Rocco DiSpirito

Rocco DiSpirito examines the different approaches taken by the chefs to celebrate Liza Minnelli's birthday.

on Aug 18, 2011

I hovered over Frank’s signature dish and saw quinoa linguini with mixed shellfish. You may have come across this stuff at the bulk food or health food store or even the supermarket. What is it? And how the hell do you say it? It’s pronounced keen-wa, and although it’s been around since the time of Incas, it’s being touted as a new “superfood” because of a nutritional breakdown that shows it to be high in a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as protein. I was impressed, since lately I’ve started cooking with a lot of variant pastas -- whole wheat, quinoa, kamut, brown rice. I wondered if Frank had read up on me and quinoa was the equivalent to the student bringing the teacher the apple. As we got going, Frank cut his thumb, almost off -- not good in the kitchen -- and we called in a medic to stop the bleeding. Frank tries to do healthier alternatives to classic cooking. I love that we have chefs in this country doing that. This is a guy after my own heart and soul. I take my chef’s hat off to him.

Tony pan-seared red snapper and made a spicy grapefruit fennel side dish. He did an olive tapenade with crispy prosciutto. He really had the whole flavor-combined-with-texture thing going on.

Lucia, who sings while she cooks, made chicken franchaise. I gave her some crap over it because it looked like '80s institutional cooking. 

Time to taste. The plating, I have to tell you, was mostly real artistry. But the dishes… OMG -- they all tasted great. This has never happened before. Frank made quinoa taste like real pasta. Lucia’s chicken with the rapini was cooked perfectly. Tony’s dish was superb, despite the fact that he cooked a cured ham (prosciutto). I didn’t know what hell to do; there was nothing I’d change in the dishes. All three could have pulled off a mind-blowing dinner party.

I had to throw in an elimination round: I asked the chefs, in five minutes, to make the best steak they've ever made in their lives. I’ve never seen three people move so fast. 

Lucia sautéed some shallots with butter; then sautéed the steak; and made a garnish with Dijon mustard and the red wine. Frank seared the steak in a dry pan and added a wine sauce later. Tony started a sauce first, then threw in the steak.  

Tony’s beef was so rare that a skilled veterinarian could have revived it. I like my steaks rare but not raw. There was no way I could have served that to my guests. Tony was out. It was heartbreaking, but he was definitely out.

Frank’s plate was messy looking, but he won the Signature Dish Challenge anyway. You never know what is going to happen until you taste it.

Frank and Lucia nearly swooned when they found out that they were throwing a birthday party for Liza Minnelli. I added that Liza doesn’t like chicken, but loves escargot and mussels. She’s allergic to scallops and loves steak, especially filet mignon. Plus, she loves desserts like vanilla cake with vanilla icing, German chocolate cake, cinnamon buns, crème brulee, ice cream pie, and cobbler.