The theme of last night's dinner party was Mystery Guest. That means, literally, guess who's coming to dinner? No one knew, not the chefs, not the guests -- only the Mystery Guest and me. If you were cooking a dinner party, and your spouse or partner announced to you that a mystery guest was showing up for dinner, wouldn't that throw you into a tailspin? Maybe you'd be pretty pissed off -- not having any idea whether that mystery guest would even like your menu or not. If that happened to me, I'd be frustrated as hell. Well, as you saw, the chefs in last night's competition stayed super-cool, and if they felt any pressure, I sure couldn't tell it. Their ease put me at ease. And man, was that important to me, because above all, I host dinner parties to please others. And if my chefs got nervous, that would spoil the whole experience. But because they were confident, I was confident that my guests would have a great and memorable time. So here we go...
I could barely stay out of the kitchen during prep for last night’s dinner party. I had three very-different chefs competing: King, chef of not one but TWO executive restaurants in New York City –- one is the wonderful Kuma Inn; Michelle, a private chef from Los Angeles; and Joel, a full-time culinary teacher at a high school. All so diverse, which meant big, big drama could unfold.
I mean, here’s Michelle who’s judged every single day by the small groups she cooks for. I was sure she could create something spectacular that would make my guests feel like they’re being treated to a dining experience par excellence. So could King. After all, he is a culinary master and his background proves it. As for Joel, I was really interested in what he could bring to the table. That cliché kept zigzagging around in my head: “Those who can’t… teach.” Not so much because of Joel, but because I was once a teaching assistant at Boston University for a course called “advanced food and beverage management.” I used to get ribbed a lot with that cliché.
Joel was picked on a lot as a kid because he was fat and couldn’t play sports. He learned to cook instead. He said, “If I’m not cooking, I’m not happy.” That kind of passion counts for something. Oddly, all through the challenges Joel thought he was the clear underdog.
On to the signature dish challenge. That would tell me everything I needed to know about them – philosophy, talent, commitment to creating a memorable experience for my guests. If you asked me what I like best about this challenge, I’d say, “tasting.”
King did a stir-fry of beef noodles and sea scallops, a dish his mom made for him growing up. But when it came time to plate up, King’s scallops didn’t make it out of the pan. It was an incomplete dish –- bummer for him –- and me. I wanted to the full experience. Bad timing; I didn’t think he stood a chance. What I did taste though, was pretty damn good. Still made me nervous that he couldn’t get the timing right.Joel did seared duck breast. I thought it was a textbook dish, nothing creative. I was a little hesitant about his choice, I must admit. There’s nothing better than good duck and nothing worse than bad duck -- when it’s greasy, tough and tasteless. But I was impressed by the precision of his execution. I have to say he cooked the duck perfectly. The fat was rendered; the breasts were scored. It was the best dish in the challenge.
Michelle went with a Cajun Crawfish Étouffée served over saffron rice. For the uninitiated, crawfish, also called mudbugs, are tiny red crustaceans that abound in mudflats and river deltas in Louisiana. No bigger than your pinkie finger, the tails are sweeter than lobster, and delectable in just about any seafood dish you can dream up. But not this one. Étouffée requires making a roux (the paste-like combination of melted butter and flour that serves as the base for many sauces). Roux based sauces take a good hour just to cook out the starchiness of the flour and the whole dish is really a four-hour dish. Michelle took the wrong shortcuts. I could taste uncooked flour in it, and uncooked flour tastes like, well, uncooked flour. Plus, there was a whole unshelled crawfish sticking out of the dish. I love pulling apart seafood, but I knew my guests wouldn’t. It was supposed to be a garnish but all it did was certify my suspicion that michelle wasn't ready for this dinner party.
She cooked with a lot of love and had the right intention but her strategic thinking didn’t convince me she could pull a whole dinner party off. So it was down to King and Joel.
I informed them that they'd have to cook for a Mystery Guest. When you throw a dinner party, you’ve got to anticipate your guests’ needs and desires. So I gave them a a dossier with some clues. This Mystery Guest likes to visit Bali, maybe live in Italy, loves fresh flavors and natural foods, and is a fan of spices – not to mention this guest is a star in the culinary community. They weren't any closer to knowing the guests identity but at least they had real information to work from. The pressure was on.
When cooking for others, you’ve got to know your audience, know the occasion and keep it simple; ambience is everything – which is why the chefs get to design their own rooms. Thinking of the Mystery Guest, King designed a tropical, Bali-like setting with a Vespa in the room. My guests would sit at higher table with stools, and they’d get to take off their shoes and slip on some slippers. I say never ask fashionistas to remove their Laboutin's at a dinner party but they were good sports. All very vibe-y tropical touches on King’s part.
Joel decorated with spices but did something in his décor that blew me a way. He put little chalkboards at each placesetting with the guest’s name on it and written on the chalkboard was “If you could be a teacher what subject would you teach?" A cute way to combine place cards with a clever conversation starter. Sometimes you need them at parties, especially when your guests don’t know each other well.
You’ve got to keep people engaged at parties, and know how to do it. I love to entertain and show my guests a good time. If you ever find yourself at a dinner party where people are kicking back, having fun, and someone brings up a sensitive topic like politics, religion, or offshore drilling and interesting conversation quickly morphs (fueled by cocktail No. 4) into an exhausting, contentious “debate" steer things back to a lighter mood by asking “So, who do you think will win the next Bachelorette?” I often get blank stares but if everyone’s not having fun, what’s the point?Back to the party. My guest list had “classy” written all over it: the stunning style and beauty expert Mary Alice Stephenson, fashion editor Harper's Bazaar; the supremely talented singer/songwriter Bebel Gilberto; the renowned fashion designer Gilles Mendel; the delightful Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour; and amazingly funny actor/comedian D.L. Hughley. And of course, our distinguished Mystery Guest, the lovely Padma Lakshmi, Emmy Award nominated host of Top Chef, and a successful cookbook author. Padma literally tastes 1000's of dishes a year for a living, and I was honored to have her as my guest.
When I finally revealed to King and Joel that Padma was our Mystery Guest they were knocked out. She brought some of her spices with her and I asked both chefs to prepare something for Padma with them in five minutes. King and Joel scattered like dry leaves in the wind. Watching both chefs create and prepare each dish was exciting, and the energy in the kitchen was buzzing.
Cooking can be as complicated -- or as simple -- as you make it. And there’s no reason why these guys couldn’t whip something great up in a heartbeat. I told them I had some tuna, salmon and paneer (Indian cheese) in the fridge and they both did something with fish, which always cooks up fast. Joel, with tuna; King, with salmon. But both guys shined under pressure. I think the consensus was Joel's tuna was the best of the two.
Joel chose to serve dinner first: Parmesan Tuiles with prosciutto; Steamed Mussels and Clams served with a parsley and fennel salad; Barlotti Bean Stew with Dijon Sausage (Joel bravely decided to make his own sausage); and Sourdough Bread Pudding with Cardamom Ice Cream. What’s up with bread pudding? We had that last week. Must be a fave with more chefs than I thought.
Here’s something you didn’t see on the show: Joel was the only chef who tasted all the wines I suggested to make sure they complemented the food to his liking rather than take my suggestions for granted. I liked that a lot! Btw, that’s not grape juice, folks. Yes, we are enjoying fine wines provided by my good friend Fred Price and The Gotham Wine Group. A dinner party just isn’t right without it.
Joel’s Chicken Confit was turning into disaster; he tasted it and it was really dry – so bad that he didn’t want to serve to his dog. He switched gears pretty damn fast after that fumble – that’s the mark of a resourceful chef – and substituted prosciutto for the chicken. He got points in my book for having the gumption to acknowledge his error and do something about it last minute. The prosciutto was a brilliant choice.
Two of my guests didn’t like mussels or clams, but felt so comfortable they tried them anyway. That's a good sign. It means your guests feel safe in your hands and are willing to experiment. Joel made believers out of them. He definitely worked some magic there; they were a hit. Padma dealt a blow to his bean stew; she didn’t think the sausage, homemade or not, had much flair, even though it used dijon mustard, one of my favorite flavor detonators. A little dijon served on the side would have been terrific. The wine he eventually chose helped a lot it though! It was a Gigondas, Les Espalines Cuvee Romaine, from Patrick Lesec 2005. A gorgeous French Southern Rhone that's a blend of Grenache & Syrah. It was elegant, yet rustic and had the guts to stand up to Pork sausage stew.Everyone loved Joel’s dessert. Cardamom ice cream – who knew my guests would like that? Sometimes called “seeds of paradise,” cardamom is one of my favorite spices. It gives food a menthol and anise touch.
Speaking of paradise, did you catch how Padma likes her potato skins cooked? We were all fanning ourselves afterwards and D.L. needed a cigarette!
And now on to King’s party: Pork Spare Ribs marinated in oyster sauce and grilled; Grilled Shrimp and Papaya Salad; Seafood Curry, made with scallops, mussels, shrimp, and green coconut curry; Panna Cotta with coconut and lemongrass. He started out with a Lychee Bellini which is a dirty trick. Lychee like black truffle is always a win. Take note.
King got marked down for the Pork Spare Rib dish. Padma didn’t like the “cacophony of smells”. About 90 percent of what we consider taste is really smell. The aromatics of a dish is really important to how we perceive the flavor. If something doesn’t smell right, we usually don’t eat it.
D.L. thought that his Seafood Curry wasn’t bold enough. How does that happen? You can’t screw up boldness with curry. It seemed like King was going down for the count dish by dish.
But he wrapped things up nicely with his Panna Cotta, a perfectly textured and soft molded dessert. He flavored it with coconut and lemongrass –- a divine blend of tropical flavors. Lemongrass has a strong citrusy tang. It reminded me how important a meal-ending indulgence can be.
Based on my guests’ reaction to the food and the fun they had, I announced the winner in a very close race: Chef Joel, congratulations! He said his win was life-altering too; he wants to use the $20,000 prize to make one his dreams come true: opening a restaurant with his wife! So sweet.Honestly, King emerged victorious, too, because he aimed to make everyone happy and did. And I’m sure his cute little BYOB restaurant, The Kuma Inn, is buzzing louder than ever. He was great to hang with –- always a smile on his face, no matter how hot things got in the kitchen. This is really a competition where there are no losers. Win, win, tasty win.
And thank you so much to my guests, Mary Alice, Bebel, Gilles, Cindi, D.L., and Padma. The whole point of entertaining is to have fun. Sure, a few of the dishes went wrong (and something always does), but we all rolled with it. Both parties were great -- my guests’ energy and enthusiasm was further proof that what you need to guarantee a successful gathering is a group of people ready to have fun –- which describes my guests perfectly. Thank you!