Spaghetti Western

Street Foodie: DiSpirito on Park Avenue, around the corner from Rocco's.Photo: Michael Edwards

Rocco claims I cooked the books,” says Jeffrey Chodorow, helping himself to a sparerib at China Grill, the first of his restaurant ventures. Chodorow is large man, over six feet, with an olive complexion, dark eyes, and a luxuriant growth of facial hair that stops just short of a full beard. “I didn’t, but if I had, I would have been the only one of the two of us cooking at that restaurant.”

Chodorow is the financier behind Rocco’s, the made-for-TV red-sauce joint on 22nd Street, as well as over twenty other restaurants, an empire that takes in more than $150 million annually. Rocco, of course, is Rocco DiSpirito, the gifted chef whose media exposure rivaled that of Emeril Lagasse even before his reality show, The Restaurant, debuted on NBC in July of last year.

The show began as a cheerful Manhattan sitcom: Friends in the kitchen. There was workplace romance, service troubles, temper tantrums, kitchen fires. Rocco’s mother kept showing up, providing comic relief. At first, Chodorow was a bit player on the show, but as the season wore on and the chaos at the restaurant increased, his growing conflict with DiSpirito—the impetuous front man versus the back-office heavy—became a central on-air theme.

The second season was filmed in November and December, with Rocco an embattled figure in his own kitchen. Then, ten weeks ago, Chodorow filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, seeking to dissolve their partnership and to have DiSpirito pay back money he made from side ventures that featured the restaurant. Two weeks ago—conveniently timed to heat things up for the show’s second-season debut on April 19—DiSpirito filed a countersuit, alleging mismanagement on the part of Chodorow.

Chodorow, no stranger to litigation, seems to lick his chops at the prospect. “Rocco was stupid,” he says. “What he did was like attacking a 900-pound gorilla. He blew a big opportunity with me.’’

Rocco’s office is across 22nd Street from Rocco’s—and a block away from his other restaurant, Union Pacific, which had three stars until the Times critic had to wait an hour and 40 minutes for her entrée to appear. He can see the awning bearing his name from the window of his conference room—the letters have faded a bit. “This is very depressing for me,” DiSpirito says. Wearing a tight black T-shirt, hair tousled, muscles bulging, he looks like an angry cherub. There’s a pro-wrestling aspect to their conflict—even physically, they’re evenly matched. “The restaurant was a dream of mine,” DiSpirito continues—he’d hoped, at the beginning, to spin out a series of Rocco’s restaurants, take his name nationwide. “I involved my family. My aunt and uncle were fired. My aunt, who can make more pasta per hour than Ronzoni! I can no longer order water, and my mother isn’t allowed to bring me meatballs. It’s pathetic, embarrassing actually. His decision to sue me was completely out of left field, and the decision to lay blame on me and publicly air our dispute really threw me for a loop.

“I give to a lot of charities, but the Chodorow Foundation doesn’t need my help.”

For Rocco Dispirito, The Restaurant has become a never-before-attempted experiment in bad publicity: Can a chef get anything positive out of being called names on national television? He’s certainly expanding his brand—but is he simultaneously destroying it?

At least initially, that was far from the question. When Mark Burnett, who’s also responsible for Survivor and The Apprentice, began looking for a chef to star in his NBC show about starting a New York restaurant, his team talked to restaurateurs like Drew Nieporent, Brian McNally, and Phil Suarez, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s backer at Spice Market. But DiSpirito, with his dimpled smile and hyperkinetic mien and puppyish love for attention of any and all kinds, finally seemed the only possible choice. Coincidentally, Chodorow, having seen DiSpirito cooking an Easter meal on the Today show, called him about starting an Italian-American restaurant as well as working as a consultant on Chodorow’s troubled restaurant Tuscan. It was kismet, pasta from heaven.

Everyone involved in the deal says that the fees Burnett offered were relatively modest. Still, for Chodorow it seemed like a no-brainer. “I did the first season because I thought, How could you miss?” Chodorow says. “We would get all this publicity and roll the concept out all over the country. I didn’t think it was possible to lose money on this.”

So Rocco’s was born, with Rocco’s name emblazoned on every possible surface. There was a certain Potemkin-village quality to the cooking. The ravioli could be almost raw. Wherever the camera happened to be pointed was automatically the best table in the house—and the rest of the restaurant was Siberia. Aside from the “Page Six” crowd invited in for PR purposes in the first few weeks, it’s always been a tourist scene, like one of those Times Square feeding stations. Onscreen, a line cook fell for a waitress. Some of the kitchen staff defected, complaining about the quality of the food. Rocco and his general manager fired a few employees. Service was slow. Much was made of the restaurant as family.

Stand Up Guy: Chodorow on the bar at Rocco's.Photo: Michael Edwards

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.”

Lap Of Luxury: Rocco and friends on-camera.Photo: Eric Liebowitz/NBC

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.”

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.

Spaghetti Western