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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Thank God for Caviar

Rocco DiSpirito explains why Frank won the fashion forward challenge.

It was a night I will never forget. Two of the most creative fields in the world came together -- Food and Fashion. Did they click or clash? You be the judge. It was a crazy night of poorly-timed servings, mounds of caviar -- and a discussion about whale vomit!!!! I just never know what’s going to happen when I allow chefs to innovate and guests to (hopefully) hit it off.  

The craziness started from the get-go, with three chefs coming from totally different backgrounds. Were they competing on level playing fields? Probably not, but the “field” is a kitchen, and the floor is level the last time I checked. First, there was football player-turned chef Bill Haley, who is a sous-chef at Plaza Food Hall. I love sous-chefs. When I was an executive chef, I couldn’t do without mine. The word sous (pronounced sue) comes from the French word for under or beneath, or, in this case, assistant. He’s the go-to guy, the heart and backbone of the kitchen, and typically the person who puts in the longest hours. To put it in Bill’s language, the sous-chef is the quarterback; the executive chef is like the coach.

Sharon Robustelli is self-trained and has been in the business for only two years. Amazing -- clearly she’s someone who just doesn’t follow her dream; she makes it come true. I love having self-taught chefs in my kitchen and on the show. Because they’re not classically trained, I think people can relate to them. 

Then there was Frank Otte Jr. What a kick he was. If he ever loses his job as an "Executive" private chef, he might do well as a stand-up comedian, or a drill sergeant. He ran his kitchen with military precision, no question.

Well, the pans started clattering right away. Bill’s “Amazing Rack” was pan-seared baby rack of lamb on top of a succotash-like dish of baby carrots, fresh English peas, and herbs. I got on his case because he trimmed too much fat off the lamb. I love the unique flavor of really good lamb, and I know that cooking the perfect lamb rack can be a little tricky. But cooking it without its attendant fat, that’s just crazy. It tasted good, not great. His dish underwhelmed me.

Sharon did something unusual -- and brave: she crusted a New York strip with espresso and grilled it. Maybe you like your express after your steak, but let me tell you, this is one helluva way to grill steak. One taste and I was hooked. I’ll be seeing a lot more of that dish.

Frank got fancy. He wrapped a generous piece of halibut with prosciutto and sage. What a way to blend and lock in flavors in an otherwise mild fish! He served it over creamy sauerkraut and sautéed Granny Smith rings. I usually like my sauerkraut tucked inside a nice meaty Reuben -- and I love every incredibly messy minute of it -- but this worked.

The real standout was Sharon. I awarded her the Signature Dish Challenge, and I sent Bill home with leftover succotash.

With Frank and Sharon left standing, I explained how they needed to translate the fashion theme into their food. They’d have to cook three courses; each course would have two versions: a “ready-to-wear” version, something easily recognizable and that everyone loves and a couture version, something handcrafted, that we’ve never seen before. I wanted them to innovate and be responsible for “designing their own line.” 

For décor, Sharon conceptualized the overall look and feel of a high-style fashion show with contrasting black and white and touches of red. Frank went for a silvery '40s glam look, like the dressing room behind the stage of a fashion show. If I were awarding prizes for décor, this one would be a tie. Second thought, I might give a slight edge to Frank, his room did feel better when we were sitting in it.

My dinner parties are very personal. I care enough about people to make sure I plan a special night for them. And so my guests last night were:

Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano - co-hosts of a great show on NPR called The Dinner Party Download. I knew they’d love this one and have a lot to contribute.

Katrina Szich - TV host and CBS Early Show contributor.

Nikki Blonsky, actress, singer -- and star of Hairspray.

Kara Janx - Fashion Designer.

Nicole Miller - Fashion Icon.

Nicole gave me a great idea just before the party started. She told me that in the fashion world, a designer kicks off the season with a “first look” -- a design that defines the rest of the collection. So I asked both chefs to create a “first look” first course that would preview their subsequent courses. 

Sharon’s dinner party went first. And her first look was a tuna tartare with avocado and parmesan crisps. Very bold move -- there are still some diners who turn pale at the thought of eating raw fish. But I didn’t hear any complaints. Some advice though: If your relatives are meat-and-potatoes kind of folks, don't take tuna tartare for Sunday dinner.

Sharon got even bolder by preparing side dishes for the next course: Her ready-to-wear was Potatoes Au Gratin; her couture dish was caviar in a New Potato Cup. Everyone went orgasmic over the caviar, and I scooted into the kitchen to grab a big tin of it. After I started spooning out heaps of caviar, the feeding frenzy grew. I’ve never seen caviar flow so freely in my life. 

Sharon is a self-proclaimed slow-poke, and we had to wait 44 minutes to get the next course. (Thank God for caviar -- though, it’s an expensive way to pass the time....)

Once the next course came it was tuna: an incredible tuna salad and a sesame-crusted tuna, which flopped because the flesh was tough -- and really, the dish was uninspired. 

My guests had only a matter of minutes to taste Sharon’s desserts: S'mores (or schmores as they are now known #oyvey) and a Chocolate Ganache. In fact we fled to Frank’s dinner party with Sharon’s desserts in hand. I was really pissed off by the poor timing. 44 minutes is a long time to small talk. 

Frank started us off with Roasted Poussin with a vegetable puree -- his first look course. A poussin is a very young chicken, and it has a very delicate flavor and very little fat. It was a hit.

Next he did a classic Caesar salad (his ready-to-wear) and a creative variation on that for his couture. He put anchovies on the plate with some Romaine lettuce and petite crusts of bread. This was scary territory; so many people declare anchovies public enemy No. 1. But not this crowd. If I thought the caviar was a hit, did you see everyone scarf down those anchovies? Katrina, who hates anchovies, loved these. The consensus was: forget the rest of the stuff on the plate, just give us more anchovies.

Frank’s main course was a steak duo: Steak Frites (or as they’re called at McDonald’s, “fries”). His couture dish was Filet of Steak Crusted with Exotic Pepper and served atop a blue cheese sauce. I know Frank labored over that steak. Hell, he was taking its internal temperature so often you’d have thought it had the flu.

Well, I took one bite of the steak that was swimming in the blue cheese, and I visibly gagged. Nicole took a bite and seconds later we were gagging in unison. It was so bad, I'm sure it turned everyone off steak for good. The steak frites was great and the ketchup was a genius move on his part. The blue cheese sauce was his one mulligan for the game.

I was glad to see dessert arrive so I could get that taste out of my mouth. Dessert was a French Apple Tart a la mode (Frank made us homemade vanilla ice cream) and the ready-to-wear version, which was a tad dry Classic Apple Crumble. The tart, though, rocked our taste buds.

Well you saw what happened next. I pronounced Frank the winner, and boy did I hear about it. Seconds after the show aired, I got almost 900 tweets protesting his victory. But let me come to the guy’s (and my own) defense. Sure, he was bald, tattooed, and cocky, but the guests didn’t know that and he got mostly delicious food out on time. Had Sharon the experience to not screw up the timing so badly and make us wait so very long, yes, she would have probably won. I liked her spirit, her energy, but I don’t know about you -- after 25 minutes I start to run out of small talky things to say. When guests are visibly uncomfortable because they waited close to an hour to be served mediocre food it just sucks. I had to help her plate her next course, and leave my guests on their own for a while and all the caviar in the world doesn’t make up for that kind of rudeness. It’s all about who created the best experience for my guests. And Frank did just that. We definitely all had a better time at his dinner party. Plus, my mom (sort of) agrees with my choice, so I can sleep tonight knowing I did the right thing.


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