Rocco DiSpirito has been at the forefront of American cooking culture for over 20 years. He arrived as the darling genius of late-90s haute-American cuisine at Manhattan’s Union Pacific. Thanks to gushing reviews from elite food critics—most notably the New York Times' Ruth Reichl, who gave Union Pacific an enviable three-star review—and frequent appearances on Food Network shows (not to mention being baby faced and broad shouldered) Rocco was a first-wave celebrity chef who transcended culinary quarters to enter the American mainstream.
But Rocco's restaurant run ended in 2003, when his eponymous eatery became the focus of NBC’s reality show The Restaurant. It was the first food-focused reality series—most others were set in places like desert islands or camera-filled homes full of strangers. As is the case with all reality TV, drama transpired at Rocco's. Cameras captured long lines of hopeful restaurant workers, dysfunctional kitchens filled with yelling, and questionably dehumanizing staff training sessions. It all culminated with the closing of the restaurant and, essentially, the end of restaurant life for Rocco himself.
But Rocco would not and could not stop working. He did a lot of TV. He did some radio. He consulted, hocked products, did appearances. He cooked for private clients and created his own line of healthy items. And he began what would be a prolific career as a cookbook author with the James Beard Award-winning Flavor in 2003 followed by 13 other titles, many focused on health-based recipes. His latest, Rocco’s Keto Comfort Food Diet, published on March 3.
You could call it a comeback, but Rocco doesn't. For him, it's just the next step in his journey. I recently sat down with him at Casa Mezcal on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to talk about what he's up to these days and how all that past stuff got him to where he is.
Rachael Ray In Season: Congratulations on the new book! What was your goal with this one?
Rocco DiSpirito: Thanks! It was a lot of fun to work on and write. It’s about taking a keto point of view and applying it to comfort foods. The ones I’ve selected for the book are the ultimate laundry list of comfort foods: fried chicken, pork ramen, meatballs, donuts, cake, chocolate chip cookies—all turned into keto versions of themselves.
What’s that mean?
They have to be 60 to 70 percent fat, 10 percent carbs, and the rest protein.
What differentiates these recipes from the regular keto fare?
Anything based on pasta, bread, or rice are the ones most people stay away from in the keto world. If you pick up most keto cookbooks, they don’t even try to transform those dishes. They say eat bacon, eat steak, eat chicken, eat lobster, pour butter on everything. That's fine; it works for a while. But it’s not sustainable for a lifetime. I’ve come up with ways to use those hard-to-incorporate items.
How did you get into keto?
I’ve been a fan of low-carb eating for a long time. I wanted to put the word "keto" on the cover of some of my books, starting with The Pound a Day Diet, which was 2012, but keto was still a word that people weren’t familiar with at that time. I’m thrilled because this opens up what I do to a very big audience. I’ve added back meat and dairy. My last book was mostly plant-based, so now I can cover a lot of people’s needs.
Plant-based is trendy right now. What does the term mean to you?
Most of your foods come from whole foods (not packaged ones) that are plants—fruits and vegetables that aren't processed in any way, that haven’t been cut for you, that haven’t been cooked for you. That’s the ideal.
What do you think about all the plant-based "meat" out there now?
I’d like to see an organic version, but I do like what it’s done for the plant-based movement. Thirty percent of the country considers themselves flexitarian, and they’re eating Impossible burgers. They would have never tried anything like that if the Impossible burger, with all of its lab-made content, didn’t bleed like beef and smell like beef. I think it’s done more for the movement than 50 years of hippies have.
That’s enough plant-based talk for now. Let’s talk meatballs. I once, in 2003, paid $22 for a single meatball at Rocco’s.
Are you asking for your money back?
No, it was worth it, and I know my meatballs.
I bring it up out of nostalgia. What made the late 90s to the early aughts—your prime in the restaurant industry—so special?
I think it was the first time in New York history when chefs started feeling less competitive with each other. When everyone was simply recreating the French classics and trying to make the best version of it, it was very difficult to distinguish yourself, so there was more competition. But When Tom Colicchio started making Tom Colicchio food, and when Jean George started making Jean George food, we all had an opportunity to make our own style of food. It was easier to differentiate, and New Yorkers embraced that.
So what made Rocco DiSpirito food Rocco DiSpirito food?
I cooked in France for two years, right after attending the Culinary Institute of America. When I came back, I was a full self-described Francophile. So I was doing what all chefs in New York were doing at the time. I was taking my point of view, whatever was going on in my heart and mind, adding it to French technique, and turning out a personal type of cuisine.
What do you think of the contemporary restaurant scene in New York?
It feels like we’re going backwards a bit. Every New Yorker is starting to expect the same menu—the one with the steak frites and the tuna tartare and the other usual suspects. I’m starting to see that everywhere in New York now, which is a little sad. I think 1985–2000 was an extraordinarily special time in our city’s dining history, and a lot of it was thanks to New Yorkers who were supporting that kind of freedom and enjoying chefs being ultra-creative. They were looking for that from every chef. The partners and businessmen at the time were a little less focused on the bottom line and a little more focused on creating wonderful experiences, which gave people like me an opportunity to try anything and everything and really be super experimental to a point where you were bound to find 20 hits because you were able to try a thousand things.
I’d like to see us go back to that direction, but we're moving away from it. I think the high rents and the high labor cost are just making it that we’ll do the same menu everywhere to make it easier. If a restaurant doesn’t break even or make profit first quarter, first month, first week, even, you’re in trouble.
Speaking of trouble, what happened with The Restaurant?
Well, it felt, going in, like there was going to be tension. There was a hero and an anti-hero. But no one expected what came out. None of us were ready for the show as it was finally produced. I think they did a really good job of making compelling television. It got great ratings and was the surprise hit of the summer. But obviously in order to do that they had to create lots of tension, and they most certainly did.
Around that same time, you and your partners sold Union Pacific. I have a confession: I never ate there.
I meant to! I swear.
Well, we will have to recreate a Union Pacific experience for you.
With the famous scallop-sea urchin dish?
After you sold Union Pacific, were you trying to get away from restaurants altogether?
No. When I left Union Pacific and Rocco’s, I expected to be in a new restaurant in six months, 12 months, 18 months, 36 months. I didn’t ever make a decision to not be in restaurants. I worked on a bunch of potential places that never panned out. I’d been speaking to restaurateurs, people who run big and small companies, about opening restaurants pretty much the whole time. But at some point, I felt like what I did at Union Pacific at that time and place had kind of escaped us and there was no point in me coming back to do that again. Then I discovered the joy of writing books, and once I got into doing triathlons and other things, it dawned on me that there was no way to work a restaurant into my life at the moment.
How’d you discover triathlons?
I was living a very typical New York City chef’s life. I ate a lot of fois gras. I got mercury poisoning from all of the raw fish consumed. We were totally indulging all night on the line and then, at the end of the night, I’d sit down and taste 10 dishes and send my notes to the sous chefs. We had a great wine list and a great sommelier. Just lots of eating and drinking.
That’ll do it.
Did it just occur to you that you were unhealthy or was there a come-to-Jesus moment?
Oh, the latter. My doctor, Dr. Hammer, a man whom I greatly respect, brought the hammer down, so to speak. He said, "You know, I always tell you your health is nothing to worry about. Well, that’s changed." The choices were exercise and better eating or some serious medications, one of which had a side-effect of impotence. And I was like, "So what you’re saying is that I can either take this medicine or I can eat better, work out, and not be impotent." That was a pretty easy choice for me. So I started Atkins, got a trainer, and then I found out about triathlons, and a year later I was in the best shape of my life.
And not impotent.
And not impotent.
Another plus from this was the inspiration for healthy cookbooks.
Right. I was thrilled to be on the The Biggest Loser and help shape their content, which was teaching people to eat healthy. I became passionate about advocating for a healthy lifestyle, and one way to do this to great effect was through cookbooks.
At the end of the day, what’s the primary takeaway from all of your books?
It’s the journey from being unwell to wellness, from being a person who craves and consumes to being a person who is consciously consuming. You can actually control your impulses and think and make a decision that is informed. You recognize and take responsibility for the ramifications of your actions.
Those kind of decisions are required. Thousands of those decisions over days, weeks, months, years. With diet and weight loss, transformation has to occur at some point. All diets are a jump start into transformation. Even people who consider themselves experts on the stuff and write about it are vulnerable to temptations. They fail. But they pick themselves up and get back on it. It’s not a zero-sum game. When you fail, you can correct it very quickly, very easily. Don’t get discouraged. Correct, pivot, and keep doing that. You’ll find a balance at some point.
What’s your general advice to people about a healthy lifestyle?
There’s a book, The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, which basically claims that people who live to 100 or older in these parts of the world consistently eat a mostly plant-based diet, they drink a lot of water, they are active, they have a purpose in their life, they are spiritual, and they have a strong community of friends and family. Those are the six things I’d say would make up a great lifestyle.
Do you engage in all six of those things?
I am trying my darndest.
You seem like a guy who can never stop moving. What’s next?
There’s another cookbook in the works as we speak. It’s got plant-based keto recipes, plus background on what I’ve done in my diet to address certain issues like being overweight, being depressed, and how food can fix all of those things. I also really want to get back into some sort of restaurant, whether it’s a 10-seat counter-style place where I cook five nights a week or something in the plant-based world, maybe doing plant-based Italian. I feel like my voice is unique enough again where I have something interesting to bring like I did in 1998 at Union Pacific. I’ve been working in plant-based for a long time, so I have a huge well of resources to dip into. I think New Yorkers and Americans would love a healthy-ish option that’s at a very high level, so I’m working on creating something like that.
You are welcome anytime.
But you’re still going to make me that Union Pacific-inspired meal, right?