Chodorow’s office, located on the twentieth floor of Black Rock, hardly looks like the working place of a man worth a fortune. Though he has sweeping views of midtown, the generic office furniture doesn’t appear to have been updated since the eighties, when he moved in, and he has no desk, just a table piled high with stacks of papers. “I used to have a fancy office with a gym and a kitchen,” he says with a shrug. “One day, I realized it was costing me $10,000 a day just to walk in there. I guess I went the other way.”
Chodorow, who spent four months in jail in 1996 over management issues in his takeover of Braniff airlines, is juggling a number of legal actions besides the one with DiSpirito. He’s currently suing the builder, the developer, the architect, and the condo association of his home in Miami—an 11,000-square-foot condo—because it is infested with mold. He has also been hit with a suit by the owners of Matsuri in the Maritime Hotel and their chef, Tadashi Ono. The $10 million restaurant he is about to open in the meatpacking district’s new Hotel Gansevoort is called Ono (it will feature beds, cabanas with fireplaces, a garden, and a pond with its own floating bar), and they claim to have first use of the name. After rifling around the table, he produces the papers. “Look at this. They weren’t even using the name until they found out I planned to use it for my restaurant. Now they’ve turned a little area in the entryway into the Ono Sake Bar. I came up with the name, because when I told my wife I was opening another restaurant, she said, ‘Oh, no!’ ” he says.
“I’m sure his wife said a lot of things in the last six months,’’ snipes Richard Born, an owner of the Maritime Hotel, as well as the Mercer, Elysee, Chambers, and the Perry Street condos. “I’d be more than happy if he had a successful restaurant, but not with the name of our chef, just three blocks away in the only other hotel in the area.’’ Born actually sent Chodorow a Japanese-English dictionary, begging him to pick a different name. “There were 10,000 words in there,” Born says. “I asked him to use anything but Ono or Matsuri.’’
On a recent afternoon at Union Pacific, Rocco DiSpirito is in his whites. His hair is sticking up in little tufts, which he keeps trying to tame. “We don’t wear toques in New York anymore; the ceilings aren’t high enough,’’ he explains. It’s been a tough few weeks—there were the lawsuits, and he’s broken up with Yvonne Scio, the sexy Italian actress who made it through the show’s second season. DiSpirito was crazy about her, his friends say. Marriage was even predicted. “It broke up for the same reason any relationship does,’’ he says, shrugging. “Incompatibility.’’
Then he confides that he’s upset, because a picture of him in his underwear, taken while he was on a runway wearing a kilt for a charity event, has found its way onto the Internet.
Union Pacific has a fresh look, but in front of the Zen waterfall and flowers sits a stack of books and one of the pots DiSpirito is selling on QVC. “I want to sell my books and products. Is there something wrong with selling out?” asks DiSpirito. “Every chef is looking to cash in on his brand and notoriety. I don’t have a brand like Martha, but negative press certainly affects it. Sure, we got letters saying ‘You were so mean on the show.’ It bothers me. I want to be loved just like everybody else, but people should judge my products on their merits and not figure out what is right for me. Put me next to any chef, any time, and I’ll be better than them. I can cook. Let’s say I am overexposed. Should I be judged poorly for it? 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?”
DiSpirito maintains that he would sit down and work out problems with Chodorow tomorrow. DiSpirito has called in a psychologist for what he refers to as “couples therapy’’; and Chodorow asked for help from their mutual friend David Avital, who was involved with bringing Arab and Israeli children together—he had more success with that.
“I’ve invested time and money in the brand and physical space. We are going to be packed every night once this show starts to air again,’’ DiSpirito says, full of enthusiasm. “I don’t claim to be as brilliant as Jeffrey, but if we put our heads together and could find some synergy, Rocco’s could really be a success.’’
For Chodorow, the success of Rocco’s seems almost beside the point. He’s still highly sought-after by top chefs in search of backing. The Restaurant seems a lark for him, a game.
For DiSpirito, the stakes are different. He is now a national celebrity, for better or worse, with a line of pans and condiments, a couple of cookbooks. He’s possibly the most famous chef in the country, if something of a laughingstock in the restaurant world. “Rocco sold $3 million in pots and pans on QVC,” says Silverman. “That never would have happened without the show. He’s nationally branded.” The restaurant, Silverman says, might seem déclassé in Manhattan, “but it worked outside of New York in a place where people weren’t always looking for something cool and edgy.” Say, Vegas. Now, according to Variety, DiSpirito aspires to do a talk show.
There has always been something a little unappetizing about watching a talented chef squander his talents—but Rocco’s has never been about the food.