Rocco DiSpirito

Rocco DiSpirito explains why both chefs were winners, and reveals set secrets.

on Jun 24, 2011

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.