Cocky. That’s the word that came to mind the first time I laid eyes on Rocco DiSpirito. Handsome and self-assured, the New York City native was the culinary world’s most buzzed-about chef a little more than a decade ago, winning an armload of impressive industry accolades, James Beard Award citations and, perhaps most significantly, he was dubbed People’s “Sexiest Chef Alive.” If that wasn’t enough, DiSpirito had just been announced as the star of NBC’s much-hyped primetime reality program, The Restaurant. Created and produced by kingmaker Mark Burnett, who had been riding a huge ratings winning streak with both Survivor and The Apprentice, The Restaurant was a no-brainer in the making—a sure thing—meant to serve as the third leg of Burnett’s juggernaut ratings stool. And Rocco DiSpirito was going to be its can’t-miss superstar.
It’s interesting to think back to that time with the air so heavy with inevitability for DiSpirito. After all, how could he fail? He was young, extraordinarily talented, a ladies’ man, endearing mama’s boy and spot-on camera ready—Rocco DiSpirito was destined to become nothing less than the most famous chef in the world. And he almost got there. Almost.
Rocco DiSpirito was born 46 years ago in New York City (Jamaica, Queens to be precise) and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY in 1986 and from Boston University with a degree in business in 1990. Not many world-class chefs have a college degree in business.
His culinary bar mitzvah came when he opened Union Pacific, the legendary restaurant in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, and the glowing reviews came fast and furious. I remember reading The New York Times’ restaurant critic, the amazing wordsmith Ruth Reichl, and thinking how breathless and excited her prose seemed when she wrote about this new chef, Rocco DiSpirito, in her three-star review of the eatery in 1998: “I have yet to taste anything on Mr. DiSpirito’s menu that is not wonderful,” Reichl wrote. “Rocco DiSpirito has invented an exciting menu. Mr. DiSpirito has an interesting mind; he seems to think about flavor in ways that ordinary people don’t.” For those among you not entirely familiar with restaurant reviews in The New York Times, that was an unabashed rave, a gastronomic home run, and DiSpirito’s career was thusly launched.
As his name suggests, DiSpirito is a master Italian chef, but one who emphasizes fusion cooking, French stylings and mind-blowing flavor to his most memorable dishes. No small feat. Ruth Reichl is not one for frothy adjectives if it’s not warranted. DiSpirito, above all else, is one hell of a cook who also happens to be aprolific auteur, penning eight best-selling cookbooks in nine years, including his latest, Now Eat This! Italian: Favorite Dishes From The Real Mamas Of Italy All Under 350 Calories (Grand Central Publishing), in stores later this month. The book transcends traditional low-calorie cookbooks and is nothing short of a visual love letter to the country of his ancestors. Simply put, the book’s a stunner and if it’s anywhere near as popular as his other Now Eat This! offerings, this, too, will be a well-deserved smash.
When I meet DiSpirito, a palpable, kinetic energy fills the luxe New York by Gehry sky-high apartment doubling as a photo studio for the daylong cover shoot. In person, DiSpirito has a practiced ease and a confident gait, he is no stranger to a room full of people waiting for him, in this case, more than a dozen mostly female, mostly young magazine and photography assistants—right in his comfort zone. He’s simultaneously playful and serious about the task at hand and it’s easy to see why he’s such an attractive “get” for a multitude of television shows: Rocco DiSpirito is a charmer, no question. So, of course he was a contestant on Dancing With The Stars (he finished ninth), hosted several shows Rocco Gets Real (A&E) and Rocco’s Dinner Party (Bravo), has been a guest judge on many incarnations of Bravo’s Top Chef and NBC’s The Biggest Loser and, just a few months ago, even appeared on celebrity bachelor dating show The Choice on Fox alongside the likes of Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, retired NFL superstar Warren Sapp and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. No one’s accusing Rocco DiSpirito of being a recluse.
As the afternoon unfolded, I started to realize that my own views of DiSpirito were shifting. Significantly. I never had a negative take on the guy—I’m such a creature of pop culture, DiSpirito was a sort of zeitgeist hero to me—but I thought I’d encounter the bombastic, dramatic, litigious DiSpirito so evident in The Restaurant. Not so much. On this day, DiSpirito was soft spoken, incredibly self aware and measured—a long way from the “my way or the highway” wunderkind brat NBC promoted week in, week out. Such a public takedown as that is bound to humble anybody and, of course, he’s a decade older, but, still, I suspected something deeper going on with DiSpirito, something percolating inside him. I wanted to discover a bit of this newer, wiser, built to last DiSpirito model. Indeed, I wanted to get to know Rocco 2.0.
Though he’s still a well-known, successful bachelor in Manhattan and he clearly enjoys all of what that implies, DiSpirito has moved on from caring much about what the gossip columnists and tabloids say about him and instead has dramatically changed his priority to helping Americans eat healthier, flavorful meals. This is no idle jumping on the “kick obesity” bandwagon for DiSpirito; he’s dead serious about his commitment to literally help save the world a single person at a time. And for a chef who has been widely recognized for his facility with flavor—so much so that his first book was called Flavor (Hyperion)—championing delicious healthier food was a food fight worth having.
Incidentally, it’s not lost on me that I’ve never seen a chef of his caliber in better shape in my life, something I later discover DiSpirito attributes to his newish love of the physically grueling Ironman competitions. Not exactly Mario Batali territory, yet a very 21st century approach to celebrity chefdom. So on with it. Let’s get to know this new Rocco DiSpirito, cocky no more.
Luxury is a life free of obstacles to your goals. Not having access to your car keys, air conditioning, telephones—spending quality time with loved ones, that’s true luxury.
Where are you today? Are you happy?
Yes, I think I consider myself very happy. There are some aspects of my life I’d like to improve—my mom’s illness, for example—but a parent getting older is a natural part of life. But the truth is, I’ve never been happier in my life as I am right now.
If you had to cook the perfect meal…
I don’t think there’s a blueprint for the perfect meal. All the elements have to come together to create the perfect setting for the perfect meal—reciprocity of energy between the people I’m cooking for and me. Food is a delivery system, not a goal in and of itself. Food without people to enjoy it can’t be perfect. As chefs we’re very fortunate that our jobs are to make people happy via food. That’s all we do. Italians live this way every single day of their lives. The energy they put into the moment makes for many magical moments. In Italy, the perfect meal is a meal without outside distractions to interrupt the magical moments.
What’s the best thing you ever ate?
As a small child, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table in her home in West Hempstead, NY—a home, incidentally, where she completely recreated her Italian life—and she’d make me a simple but delicious egg dish with farm fresh eggs, garlic, onions, peppers and olive oil. That dish turned me on to cooking and it literally changed my life. I’ve been lucky in my life to have eaten some of the best food imaginable by the top chefs on the planet in France, Italy, Thailand—but for an Italian, there’s nothing more generous a meal you can make than an egg dish, because that single egg represents a chicken that can sustain your family eating well longer. So when an Italian offers you an egg dish, that is very generous indeed.
If you weren’t a chef, you’d be what?
Oh, 40 different things. I’d love to be a professional athlete in Ironman competitions; a fiction writer—how much fun is that?—or since I’m fascinated by the sea, maybe a diving instructor. The cool thing is that as a chef, you can actually do a lot of things these days besides cook. Though it can never be lost on us that being a chef is a profound profession, because we’re a big part of people’s most important nights of their lives—be it a birthday, graduation or wedding.
If you could change anything about the past, what would it be?
Several things come to mind: I’d love a bigger kitchen—yes, size matters when it comes to kitchens. I’d make sure years ago that my mother took her medicine before she got sick. I wish my family in Italy and my family in the US would live closer together. And I’d like to produce healthier food for everyone to enjoy and live a little bit healthier.
So you’re good looking. Discuss.
When people comment on my looks, it does feel nice to be thought of in that way, but the strange thing is, nowadays, in this era of chefs as rock stars, looks do matter for chefs now.
Have your looks ever gotten in the way of you receiving credibility in the kitchen?
My looks haven’t taken away from my culinary cred, but others tend to focus on that aspect of my life. Let me put it another way: While handsome chefs currently fascinate America, I’m not sure we’re teaching America how to cook better, healthier meals. Julia Child taught all of us how to cook and more recently so did Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. I think now we’ve traded in teachers for entertainers in the kitchen.
Tell me about being a good looking, successful bachelor in Manhattan. What’s that like?
You know, I’m at a place in my life where I actually understand myself much better now than I ever did. That took many years of therapy [Laughs]. My personal life is what it needs to be right now. I’ve always worked a lot—and I still do—but my social life is actually kind of great just the way it is right now.
Do you think you ever want kids?
I’m not sure. The truth is, I don’t know.
What’s the one culinary dish everyone should be able to make for the one they love?
An omelet—when someone wakes up next to you and you cook for that person, it tells them so much: It tells them that they matter to you; it tells them they matter in this world; it tells them you want to nourish them when their bodies are needing that nourishment the most. Yes, everyone should definitely know how to make an omelet.
Cast Rocco, The Movie.
Hands down—Eric Bana plays me.
Who’s the best chef in the world?
I break this down in three distinct but important categories. For culinary acumen and commercial success it definitely is Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], what a legend; for the entertainment world, chef Tom Colicchio does it better than anyone by striking the perfect balance, and as a TV cook I have to go with Rachael Ray, she changes people’s lives for the better—she’s very effective.
Are we ever going to see you competing against the best chefs in the world on Top Chef Masters?
I don’t think so. My ego is too feeble, too fragile to go up against those chefs. I’m way too self-indulgent. I’m very competitive, but it’s different when you’re competing at something you love and do well; that’s why I could go on Dancing With The Stars and not really care how well I did because I’m not a dancer, obviously [Laughs]. But I’ll always be happy to go on Top Chef Masters as often as they want me, but only as a judge.
Tell me about your new book, Now Eat This! Italian.
It comes out September 17 and I guarantee you that this book will change your mind about what healthy food can taste like. I’ve given you the roadmap to delicious food so you have no more excuses. I’m very proud of the book.
What are you doing if I see you five years from now?
I hope I can tell you, “How are you doing? You look great, like you’re in the best shape of your life.” You know, I’m so proud that I’ve helped hundreds of people lose thousands of pounds. But I hope you see me in five years and realize that I’m still hungry about my career—but maybe if we’re on a boat in Capri it might be a little nicer [Laughs].
Tell me something that’s on your bucket list.
I used to have a lot of daredevil things on my bucket list—skydiving used to be on the very top of it, now I’m way too afraid. I’ve become less reckless, more fearful as I get a little older.
Being a New York City native, does the natural-born swagger give you an edge in the kitchen?
I think I have a New York attitude that almost all New Yorkers have, and believe me it doesn’t help in the kitchen. Early in my career, my attitude definitely got in the way of learning. I’ve realized later in the game that every day you must be curious in the kitchen, like Jean-Georges.
What would you say about fellow New York City native Bobby Flay?
Bobby Flay is an extraordinary success story and he has a similar New York swagger. I think it’s his New York-ness that women find so attractive in him and what men identify with. He’s a very evolved chef and he obviously manages his New York swagger to great effect. It’s funny how many of us grew up in this business together.
What’s the secret ingredient for perfect red sauce?
I know there are many different theories floating around.Ask any Italian, fresh tomatoes—that’s it. But I’ll also tell you something that goes against conventional wisdom: Cook the basil and garlic with olive oil in the beginning of the process. The flavor is amazing.
What’s the single biggest misconception about you?
I think there’s a large misconception about me that still lingers that I somehow skipped ahead in my career; that I cut in line, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem, of course, that most people met me while I was doing The Restaurant—not the best first impression for sure. You know, Richard, I do have regrets about that entire period of my life but it’s what I had to go through to get to where I am now.
When was the last time you cried?
January 2011—when my father died.
What would your absolute last meal on Earth be?
I would definitely have my grandmother’s eggs again. That was the period in my life that I felt the most loved, the safest.
Tell me a secret.
As an altar boy in the seventh grade, I was suspended for drinking the sacramental wine. I thought it tasted great [Laughs].
When was the last time you felt genuinely loved?
Every single day—from my dogs and from my mom. My mom taught me what love is, what it should be and what it can be. My mom’s an extraordinary woman who taught me everything about everything.
Time to fess up: President Obama or Mitt Romney?
The choice is obvious—take that however you want to take it.
When your thoughts turn to New Jersey, what images come up?
Some of the greatest culinary masters hail from New Jersey. I’m not a typical Manhattan snob about New Jersey. I’ve only had positive experiences in New Jersey. I love going down to the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen is one of my musical heroes—I’m all good with New Jersey.
What’s the very best advice anyone ever gave you?
You have to taste your food, all the time. It may seem obvious but it’s vital. I’m proud to be known as the “flavor chef” because taste is everything in cooking.
Complete this sentence, please: Rocco DiSpirito is…
Kind. It’s important to be kind.