Give Me Flavor or Give Me Death!

Rocco DiSpirito goes deep about why Corey Roberts' party ultimately won.

Last night’s dinner party may go down in the history-so-far of the show as the wildest. The kitchen almost burned up, guests got ballet lessons after dinner, and I got a marriage proposal. But the craziest angle of all was the diverse background of the chefs: owner of a cooking school, a vegan chef, and an airline chef. Don't airline chefs make meals that look like they had been placed in a time capsule and only recently unearthed – stuff you eat somewhere over Kansas? Well, read on, for how this dinner party came down.

The three chefs competing were:

Corey Roberts, who is from Australia and is the Executive Chef for LSG Sky Chefs. Yes, he’s the airline chef in question.

Nicole Straight from Connecticut. Nicole runs Time to Eat Cooking School. She teaches people how to throw dinner parties.

Ayinde Howell. He’s a vegan chef and food blogger. Ayinde has been a vegan all his life; he eats no animal products of any kind. He has never even cooked meat. I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of vegan meals, and done right, they can be terrific. Ayinde said he could deliver.

For the Signature Dish Challenge, Ayinde whipped up Texas BBQ Rubbed Seitan with Sauteed Mustard Greens and Home Fried Potatoes. Seitan (pronounced SAY-Tan) is another alternative to meat, and it comes from the protein in wheat. You can use it in a lot of dishes, like stews, burgers, and casseroles. Like tofu, it takes on the character and flavor of any ingredient used with it. His seitan did taste like a meat dish, but it was so over-seasoned … I could barely eat it. The level of sodium made my cheeks wince.  Wish he had the ability to acknowledge his error, might have saved him.

Nicole made Pan Roasted Salmon with Truffle Butter Sauce, wilted baby spinach, and slices of Yukon Gold Potatoes. The salmon was cooked perfectly. Good truffles can change your life, but I couldn’t taste them in the butter sauce. She clearly doesn’t have lots of experience with this precious ingredient.

Corey did something playful and fun: Mummy Fried Shrimp. He took long shreds of potato and wrapped each shrimp so that it looked like a mummy. Then he deep fried them. Very cool. Creativity like that wows guests. He served it atop an avocado and citrus salad. But the shrimp was woefully bland and not crispy. So sad. I asked him if the fryer he was using was hot enough and he made some smart-alec remark.

I had flavor issues with each dish. I was having a hard time understanding how dishes so potentially robust could be so neutered. Give me flavor or give me death! Or something like that. I was really hoping Ayinde would stay in the running, but his dish was so unbalanced that I ended the party for him.

Corey -- the airline chef -- won the Signature Dish Challenge. The whimsical nature of and the potential of the dish won me over. 

My dinner party theme was Town and Country … “town” being the sophisticated, big city taste and feel; “country” being a throw-back to simpler times, farm-fresh ingredients, and the casual gathering of friends around a casual table.

Nicole and Corey picked their theme by choosing one of two domes. Under one dome were eggs (country); under the other, caviar (town). Corey got the Country assignment; Nicole, the Town.

They put a lot of thought, energy, and detail in their decors. Corey chose the Terrace and party planner Jes Gordon decorated it with lots of rustic touches: country photographs, wagon wheels, and a special country-themed gift at each place setting. Nicole went for a high-style, white, lime green and fuchsia décor, with black and white photos of New York City hanging on my walls.

On my invitation list were:

Terrance Brennan, the Chef-Proprietor of the successful and acclaimed restaurants of The Artisanal Group, including Picholine, Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro & Wine Bar, and Bar Artisanal. In 2003, Terrance launched the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center -- a 10,000-square foot facility dedicated to the selection, maturation, and distribution of the world's finest artisanal cheeses. He brought a table full of his cheeses to the party, so I asked both chefs to prepare a cheese course using Terrance’s cheeses.

Melissa Joan Hart. You’ve seen Melissa in the live-action version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and since 2010, she has starred in the ABC Family series, Melissa and Joey.  

Deborah Cox, singer and actress who has conquered the R&B and pop charts, including six top R&B singles, and impressive 10 number-one hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Party Play chart. Plus, she has starred in musicals on Broadway.

Christian Campbell. Christian is an actor who has been on so many TV shows, movies, and plays that his resume could wrap around Manhattan and back.

Mo Rocca. Humorist, actor and writer, Mo Rocca is best known for his off-beat news reports and satirical commentary. Currently, he’s the host of Food(ography) on the Cooking Channel.

Tiler Peck. Tiler is the Principal Ballerina with the New York City Ballet. Tiler was a consultant on the movie Black Swan.

The party got started in the terrace with Corey’s Country-themed dinner. My guests were blown away by the little jars of just-made rhubarb jam that served as place settings. The waiters brought out the cheese course: Fried Saint-Marcellin Cheese with Swedish Country ligonberries. Terrance got a little miffed when he heard Corey was going to fry one of his cheeses. I guess he thought frying was an insult to the integrity of his great cheeses. Saint Marcellin is one of my top five favorites cheeses in the world. Was Corey going to change my mind with his fried version? I first had it in France with a serious side of black truffles, so you can only imagine the memories I had of it. Many cheeses do well fried but no one thought this one would. We all dug in. OMG. It was so freakin’ good that I almost fell over backwards in my chair. Usually, I let my guests make the first comment, but the dish was pure ecstasy and I couldn’t help but belt out a passionate response. The fried cheese was, well, pretty much my idea of heaven. Terrance ate his words –- and the cheese course -- declaring it superb.

Corey next served Fresh Baked Rolls (that he made the dough for), Forest Mushroom Soup, and Poached Eggs with Asparagus. Rave reviews followed.

He decided to redeem himself with the Mummy Fried Shrimp, and redeem himself, he did. Corey got it right, and my guests were wowed by it. Corey was a little slow in getting things on the table. I called him on it. Things got testy, and he told me to get out of the kitchen and back to my guests. I listened.

We got to the main course: Roasted Poussin and Salmon Trout. The salmon was dry; no one much cared for it. No matter how you do it, the most important thing to remember about cooking seafood is not to overcook it. Although a lot of people think raw seafood will kill you, overcooking it is almost a worse sin. My guests liked the poussin better. Poussin is the French word for a young chicken. For dessert, Corey ambitiously made two desserts (I don’t know how he did all this in four hours): Country Style Apple Pie and Macadamia Nut Tart. I advised my guests to take only a bite or two, because we still had a second dinner party ahead.

Nicole’s décor wowed everyone. They knew immediately that it was a spring-in-New-York setting, just what Nicole intended. She started us off with Sesame Seared Tuna Tartare with Wasabi Crème Fraiche. It had a real kick to it. Terrance felt it was clichéd and not a true tartare since the tuna had been seared. I came to her defense. Not all guests will appreciate the finer qualities of raw tuna, so cooking it a bit might be good for those who aren’t terribly adventurous eaters. The seasoning was unbalanced and ultimately crushed any chances the dish had, but raw or slightly raw is splitting hairs to me.The cheese course used several of Terrance’s amazing cheeses. Nicole made little cheese sandwiches (tartines) and served them with Crimini Mushroom Soup. The tartines were mostly good. Unfortunately, the soup was cold. It needed to be hot and satisfying. Talk about a tense start to the party.

Well, it got worse. All of a sudden, smoke starts streaming out of the kitchen into the dining room. I rushed into the kitchen, but kept calm. Because I’m a professional, people assume I’ve never burned anything in my life, but I have … it happens. In Nicole’s case, the grilled lobster seemed to be on fire, but it wasn’t. Something flared up on the stove, and there was chaos for a few moments. When cooking at home for just me, I try not to get too worked up if everything doesn’t turn out just so. When guests are coming, however, my inner critic emerges and I do obsess more about the finished product. So I was getting a little stressed over how the next course would come out, or if it would come out at all.

The smoke cleared, and Nicole’s Risotto Cake with Lobster and Fennel and Purple Onion Salad came out fine. Her main course was Herb-Roasted Filet Mignon with Gratin Dauphinoise (I was proud of myself for pronouncing it correctly) and Asparagus. Here’s where I think Nicole made another fatal mistake: not finding out how guests like their beef cooked. We discussed it before, I suggested she take temperatures and her feeling was the guests should eat an expensive cut of beef like tenderloin rare. And I agree, but I don’t impose my belief on my guests. Yes, a medium-rare steak is delicious but many people like filet mignon and other cuts of beef well-done. But no matter what you or I think, the guest rules. I saw Deborah eating the outsides of the beef so I sent hers back. Nicole had to make it less rare, and the whole spectacle was uncomfortable, especially since Deborah had to wait while everyone else was eating.

Nicole created a spectacular dessert, though: Chocolate Cake with Fresh Raspberries. It sat under a unique and intricate mesh-spun sugar dome. Although a very dated sugar garnish, creating a sugar dome takes patience. Hers seem to have that wow factor that so well fit the Town theme.

Although the gods of great food were smiling down on both dinner parties, I had to pick a winner. Nicole and Corey left no taste bud unturned; the dinner party gave both chefs a chance to show their stuff. They were masters at plating, too. As I say, “All the plate is a stage.” People eat with their eyes first. When a plate arrives at the table, you've already made an initial judgment on whether you’ll like it or not by how good it looks. Corey and Nicole made sure that the different items on their dishes were varied, colorful and attractively-arranged.

I quickly polled my guests and there was one clear winner –- Corey –- whose fried cheese exploded in flavor and whose shrimp dish redeemed itself in a big way.  He went out of his way to impress us with loads of delicious handmade food and designed a perfect country setting. As close as Nicole came to showing us what an elegant city night looks and tastes like we all had a better time with Corey.

Thank you, Terrance, Melissa, Deborah, Christian, Mo, and Tiler. The whole point of entertaining is to have fun, and you made it fun.

And I’ll never look at airline food the same way again.

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 ….