As in any important relationship, my feelings about chef Rocco DiSpirito are varied and complex. My introduction to Rocco came in 2003 with the premiere of his Bravo reality show “The Restaurant.” Rocco was a rising and critically acclaimed young turk of the New York restaurant scene, beyond hot, and very charismatic, but it soon became clear that the show was not really about cooking or food; it was a superficial, dramatically heightened series of episodes that served mainly as vehicles for advertisements for the same American Express “Open,” Mitsubishi and Coors. It was astonishing that, directly following a block of commercials for these goods and services, our hero Rocco would pull up in front of the restaurant in his Mitsubishi, driving carefully around a truck unloading cases of Coors, and go into his office to call Amex to ask if his “Open” line of credit could be extended. Simply astonishing.
But I digress. The show soon devolved into a sort of Restaurant-based combination of “The Hills” and “The Apprentice” punctuated by product placements and far too many segments about Rocco’s mama making meatballs, and I bailed long before Rocco lost control of “The Restaurant” in a legal dispute with his backer, and went into a period where he was mostly famous as the butt of biting commentary from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. Although he has not had a straight trajectory back to credibility (Buitoni ads and “Dancing with the Stars” come to mind) he has continued to run restaurants, write cook books, and appear persuasive and interesting during turns as a guest judge on “Top Chef.”
So I was willing to give him another chance yesterday when, while pretending to clean out my office, I discovered a copy of his 2003 book Flavor, lent to me by my friend Alice last summer. She said it wasn’t a great cook book, and that she only used a couple of the recipes, but she also said that it was beautifully photographed and that I would like it, visually. Looking at the book, which is stunning to look at, I began to feel something nagging at the back of my mind. Good looking, tempting, cooking-related…overrated and disappointing? I was intrigued by the focus on flavor profiles (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) and on need to feature and balance them in every recipe. The recipes looked heavy on the seafood for my family, but there were several intriguing choices. If I tried the recipes would I be channelling Good Rocco or Bad Rocco? Beauty sans substance or beauty as a bonus feature on top of great instincts for the kitchen?
I am giving Rocco another chance. This week, with the exception of Thanksgiving (about which, more later) day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers, and a recipe that called to me from yesterday’s newspaper, I’m cooking from Flavor. Then I have to give the book back. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Aromatic Cauliflower Soup (Rocco’s), Homemade Bread (Mine), Salad
Quick Miso Chicken (Rocco’s), Soubise (Rocco’s), Cous Cous
Bucatini with Summer Vegetables and Tomato Anise Broth (Rocco’s, duh), Homemade Bread (Mine), Salad
I am fully aware that it’s no longer “summer,” but the vegetables involved are fennel and basil, both of which are available year-round thanks to the magic of modern supermarkets.
Salad with Leftover Miso Chicken, Avocado, Red Onion and Grapes (Mine), Homemade Bread (Mine)
This might manifest itself as a mayonnaise-bound salad or as ingredients tossed with greens and dressing.
Caribbean Pork Stew with Plaintains, Rice
This is the recipe from the paper, which ran a large feature on braising, with which I am currently obsessed.
As I said, more later.
Turkey Tetrazzini and Other Elegantly Presented Leftovers