Q&A with Rocco DiSpirito

We grill the celebuchef about love, life and (not) doing it atop the prep station.

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"Rocco's in L.A. on Thursday, in Chicago on Friday, in New York on Saturday, then back in L.A. on Sunday," his team explains to me.

"When will he return to New York?" I ask.

"We have no idea."

This is the life of the Young Turk Celebrity Chef. Airline food (the irony!) and a lot of cameras.

When Union Pacific—the late Manhattan restaurant that made Rocco famous (before primetime came calling) —shut down after a seven-year run, he issued a statement to the New York Times saying, "I have made a decision to take a break from the day-to-day operations of a restaurant to focus on other opportunities outside the restaurant world." Focus on other opportunities he did, from "selling sausages" on the QVC shopping network to making reality TV a veritable full-time career path: guest judging on Top Chef, becoming the chef for The Biggest Loser, a swift turn on Dancing with the Stars, his new A&E show Rocco Gets Real, and, of course, two seasons of the NBC docudrama which made him famous: The Restaurant.

DiSpirito is clearly media trained. Perfectly controlled, he manages to be both passionate and cautious at the same time. He's articulate and speaks fluidly, but, like a politician, stays resolutely on message—his love of food and his desire to share that love with people—which is frustrating for a journalist who just wants to know who he's dating and what he cooks for them afterward.

Throughout our almost hour-long interview, Rocco described cooking and food with a level of sensuality one doesn't frequently hear in people—let alone men. He's idealistic; he certainly has emotions, but they're highly disciplined. He believes in it, but you also get the sense that he's learned—the hard way—to be scripted (self-scripted, maybe, but scripted nonetheless). He's aware of how he comes across. He's earnest, but he's slick. But how can someone be both slick and earnest simultaneously?

Such is the forced dichotomy of the modern celebrity chef.

You’re quite the reality-show veteran. How are you dealing with being eliminated?
I’ve been offered every reality show in the world: this with the stars, that with the stars, “Can you sing?” “Can you do macramé?” I said no to all of them, but I’ve always wanted to learn how to dance. It’s really fun—it’s sort of like Romper Room for adults. There’s no way to have that experience normally, and when you get eliminated, you can go back to your real life.

So, I keep hearing you’re a ladies’ man—over and over and over, actually.
I’m not sure what that means, at all, so I really can’t say.*

Seriously? You don’t know what ladies’ man means? I find that difficult to believe. Are you single, at least? Want to get married soon? Looking for someone to date?
I’m 41, I’ll be 42 in November. I think it’s very difficult to predict something like that. I’m open to whatever life brings me. There are a lot of people in my life that I love and care for, including my cat, Pumpkin, and my dog, Tesha, a half Pekingese who’s nine and only eats rice and chicken. [Julia’s note: We were talking about his love life—why is he talking about his pets?]

Have you ever dated a female chef?
[Laughs] I don’t think I have! I think when I meet women who say they can cook, I immediately think, God, what’s going to make me special? If you’re a woman who can cook and you meet a man who can cook, don’t tell him!

What does your mom think about your love affairs?
She really hasn’t mentioned it to be honest with you. But 82-year-old Italian moms want all their kids to get married—from the moment they’re born.

Are you ever worried that women are only attracted to you because of your celebrity?
Listen, I think any time anyone’s interested in you, you should consider yourself very lucky! I’m happy anyone is interested at all.

What meal would you make to get into someone’s pants?
First of all, I think cooking is the way to everyone’s heart. There is an emotionality about cooking, an intimacy, a breaking of barriers and ice. For a man to cook for a woman is probably the ultimate gesture of love and care and generosity because men typically don’t cook for women. When a man does something maternal and nurturing and sensitive, it doesn’t matter what you serve.

But is there a specific meal that might help things along?
Lobster. It’s very tactile—you pull it apart with your hands and dip it in butter.

Isn’t preparing lobster hard?
It’s actually one of the easiest things in the world to cook. And the man should break the lobster apart for the women. Chivalry exists in cooking as well. It should exist everywhere, I think.

Yes, chivalry.… So, how many of the kitchens that you’ve presided over have you had sex in?
Zero!

Really?
Absolutely! I feel like that would be a desecration of the kitchen! I would never, ever think of doing that to the kitchen. There’s a sensitivity and a sensuality to cooking, but it’s not like that. Besides, all the surfaces are really cold.

You’ve written five books, you had two seasons on NBC, you’ve guest-judged Top Chef, you have a new show on A&E, and you just got kicked off Dancing with the Stars. Any time left to actually cook?
I cook all the time. In fact, I cook more now than I ever did when I ran a restaurant. I cook for myself, for friends and family. When you write cookbooks, you’re constantly cooking and developing recipes.From my first cookbook to my last, I’ve shifted from a very professional chef’s point of view to a home cook’s perspective. Cooking at home is a whole different thing. When I transitioned from the restaurant to the home, I realized I didn’t really know how to cook at home. It was a pretty rude awakening. I realized that cooking at home was more difficult than cooking in restaurants: I didn’t have an army of prep cooks, the big muscular stove, the endless stream of clean cookware, and I found I had to do the shopping and the prep work and the cleaning. This last book really shows the spectrum of what a home cook is facing. It’s about empowering the home cook to feel like they can cook every day.

A couple of years ago, you said you’ll never open another restaurant. Was that caused due to residual post-traumatic cooking disorder from your NBC show, or the harsh realities of the 18-hour chef’s day?
I don’t know that I said never, but it’s certainly not in my plans right now. I’m really focused on cooking at home and helping the everyday home cook. Thanks to all the food media, people have become enamored with cooking and entertaining. What I’ve noticed is that most of them are foodie voyeurs—they all watch, but only a very small percent of them actually participate. My goal is to convert those voyeurs into participants. Besides, I don’t know where I’d find another 15 hours a day!

Does being a successful celebrity chef make it impossible to have a restaurant?
It’s an interesting question. The more successful you are, the further it can take you from what you love. My partner Steve [Scher] was a lawyer, but he got out of the lawyering biz and decided to open a restaurant because he felt bored. He’s on his third now and told me once, “It’s really funny, I opened a restaurant to have fun but the more successful I am, the less fun I have. I didn’t want to be in an office all day long looking at paperwork, and yet, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

The de facto business model for chefs who want to “make it” seems to be Tom Colicchio’s; that is: open restaurant, get on TV, get famous, open more restaurants, get rich.
What Tom did was put in a good 20 years without actually being on TV. He opened a couple of great restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, and has run an impeccable restaurant for 12 years. He just happened into this Top Chef gig. I think a lot of people think that’s the model—but only a very rare few can actually pull it off.

You’re the elder statesmen of TV’s famous foodies: What do you think of the evolution? Has it changed things back in the restaurant world, or only in pop culture? Do you think it’s producing a generation of made-for-TV chefs who didn’t do the tough work of opening a restaurant first?
I think that if you look at the evolution of chefs and media over the last 20 years, you’re seeing a lot of chefs who have gone to college and are a lot more media-savvy. All of them say that they want a show on the Food Network, but [it’s not just about getting famous] there’s a real reason for it. Thirty years ago, it was enough to have a four-star restaurant in the best restaurant city in the world. But as the world of food became the object of desire, the competition got tougher. So now you not only had to be a great craftsman and have a point of view, but you also have to be [a name]. The way to achieve that, of course, is through media.

I think there was a jump-the-shark moment in ’95 where the number of restaurants opening outpaced the number of chefs who followed the traditional path of going to cooking school, becoming a sous chef, apprenticing, etc.—that was a ten-year process. I think because of the explosion of restaurants and the popularity of dining out, there was less of that.I asked a well-known chronicler of the restaurant industry what characteristics all great chefs have in common. [He responded] "fiery, passionate, driven."

Your huge break was grabbing three stars from The New York Times when you were at Union Pacific. Did you set out to be a celebrity chef—a brand like Rachael Ray—or did it just happen?
I am honored by the fact that people think of us as celebrities, but I don’t. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, they’re celebrities. People are fascinated by what we do because we make people happy.

What I set out to do was to make a few extra bucks—that’s how I got into the restaurant business. When I started in 1979, there were no “celeb chefs.” I fell in love with the interaction between people and the craft of cooking.Even when Wolfgang Puck became famous, I never expected, ever, to be in his group. I still don’t think of myself in his group! I consider myself a functioning illiterate—I can’t even believe I’ve written five cookbooks.I don’t think you can plan to be a Rachael Ray. What happened to her is a one-in-a-million situation. She earnestly pursued her love of food and at one point decided, Hey, maybe I can do this TV thing, because she is so lovable and so willing to demystify the world of food. It makes all the sense in the world; it was time for a nonchef to begin to break down what chefs are doing. I think she’s adorable.

You are, by all accounts, actually a good cook. Why do you think you get so much disrespect? Is it jealousy?
I’m flattered that you talked to people who enjoyed my cooking. I haven’t noticed any jealousy.

Okay then! Tell me about this new show on A&E. You’re helping people cook for special occasions in their lives, right? Like if they have an anniversary or a big date?
A&E is a reflection of my desire to do something different with a cooking show. For me to do a traditional “dump and stir” cooking show didn’t make sense, because I am passionate about empowering the home cook.

The food is the means to the end: the end being enjoying the company of other people. We cut our fingers, burn ourselves, shop, prep, wash dishes; and the reason we do all that is so we can have people come into our lives and enjoy our food, and we can enjoy their energy.

It’s a hybrid show, which fits into people’s lives. The point is to help them overcome the obstacles—their fear of being judged on their food, their fear of being vulnerable—so they understand the point of the whole exercise is to have fun, to laugh. Food is one of the most profound ways to connect with other people.

You seem very passionate.
I think the difference between people who cook and people who can make food an art form—an experience, a moment to create a pause—are those who have a point of view and can express it well in that medium. I think that comes with an intense passion and sensitivity that makes cooking really fun for me.I breathe and then I cook. Food is all I think about—it’s my number-one love.

*Fun fact: We’re not the only ones interested in his dating life: When you google Rocco DiSpirito, the top related search term is Rocco DiSpirito girlfriend.
E-mail Ms. Allison at julia@timeoutny.com.

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