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The Food Networker

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"Union Pacific, I salute those guys," says Avital. "They proved me wrong, but I never would have gambled on Rocco. I met them recently, and I said, 'You guys have the biggest balls in the world.' "

These days, DiSpirito has put significant distance between himself and the failure Dava represented. He has become a vigilant micromanager, even tweaking service details at each evening's family meal.

Outside his stainless-steel kingdom, DiSpirito has thrown himself into the game of self-promotion with the vigor of a budding pop star. His biggest break was the coveted Gourmet cover in October 2000, which had him embracing a spectacular 60-pound tilefish. "It was our annual restaurant issue, and we had a lot of trouble finding the right cover," explains Reichl, now editor-in-chief of Gourmet. "There were ten different cover tries. Then the pictures of Rocco came in. I said, 'Why don't we put him on the cover?' People looked at me like I had completely lost my mind."

In the end, the issue sold 43 percent more copies on the newsstand than the same issue the year before. One trade publication promptly dubbed DiSpirito the "Anna Kournikova of the chef world" -- meaning he may not be No. 1 in the technical rankings, but put his matinee-idol face on your product and it will sell more than if it were endorsed by all the Wimbledon winners combined.

Aside from cooking summer risotto with Katie Couric on the Today show and a frittata with Diane Sawyer on Good Morning, America, DiSpirito is not above performing somewhat incongruous tasks for the greater good of name recognition. During Fall Fashion Week, he passed out trays of cherry tomatoes and sea urchin to half-naked models backstage at Bryant Park fashion shows. (Most of them demurred.) He has even, he confesses, done a Union Pacific-style bar mitzvah for one well-connected "very good friend of the restaurant." He's traveled to Cannes (for Bon Appetit magazine and the Food Network), where he schmoozed with Tim Robbins and Jesse Jackson in between designing the menu at the American Pavilion and helping cook for an amfar fête with famed French chef Roger Vergé.

"Want to hear something funny?" he asks. "Ralph Lauren called. He asked me to be the model for his catalogue.

"I'd be the only person in it," he adds, shaking his head, amazed. "I guess it would make my UTA agent happy. She hasn't made a penny off me." He declined the offer.

DiSpirito was not a celebrity when he landed Union Pacific. But somewhere along the line, he developed the unmistakable aura that comes with larger-than-life personalities -- the same physical electricity that makes photographers snap his picture even when they're not quite sure who he his. At a Knicks game, when he walks into the elevator that connects to the VIP section, Ben Stiller and his wife, Christine Taylor, follow him. Stiller takes a look at DiSpirito, who is dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, and offers his hand. "Hi, I'm Ben." "Hi," Rocco says, shaking it, "I'm Rocco." Down the corridor, I ask if they've met before. They haven't. The thing is, Rocco looks famous, even to people more famous than he is.

Things were a little different when Union Pacific began: DiSpirito's days started at 7 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m., long after the last diners had polished off their milk-chocolate panna cotta. He would arrange his mise en place for the next day, do his ordering, his inventory. When he did leave, he would head straight to his "thoroughly neglected" Murray Hill one-bedroom and love-starved cat. The investment banker's hours were a result of his exacting standards (he laid down the kitchen tiles himself) and an admittedly rocky opening. "It was a disaster," he recalls with a hint of agony. "We were re-plating everything, falling behind."

Still, DiSpirito remained a stickler for time-consuming perfection. "We did this dish with wild sea bass with figs and sunflower seeds," says Calvert. "Rocco insisted that we use fresh sunflower seeds and take them out of the shell. We needed like ten pounds a night. It would take one guy five hours to do it. The poor fish guy was like, What do you mean I have to do it? So he'd sneak out to the store in Little India and buy already-shelled ones. There's a minor difference in the oil. Probably no one in the dining room would notice. But Rocco would taste it and he could tell. He was adamant about it. He said, 'I can do them all in twenty minutes!' He got all the dishwashers and servers, gave them each a small pile and made it into a contest. Whoever could do the most, he gave that person $5."

A year later, Reichl handed down three stars. "The raw foie gras cru at Union Pacific is cured in brine, soaked in Armagnac and aromatic spices," she wrote in her review, "and topped with wild strawberries and tiny fava beans and served in a circle of strawberry juice and aged balsamic vinegar. . . . I too was moaning as I ate."

About that time, he let himself venture out during lunch service. "But whenever he would leave, something would always happen," recalls Calvert. "One time, my friend called up at 1:30 p.m. -- we close lunch at 2 p.m. -- and said, 'Ducasse is coming in in 25 minutes!' We couldn't find Rocco anywhere. Finally, he answered his cell phone; he was at the barber. A few minutes later, he runs into the restaurant, all disheveled, just as Ducasse was getting his first course. We cooked for him for three hours."

"Rocco started to enjoy his life only recently," says Avital. He has found a power-couple partner in girl-about-town Katie Brown, the former Lifetime lifestyle host with her own show forthcoming on the E! Style network.

They met a year ago at a dinner at Nick & Toni's in East Hampton organized by DiSpirito's publicist, who is a friend of Brown's. "He asked me if I wanted to come, and I said, 'No thanks, I'm really tired,' " Brown recalls. "And he said, 'That's too bad, because Rocco DiSpirito is coming and I wanted you to meet him.' And I went, 'Did I say I was tired?' "

"I've seen how a personal life helps you find balance in work life," says Rocco. "This sounds lame, but one day I woke up and felt out of touch. I went to Babbo, Prune. I went to the Dave Matthews concert and Ben Harper opened for him. That guy was loving life. It made me start thinking about new dishes."

Ironically, the cost of all of this success and attention is time away from his real claim to fame: his restaurant. There have already been some off-the-record grumblings from competitors about how the food is slipping as a result of increasingly frequent absences. It is a hard balance to keep. "I worked six days a week for ten years," says Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. "Last summer, I decided to take Saturdays off for the first time. But I couldn't, so now I'm there six days again."

"It's interesting what happens," says a sympathetic Tom Colicchio, executive chef and co-owner of Gramercy Tavern and Craft. "When you start becoming known as a chef, people start asking you to do stuff, and it's just great. Flying to Cannes sounds like a great thing, but the following week someone else is going to call you for a great trip to Singapore, and you've got to go to Singapore. You get back, and someone says, 'Hey, there's a great thing in Tokyo!' and you've got to go to Tokyo. And before you know it, you're never in your restaurant."

"This is a serious problem I see with young chefs," sighs Kunz, who notes that DiSpirito has yet to ask his advice on the subject, although he is eager to give it. "It's too easy to fall into the champagne bubble instead of the heat and the difficulties of the kitchen. My biggest problem with this is, if you're paying $80 to $150 for a meal, I think you have the right to see the chef there, and you deserve to see the chef there. Even if he is not cooking, he is there physically. Would you pay $150 for theater tickets and not see the star?"

"People have a very odd idea of what it is that chefs do," counters Reichl. "Successful chefs don't cook. It's like Paul Bocuse -- the granddaddy of all celebrity chefs -- he's had three stars longer than anybody else in the Guide Michelin. Someone once asked him, 'Who cooks in your kitchen when you're away?' And he said, 'The same person who cooks when I'm there.' It shouldn't matter. In a good restaurant, it should make no difference."

"The reality is that it's such a competitive field right now," says Drew Nieporent of Montrachet and Tribeca Grill, "that when you have this opportunity to reach a wider audience, whether it's with the Food Network or doing charitable appearances, you're not always going to have this opportunity, so you sort of have to strike while the kettle's hot, to coin a phrase."

This window of opportunity is something DiSpirito has thought long and hard about. He is aware that his career is peaking at a moment when the rules of the culinary world are being rewritten. In the next year and a half, it is entirely possible there will be three DiSpirito-run restaurants in the city. He is in discussions with Donald Trump to open a place in the Trump World Tower. He's toying with putting his Neapolitan roots to work with "Rocco's Italian-American," which he envisions in a double-height space downtown. And yes, he has his eye on Vegas. But as DiSpirito expands his dominion, the question of how he'll continue to walk the line between critical and commercial success becomes only more complex.

It's a challenge he likens to balancing the flavor in a dish: "I'm in the final stages of putting one together. Lamb with sour-cherry-and-mustard glaze. Fruit, acidity, and spice create a whole new unity. I was never happy with monotone, all savory flavors. I always say I want it brighter. The cherries are the sour; the mustard is bitter; the sweet comes from the glazing. Ninety percent of the time, it takes four tries. But yesterday . . ." He pauses. "Yesterday, we did one in one shot."


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