The Chef Who Wouldn't Cook: Why Rocco DiSpirito Left the Kitchen
When Rocco DiSpirito hugs a monkey, his face lights up and his forearms flex, and he makes that monkey feel like it's the only monkey that matters to Rocco DiSpirito in the universe.
When Rocco DiSpirito smiles, middle-aged women fall to the ground in orgiastic, other-worldly ecstasy, though also sometimes because of arthritis.
But when Rocco DiSpirito cooks, something else happens. His body tenses then relaxes, and you can see muscle memory take over. A Xanax'd look of nearly thoughtless euphoria crosses his face, his already shrouded eyes squint, and he performs a series of moves so natural that they recall every practice-driven cliché spilled from the lips of Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Lee.
Rocco DiSpirito is a cooking virtuoso. An artiste, a phenom. He was born with a gift, a gift that was nurtured and prodded and teased from him since adolescence. Rocco DiSpirito, who is just over 50, might be the most talented American chef alive at this very moment. Also: Rocco DiSpirito hasn't cooked in a restaurant kitchen in 13 years.
In all likelihood, you have heard of Rocco DiSpirito. Maybe you saw him as a guest judge on Top Chef? Or Biggest Loser? Or perhaps you saw him compete on Dancing with the Stars? Maybe you caught his show Rocco Gets Real on A&E? Or his dinner party show on Bravo? Or his Food Network show, Restaurant Divided? You could've seen him as contestant on that Fox dating show The Choice. Or peddling Bertolli's frozen foods with Marisa Tomei? Or selling Lincoln SUVs? Or Kraft meal-starter kits? Or, if you're reading this from my mom's house, you definitely saw him on that episode of Castle where Chef Balthazar Wolf is murdered in his own scorching-hot New York restaurant "Q3," owned by Beckett's high school best friend Madison Queller, who later goes on a date with Castle, stirring up jealous emotions Beckett isn't quite ready to face.
Point being, at this stage, the Rocco DiSpirito seared into most people's memories is that of the perpetual C-list middlebrow food celebrity renting-to-own in fame's outer suburbs. But 20 years ago, with the launch of his restaurant Union Pacific, he was the culinary world's shining star, a critical darling with the right amount of talent and charm and angular cheekbones to forever leave his lightning bolt-shaped mark on the American culinary world's forehead. He was one of the original pioneering "celebrity chefs," before the rise of social media and food television truly exploded and made an entire roster of chefs into household names. And then: poof. Rocco DiSpirito disappeared. At least from serious food circles. He became a full-time celebrity. Of sorts. And for that he became a punchline, mocked by early Bourdain and others in the white-coat mafia, and castigated by critics, most of whom, as current New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells puts it, "seemed to have almost personal grievances that he was no longer around to cook for them."
And maybe they should have those grievances. Because Rocco DiSpirito could have been one of the greats. He could've contributed, perhaps significantly, to the art form. But he didn't. He came into prominence at the exact moment mainstream celebrity became an option for chefs, and he chose celebrity. Rocco DiSpirito hopped on fame's hamster wheel, and Rocco DiSpirito has been running on that wheel ever since.
Why do I care? Shouldn't I, like most consumers of American pop culture, revel in seeing a once-dignified person debased on television? No. Because the fact is, Union Pacific was one of the first truly nonpareil meals I'd ever eaten. Rocco's food helped make me interested in food. And as a lover of said food, I struggle -- truly struggle -- with trying to understand Rocco's refusal to cook. It upsets me, still. Confuses me. Is it an act of defiance, or one of survival? A temporary respite that just got too comfortable, or a well-planned second act? When we look at Rocco, are we looking at an American success story, or a tragic narrative of talent wasted?
What if Thelonious Monk quit jazz to write toilet bowl cleaner ad jingles? Or Salinger started doing Harlequin romance novels? What happens when someone believed to have a transcending talent simply stops doing the thing they've been blessed with? Is he cheating himself? Is he cheating us? What recourse, or right, do we have to tell them they're making a mistake? Because the fact is, one of America's great culinary talents refuses to cook. And I need to know why.
My unauthorized Rocco DiSpirito biography starts with his birth in 1966 in Jamaica, Queens. His childhood home was located at 148-01 90th Avenue, a ramshackle house that looks like it was airdropped into the neighborhood from Long Island, nestled between the massive Hillside Gardens apartment complex and the NY Civil Court building, equidistant from the green lawns surrounding the King Manor museum and the snaking train tracks of Jamaica Station. In previous interviews he speaks of getting beat up as a youth, presumably for possessing a name his parents might've chosen for the "Boy Named Sue"-style lessons it might evince, but by 11 years old he was a taxpayer, working in a pizzeria, and by 15, he was cooking in Bernhard Breiter's kitchen at the New Hyde Park Inn, now a classic Jericho Turnpike wedding spot for Strong Islanders. Breiter was classically trained, which is to say he yelled at Rocco a lot in the kitchen, but also cooked most items from scratch, giving Rocco a fine-dining foundation even before he went to the Culinary Institute of America -- at 16 years old.
At the CIA he flourished, rising to the top of his class. He secured an internship in Paris in 1986 under Dominique Cécillon at Le Jardin des Cygnes inside the Hôtel Prince de Galles. But a miscommunication forced him into essentially becoming a homeless line cook at another restaurant, sleeping in sous-sols and banc de metros and other shitty French places until he secured a student visa and Cécillon took him under his wing. In 1988, he enrolled at Boston University's school of hospitality, and paid his way working as a chef de partie at (the now closed) Aujourd'hui in the Four Seasons, and a personal chef to legendary legal journalist Anthony Lewis and his wife Margaret Marshall, former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
After graduation, Rocco moved back to New York and got a gig at one of the biggest restaurants of the '90s, Lespinasse, under famous Swiss chef Gray Kunz, who called him "concentrated, focused, and quiet," but impressive enough to be offered two executive chef jobs, one at Dava, and one at Annabelle. Both restaurants failed under his stewardship, but on September 30, 1994, in a brief Diner's Journal review, New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl gushed about a calamari salad at Annabelle, mentioning in the last sentence of her second paragraph that "the restaurant's chef, Rocco DiSpirito, is someone to watch."
A year later, restaurateurs Steven Scher and Jeff Kadish realized that it was the '90s and that they had to buy rollerblades and open an Asian-fusion place. Rocco cooked for them and they offered him the job the next day, and, in 1997, Union Pacific opened its doors -- though the food wasn't Asian fusion as much as it was unadulterated Rocco creativity. "The owners were trying to ride this Asian fusion wave," says Pete Wells, "and they got this wonder boy and, for a while, they didn't really know what to make of him." In her first review of the place, Ruth Reichl awarded him two stars. But a year later, in August 1998, Reichl revisited the young chef she'd been watching. Talking to her today, she still remembers her meal. "Most of the time, you're eating copycat food, and you can tell the influences right off the bat," Reichl says. "But eating Rocco's dishes, I thought, 'My god, he's cooking from some other place, out of his head.' The food was shockingly unique. As a critic, you're dying to find chefs like him." Impressed, Reichl went home and penned a three-star review, mentioning that she had "yet to taste anything on Mr. DiSpirito's menu that is not wonderful."
With that illustrious Reichl co-sign, the media floodgates opened. Food and Wine named him America's Best New Chef. Gourmet magazine, which Reichl took over after leaving the Times, put him on the cover holding a fish and named him the Most Exciting Young Chef in America. He was a James Beard finalist for best chef in NYC three of the next four years. People magazine called him the Sexiest Chef Alive. Zagat labeled him a "rock star." William Grimes, who became the Times food critic after Reichl, tells me that when Julia Child asked him to lunch, she insisted they go to Union Pacific to try Rocco's food. Chef Ari Weiswasser, who was working in some of NYC's fanciest kitchens at the time, says that famously judgmental superstar British chef Paul Liebrandt routinely sang his praises. Rocco's 2003 cookbook, Flavor, won a James Beard award, became a New York Times bestseller, and included a recipe for cinnamon glazed duck.
His boyish looks coupled with his prodigious talent and "aw, shucks" persona created an unstoppable, unquenchable monster of publicity. By 2003, the world had become Rocco DiSpirito's giant, locally harvested oyster, with a house-made mignonette made up of equal parts fame and riches. He could do anything he wanted. So Rocco made a decision. He decided to open another restaurant. And this time he was going to do it on network television.
Do you remember the state of reality television in the early 2000s, friends? A genre that had steadily grown in popularity throughout the 1990s, driven by The Real World, Iron Chef, The Crocodile Hunter, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, was suddenly everywhere. The first wave included monster network hits Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, and The Bachelor. MTV eventually moved beyond The Real World, showcasing the glories of teenagers on long boards eating sushi outside in tank tops with Laguna Beach, and thanks to Ozzy Osbourne's desire to let everyone see his Australian assistant yell at his son, the rise of the celeb-reality subgenre that would dominate reality's next era. And though the Food Network had been around since the '90s, at the time it still mostly consisted of staged cooking shows featuring Emeril shouting, Paula Deen drizzling butter on lard, Molto Mario Batali making fresh tortolli with the Gyllenhaals, and Bobby Flay, grilling, always grilling.
This was the landscape onto which Rocco's show, The Restaurant, was foisted.
The Restaurant followed the trials and tribulations of opening Rocco's, a casual red-sauce Italian joint Rocco DiSpirito wanted to create in tribute to his heritage. The main characters were Rocco, Rocco's adorable Italian mom -- who actually worked in the kitchen making her famous meatballs -- and the financier of the entire enterprise, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow.
Debuting in the summer of 2003 on NBC, the show is still captivating. Yes, the camera work is terrible, and the product placement is hilariously blatant (at one point during a discussion with his managers, Rocco calmly suggests they should apply for an American Express Small Business Loan), but it also offers an entirely raw look at how and why Rocco's career in the kitchen ended. Dressed in all black, riding around NYC in a limo, Chodorow (who didn't respond to requests for comment on this story) is a natural money-man villain, and that's well before you discover he owns a purple pool table. You can tell he and Rocco will have tension 10 minutes into the pilot, when he shoots down Rocco's suggestion that they look at a more intimate Downtown space in favor of a clusterfuck at 22nd and Broadway that was, as the Times' William Grimes puts it to me, an "absolute restaurant graveyard."
"Every chef who opened a restaurant in that location, the restaurant died quickly," Grimes adds.
The first season consisted of basic narratives: Will the restaurant open on time? Will the staff get their shit together? Will the veteran pretty blonde bartender (Heather) stop being mean to the new pretty blonde server (Lauren)? Early aught celebrity cameos were common. Fran Drescher showed up. Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert came to dinner, Bourdain wearing a thumb ring and going on a diatribe about the food not being enough, that a chef's second job was "to be a motherfucking hustler." But by the second season, the lighthearted, petty issues dissipated, and the show became a televised battle for control of the restaurant between Rocco and Chodorow. Conflict-wise, it was a producer's dream. And naturally, when pitted against Chodorow, I wanted to cheer for Rocco. He seemed like a good guy, even when wearing an orange graffiti letter trucker hat that said "Rocco."
But here's the thing: A lot of the points Chodorow and his corporate lackeys made in meetings with Rocco weren't wrong. They complained he was never in the kitchen, then there would be a quick cut to Rocco at a book signing in Connecticut, playfully asking for middle-aged women's phone numbers. And here I am, desperately trying to have Rocco's back when he claims Chodorow hasn't shown him financial information in six months, and yet there's his unflappable French GM, Laurent, openly admitting he'd gotten those docs, which means Rocco's got them too. When Chodorow and Rocco argued, Chodorow argued about financial peculiarities and Rocco not responding to phone calls and emails, and Rocco complained about being disrespected, about decisions being made without his approval. They were speaking two different tongues. Of course, Chodorow didn't make it easy. He openly invited other alarmingly handsome chefs to the restaurant to try out for Rocco's job. His "intern" Drew called Rocco "Captain Douchebag" on the phone. He insisted on using that ghastly purple pool table. Meanwhile, Rocco gained weight and got noticeably depressed. He was constantly filmed angrily pushing open doors. He stopped wearing the trucker hat. Things were real, and they were raw.
In July of 2004, as the show ended, Chodorow filed a legal injunction preventing Rocco from entering his own restaurant. Two months later, Rocco parted ways with Union Pacific, replaced by Laurent Tourondel ostensibly to "focus on other opportunities outside the restaurant world," the New York Times reported. The final line of the Times article seems pointed: "In addition to his restaurants, Mr. DiSpirito wrote books and has been making frequent appearances on television, including selling sausages on the QVC shopping network."
Rocco DiSpirito never worked in a restaurant kitchen again.
After taking that very public L, Rocco, to his credit, didn't disappear into the ether. He simply crossed the "chef" part off his celebrity chef moniker, and dove straight into the celebrity game. Presumably he consulted with his booking agent and his literary agent and his manager and branding specialists and PR specialists and stylists, and they concocted a plan. He would ink deals promoting products like kitchenware and pasta and other things a famous Italian-American chef might naturally be a fit for. He would write cookbooks with simple concepts like Rocco's Five Minute Flavor: Fabulous Meals with 5 Ingredients in 5 Minutes, and Now Eat This!: 150 of America's Favorite Comfort Foods, All Under 350 Calories. He would host television shows that have something to do with cooking, and when that got boring, go on shows that have nothing to do with cooking. He would start running triathlons, lose 30 pounds, and morph into a "health food crusader" hawking organic protein powder and raw vegan organic dark chocolate bliss bars and something called "choco-nocco butter."
He achieved celebrity status. And once you agree to the Faustian bargain that is celebrity status, every decision becomes a business decision, every utterance becomes a matter of branding. Your tweets and Instagram posts are agonized quid pro quos with other celebrities or boldfaced promotions of your products or shows. Your appearances are only to promote things, to further push your Sisyphean rock up Celebrity Hill. You tweet at Kim Kardashian when she mentions protein shakes, because she's higher up the celebrity chain, and you hope she does you the solid of responding in front of millions so they can see that you two are just Two Celebrities Bantering On Twitter. You tweet at Dr. Oz when he wins a Daytime Emmy. You tweet reviews of your protein powder. You tweet nine consecutive times about watching "The Chew vs The View."
Your life becomes a transaction, a product. You are no longer human, just a series of videos, or photos, or tweets to comment upon various product lines you're stamping your name on. Your loves and heartbreaks become passing comment forum anecdotes, boiled down to things like, "Did you hear CNN anchor Whitney Casey told Howard Stern Rocco had a 'perfect penis' and looked like the statue of David on Viagra?" Your life becomes in some ways more simple, but also more stark and obvious and grotesque. And yes, maybe this is Rocco's perfect life, but it's antithetical to everything we know about cooking, and everything we know about art, and, dammit, everything I want to think I know about Rocco.
"You want people of enormous talent to control their own destinies," says Ruth Reichl. "And with Rocco, I get the sense he didn't control his own destiny. He was young and hungry and he didn't have anyone looking out for him. And so he just moved onto the next thing."
Which leads to my big, slightly desperate question: What about us?
Or as Pete Wells put it, "Does a chef like Rocco have an obligation that arises from his talent to make people happy?"
Does he? "Fuck no."
That's the response from Jason Vincent, chef/owner of Chicago's highly lauded Giant, when I posed that question.
"Being a chef is hard, man. If you're lucky as hell, you have this little window where you're a hot commodity, and the offers come at you real fast, and no one is giving you good advice, and you somehow have to figure out the best one to take before the offers go away." He goes on, "In this industry, you hit a point, usually after a drink, where you're like, 'man, I could be fucked in ten years. I don't have a 401k, or money in the bank, and there are no signs of me getting more, and you start to think that you need to start something else right now so you can afford to pay for your kids' college and not fuck up their lives too. One could argue that that's why we work such crazy hours and don't take care of ourselves, because living in the moment and abusing drugs and drinking and sleeping with the wrong people is a way to forget that a chef's future is never guaranteed. But the counter argument is that, if we do take care of ourselves and take time off, we're not in the restaurant creating those chances for the next big thing."
In Rocco's case, he says, maybe Rocco was just burnt out and needed to move on. "No one was considering Rocco's mental state when they were able to get stuff from him, only when they couldn't," he says. "It's the same thing with Brock [legendary Chef Sean Brock of Husk, who just revealed he'd been in rehab]." Vincent paused for a second. "There are a lot of selfish shitheads out there with a lot of money trying to get you to do what they want. You have to take care of yourself."
New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt assessed it similarly. "A lot of chefs who get early adulation go through this process." He compares them to professional athletes. "They have about eight or nine years of talented cooking before they burn out and need to figure out something else. It's a brutal profession, so it's hard to blame Rocco for picking the celebrity angle over the chef angle. He just happened to come along during this tear in the dimensional fabric where everything changed."
Still, these answers didn't satisfy me, so I decided to go to the source. When I reached out to Rocco's people, his PR rep responded promptly and professionally to my request. After all, they receive hundreds of asks for Rocco's expertise, preferably surrounding whatever project he's currently promoting. For example, on October 17 of this year, Rocco's Healthy + Delicious comes out, a "cookbook with hundreds of quick, easy recipes and photos" aimed at allowing people to live a healthier life. You want a simple recipe for Italian sloppy Joes or cranapple chia drinks? Rocco's new book has you covered. Of course, for expediency's sake, they said, he'd love if you could shoot questions over in an email.
But I couldn’t do that. I needed to have a real talk with Rocco. So I laid my cards on the table, and told them I wasn't interested in his latest legal battle with his siblings over his mom's estate, or doing a 'where is he now,' or promoting his raw, organic, vegan, chocolate hearts energy mix. I just wanted to have a real conversation about walking away, and being an avatar for other people's hopes and dreams, and anger. In truth, I wanted my own selfish piece of Rocco DiSpirito.
The next email was more formal. It thanked me for my candor, but mentioned Rocco was unavailable "due to deadlines for his current book."
I followed up. I sent over a list of questions. I thought maybe if he could see where I was headed, if he could gaze directly into the sunlight of my queries, light would pour over his face and he would realize that talking to me would take the burden off his shoulders, exorcise some demons, and release him from this world he's trapped himself in. I thought he might read my email, put down his phone and his half-finished Rocco DiSpirito Protein Powder-packed, egg-white smoothie, walk outside his Spanish Colonial Revival-styled house, and just dive into his infinity pool, celebrity baptism-style, with all his clothes on. And when he'd gotten out of that pool, and at the very least toweled off his hands, I'd get a text on my phone from an unknown Queens number. It would say, "Hey Kev, it's Rocco. We need to talk."
Suffice it to say, as of publication time, I'm still waiting for that text.
There is a point towards the end of the first season of The Restaurant when everyone is complaining that Rocco is never in the kitchen, so Rocco gets in the kitchen. During his voiceover, he says, "I realized if I was going to turn it around, it needed to start here in the kitchen, the one place I knew I would get it right."
The next bit is a montage set to classical music. It shows Rocco giving advice on cooking fish, tasting and salting foods, examining and fixing orders on the line. He's laughing, and joking. And then, as the other cooks unabashedly stare in envy, we see Rocco chopping parsley with two knives at once, a relaxed, focused look on his face, as a Rocco voiceover plays in the background:
"I'd forgotten how good it feels to be in the kitchen again. This is my art. This is my game. This is what I know."