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Spaghetti Western

Lap Of Luxury: Rocco and friends on-camera.  

The producers also deny any overt manipulation—for what that’s worth. “This was supposed to be a warm, fuzzy, Cheers-like show,” says Ben Silverman, the show’s co-creator and co–executive producer. “When you hire Rocco and Mama, you don’t expect a war to break out. I think that warmer version would have done well; the drama would have been the customers—here was a restaurant they could go to and have their Andy Warhol moments played out on TV. Everyone told me that the restaurant business was one of the most dynamic environments, but truth is stranger than fiction.’’

His partner Mark Burnett hints at darker forces motivating the conflict. “Cheers was a comedy,’’ he says. “We were always making a drama. Maybe a bit like Hotel. My crew was reporting back about these people. In the first season, I certainly expected fireworks; by the second season, I had absolutely no doubt.’’

“This was supposed to be a cool place, but the cameras put a lot of negative energy into it,” says Tony Acinapura, an executive chef at Rocco’s whom DiSpirito fired on camera. “Rocco was only in the kitchen when the cameras were on. Everyone knew they were being filmed, so they hammed it up. I mean, there was a casting call for the waiters and cooks. They wouldn’t direct us, but they would ask us to do something over. This one guy fell down the steps, and they asked him to do that again."

Of course, the central philosophical question on a show like The Restaurant is not “What is real?” but “What is reality?” “Would the Louds have gotten divorced if they weren’t on TV?’’ asks Burnett, referring to the Loud family who inaugurated reality TV in the seventies—on PBS, no less. “Probably not. There is no way to bring cameras into your life and have it not be different.’’

It’s a Saturday night at Rocco’s—prime time—and the place is just over half full. There’s a table in one corner singing “Happy Birthday’’ and a group of girls at the bar with the kind of frosted hair you rarely see in Manhattan. The only heat in the room is under Chodorow’s collar—he’s just been briefed on what DiSpirito had been saying. “Rocco is a fucking liar,’’ he says. “I never fired anyone in his family. His aunt and uncle showed up once every couple of weeks. I pay his mother even if she doesn’t come in, and I got her an apartment upstairs, which I pay for.’’

“I told the producers that the show was overly negative. It made it look like I couldn’t run a restaurant. They said, ‘Fix it on TV, and we’ll show it.’ ”

But even though her son is rarely around these days, it looks like Mama is quite attached to the restaurant. She is working the room, greeting everyone but Chodorow, whom she ignores, posing at one table, her arms around the necks of a mustached guy in a striped shirt and his friend in acid-washed jeans, while one of their wives takes snapshots. She is prominently featured on the show and, along with Rocco, is selling products on QVC. At 79, she’s become an unlikely celebrity, and she seems to like it almost as much as her son does.

Chodorow got his first taste of the restaurant scene when he was a baby. His father died before Jeffrey’s 1st birthday, and his mother moved to Miami in 1950. She didn’t have enough money to hire a babysitter, so she took him along on dates. Chodorow eventually went to Wharton, where he married a schoolmate (there were 336 men and only 5 women), then to Penn Law School. He settled in Philadelphia, where he made his first million in real estate. He moved to New York in 1981. He opened his first restaurant in 1987 on a whim, after falling in love with the food at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, in L.A.

The ground floor of Black Rock, the former CBS headquarters, had been four failed restaurants, and whoever took it over had to go through arduous approval by the board, which included William Paley, Larry Tisch, and Walter Cronkite. The board finally approved him, but ruled he couldn’t call it China Grill, because it sounded too downscale. “I wondered how people would feel if they knew Walter Cronkite viewed China as a derogatory adjective,’’ says Chodorow. “They finally said, ‘Okay, give it to the Chinaman.'" It was a runaway hit in the first year and took in more than $7 million.

Chodorow’s next restaurant venture was 44, in Ian Schrager’s Royalton, in 1989. “I loved the idea of a lobby as the new club,” he says. “They made me buy this $35,000 mahogany-and-steel maître d’ stand with wings. I told them it was ridiculous, it didn’t work, didn’t hold a phone or a book. Ian said it was subliminal. They stuck it behind this column. For $35,000, I thought people should see it, so I moved it back. Every day I moved it, and it was moved back. Finally, I bolted it to the floor, and Ian said, ‘You’re screwing up my sight lines!’ He would schedule a fashion shoot at noon—right during lunch, when we had these reservations.’’

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Chodorow is the only one of Schrager’s partners who has maintained a working relationship with him. “It’s hard to have a fight with Jeffrey,” says Schrager. “and I’m not a person known to run away from a fight. Look at Brian or Rande Gerber. But they violated their agreements with me. Jeffrey never did. He’s a smart, tough guy, but he rolls with the punches. Rocco must have offended his sense of propriety.’’

Chodorow’s next two ventures were in Miami, a second China Grill and the Blue Door in Schrager’s Delano with Claude Troisgros. “It was a challenge,’’ recalls Chodorow—the recipes didn’t work in such intense humidity. “I had to hire a chemist from the University of Miami to figure out how to keep the fried spinach crisp at China Grill and how to get Troisgros’s signature passion-fruit soufflé to rise.’’

And Chodorow is in business with Alain Ducasse in a number of restaurants. They own Spoon together in London and Mix in New York. Mix, which opened eight months ago, is not a big success—the chef has just been let go, and the menu is being reworked—just in time to open a huge outpost in Las Vegas in September. “We just have to mix it up again, try a different mix,’’ says Ducasse, sitting at his restaurant in the Essex House, wearing an elegant suit and stirring a large imaginary bowl for emphasis. “Jeffrey and I have a good marriage. We don’t make any decisions unless we both agree. He is easy, and he has a real passion for food and wine. He will know of the best place in Toulouse for cassoulet that I don’t even know. I tried to talk to Rocco. But it was too late.”