CLEVELAND: What do rabbit, banana leaves and Fruity Pebbles have in common? They have all been featured ingredients at Troy Piper’s Not Luck Dinner parties in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
What is a Not Luck Dinner? If you have ever watched the cooking program Iron Chef, on which chefs compete by improvising dishes using a surprise ingredient, you have some idea.
Piper says a Not Luck is a dinner party held in a private home, for which a carefully selected group of people is asked by the host/chef to bring ingredients. The host must then incorporate the ingredients into a series of dishes, served over the course of the night.
The twist is that all the ingredients are a surprise to the chef. Each couple or individual is instructed to bring items from a particular category — proteins, vegetables, dairy or fruit. It is up to the chef to devise how to combine the various ingredients to produce the night’s menu.
At a recent Not Luck, guests arrived late Friday afternoon to deliver the ingredients: beef tenderloin, yellow potatoes, multicolored beets, green and yellow bell peppers, watermelon, pineapple, Spam, banana leaves, achiotina (lard), Greek yogurt, wild rice, grapefruit, pink peppercorns, drunken currant jelly, rabbit, spinach, Ohio-made Kokoborrego cheese and tofu.
The guests included Amee Shah, a Cleveland State University professor and doctor of speech pathology; Adam Ross, a collector of fine timepieces; Eric Crescimano, an attorney; Murat Tasci, a research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank; Pinar Odabasi Tasci, a student of Middle Eastern studies; Alan Baltis, a computer programmer; Colleen Baltis, a financial adviser; Cherie Dimmerling, a sales consultant; Jeff Smith, a child psychologist; and Camille Davis, a mental health professional.
The Baltises brought Greek yogurt and wild rice as their ingredients. “I’ve met some fascinating people here. Troy mixes people like he mixes ingredients. He pulls people together from … all over, from the neighborhood, from work, from anywhere, as long as they’re interesting,” Colleen Baltis said.
Over the course of the next several hours, Piper served up inventive dishes, each expertly plated, such as the first course, fried tofu with a shallot, white wine vinegar and grapefruit jelly sauce.
Later in the evening, there were roasted green bell peppers stuffed with rabbit sausage. It was made with house-ground rabbit, wild fennel pollen, tellicherry pepper, rosemary, juniper berries, wild rice and cranberries, topped with pan sauce made with rabbit stock and Heering cherry liqueur.
Pinar Tasci said, “We brought rabbit from the farm, killed this morning. It was a jumping rabbit this morning, grass fed and everything.” She said she expected the rabbit would end up in a savory stew, but as the words left her lips, Troy was busy shoving it into a meat grinder to make the sausage.
While not every guest cared for the Spam Zongzi — tossed in achiotina (lard with annatto) with green bamboo rice and pineapple steamed in banana leaves with a tzatziki sauce — all were impressed with the preparation. (“I think Spam is an ironic hipster item now,” said Murat Tasci.)
Smith and his date, Davis, were assigned fruit and brought pineapple and watermelon. “I love Iron Chef where you watch food being invented and then the panel of experts judges it, but how do you know if it’s really good?” Smith said. “Here, you get to actually taste each dish and judge for yourself.”
Asked what he expected would be done with their fruit, he said, “I try not to think about how it will be used. I used to, but I was always wrong. It’s always something surprising and that’s the fun. You think it will automatically be dessert, but he can use any item here in any inventive way that he wants and it’s always pretty cool.”
The Shrunken Melon dessert was a marvel of both taste and appearance. Each guest was served what appeared to be a tiny watermelon, but was in fact a watermelon-flavored gelee, which Piper had spooned into a lime peel to look like watermelon rind and then garnished with black sesame seeds to look like tiny watermelon seeds.
Watching Piper work is like watching a seasoned jazz musician start with a basic melody and turn it into series of improvisations that have a structure and a sense of inevitability that leave you wondering how the choices could not have been developed in advance.
Piper, who works by day in information technology, is also a pianist with a love for improvisation. His creativity has found a new outlet in the Not Luck, according to his girlfriend and co-host, Molly Friedman, a physician with University Hospitals.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking and entertaining,” Piper said. “About seven years ago I found myself cooking for nearly 24 hours straight for a party and I overheard one of the hundred guests saying that I just find my recipes on the Internet. That gave me pause.”
Piper wanted to cook and entertain, but he didn’t want to be alone in his kitchen for 24 hours before each party. He wanted others to be there with him and experience the process of cooking.
He thought of the TV program Iron Chef. “The improvisation with ingredients struck a chord with me,” he said. “It gave me a way to show the recipes and combinations were my own creations.”
His grandparents owned restaurants in which he often played and eventually worked. “In college I would watch Great Chefs during lunch,” he said. He also credits the blog Ideas In Food and Saveur magazine. “I’ve learned to cook from almost anywhere and everywhere except culinary school or a professional fine dining kitchen.”
What is the mental and physical process to go from a counter full of random ingredients to a foodie-worthy multicourse meal?
“I always like to lay them all out, list them and then, especially if it’s something I might not be completely familiar with like a cheese, taste them,” said Piper. “Then I do a rough draft menu with the dishes in no particular order. Many times things just pop out. If you have micro greens you know you are going to have a salad. Dessert is usually pretty obvious too.”
After he’s completed a first pass, he studies the proposed dishes and tries to choose the best sequence. He must consider not only the usual way courses are arranged, but also cooking times.
“Then I start prepping and cooking. Tasting often is the key, especially for dishes that I’ve never made before, so a bit more acid, or a touch of salt. Maybe a spice like Szechuan peppercorns or coriander. I then plate the dishes and serve.”
For those who may want to hold their own Not Luck Dinners, Piper shared his best practices to make it work:
He suggests designating or hiring a dishwasher for the night. “The first time I did this, I tried to do dishes myself and spent as much time washing as I did cooking.”
His second suggestion is to buy a turkey fryer. “When in doubt with what to do with something, you can always deep fry, and when trying to do enough for about a dozen people, frying in batches on a stovetop takes too much time.”
His third and perhaps most important tip for a successful Not Luck is to have ample bread and a cocktail for when people arrive.
“It can take some time from when the guests arrive to the first course. The evening takes longer than the average dinner party. Mine tend to go from 4 to 12. For guests with many commitments, that can be a challenge. My compromise is to be very, very stern about the ingredients arriving at 4, but the guests can leave and come back if need be.”
As far as who goes on the invite list, Piper recommends casting the party outside of your typical social circle. “Because it goes so long, I have found the parties tend to be more enjoyable for the guests when it is mostly people they don’t know. So inviting people from your different circles of friends works well.”
Piper offered one final tip: “Having a well-stocked pantry and basic ingredients is essential. I always have milk, eggs, flour, cream, butter, olive oil and duck fat.”