No Losers

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

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!

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

We Like to Party

Jes Gordon dives deep into what throwing a party really means.

This party will continue... for all of us!!!!!

One of the most common ledges I have to talk my clients off of is something I like to call “post-party depression.” This sounds funny at first, but it is a real problem in my world, and I am often spending a lot of time convincing folks that there is not only one party to be thrown in their lives, and that there are plenty to come in the future. 

What is interesting about our show is that obviously, since it's a competition, everyone has to live in the moment and make this particular party mean everything since there is a prize at stake. What I like to concentrate on though, is that for everyone involved in the show including the contestants, the guests, Rocco, and even myself, is that the party will surely go on whereever and at any time we want it to. 

Basically people, we are free to party!!!

Something that I adore about Rocco (amongst many things) is that he values good quality time with the people he loves. He is also a huge fan of comfort, beauty, and high-end elements. Something that I learned from doing his show is that it is a true gift to those around you when you cook for them. I feel the same way about setting the ambiance of the room where that food is being served, and it’s pretty genius of Bravo to understand the importance of both and creating an outlet where Rocco and I can truly prove our points. Since I cannot cook… anything, I prefer to design environments where the two elements can harmonize together. I am still trying to convince Rocco to give me a cooking lesson some day.Why do we celebrate? Do we want presents? Do we want to get dressed up? Do we want to get drunk? Or maybe we want to find out who is most important to us in our lives….There is no right or wrong reason to celebrate -- we just all need to realize that we are lucky to do so, and that the people that show up to be with us mean so very much. We all have our reasons to celebrate and our own “party meter.” Some of us celebrate when a broken nail grows back, or if someone goes into remission from cancer, or is having a 65th birthday like Liza Minnelli, and there are no party police that step in and tell us that we are under arrest for choosing our own reasons to party. This is an area in our lives where we can escape the usual rules and just forget about our jobs, our taxes, and picking the kids up from school for a day. We also tend to allow ourselves to consume carbs and eat candy, which is certainly a valid reason to move forward into “party land."

Amongst the fun part comes the serious stuff. The quality of the party directly reflects how you feel about the guests you are inviting. Rocco is a perfectionist when it comes to this, and he is flawless in making his guests feel like kings and queens for the time they spend with him as a party host. This is a lost art. Parties have become major outlets to show off celebrities, money, and fashion. Rocco brings his party ideals back to where they belong; events that are thrown from the heart and from creating an experience from which people don't want to leave and remember long after the event. 

Being a great host is pretty exhausting. It’s like playing a very intricate game of chess for one part of the brain and then a crazy karaoke session for the other side. You are constantly insuring that your guests are happy and making conversation while worrying about the back of the house logistics and wondering if they are going smoothly. This is certainly one of the biggest challenges of my job. It is iterally a juggling marathon, and if one of the ball drops it reflects on you. Something to remember is that whatever goes on behind the scenes and can be solved behind the scenes is fine. You may be having heart palpitations, but as long as your guests don't know about the drama that is happening you are all good. Troubleshooting is a must in this biz!

We often saw Rocco having to go into the kitchen to check on the chefs and to make sure they were on target, and then he would have to go back to his guests and continue to stay cool, calm, and charming: he pulled it off, but this is not an easy thing to do. I do this every day and it's exhausting yes, but its also exciting and I am lucky to be doing it!As you entertain and celebrate more, things start to become more fluid. I can easily pick out seasoned entertainers just by how they hold themselves or make decisions. It is very rare that a chef is also an effective host; it takes an enormous amount of coordination, kind of like singing and playing the drums at the same time. What I love about this show is that the chefs didn't really know what they were getting into to a certain extent, and I feel like this experience whether they lost or won will make them better at what they do. Many of the chefs spoke of wanting to open their own restaurants some day. Well, how would they do that if they can only cook without a time limit or not think about what that restaurant would look like? I assume that many of the competing chefs from this season were thankful for this experience and from what they learned from Rocco and myself. 

The most important part of continuing to evolve as an entertainer or host is to lose the ego. If we stop learning from those around us, we will hit the ceiling pretty quickly…. I have learned so much from my clients and continue to do so. I found that a few of the chefs from the show were pretty egotistical, and I truly hope that they don't close themselves off from learning as they continue to grow in their careers and personal lives. When you are a host, the evening is about your guests and not about you. If you are good at what you do, you can put your own flair onto the experience in a subtle way and not interfere with the flow of the evening.  Many of my clients can walk into one of my events and say, “Oh this is a Jes Gordon event,” which is great, but if it's too overwhelming, then the event gets lost, and the reason for the event is forever gone and misrepresented. It’s so important to keep the right focus for any party which really comes down to making every one of your guests feel special and that the party is for them and them only. 

In terms of this last episode, I think it was fully realized that the focus of both dinner parties was on Liza Minnelli’s 65th birthday! What an amazing lady, and what an honor it was to be part of her special day, and the rest of the guests weren’t too shabby either. I enjoyed working with Lucia and Frank very much. Though Frank’s vision had me a little confused at first, everything came together phenomenally, and Lucia was focused on celebrating Liza and only Liza, which definitely came through in her room!   

I tell my clients all the time, and now I am telling you: don’t forget to have fun. At the end of the day, these are celebrations, so allow yourself to enjoy them! Follow me on Twitter, and watch for my company blog for great tips and news!

TWITTER: jesgordon

Facebook: jesGORDON/properFUN
Author: Party Like A Rock Star


You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet