But although the ratings were more than adequate, all these sideshows didn’t quite add up to a main event. Also, according to Chodorow, the high jinks and pratfalls that made for good television were making him look like he didn’t know how to run a restaurant. “I told the producers that the show was overly negative,’’ he says. “They said, ‘Fix it on TV, and we’ll show it.’ ” The show, which previously had felt inconsequential, began to take on some dramatic heft.
Chodorow maintains he agreed to a second season “to save my reputation”—as well as for the publicity NBC and Burnett agreed to give his other restaurants around the world. And in the new season, his conflict with Rocco takes over the show—in many ways, Chodorow has become the star. He troops into the restaurant in expensive sportswear and a giant, glittering watch, trailed by a phalanx of suits and talking tough about the business to anyone who will listen. It’s a battle for the loyalty of the restaurant’s employees. DiSpirito is clinging to control of the kitchen, but he spends much of his screen time whining about Chodorow’s overbearing ways. Then, shortly after the second season wrapped, Chodorow filed his lawsuit, creating a real-life drama as publicity-generating counterpoint to the staged reality to be broadcast on NBC.
Chodorow, as it happens, is a born actor, fully capable of delivering an impressive, unscripted off-camera soliloquy on his partner’s perfidies. “I work with Alain Ducasse and Claude Troisgros,” he says, with what seems like real feeling, “the most revered chefs in the world, but this guy insisted on fresh firewood, and I had to hire a fire marshal 24 hours a day to make sure the restaurant didn’t burn down. We are serving calamari in cardboard cups, and he insists on sterling silverware.
“He said he didn't like the quality of my vendors. They are good enough for Alain Ducasse! This is my only restaurant that is losing money. The irony is that if Rocco wins this lawsuit, he loses more than if he actually loses. If we dissolve the partnership, which we have the right to do, he will be responsible financially.
“He had trade with his lawyer and his dentist. My manager caught one of his people taking pasta out of the restaurant, which we know he was sending over to Union Pacific, and we were paying for the labor. Our flower bills were $1,400 a month—and we didn’t even have any flowers. I’m going to depose that flower woman and see if we were paying and she was really doing those flowers for Union Pacific.”
“He said that?” says Rocco DiSpirito in the same high-pitched, wounded tone he’s adopted on camera. “I hope you print that.” Rocco’s faults—as with everything else about Rocco—are well known, but he’s clearly been stung by his battle with Chodorow. One recent afternoon, he became so incensed at a manager who refused to send a busboy to his office with a bottle of water that he wound up in what he called “a bit of a shoving situation,” after which the police were called. According to sworn affidavits, DiSpirito screamed, “If you set foot in my restaurant again, you are a fucking dead man . . . I am going to fucking kill you.’’
Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when DiSpirito was a word-of-mouth legend in the Manhattan restaurant world, renowned for his precise, inspired flavor combinations. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, he landed coveted jobs in the kitchens of Adrienne and Lespinasse before being hired as chef at a restaurant called Dava. At Dava, he began to be famous for other things—his wild-man tendencies, and his spare-no-expense approach to ingredients—that were out of place at a small Murray Hill establishment. The owner decided to change the concept. “He threw me out on my ass one day," says DiSpirito, after which he became the most gifted out-of-work chef in New York. After his wandering in the wilderness, he opened Union Pacific in 1997 with partner Steven Scher, who owns Django, Rain, and Calle Ocho, and quickly earned three stars from the Times.
“Purism is boring. They say I want to be an actor. I’ve turned down modeling and acting jobs. Was it wrong for Da Vinci to want to sculpt after painting?”
“He makes expensive choices’’ at Union Pacific, says Scher. “But usually they benefit the restaurant.’’
Chodorow, with his culinary sophistication (and, of course, his fat wallet), was at first glance an excellent match for DiSpirito. “Jeffrey sought after me,” says DiSpirito, sounding remarkably like some of the women who have dated him. “I felt charmed and seduced by him. He flew me to Mexico, flew me other places on his plane. He took me to his house in the Hamptons. Then, once we got involved, things totally changed.”
By all accounts, there is an irreducible core of animosity between DiSpirito and Chodorow. Which isn’t at all the same as saying the feud would exist in its current form without the show, or that the feud isn’t a very good thing for the show, or that the show isn’t still a very good thing for its two principals. Except for the fact that the food is deeply mediocre, the truth about Rocco’s is impossible to come by.
And DiSpirito and Chodorow know this. “There was definitely a difference in his behavior once the cameras started rolling,’’ says DiSpirito, calling the kettle black. “Literally the day the second season started taping, Jeffrey was there, caring about details, and the day they stopped taping, he was not there. It could not be a coincidence that my partner and I had a private conflict that we were trying to work out, and now it has become a public one. If there is some kind of manipulation happening, the producers are not sharing it with me. I’m in it, and I don’t know what the reality is.’’
Anyway, he continues, “I’ve spent hundreds of thousands on legal fees—much more than I made on the show.”
“The producers were actually pissed at first,” says Chodorow. “They were afraid I was going to close the place and they wouldn’t have a show.”