Dancing with Rocco DiSpirito

Bertolli-loving chef Rocco DiSpirito will soon be facing a challenge not even Padma and Tom would dare throw at him. As a contestant on the seventh season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (premiering Monday 22 at 8pm), he’s already spent the last three weeks enduring rigorous rehearsals and downing gallons of chicken minestrone. With a slew of cookbooks, and a radio and TV show (plus celebrity guest appearances on shows like The Biggest Loser and Top Chef), this is one busy toque. He took time between sips of juice to answer a few questions from his rehearsal space in L.A.

How are you today?
I’m drinking juice! There’s this great little juice stand near where we’re rehearsing. How are things in New York? How’s the Dow drop affecting you? Just kidding

I can’t say that it’s affecting me directly.... So, were you much of a dancer before signing up for the show?
Well, I could freestyle. With enough tequila in me, I can do a good job on the dance floor, but nothing like this at all. It was pretty clear to me on the first day of practice that nothing I had ever done before on the dance floor should be considered dancing.

What's your favorite kind of music to dance to?
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a kid of the ’70s. So the first dance music I really learned about and appreciated is sort of that old-school hip-hop/disco. Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that available on this show.

And how do you think your kitchen skills will translate to your toe-tapping?
I think there are actually a lot of parallels. A few things come to mind: As a young chef, you learn how to learn something. What I mean by that is, there’s a certain process to learning a craft, and when you learn how to cook, you go through that process. So having the discipline from learning how to cook, I think is helping me out a lot here. Also just like in cooking, you have to master a craft, and then once you do that, you’re able to sort of imbue the craft with your point of view—which is where I think craft becomes art. And it’s very similar in dancing—not that I’ve mastered anything yet by any stretch. But in the specific dances we’re doing, I’m starting to see now, after three weeks of doing them, that there’s a place here and there where I can add a little personal touch. And you know, just like in food, there are spicy dances, smooth dances, there’s form, there’s function, many different varieties of movement, just like there in food.

What do you think of the other cast members?
Really cool bunch of people—they’re a lot of fun. Cloris Leachman is hilarious.

What are your feelings toward your partner, Karina Smirnoff? Does she bring out your competitive edge?
When I found out who it was, I said, “If I had an opportunity to learn physics from Einstein and painting from Da Vinci, it’d be very exciting,” and I feel the same way about this. Learning how to dance from Karina is a real gift. Like any good teacher, she knows where to start, when to push and how to get the best out of her student.

Tell me about your new A&E show, Rocco Gets Real.
It’s a hybrid cooking/reality show. So there’s cooking takeaway, just like there would be in a cooking show, and then there’s the real story as it pertains to the cooking. You know, every meal, every moment at the dinner table has a story. So in addition to exploring the food, we explore the story. And I go into real people’s homes and get them through milestone events in their lives. The interesting part is we get to watch them do it on their own.

Do you have a favorite meal you like to eat to amp yourself up for competition?
I haven’t found my favorite meal yet. Although I’m eating a lot of…the hotel I’m staying at has this chicken minestrone— I’m eating tons of it. I’m eating it by the quart.

Have you cooked for Karina yet?
Yep, on the first day I met her, I made fresh fettuccine with black-truffle-and-Parmigiano-cheese sauce, and she took her first bite, I saw her reaction, and I knew we were gonna get along.

I served one of your Bertolli frozen meals to a girl and she slapped me in the face. Can I get a refund?
Very funny.

Every year for the last three years or so, we've been hearing "This is the year that Rocco DiSpirito is going to make his comeback." To that effect, do you think that your run on Dancing with the Stars is going to affect how the food world views you?
Listen, I’m happy anyone even cares about me—coming back, staying behind, whatever it is. The fact that anyone’s keeping track is flattering.

Do you have a favorite Italian restaurant in NYC?
Yeah. Babbo.

You've been a Top Chef favorite for the last two seasons, will you be back in season 5?
That’s what I hear. I’m not allowed to say though.

With casual dining becoming more prevalent due to the failing economy, could you see yourself joining the likes of Flay and Ripert and opening a burger joint? Perhaps a "meatballery"?
Now that’s an idea. The Eric Ripert, Bobby Flay, Rocco Dispirito Meatballery—that’s the million-dollar idea. Let’s do it.

Do you find that there's anything significantly lacking in the U.S. dining repertoire? With Obika (the first U.S. mozzarella bar) opening in New York, are there other ingredient-focused operations you'd like to see?
You know, I think New York is so not lacking in anything when it comes to dining. We do a really good job blazing trails in the fine-dining world, so to even sort of describe it as lacking seems strange to me. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in the U.S. over the last twenty years in fine dining. There’s a tremendous amount of talented chefs, and in many ways we’ve led the world in innovation and all of the great new stuff that’s happening in fine dining. So, you know…I don’t know, more drinking at lunch? Like they do in Italy.

Whatever happened with the “What’s Your Med Style?” contest that you ran, where fans submitted videos to win a cohost spot on an Internet cooking show with you?
Well, we actually just shot the show, and it should be on the Bertolli website soon. It came out pretty good.

You're known for being handsome almost as much as for being a chef. What's your daily primping regimen?
[Long, awkward laugh] That is so funny. What does primp mean? That’s my answer.