Season's Eatings

Tom has two simple rules for cocktail parties, and he's telling you.

There are now only eight chefs left. They were divided randomly into two teams and given the task of preparing hors d'oeuvres for L.A. Magazine's holiday party on the "Ye Olde New York" stage set on the Warner Bros. lot. Cocktail parties are a big thing this time of year, and I'm asked to do many of them. If I've learned anything over the years about cocktail parties, it's these two things:

1. Keep the booze flowing.

2. Make food guests can eat with one hand so they can take advantage of rule #1. What? you say. Here in (insert city) we go to holiday parties for the sparkling conversation and witty repartee. Not to mention the joy of lubricating ourselves alongside colleagues and the boss! That may very well be the case, but here in NYC, people want good food and plenty of it. And a free hand to grip their Cosmo.

But there's something else that every chef who caters cocktail parties knows. Unlike a dinner party, where guests are seated at length over a few beautifully presented courses and nice wines, a cocktail party demands variety. Hors d'oeuvres are one or two-bite affairs that take mere seconds to eat. The chef's job is to provide a wide array of food so that the guests won't run through them within ten minutes of showing up. Ideally, he or she will continue to send out different items as the night continues to keep the guests interested, and provide diversion from stultifying office banter -- "As for those year-end numbers -- oh, look! Mini quiches!" Herein lay the Black team's big problem.

Elia, as team leader, decided to focus the group's efforts on four items, each one painstakingly executed a la carte. This would have been perfect for a dinner party, but for a cocktail party (especially one with 200 guests) it was a bad idea. Mia tried to interject with her own ideas while the team was planning. As a caterer, she understood the numbers game -- with 200 guests to serve, it is essential to prepare the kind of food that won't suffer from being prepped ahead of time so that you can get a head start on your guests -- many of whom will be coming right from the office and will be ready to eat. Unfortunately, Mia's ideas tend towards the mainstream -- chicken skewers and that kind of thing. Elia and Cliff wanted to aim higher, but in the process they shut themselves off to what she had to say. Michael, wisely perhaps, didn't try to introduce many of his own ideas (twice baked potato, anyone?) although he did hold out for his "surf and turf." Eventually Mia got sick of trying to be heard over Cliff and Elia's two-man show, and simply went along with the team.

The results were fairly disastrous. Although the Black team's hors d'oeuvres were tasty and skillful, guests grew bored with the meager selection and quickly drifted back to the Orange team's table. At times, the team simply didn't have food ready -- a big problem at a cocktail party, where people shouldn't be asked to wait. In my opinion, Elia's ego got in the way. Choosing to make only four items was a self-centered decision. (By that I don't mean a selfish decision -- she wasn't out only to please herself -- but one that originated in her own psyche, as opposed to that of her guests.) Sadly, four items -- even perfect, delicious, beautifully executed items - were not enough. And worse, her decision to make the hors d'oeuvres a  la carte meant that she could never get ahead of her guests' appetites, or even just keep up.

The Orange Team, on the other hand, understood the challenge. They came up with an ambitious list of hors d'oeuvres, and then set out to make them skillfully and intelligently. They managed their resources in such a way that there was enough food at all times, which gave their table a pleasing aura of holiday abundance. They even budgeted for table decorations, which helped give their offerings a professional, upscale feel. The food was respectable -- some of it was even very good -- but more importantly, overall they made the guests happy and delivered the "wow" factor we asked for. Sam showed leadership right from the start by asking Betty and Marcel to put away their differences, which I was glad to see them do. Both he and Ilan are used to putting their heads down and getting to work, so it made sense for them to be the workhorses behind the scenes during the party, while Betty -- who has demonstrated a knack for connecting with guests - served the food with Marcel. It seemed as though Sam was secure enough to allow his teammate's personalities to emerge in the food, but held his ego in check enough not to have to produce anything so complicated that it couldn't be managed in the time frame and quantities needed. As the leader and engineer of the team's overall effort, Sam won this week's elimination challenge.

It was clear who had won the challenge and who had lost. And that's when things started to get interesting. When the Black team was called to the Judges' table, Cliff blamed the team's loss on Mia "bitching and moaning" during planning and prep. Mia insisted she had only been asserting her opinion. And yet I couldn't help but feel if Mia had managed to express herself as forcefully during the planning stage as she did at the judges' table, her teammates would have had no choice but to listen. Cliff tried to frame the Black team's loss as a failure to work together as a team, but frankly, I saw it as the result of a poor conceptualizing from the top down. As the team leader, Elia set the course for all of them, and the responsibility for the team's loss fell on her shoulders. We were ready to send Elia packing, when a funny thing happened: In one of the first acts of genuine selflessness I've witnessed on the show to date, Mia asked to go home instead of Elia.

I guess Mia looked around at the other chefs and realized that it was unlikely she was going to be the ultimate winner. Not that she lacked the heart or hard work. But she was seeing people like Sam and Ilan and Elia, who have had the benefit of training and the tutelage of notable chefs, cooking at a level of sophistication and skill that eluded her. Mia felt herself out of her league and truly believed, but for tonight's error in judgment, Elia had a shot at going all the way. So she volunteered to go home so that Elia could stay. We were all incredibly moved. During the taping of the show I hadn't formed any personal connections or preferences among the chefs. I had very little interaction with them beyond my brief jaunts into the kitchen and at the judge's table. I definitely grew frustrated with them at times -- but always as competitors, never as individuals. I hadn't even seen the audition tapes the Producers used during casting, so I went in with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the chefs' backgrounds. Nonetheless, over the weeks of competition, bits of information filtered through. I learned that Ilan had worked for me very briefly years before at Craft (embarrassingly, I didn't recognize his face).

I learned that Marisa's specialty was pastry, and that Elia had trained with Joel Robuchon. I also learned that Mia had once been homeless and was inspired by her story. I don't think it affected my judgments of her cooking -- if anything, I respected her enough that I wanted to give her my honest opinion when her food fell short. But when Mia opted to leave the show, I was genuinely sad. A piece of me would have loved to see the fighter in her stick it out.

The truth is that Mia is already a winner in every sense of the word. In many ways her accomplishments -- a successful restaurant and catering company and the respect of her peers -- are more notable than most because of the overwhelming odds she faced in achieving them. She is a real role model -- self taught and self made -- and I, for one, feel lucky to know her. Happy Holidays -- Tom p.s. To CWE, the high-school age valedictorian who wrote in last week to ask if I thought opening a restaurant to pursue his passion for healthy cuisine was "selling himself short" as some people had told him -- I would like to say that in my opinion it is never selling yourself short to pursue the thing you love. In fact, it would be selling yourself short not to.

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