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The Food Networker

When Rocco DiSpirito, a serious Queens-bred boy with impeccable culinary skills, opened Union Pacific four years ago, he never seemed to leave the kitchen. But success put him in the foodie fast lane, with TV tapings, globe-trotting junkets, and a speed dial packed with celebrity pals. Which makes purists wonder: Who's minding the stove?

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"Ordering a quail!" shouts Rocco DiSpirito, the boyish but exacting executive chef and co-owner of Union Pacific restaurant. It's 7:48 on a Monday evening, and the first seating is polishing off its pineapple-and-salmon amuse-bouche. A wall of frosted glass separates the Zen-like civility of the dining room, with its percolating waterfall and muted color scheme, from the raucous kitchen, where DiSpirito is expediting orders in spotless chef's whites and Birkenstocks. "How about a quail?" he shouts, louder, until the grill station repeats it back, Starbucks-style. In mid-service moments like this, DiSpirito, confined as he is in "the box," his three-sided command center facing the cooking stations, likes to think of himself as a pumped-up NFL coach driving his team from the sidelines.

A heaping portion of monkfish and vegetables comes his way. "Vinnie, you're cooking the long beans too much, I just told you that," says an eagle-eyed DiSpirito. To his left, one of the three sous-chefs is working on a new summer soup with pickled vegetables. DiSpirito leans in to finger a taste. Two visiting chefs from Stockholm who have been trailing him for the week lean in, too. "These are nettles," he says to them. They stare blankly. "You don't have nettles?" But before they can answer, there's a call from the private dining room upstairs, which Sean "Puffy" Combs has rented out for the evening. He wants different table arrangements and different music. "But it was all arranged in the contract," DiSpirito says to himself. He walks toward the back staircase to investigate the situation but stops when he sees a salad guy piling leafy greens on a plate. He swings around, grabs the greens himself, and begins lecturing the garde-manger in Spanish.

Next, he tries slipping out the door to the dining room, aiming for the front stairs this time -- but he's intercepted by two women with high-wattage smiles asking for bathroom directions. He politely shows them the way, chatting briefly but just enough, then forgets about Puffy and ends up back in the box. "Why are you using such a large pan to heat up this celery?" he asks the vegetable guy. The kid, who looks more like a member of 'N Sync than like a seasoned entremetier, has no comeback. He sort of smiles, relieved when the floor manager collars DiSpirito with a Puffy update. Finally, there's good news from upstairs. Johnnie Cochran has just arrived. They've changed CDs. "They're happy," he reports.

"Amazing," says DiSpirito. "So what's the selection?"

"Roberta Flack," says the manager.

"No Tupac?" DiSpirito jokes. It's now 7:59. The printer begins to tick violently with orders. "Danny," he moans, ripping off another dupe, "that quail's killing me!"

As Union Pacific approaches its fourth anniversary, and DiSpirito his 35th birthday, he finds himself at the very top of the star-chef game. He was named one of America's best new chefs in 1999 by Food & Wine. He scored the cover of Gourmet's restaurant issue last fall, was nominated for best chef in New York at the 1999, 2000, and 2001 James Beard Awards, and was invited to cook at the prestigious World Gourmet Summit this past May in Singapore -- and the accolades just keep coming.

His food -- a complex mixture of Asian flavors and French technique that incorporates salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes in every dish -- defies categorization. It is the step beyond fusion, using constantly evolving ingredients he finds trolling around Chinatown or Little India. "You can't put it too much into words," says his mentor, the legendary flavor whiz Gray Kunz, whose cooking provided the bedrock for DiSpirito's. "You have to see it and taste it."

"What do you call those sports that involve extra risk?" says New York food critic Gael Greene. "Extreme? His food is Extreme American. At times, the menu might sound outrageous, but it never is. He is really weird and really wonderful."

Mario Batali of Babbo, Lupa, and Esca, the virtual king of the city's Italian cuisine, admits he's been tracking DiSpirito since 1992, "back when he was doing watermelon emulsion at some fancy joint," says Batali. "He's bringing together ingredients in ways I never thought of, things that sounded disparate but make palate sense."

But it takes more than a spectacular demi-glace to bring in reservations today. "The days of delivering a great product and being full all the time are over for everyone," says DiSpirito. There are more restaurants -- a significant number with deep-pocketed backers -- competing for fewer flush customers. As a result, chefs have to not only cook the food but sell it as well.

DiSpirito is in many ways a natural for the job. He's a culinary triple threat: an anointed food genius with a Tom Cruise smile and the social stamina of the Hilton sisters. But he had to learn to become a showman and a businessman, which required some help. His payroll includes a personal assistant, a publicist to handle press requests, a literary agent (who recently closed a two-book deal with Hyperion), an agent for his Food Network appearances (his regular gig co-hosting Melting Pot, a show about American ethnic cuisine, as well as a raft of foodie specials) and for potential film projects, a media coach to infuse such star turns with George Clooney-esque charm, a lawyer to oversee all transactions, and a high-priced divorce lawyer to help him end his marriage to soon-to-be ex-wife Natalie. Add to that list a personal trainer and, of course, a shrink.

Some modern chefs seek celebrity and leave the cooking to others. (Emeril is an oft-cited example.) Others can't stay out of the kitchen and take a pass on the tempting extracurriculars. But DiSpirito is trying to join the small group of celebrity chefs who have it both ways. In the past, the best-known foodie personalities -- Julia Child, James Beard, Chef Tell -- were not working chefs who had to find a way to balance their TV gigs with the rigors of running a kitchen. Today, few (most notably Mario Batali) have managed to pull off a hefty media presence as well as star-studded reviews. To that end, DiSpirito has willingly devoted virtually every out-of-the-kitchen moment he's had in the past few years to "marketing," as he calls the parties and appearances that fill his life.

"The business morphed during my time," says DiSpirito, who was deeply into his single-minded obsession with food when other kids were in little league. "I feel lucky in a way and conflicted in another way, because I just thought I wanted to be a really great chef in a really great restaurant. But the business changed. It's no longer a business opportunity for misfits, people who couldn't do anything else."

DiSpirito did not spring from a foodie family in the south of France with a café on the front porch, like Daniel Boulud, or spend his childhood eating his way through Singapore as Kunz did. You wouldn't know it from his easy way with litchi nuts and saffron, but he is in fact a product of Queens, where his parents had moved from a tiny town outside Naples. To hear him tell it, Jamaica, where he and his brother and sister grew up, was a hotbed of culinary inspiration. His Ecuadoran best friend would have him over for lunchtime seviche. "Kingfish on the weekdays, shrimp on the weekends," DiSpirito recalls. His Greek neighbors provided souvlaki and moussaka. "They'd come by and say, 'You know, you have really good weeds in your garden.' Turns out this stuff I used to mow with the weed-whacker was za'atar, a kind of wild oregano they used in soups." It was his older sister Maria who took him for his first Indian meal; his first encounter with Japanese came by accident. "My mom and I went to this Chinese restaurant every week," he says. "One time we went to another one -- we thought it was Chinese, but the menu had these buckwheat udon noodles and funny porcelain spoons."

He was an admitted mama's boy. "I used to go to the Rosary Society with her," he says. "We'd go into Manhattan to do servicios, errands, and we'd stop in Chinatown." And, of course, they would cook together. He willingly wolfed down plates of lamb intestines -- a specialty of his mom's. "I still can't make her frittata as well as she can," he insists. He took her on NBC's Weekend Today show on Mother's Day to prove it.

"I thought he wanted to be a lawyer," says his father, Raffaele, an Eli Wallach-size fellow with a thick Italian accent. "He was very dynamic, athletic. But then I remembered, I wanted to be a lawyer."


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