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.