Happy Birthday, Liza!

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


What a night, what a way to end the season.

We marked a very special occasion with a very special party for a very special lady, Liza Minnelli, who was celebrating her 65th birthday. Forgive the poetic waxing, but in so many ways, fond memories go hand in hand with great meals, and last night, that’s what I wanted to create for the fabulous, incomparable Liza Minnelli.

So in the kitchen were:

Antonio (Tony) Bettencourt, truck-driver-turned-restaurant-owner. His restaurant is 62 Restaurant, in Salem, Massachusetts where he’s also the Executive Chef. Yes, he went to cooking school, but I bet he got his greatest food education eating at truck stops, where some of the best stuff is served. Seriously! I’m hard-pressed to pass up a good ol’ truck stop meal, especially breakfast. To this day nothing brings a smile to my face quite like opening a menu and reading “breakfast served all day.” 

Lucia Palmieri used to be an Executive Chef but decided that working 80 hours a week wasn’t her cup of minestrone. Very cool is that she is the lead soprano for the New York City Opera! She belted out a note so high for me that my wine glasses started shaking. Before she unloaded her bag of food for the Signature Dish Challenge, Lucia started hitting on Tony. I got worried about her sincerity. My kitchen is a place to make magic, but not that kind of magic.

Executive Chef Frank Picchione is a self-taught chef who runs his own catering business Frank Picchione Catering in New York City. He didn’t get those biceps from rattling pots and pans. Frank used to be a personal trainer. After finding out that Tony was happily married, Lucia tried to move in on Frank.

Very different kinds of backgrounds with these chefs.... I couldn’t wait to see where this was headed.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.For décor, Frank picked the formal dining room and had it outfitted with a hunting motif. I wasn’t sure how that fed into the theme of Liza’s birthday party, but I’d let my guests decide if they liked the atmosphere.

Lucia chose the terrace room and had it decorated monochromatically in red -- Liza’s favorite color -- along with some Broadway stage posters of her performances.

Frank and Lucia couldn’t be more different. Lucia thinks Frank cooks way too healthy, while she prefers to cook everything in cinder-block sizes of butter. I have to comment on the scene in the Garden of Eden. Frank was Mr. Organized; Lucia looked like she was going to plan the party on the fly. She bought so much stuff, she couldn’t get the cart out the door. The whole vibe made me so nervous, I was shaking as if I had been put up in cold storage, especially since my guests represented an amazing line-up of celebs:

Sandra Bernhard, comedienne, actress, and singer. She’s a true original, a mega talent who writes and develops all of her own material, and has produced numerous one-woman shows over the years. I’ve seen a few and you know what? She’s sexy.

Sam Harris, the incredible Broadway actor whose career has spanned more than two decades in the public eye and has run the gamut from singer/songwriter to stage, film, television actor to writer, producer, director.

Alan Cumming - the Scottish stage, television and film actor, singer, comedian, director, producer and author who appears in The Good Wife. Look for Alan soon in the role of Salvador Dali.

Kenneth Cole – an absolutely genius fashion designer known the world as one of the great icons in the fashion industry.Marvin Hamlisch - one of the most famous composers in the world. As a composer, Marvin has won virtually every major award that exists: three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony, and three Golden Globe awards. He is the composer of more than 40 motion picture scores.

All of these wonderful people joined me to celebrate and honor Liza, one of the few entertainers on the planet who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. She is an EGOT getter. Only 12 others on the planet can say the same.


As with any dinner party today, there were lots of dietary restrictions: two guests were strict vegetarians; Sandra couldn’t eat pork or shellfish. Lucia thinks all vegetarians should be force-fed with bacon, and let us all know it. But she rose to the occasion but substituting a fried eggplant entrée in lieu of meat. Frank was more comfortable with the whole vegetarian thing since he cooks healthy food all the time.

Lucia’s party went first. I walked in the kitchen to check on progress, only to find Lucia dumping cake into the garbage. What the ________! The birthday cake she made from scratch stuck to the pan and she couldn’t get it out. How does that happen? I couldn’t believe it. Anyone can bake a cake, c’mon. I thought I’d have to jump in and do the meal, and have her sing a few arias to entertain my guests.

Thank heavens, that didn’t happen. Lucia went through with an ambitious six-course meal. She creatively named each dish after something symbolic to Liza, and that made Liza feel special. The first course, oddly enough, was chocolate covered strawberries with a glass of champagne. The last time I checked, you serve that for dessert. No big deal. Lucia appeared to be operating on the philosophy: Life is short; eat dessert first. 

Her next course was You’re So Vainaigrette – a  salad with a pine nut dressing. That was followed up by Fried Artichoke Hearts with a Cabaret Flair. Sandra hated that it was made with canned artichokes. I’d never tasted anything like it, and the sauce was a hit. Marvin said, “You could put the sauce on rubber and it would taste good.”

Lucia serving Gnocchi with a G next. I had to lecture her on making the dough correctly, but she pulled it off. Plus, she created two different tomato sauces -- one was meatless; the other cooked with pork. Although she’s not a big on vegetarian cooking, I had to give her "Gnocchi with a G" an A for effort.Her main course was filet mignon with portobello mushrooms. She almost forgot to take the strings off the steaks. The filet was cooked inconsistently and she kept guests waiting so long for it. If you’ve watched this show long enough, you could hear the death knell tolling. The substitute entrée for the vegetarians was the eggplant, but my meatless guests thought it was too bland. 

I don’t know where the sixth course was, or whether she combined them, but we had Strawberries Fosse (Strawberries Foster) for dessert. We had to eat it so fast that I’m not sure anything registered on our taste buds. I checked to make sure everyone was having fun. Sandra piped up and said, “I’d have fun with this crowd in a barn.”

Coincidentally, that was kind of where we went next, with Frank’s rendition of a country setting for our dinner party.

Frank planned an at-home comforting experience dinner experience of just three courses. He started us out with a Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup. Sandra thought the soup was too sweet, but most of us loved it -- including Liza. She said nothing is too sweet for her, and she was so wonderful and gracious over every course.  

Frank’s main course was Beef Stew with French Beans and Wild Rice. Lucia was on his case for serving Liza beef stew, heckling the heck out of him. But Frank was unflappable, shrugging it off. For the vegetarian version, he substituted beets, carrots, and tofu for the meat, and used apple cider for his boiling stock instead of chicken broth. My estimation for Frank went way up when I noticed that he had put grill marks on the tofu. I like tofu. I mean, I’ve always applauded soybean curd -- healthy, natural, wholesome  but my modus operandi at restaurants has always been to say, “Wow, the tofu dish sounds great!” And then order the cow. But when I saw what Frank did with tofu, I was about to be converted. And everyone loved his stew -- both versions.

For dessert, Frank did a traditional dessert called a Floating island -- a poached slice of meringue "floating" on an "island" of creme anglaise. He prepared it in a mold to make it look like a cake and served it with candles. My guests loved it so much that I almost had Frank make a second batch they could take home. Frank’s dinner party was outstanding, from start to finish, and my guests preferred his hunting lodge décor.Both Frank and Lucia did a great job, and Liza said she could feel the love from both chefs. In the end, Frank won. 

But I have to reiterate: It was a sacred night just being with Liza Minnelli.

Throughout this season, I’ve expressed that my favorite way to spend time together is over a great meal with friends and family. As we end this season, I will always recall every dinner party, just as if I had it the night before. It’s not just a particular dish or chef or my incredible guests I’m committing to memory, but the memory of the experience itself. And what is life but a collection of memories? I will hang onto them as tightly as I can. And, to you, my viewers, thank you for joining me every week at my dinner party. I love you all.

And by the way, Lucia, you can cook for me any time. I have a big milestone birthday coming up in November … why, yes it is 30, wink-wink, but before then, please learn how to bake a cake.


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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 ….


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