At heart, Rocco DiSpirito—celebrity chef and purveyor of perky plies on "Dancing with the Stars"—is still a Jamaica, Queens kid. Or so he admits if you ask him. Lately, though, following his unsuccessful shot at capturing the mirror-ball trophy on "Stars," he's been focusing on "Rocco Gets Real," his recipe-and-reality show on A&E, and a new cookbook of the same name. (He'll sign copies Dec. 10, 7 p.m., at Borders at Columbus Circle.)
Dissing the L.A. smog from his hotel room, DiSpirito remains a spicy brine—a man who says fusion cuisine needs a prefix and admits to a granny crush on Cloris Leachman. Come on, man, not so close to dinner!
I have this image of you walking by that cursed site where Rocco's on 22nd Street was.
It's so funny—for eight years I spent most of my life on that block and now there's little reason for me to be there.
But do you ever reflect on "The Restaurant" or what, if anything, you'd do differently?
That's also funny. I think if you say, "We have a great location, but the space isn't great, but we'll make it work," it just doesn't work out like that. You have to stack the deck in your favor—you need that great space, that great chef, that great food, those great service people—all of it. Sure, of course, I'd do things differently. But that experience was important for how TV covers food. And obviously it was a huge learning experience for me in that it set my direction—focusing on the everyday home cook.
Hence, "Rocco Gets Real." What's the story?
At book signings I'll ask, "How many of you watch ‘Top Chef,' read cookbooks or go to great restaurants?" and lots of people raise their hands. And then I'll ask, "How many of you cook for people regularly?" and only a few people raise their hands. So it's sort of like there is a whole generation of foodie voyeurs out there.
I want to convert them into participants because I feel the gesture of feeding someone is truly magical. We connect through food—there's an intimacy to eating with someone, and there's also more to cooking than preparing onions, wine and herbs. So we created a hybrid reality cooking show where we teach people how to cook but also watch people learn the process. We learn the reason why they're cooking, who they're cooking for and what it means for them to cook this particular meal. I think we show the nuts-and-bolts side but also the how-it-changes-your-life side.
Has your cooking style changed?
My style has always been about big, giant flavors in interesting combinations, and about using your palate to mix flavor in the same way that a painter would use your eyes to mix color. Pad Thai has 17 or 18 ingredients, for example, but there's synergy to them. I think the ingredients I use today are still the same, but what's new is the ingredients that were part of the fusion era are now part of the basic pantry.
And can you settle a bet—"fusion" is passé, right?
Some people still practice fusion brilliantly, like Roy Yamaguchi. But I think this is sort of the post-fusion era.
Ever met a better meatball than your mom's? And would you admit it if you have?
No I haven't, and yes I would admit it—in print, actually—because Mom doesn't read, so she'd never know. I think her meatballs are truly genius, though, because she purées the garlic, onion and parsley in chicken stock and then she adds it to the meat and doesn't overmix it.
Give me three simple rules any home cook can learn.
Taste your food a lot—the difference between a good and a great chef is how often you taste your food. Don't be afraid to cheat—the kitchen is literally the only room in the house where you can get away with it. And don't panic. You can't have a good time otherwise.
You never panic?
Have you seen me dance?
Nice cue for my "Dancing" question. Did you want to hook up with Cloris Leachman?
I kind of did! I have a granny crush on her. And by the way, I cooked for the cast and crew, and I couldn't make meatballs as good as my mom's.
You're still famously single, I'm told.
I'm not married.
Care to describe your ideal mate?
What I look for in a woman sounds cliché. Smart is important, sexy is important, but smart seems to need to come first for sexy to work. And I also think it's important that a woman doesn't cook. I want to hold onto the one thing that makes me special.