He was a star at Union Pacific; then fell out of sight for 15 years. Then he was back—and gone again.

By Kat Kinsman
October 25, 2019
Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

Rocco DiSpirito broke up my relationship. To be fair, it was on the rocks already, but that lunch at Union Pacific in the summer of 2004 opened the cracks even wider. I spent the subway ride home rhapsodizing about chicken salad with daikon and Champagne vinaigrette and sautéed skate with lime pickle, Swiss chard, and brown butter to the increasing annoyance of the man I was dating. He fancied himself a lover of food, had worked in a restaurant kitchen for a time, and seemed content at the table, but apparently he'd had all he could swallow from me. "Why does everything have to be 'the best' with you? You always have to look for the most amaaaazing dish ever. Can't you just settle for a meal or anything else that's just fine?"

Apparently, none of us could. My boyfriend and I ended things a few weeks later, as the then-37-year-old DiSpirito was very publicly getting the boot from his namesake restaurant on 22nd Street (made infamous as The Restaurant in the early days of reality TV) and abdicating his post as executive chef of Union Pacific—which he'd held since the restaurant opened in 1997. That was where he'd once earned three stars from Ruth Reichl (as well as the respect and envy of his fellow chefs), and been named a 1999 Food & Wine Best New Chef. According to the New York Times, DiSpirito released a statement saying in part, "I have made a decision to take a break from the day-to-day operations of a restaurant to focus on other opportunities outside the restaurant world."

Those "opportunities" swiftly eroded his once-solid standing in the food world. Both his peers and his former customers could not reconcile the image of their pretty, naughty wunderkind as a pitchman for mass-market pasta and pet food, hawking pots on QVC, or hustling in sequins on Dancing with the Stars. Unearth any tabloid, food publication, or gossip site from the late ’90s to the early ’00s, and the ire is evident. Even though gossip items—and there were mountains of them—tipped heavily toward breathless coverage of his dating life (one particularly prying reporter grilled him on if he'd ever had sex in his restaurants' kitchens), he had the benediction of his peers so long as he was still cemented in a restaurant kitchen. When he left, they unleashed their fury, painting him as a fame chaser, a megalomaniac, a wasted talent. Anthony Bourdain famously created a Golden Clog Award, called the Rocco Award, for worst career move by a talented chef. (DiSpirito gamely showed up in person to present it.)

For the past 15 years, an image of him had been fixed in my head, swaggering across Page Six, babe du jour in tow, or smirking from the cover of a early-aughts food mag inexplicably cradling a 60-pound tilefish, or being named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive, but never in a restaurant kitchen.

And then out of nowhere, he was back, talking through the evening's specials at The Standard Grill in New York City where, improbably and joyfully, he was once again an executive chef after a nearly decade and a half absence. Until, suddenly, he wasn’t again. This week, the news broke that Rocco and The Standard have parted ways, and once again, he's a chef without a restaurant kitchen. 

But this time, he hasn't disappeared. This time, when his fans ask, “Where'd you go, Rocco DiSpirito?” there is an answer. It begins with where he went the last time he stepped away from restaurants, 15 years ago.

Courtesy of the Standard Grill

The glitz and swagger that made DiSpirito a media and dining room darling did not come naturally, I learned one morning while he and I hunkered in a banquette at The Standard Grill a few months ago. As his team prepped for service—he’d join them on the line later, alongside his former Union Pacific colleague Daniel Parilla (known more commonly by a single name: Chino)—the now-52-year-old chef quietly laughed when I marveled at the seeming ease he'd displayed with diners both back in the day, and maybe a bit more cautiously now. Starting in second grade, he'd been pulled out of class to work with a therapist, and by the time he opened Union Pacific, his social anxiety was so paralyzing that he worked with an acting coach for several months to script and rehearse interactions with his guests.

"You would think going out and saying 'Hello, how was your food? I'm Rocco' would be so easy, but not for freaks like me,” he said. “I was always insecure, paranoid, and terrified that everyone hated everything. I am basically mostly still that guy, 20 years of therapy later." 

While the nightly floor show didn't come naturally then or now, it did become routine for DiSpirito and increasing numbers of his peers. No matter the beauty of the dining room or sublimity of the food, it was a knife fight to get customers through the door in the late ’90s. He and his partners knew that—and it didn't hurt that he was easy on the eyes. So even if it was tough on his psyche, he stepped out of the kitchen and onto the stage. 

There was a tension—one he's trying to reconcile to this day. "How do you balance being the thing and promoting the thing that you are trying to be? You have to market more than master. In our industry, that tension is the source of many, many problems and Xanax prescriptions." 

Still, he made a fragile peace with that part of it, even convinced himself that he was having fun with it for a while, maybe got lost in it. And then that was all he had. With the closure of his restaurants (he actually made money from the sale of Union Pacific, a rare thing in the industry) and the end of his TV show in 2004, DiSpirito no longer had the safe backstage of a kitchen to retreat to when the spotlight started to burn.

He couldn't quite remember when it all began to break down. There was a kick-in-the-gut "you're going to die young" talk from his doctor that spurred him to train for triathlons, overhaul the way he was eating and cooking, and get into the best shape of his life. Then his mother, Nicolina, who shared the screen with him on The Restaurant, suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 2005.

"I watched her die in the emergency room, and they asked me to sign a proxy. My mom goes from making 3,000 meatballs a day to incapacitated in a rehab center, needing 24-hour care." DiSpirito slowly realized that the caregiver was going to have to be him. Not solely—there were home health care workers. But as anyone who's had a loved one slip into a long-term decline knows painfully well, the logistics, finances, physicality, and unrelenting worry can threaten to drown you alongside them—no matter how fiercely you love them or what resources you have. Family can be complicated at the best of times, but add illness, grief, and finances into the cauldron, and it can roil into a toxic brew. Sprinkle some celebrity into the mix, and suddenly everyone gets to have an opinion. DiSpirito's was this: Keep moving. He relocated Nicolina from above the restaurant to a home next door to his so he could easily visit, take her to appointments, make sure the home health aides were present, and hold on to his other sources of income. 

"I wasn't able to even think about a restaurant anymore … that was not even remotely possible," DiSpirito told me. "That's probably where the reputation of me as a person who loves the limelight versus the kitchen got solidified." And yes, despite his better judgment, he read the press, and yes, of course it hurt, and deeply, especially because he still very much thought of himself as a chef. "That's what I am. I'll never be anything but. I felt that the research I was doing with the books and eventually developing this home delivery service, I thought it was still cooking all the time. But I guess if it's not in a restaurant, it doesn't count."

DiSpirito wrote cookbooks, headlined food festivals, developed food products, did consulting work, hosted a now-notorious book signing at an event for a cat food brand ("I didn't put all my heart and soul into it because it wasn't required. I just took the money, right? I've done two of those things and 8,000 of the other things," he sighed), went on Dancing with the Stars—his mother's favorite program—and did plenty of other TV. He kept up his Ironman training until he couldn't. 

"I thought, ‘This is the absolute best thing I could be doing with my life. She deserves to have a dignified and comfortable end of life. We were so close and she's done so much for me, that this is absolutely the right thing to do.’ I didn't really think about what the costs were, what the trade-offs were." Her final days in 2013 were “inhumane,” Dispirito said. “You have to go through this rigmarole, this sort of fake process of taking painkillers and then upping it to morphine. We're more humane with pets than we are with human beings." 

He made sure that his mother's final hours played out as she'd requested, with family all around and Perry Como crooning in the background—a dignified end to nearly a decade of pain for Nicolina, and the start of some very public familial legal struggles for DiSpirito. Read about them if you care to; it's not hard to find. 

What you won't see in those newspaper and magazine archives are images of Rocco DiSpirito in a wheelchair, immobile in his home, or in physical therapy while he learned to walk again. In the course of his mother's illness, as often happens to caretakers, DiSpirito neglected his own needs. He'd suffered from back issues his whole life—surely exacerbated by the physical toll all chefs accept as part of the job—and couldn't find time for his own doctor's appointments. Two years after Nicolina's death, his bill came due. 

"I was especially fond of the chiropractor I was referred to because when I first met him, he said, 'I'm going to make sure you never need surgery.' And unfortunately I did need surgery because I didn't listen to him." The emergency diskectomy—a kind of spinal surgery—for his acute sciatica was something DiSpirito had dreaded for his entire adult life, and it left him as an invalid for a time. 

Weeks of being unable to move at all, were compounded by an inability to ask for help, he admitted. "I'm not great at it. I crave it immensely. I want people to recognize that I need help and reach out and do things, but it's impossible to ask for. But when someone does it genuinely, thoughtfully, and kindly, with all their heart, it's a wonderful feeling. And then I can accept it."

He was barely able to get in and out of a wheelchair, but that’s not how he wanted the public or his peers to regard him. So like he had so many times before, he put on a grand show for the public while his mind and body cried out for respite.   

In typical Rocco DiSpirito fashion, he agreed to participate in an event in Florida while still unable to walk. A fellow chef pushed him around in a wheelchair, and his fans, not knowing the severity of the situation, found the whole thing hilarious—delighted that he'd shown up, unaware of what it cost him to be there. He looked back on it while we talked, shaking his head: "A normal person would just say, 'I have to cancel. Sorry.' That didn't even occur to me.'" He'd made a commitment, and he was sticking with it, no matter how painful it was. To his mind, that's what chefs do. And that's who and what he is to his core. He had to get back in the kitchen. 

DiSpirito promised himself that this time, it was going to be on his own terms, serving the kind of health-focused food that had pulled him back from the brink and that he'd been writing about in books like Rocco's Healthy & Delicious: More Than 200 (Mostly) Plant-Based Recipes for Everyday Life and Cook Your Butt Off!: Lose Up to a Pound a Day with Fat-Burning Foods and Gluten-Free Recipes. "All the things I write about in my books, I have been just hungry to show people—that you can eat an indulgent meal and still eat a healthy meal," DiSpirito said. "I've been pitching it to restaurateurs and food companies and fast casual concepts. I started doing that in 2006, and of course back then, no one thought it made sense."  

Over a decade later, Stephen Brandman did. The Journal Hotels co-owner and CEO sought out DiSpirito, offering an opportunity to revamp The Standard, High Line’s flagship, celeb-magnet restaurant with a more plant-based menu—but once again, his presence in the dining room was going to be a key ingredient. He had to make his peace with that, even if it still makes him nervous to this day. "It was very clear after 24 hours, this would not be something you could phone in," DiSpirito realized. "I thought, ‘it's a hotel, there's a massive culinary team. They've got an executive chef and chef de cuisine and pastry chef; it's not going to be like a normal restaurant opening. I'm going to have all this support.’ It turns out it's just like a normal restaurant opening." He quietly stepped back to the stove at The Standard Grill in May 2018 and, before departing this week, spent most of his waking hours there.

Those long hours are a different proposition in your 50s than it is in your 20s or 30s, and DiSpirito knew that down to his often-aching bones. When he bent down to get the truffles out of the lowboy, getting up was hard again, and he was still dealing with the last vestiges of the drop foot. Restaurant work is physically and emotionally taxing, and many nights he just wanted  to get home and sink onto the couch with his dogs, Captain and Lenny. But he was still strong, he said, and full of the passion that had always driven him.

It comes through in the food, I told him. The scallop and uni in mustard oil and tomato water sent me rocketing back to that lunch at Union Pacific a decade and a half before, and then a cleverly sharp beet tartare snapped me back to the present. I genuinely teared up at an ingenious dairy-free creamed Swiss chard—a dish I'd assumed would be off the menu for me forever, due to my deeply annoying gut-based dietary restrictions. I ate with abandon because I knew DiSpirito had done everything he could to make sure it was as safe as it was sensually glorious, and I settled in against my husband's shoulder in the cab on the way home, thoroughly contented. He'd never gotten to eat at Union Pacific, and I was giddy that I'd gotten to share Rocco's food with him. "Wasn't that just the best?" I asked him, and he wholeheartedly agreed.

When DiSpirito parted ways with The Standard Grill this week, just a few months after that transcendent meal (which I found out via a news story minutes before the plane I was on took off), this time I knew he hadn't disappeared. Because this time, when I landed, there was a text from him apologizing for not telling me sooner, saying he hoped we could talk.  

Contracts exist for various reasons, including making paths by which both parties may exit gracefully. But DiSpirito isn't walking away from the industry. Not this time. The past year behind a restaurant stove reignited something inside him, and he knows more than ever that he cannot live without it. 

He's tired, having worked 179 days out of the past 180, and he may need a moment to figure out where he's going next—but there is definitely a next. I know it will be worth the wait.  

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