Rocco claims I cooked the books,” says Jeffrey Chodorow, helping himself to a sparerib at China Grill, the first of his restaurant ventures. Chodorow is large man, over six feet, with an olive complexion, dark eyes, and a luxuriant growth of facial hair that stops just short of a full beard. “I didn’t, but if I had, I would have been the only one of the two of us cooking at that restaurant.”
Chodorow is the financier behind Rocco’s, the made-for-TV red-sauce joint on 22nd Street, as well as over twenty other restaurants, an empire that takes in more than $150 million annually. Rocco, of course, is Rocco DiSpirito, the gifted chef whose media exposure rivaled that of Emeril Lagasse even before his reality show, The Restaurant, debuted on NBC in July of last year.
The show began as a cheerful Manhattan sitcom: Friends in the kitchen. There was workplace romance, service troubles, temper tantrums, kitchen fires. Rocco’s mother kept showing up, providing comic relief. At first, Chodorow was a bit player on the show, but as the season wore on and the chaos at the restaurant increased, his growing conflict with DiSpirito—the impetuous front man versus the back-office heavy—became a central on-air theme.
The second season was filmed in November and December, with Rocco an embattled figure in his own kitchen. Then, ten weeks ago, Chodorow filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, seeking to dissolve their partnership and to have DiSpirito pay back money he made from side ventures that featured the restaurant. Two weeks ago—conveniently timed to heat things up for the show’s second-season debut on April 19—DiSpirito filed a countersuit, alleging mismanagement on the part of Chodorow.
Chodorow, no stranger to litigation, seems to lick his chops at the prospect. “Rocco was stupid,” he says. “What he did was like attacking a 900-pound gorilla. He blew a big opportunity with me.’’
Rocco’s office is across 22nd Street from Rocco’s—and a block away from his other restaurant, Union Pacific, which had three stars until the Times critic had to wait an hour and 40 minutes for her entrée to appear. He can see the awning bearing his name from the window of his conference room—the letters have faded a bit. “This is very depressing for me,” DiSpirito says. Wearing a tight black T-shirt, hair tousled, muscles bulging, he looks like an angry cherub. There’s a pro-wrestling aspect to their conflict—even physically, they’re evenly matched. “The restaurant was a dream of mine,” DiSpirito continues—he’d hoped, at the beginning, to spin out a series of Rocco’s restaurants, take his name nationwide. “I involved my family. My aunt and uncle were fired. My aunt, who can make more pasta per hour than Ronzoni! I can no longer order water, and my mother isn’t allowed to bring me meatballs. It’s pathetic, embarrassing actually. His decision to sue me was completely out of left field, and the decision to lay blame on me and publicly air our dispute really threw me for a loop.
“I give to a lot of charities, but the Chodorow Foundation doesn’t need my help.”
For Rocco Dispirito, The Restaurant has become a never-before-attempted experiment in bad publicity: Can a chef get anything positive out of being called names on national television? He's certainly expanding his brand—but is he simultaneously destroying it?
At least initially, that was far from the question. When Mark Burnett, who’s also responsible for Survivor and The Apprentice, began looking for a chef to star in his NBC show about starting a New York restaurant, his team talked to restaurateurs like Drew Nieporent, Brian McNally, and Phil Suarez, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s backer at Spice Market. But DiSpirito, with his dimpled smile and hyperkinetic mien and puppyish love for attention of any and all kinds, finally seemed the only possible choice. Coincidentally, Chodorow, having seen DiSpirito cooking an Easter meal on the Today show, called him about starting an Italian-American restaurant as well as working as a consultant on Chodorow’s troubled restaurant Tuscan. It was kismet, pasta from heaven.
Everyone involved in the deal says that the fees Burnett offered were relatively modest. Still, for Chodorow it seemed like a no-brainer. “I did the first season because I thought, How could you miss?” Chodorow says. “We would get all this publicity and roll the concept out all over the country. I didn’t think it was possible to lose money on this.”
So Rocco’s was born, with Rocco’s name emblazoned on every possible surface. There was a certain Potemkin-village quality to the cooking. The ravioli could be almost raw. Wherever the camera happened to be pointed was automatically the best table in the house—and the rest of the restaurant was Siberia. Aside from the “Page Six” crowd invited in for PR purposes in the first few weeks, it’s always been a tourist scene, like one of those Times Square feeding stations. Onscreen, a line cook fell for a waitress. Some of the kitchen staff defected, complaining about the quality of the food. Rocco and his general manager fired a few employees. Service was slow. Much was made of the restaurant as family.