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.