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.