The Food Networker

“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.”

Rocco had his sights on chefdom ever since his first job prying open cans of tomatoes at a pizzeria when he was 11. During high school, he spent nights and weekends at the New Hyde Park Inn – “We made head cheese from scratch,” he says proudly – and still graduated a year early. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and practiced on his family during holidays. At Thanksgiving, “I basically took the turkey apart. I made turkey medallions with clams and sweet-potato velouté. Not what anyone wants to eat,” he says. After CIA, he set off for a year in Paris under the wing of Dominique Cecillon, the executive chef at Jardin de Cygne: “If you want to be a good chef, you go to Europe.”

When DiSpirito arrived with all his bags, he was told he didn’t have the right papers to work in the Michelin-starred restaurant. “I had to go to Cactus Charlie’s, an American Western saloon that served burgers with 50 toppings,” he says, cringing at the memory. “Ladling blue-cheese topping, pickle topping on cheeseburgers. Such a horrific experience.” He figured out a way around his predicament by scoring an Italian passport that made him a citizen of the EC.

“We fell in love with each other,” he says of Cecillon. “We send each other packages. I send him Coffee-mate and Aim toothpaste. He sends me bottles of truffle vinaigrette.”

Back in New York, he landed at Adrienne at the Peninsula Hotel as a commis, the second-lowest job on the line, under “the meanest chef de partie on the planet! I’d still like to pop him in the face if I saw him walking down the street.” He spent the next two years at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. There he met Bryan Calvert, who would become his longtime sous-chef. Calvert testifies to DiSpirito’s curly, shoulder-length hair and the raging parties he threw at his Back Bay apartment.

When he returned to New York, he “staged” for a month at a time at Le Bernardin, Aureole, and River Cafe. “I can’t even remember them now,” he says. It was a typical nomadic-chef trajectory until Kunz asked him to help open the now-legendary Lespinasse. “I looked at his résumé and felt he had the enthusiasm,” Kunz recalls. “I don’t know if you can say angry, but he was so driven already, he had the ambition to succeed.” Scott Bryan, now executive chef at Veritas, worked the line next to him. “Lespinasse was the most hectic and understaffed place; basically, every day we had to work doubles. It was treacherous,” Bryan says, “but I knew Rocco was one of the guys going places because when Rocco used to change, the first thing he would do was put his chef’s hat on. Then he’d put his jacket on before he’d even changed his trousers! We used to bust his chops about it, the guy was so fucking serious.”

“His food is Extreme American,’ says Gael Greene. “At times, the menu might sound outrageous, but it never is. He is really weird and really wonderful.”

That obsessiveness continued at Dava, the tiny three-tiered restaurant on 39th and Lexington, sandwiched between a deli and a laundromat, that put him on the map. It was September 1995 and DiSpirito was looking for a platform where he could cook his own as-yet-untitled cuisine, largely inspired by his tour of duty at Lespinasse.

By some sort of culinary miracle, Ruth Reichl came by. “When you’re the restaurant critic of the New York Times,” Reichl recalls, “friends always want to go out with you. When I told them, ‘I’m taking you to Dava,’ they were like, ‘Oh. Do we have to go to that one?’ Nothing about this place looked wonderful. Then the first dish brought out was brilliant. They brought out the next dish, and it was brilliant. Not copycat dishes, imitations of somebody else’s, but really well-thought-out, well-executed, exciting food. There were flavors I had to struggle to identify – it was thrilling.”

“We went from 30 covers a night to 150,” recalls Calvert. “We were jamming. A few weeks later, Rocco was in a meeting all day. I could tell he was upset. At around 5:30 p.m., he called on the intercom. I was at the order station with dupes in my hand for the six tables that were already there. He said, ‘Bryan, come downstairs.’ I said, ‘I’m in the middle of service.’ And he said, ‘I know, come down.’ When I got there, he said, ‘Can you do me a favor and get all my knives? I don’t work here anymore.’ I’m thinking, if he’s leaving, I’m leaving. So I collect his knives and mine. There are fifteen tables now, the dupes are just lying there. The cooks are asking what’s going on. We went downstairs and walked out. Apparently, Daniel Boulud came in that night.”

In the end, Dava lasted only six months. Dava’s owner, Joseph Lucin, refused to comment, but word on the street was that DiSpirito was fired for blowing the modest budget on dazzling ingredients to make his name. It is a notion DiSpirito disputes, but it is not an unheard-of strategy. “I always find it unfair, and it’s very self-serving, that chefs know they have to perform and they become selfishly involved in that fact,” says Philip Suarez, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s financial backer and partner. “They say, ‘I don’t care what the food costs are, what the labor costs are, I’m going to get me three or four stars!’ ” Still, talent is talent, and despite his thoughts on the matter, even Suarez has talked to DiSpirito about working together. “Everybody is always talking to everybody,” says Rocco, who sees Dava’s demise a little differently. “Lucin thought the kind of restaurant we were running did not have the accessibility he was looking for,” he says with admirable spin. “He started out deep in debt. It’s impossible to recover. I didn’t know that then. Now I do.”

In a car heading down Lexington Avenue, DiSpirito interrupts a conversation when the façade catches his eye. “This is Dava, by the way,” he says, pointing to a pink stucco restaurant now called Belluno. “I still get a little queasy in my stomach.”

DiSpirito was determined to return to the game with a big budget, and fast. “I talked to everyone in the restaurant business. No one was spared,” he says. “Drew Nieporent, David Emil from Windows on the World, Steve Hanson, Sirio Maccioni, Danny Meyer – I went through the whole list.”

“Rocco believed that chefs have to be recognized when they’re young,” says real-estate investor David Avital, his longtime friend and financial adviser. “And he thought he had to do something with a million-dollar investment. I told him, ‘You’re crazy! Just make a living. Start small with $60,000, $70,000, and work your way up. Why do you need millions of dollars to start a restaurant?’ Did you know he has one of the most expensive ovens in New York?”

In fact, DiSpirito’s well-funded reign at Union Pacific almost never happened. Another chef, Ming Tsai, now host of East Meets West on the Food Network, had all but landed the job. Then Steve Scher (Rain, Calle Ocho), one of Union Pacific’s four partners, who once had a memorable Dava meal, ran into DiSpirito at a party. “When I saw him, a big lightbulb went off,” says Scher. He invited DiSpirito in for an audition. “The food that he did was in another league,” muses Scher. “One dish I still remember, it was a version of the Taylor Bay scallops he does now, with tomato water and uni, but he used freshwater shrimp or crawfish that he had fried somehow to crisp them up. We quickly changed course.”

“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.”

The Food Networker