Give Me Flavor or Give Me Death!

Give Me Flavor or Give Me Death!

Rocco DiSpirito goes deep about why Corey Roberts' party ultimately won.

Last night’s dinner party may go down in the history-so-far of the show as the wildest. The kitchen almost burned up, guests got ballet lessons after dinner, and I got a marriage proposal. But the craziest angle of all was the diverse background of the chefs: owner of a cooking school, a vegan chef, and an airline chef. Don't airline chefs make meals that look like they had been placed in a time capsule and only recently unearthed – stuff you eat somewhere over Kansas? Well, read on, for how this dinner party came down.

The three chefs competing were:

Corey Roberts, who is from Australia and is the Executive Chef for LSG Sky Chefs. Yes, he’s the airline chef in question.

Nicole Straight from Connecticut. Nicole runs Time to Eat Cooking School. She teaches people how to throw dinner parties.

Ayinde Howell. He’s a vegan chef and food blogger. Ayinde has been a vegan all his life; he eats no animal products of any kind. He has never even cooked meat. I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of vegan meals, and done right, they can be terrific. Ayinde said he could deliver.

For the Signature Dish Challenge, Ayinde whipped up Texas BBQ Rubbed Seitan with Sauteed Mustard Greens and Home Fried Potatoes. Seitan (pronounced SAY-Tan) is another alternative to meat, and it comes from the protein in wheat. You can use it in a lot of dishes, like stews, burgers, and casseroles. Like tofu, it takes on the character and flavor of any ingredient used with it. His seitan did taste like a meat dish, but it was so over-seasoned … I could barely eat it. The level of sodium made my cheeks wince.  Wish he had the ability to acknowledge his error, might have saved him.

Nicole made Pan Roasted Salmon with Truffle Butter Sauce, wilted baby spinach, and slices of Yukon Gold Potatoes. The salmon was cooked perfectly. Good truffles can change your life, but I couldn’t taste them in the butter sauce. She clearly doesn’t have lots of experience with this precious ingredient.

Corey did something playful and fun: Mummy Fried Shrimp. He took long shreds of potato and wrapped each shrimp so that it looked like a mummy. Then he deep fried them. Very cool. Creativity like that wows guests. He served it atop an avocado and citrus salad. But the shrimp was woefully bland and not crispy. So sad. I asked him if the fryer he was using was hot enough and he made some smart-alec remark.

I had flavor issues with each dish. I was having a hard time understanding how dishes so potentially robust could be so neutered. Give me flavor or give me death! Or something like that. I was really hoping Ayinde would stay in the running, but his dish was so unbalanced that I ended the party for him.

Corey -- the airline chef -- won the Signature Dish Challenge. The whimsical nature of and the potential of the dish won me over. 

My dinner party theme was Town and Country … “town” being the sophisticated, big city taste and feel; “country” being a throw-back to simpler times, farm-fresh ingredients, and the casual gathering of friends around a casual table.

Nicole and Corey picked their theme by choosing one of two domes. Under one dome were eggs (country); under the other, caviar (town). Corey got the Country assignment; Nicole, the Town.

They put a lot of thought, energy, and detail in their decors. Corey chose the Terrace and party planner Jes Gordon decorated it with lots of rustic touches: country photographs, wagon wheels, and a special country-themed gift at each place setting. Nicole went for a high-style, white, lime green and fuchsia décor, with black and white photos of New York City hanging on my walls.

On my invitation list were:

Terrance Brennan, the Chef-Proprietor of the successful and acclaimed restaurants of The Artisanal Group, including Picholine, Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro & Wine Bar, and Bar Artisanal. In 2003, Terrance launched the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center -- a 10,000-square foot facility dedicated to the selection, maturation, and distribution of the world's finest artisanal cheeses. He brought a table full of his cheeses to the party, so I asked both chefs to prepare a cheese course using Terrance’s cheeses.

Melissa Joan Hart. You’ve seen Melissa in the live-action version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and since 2010, she has starred in the ABC Family series, Melissa and Joey.  

Deborah Cox, singer and actress who has conquered the R&B and pop charts, including six top R&B singles, and impressive 10 number-one hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Party Play chart. Plus, she has starred in musicals on Broadway.

Christian Campbell. Christian is an actor who has been on so many TV shows, movies, and plays that his resume could wrap around Manhattan and back.

Mo Rocca. Humorist, actor and writer, Mo Rocca is best known for his off-beat news reports and satirical commentary. Currently, he’s the host of Food(ography) on the Cooking Channel.

Tiler Peck. Tiler is the Principal Ballerina with the New York City Ballet. Tiler was a consultant on the movie Black Swan.

The party got started in the terrace with Corey’s Country-themed dinner. My guests were blown away by the little jars of just-made rhubarb jam that served as place settings. The waiters brought out the cheese course: Fried Saint-Marcellin Cheese with Swedish Country ligonberries. Terrance got a little miffed when he heard Corey was going to fry one of his cheeses. I guess he thought frying was an insult to the integrity of his great cheeses. Saint Marcellin is one of my top five favorites cheeses in the world. Was Corey going to change my mind with his fried version? I first had it in France with a serious side of black truffles, so you can only imagine the memories I had of it. Many cheeses do well fried but no one thought this one would. We all dug in. OMG. It was so freakin’ good that I almost fell over backwards in my chair. Usually, I let my guests make the first comment, but the dish was pure ecstasy and I couldn’t help but belt out a passionate response. The fried cheese was, well, pretty much my idea of heaven. Terrance ate his words –- and the cheese course -- declaring it superb.

Corey next served Fresh Baked Rolls (that he made the dough for), Forest Mushroom Soup, and Poached Eggs with Asparagus. Rave reviews followed.

He decided to redeem himself with the Mummy Fried Shrimp, and redeem himself, he did. Corey got it right, and my guests were wowed by it. Corey was a little slow in getting things on the table. I called him on it. Things got testy, and he told me to get out of the kitchen and back to my guests. I listened.

We got to the main course: Roasted Poussin and Salmon Trout. The salmon was dry; no one much cared for it. No matter how you do it, the most important thing to remember about cooking seafood is not to overcook it. Although a lot of people think raw seafood will kill you, overcooking it is almost a worse sin. My guests liked the poussin better. Poussin is the French word for a young chicken. For dessert, Corey ambitiously made two desserts (I don’t know how he did all this in four hours): Country Style Apple Pie and Macadamia Nut Tart. I advised my guests to take only a bite or two, because we still had a second dinner party ahead.

Nicole’s décor wowed everyone. They knew immediately that it was a spring-in-New-York setting, just what Nicole intended. She started us off with Sesame Seared Tuna Tartare with Wasabi Crème Fraiche. It had a real kick to it. Terrance felt it was clichéd and not a true tartare since the tuna had been seared. I came to her defense. Not all guests will appreciate the finer qualities of raw tuna, so cooking it a bit might be good for those who aren’t terribly adventurous eaters. The seasoning was unbalanced and ultimately crushed any chances the dish had, but raw or slightly raw is splitting hairs to me.The cheese course used several of Terrance’s amazing cheeses. Nicole made little cheese sandwiches (tartines) and served them with Crimini Mushroom Soup. The tartines were mostly good. Unfortunately, the soup was cold. It needed to be hot and satisfying. Talk about a tense start to the party.

Well, it got worse. All of a sudden, smoke starts streaming out of the kitchen into the dining room. I rushed into the kitchen, but kept calm. Because I’m a professional, people assume I’ve never burned anything in my life, but I have … it happens. In Nicole’s case, the grilled lobster seemed to be on fire, but it wasn’t. Something flared up on the stove, and there was chaos for a few moments. When cooking at home for just me, I try not to get too worked up if everything doesn’t turn out just so. When guests are coming, however, my inner critic emerges and I do obsess more about the finished product. So I was getting a little stressed over how the next course would come out, or if it would come out at all.

The smoke cleared, and Nicole’s Risotto Cake with Lobster and Fennel and Purple Onion Salad came out fine. Her main course was Herb-Roasted Filet Mignon with Gratin Dauphinoise (I was proud of myself for pronouncing it correctly) and Asparagus. Here’s where I think Nicole made another fatal mistake: not finding out how guests like their beef cooked. We discussed it before, I suggested she take temperatures and her feeling was the guests should eat an expensive cut of beef like tenderloin rare. And I agree, but I don’t impose my belief on my guests. Yes, a medium-rare steak is delicious but many people like filet mignon and other cuts of beef well-done. But no matter what you or I think, the guest rules. I saw Deborah eating the outsides of the beef so I sent hers back. Nicole had to make it less rare, and the whole spectacle was uncomfortable, especially since Deborah had to wait while everyone else was eating.

Nicole created a spectacular dessert, though: Chocolate Cake with Fresh Raspberries. It sat under a unique and intricate mesh-spun sugar dome. Although a very dated sugar garnish, creating a sugar dome takes patience. Hers seem to have that wow factor that so well fit the Town theme.

Although the gods of great food were smiling down on both dinner parties, I had to pick a winner. Nicole and Corey left no taste bud unturned; the dinner party gave both chefs a chance to show their stuff. They were masters at plating, too. As I say, “All the plate is a stage.” People eat with their eyes first. When a plate arrives at the table, you've already made an initial judgment on whether you’ll like it or not by how good it looks. Corey and Nicole made sure that the different items on their dishes were varied, colorful and attractively-arranged.

I quickly polled my guests and there was one clear winner –- Corey –- whose fried cheese exploded in flavor and whose shrimp dish redeemed itself in a big way.  He went out of his way to impress us with loads of delicious handmade food and designed a perfect country setting. As close as Nicole came to showing us what an elegant city night looks and tastes like we all had a better time with Corey.

Thank you, Terrance, Melissa, Deborah, Christian, Mo, and Tiler. The whole point of entertaining is to have fun, and you made it fun.

And I’ll never look at airline food the same way again.

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