It was sudden, and it came pretty early in the proceedings: that exact moment when professional collegiality was shelved, the oven mitts were metaphorically thrown down and the carving knives were drawn. Bachelor Chef No. 1 likened Bachelor Chef No. 3's physique to "a heavy-bottomed stockpot." From that point on it was every cuisinier for himself as three of Manhattan's leading chefs vied for the gastronomic affections of Deborah Yates, the dancer and actress (and food buff) who stars in Lincoln Center Theater's musical Contact.
The idea was to follow the format of the old TV show The Dating Game and have three eligible chefs—Michael Romano (Union Square Cafe), Alex Urena (Blue Hill), and Galen Zamarra (Bouley Bakery)—compete for a date with Yates. And so, one recent afternoon at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, these three masters agreed to tie on their aprons, conceal themselves behind a screen and present their most seductive dishes.
In turn, Yates agreed to, well, grill them. Between mouthfuls, of course. She didn't know who they were. They knew who she was, though none of them had been to see her Tony Award-winning show at the Vivian Beaumont (too busy, presumably, experimenting with vinaigrettes and pursing their lips over farmers'-market produce to attend the theater).
Before the game gets underway, all three contestants exude a quiet confidence in their menus, if not necessarily in their chances with the Broadway star. Bouley Bakery's Galen Zamarra is putting his faith in Cupid. "I think it's a romantic dish," he confides, discussing his artichoke salad with saffron vinaigrette, "because you're eating the heart of a flower." He selected his entréeroasted veal chops with mushrooms in a Madeira saucebecause "veal is very tender, very succulent, and has a beautiful rose color." As for the pear soufflé, "people think it's impossible to make, so it's a nice dish to show off with."
Blue Hill's Alex Urena hopes to envelop Yates in familiarity and warmth. "I wanted my meal to make her feel happy and comfortable," he says. So: Chestnut soup, because "maybe her mom used to make soup." Roasted chicken with farro and mushroom stew to evoke happy memories of holidays. And finally, citrus crema catalana. "In Spain, my friend's grandmother gave me the recipe; it's been around for generations."
Union Square Cafe's Michael Romano plans to dazzle Yates with sophisticated simplicity, following some recipes he perfected while writing The Union Square Cafe Cookbook with the restaurant's owner, Danny Meyer. Right through to dessert, a marble fudge swirl brownie ("Who can resist?"), he's trying for "straightforward food, luxurious ingredients." The crab salad with creamy Cognac dressing "says it's a special evening." Then there's his entrée, a seared rib steak served over arugula with rosemary-balsamic vinaigrette. "Unless you're a vegetarian, it's gonna make you salivate. If your date's a vegetarian, you're gonna strike out big-time."
"I have no idea," Romano says. Suddenly pensive, he studies a nearby table piled with salads for the crew and says, "If she is, we're all gonna lose. She'll go out with the guy from Balthazar who made lunch instead."
Yates, sequestered in a room off the set, says that "feeding me is a good way to my heart." And what does she like? "I pretty much love anything dairy. I'm not as keen on meats."
"Though having been raised in Texas, I have to eat beef and chicken. It's actually in the state constitution."
She claims she's not nervous: "I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I get to eat nine courses. How often do you get to do that on a Friday afternoon?"
To the entirely appropriate strains of the Tijuana Brass's "Whipped Cream," Yates perches on a stool in front of three table settings. The chefs are hidden just a few feet away. Peter Elliot, Bloomberg Radio's restaurant critic, takes the Jim Lange role and plays host, while students from the FCI make up the audience.
"And here we go," Elliot announces. "In just a minute, we'll be sending out the meals that our three Bachelor Chefs have chosen to woo Deborah with. Between courses, she will have a chance to get to know them by asking some culinary questions. Now, Deborah, has anyone told you that chefs never cook for their wives?"
"That's okay, because I won't dance for the chefs," Yates replies.
The appetizers are brought out.
Following Yates's first question"What makes these dishes romantic?"Bachelor Chef No. 2 (Zamarra) delivers his heart-of-a-flower line and is rewarded with an audience-wide "Awwww." Yates takes a bite of his artichoke salad and says, "Fantastic." But then comes the second question.
"Bachelor Chef Number 1, which piece of cooking equipment best describes Bachelor Chef Number 3?"
Whereupon BC #1 (Romano) looks over at BC #3 (Urena), sees the stockpot mentioned earlier, and says so. Moments later, BC #3, asked to describe BC #2's appearance, attempts to regain his footing ("Um...balloon whisk?"), but it's clear that BC #1's surprise attack has thrown the other two off balance. And, after a couple of uneventful rounds of questions about first dates and career roads not taken, comes another zinger from Romano.
Yates: "Bachelor Chef Number 1, if you are what you eat, what does that make Bachelor Chef Number 2?"
BC #1: [long pause] "A Ball Park hot dog."
The appetizer round ends with Yates looking equally impressed by all the dishes. But the question hangs in the air: Have BC #1's blunt characterizations of his competitors (stockpot, frankfurter) taken their toll?
Growing comfortable with the format, all three chefs acquit themselves well during the entrée round. Asked to name an herb that matches his personality, BC #1 chooses sage ("subtle yet powerful, with a spiritual sideand it's even good when it's fried"), BC #2 picks chives ("a little biting, a little sharp, but not so much that it's horrible"), while BC #3 claims mint.
"Why?" asks Yates.
"I smell good."
That one goes over well. But amid the banter it's hard not to notice Yates's reaction to BC #1's rib steak. Her avowed preference for dairy seems to have vanished with one bite.
"Mmm. Mmm. This is wonderful. Why is it good on a first date?"
BC #1: "I think there's a primal element to beef. It gets right to the point."
The smart money going into the dessert stage is on BC #1, but it's not quite over. BC #2, his dreams now harnessed to a fragile pear soufflé, makes a strong case for the virtue of a dessert that "doesn't last long, because hopefully at that point in your date you're ready to move on to other things." And, perhaps trying to capitalize on Yates's unanticipated beef-friendliness, he answers her final question"What should I cook for you to win your heart?"with "If you grilled me a steak, I'd be yours forever." BC #3, in his response, throws caution to the wind: "I will eat anything that you cook." But BC #1 is still looking formidable, and his fudge brownie is a daunting closer.
"Are we ready?" Elliot says. "You've tasted three appetizers, three entrées and three desserts. Deborah, have you made your choice?"
"I have. For my blind date, I choose...Bachelor Chef Number 1!"
"Whipped Cream" is cued up again, the crowd goes wild, and runner-up bachelor chefs Urena and Zamarra step from behind the screen to greet Yates with a kiss. Then Romano comes out, and within moments he and Yates are whispering sotto voce about...steak.
In the minutes after the verdict, Romano admits he was "pretty confident" and surmises that the turning point was "the 'sage' answer."
And Yates? "The appetizers were all very good, but when I tried the beef, it was so delicious," she gushes. "I would have eaten the whole thing, had I had time."
Was there anything else that put Bachelor Chef No. 1 over the top?
"Well, sage happens to be one of my favorites," Yates says, "but I just thought he had the best answers and the best food." She smiles. "Plus, he knows chocolate is always the way to a woman's heart."
George Kalogerakis is a contributing writer for Talk and a contributing editor for New York. He lives in Manhattan.