rolled to the back of my head after I took my first bite?
OK, you know where this is going. Vanessa won the 20K hands down. She had pulled it off, this dinner party, with her savory fusion of French and Haitian cuisine.
As I thought about last night’s party, I remembered how Julia Child wrote that famous cookbook at age 49 and completed her PBS series at age 85. So it seems only fitting to wax poetic this week about goals. As you consider your own life, why not dig up a few old dreams that glow somewhere inside you – like publishing a book, taking an exotic trip, inventing something amazing. Rediscover what makes you tick and think about how you can take a step in that direction again.
OK, enough seriousness. As Julia Child always ended her cooking shows – “Bon appetit.”