Bon Appetit

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.”


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 ….