2000s Archive

Like a Roc

Originally Published October 2000
He’s been smacked with celery and threatened with a knife. But Rocco DiSpirito took the heat and is now the leading chef of his generation.

In the fall of 1986, Rocco DiSpirito arrived in the lobby of Paris’s intimidating Prince de Galles hotel with several suitcases of clothes, some 30 cookbooks, and his knives. He was 19 years old and on the brink of realizing a dream: a year as an apprentice in a classical French kitchen. He expected to go straight to work. Instead, he was told to wait.

Exhausted after the all-night flight, DiSpirito sat in the lobby for four hours before the hotel’s chef, Dominique Cecillon, appeared. Cecillon asked to see his work visa; DiSpirito could produce only his passport. The chef shook his head. He couldn’t hire an American without a visa. DiSpirito, who spoke no French, tried to convey that the chef at the New York Marriott Marquis had arranged for him to do a year’s stage at the Prince de Galles and to stay there until he could find accommodation elsewhere. Everything had been confirmed months ago! He’d given up a culinary fellowship and an opportunity to help open a new restaurant, Lafayette, under Jean-Georges Vongerichten to be here. Again Cecillon shook his head. Also, there were no rooms at the hotel ... sorry.

Then Cecillon looked at the youth from Jamaica, Queens, and softened a bit (“I think he saw tears,” DiSpirito says). The American could stay with the chef’s family that night—but could take with him only what he could carry on a motorbike. He soon found himself on a tour of what he recalls as the most beautiful city on earth.

“That was the moment I realized this was going to be an unbelievable year,” he says. And it was. He finagled a temporary student visa and found a job as a cook at a restaurant called Marshall’s, working seven days and about 120 hours a week. He slept in the locker area in Marshall’s basement. He slept in the métro. He slept in an artist squat so cold that he had to take a bucket of hot water to the outdoor toilet to prevent it from freezing. In his spare time, he worked (without pay) for Cecillon, who had begun to treat him like an adopted son.

Fourteen years later, DiSpirito is the chef at Union Pacific in Manhattan and widely considered one of the country’s most exciting chefs. This doesn’t happen by accident: The work is too hard and for most cooks—those legions who barely see the light of day, let alone the lights of a Food Network studio—vastly unrewarding, except for a sense of personal satisfaction. To be ranked, then, as he has been, with the likes of Boulud, Vongerichten, Ripert, and Müller, as well as higher than the great American-born chefs like Bouley, Palmer, and the others—all of them a decade or more his senior—is, at the very least, peculiar enough to make anyone ask: How did this happen?

The raves began when DiSpirito was still in his twenties and working in the toughest, most competitive restaurant city in the world. This early acclaim turned out to be something of a mixed blessing: His ambition and the intensity of his demand for perfection sometimes exceed his experience. The waiting time between courses at Union Pacific can exceed 40 minutes. Untested dishes intended to wow a VIP diner can sometimes land with a thud on the palate. His extraordinary attempt to serve a degustation menu of 21 little dishes proved too difficult for the restaurant to accomplish and had to be taken off the menu (it is now served only on request).

But when he is good, DiSpirito rates at the top of his profession. His plates arrive at the table with a simplicity of presentation and a complexity of flavors and ingredients that belie his age. He offsets classical European techniques and preparations with unconventional, vivid flavors: scallops with mustard oil, veal chop with green paprika, lobster with coriander, skate with lime-pickled chard. And he does so with finesse: These combinations seem refreshing and exciting rather than strange. DiSpirito has embraced slow-cooking with a vengeance—poaching fish and meats in goose fat at very low temperatures, baking salmon in a salt crust at 275 degrees for 20 minutes, and cooking sous-vide (vacuum-sealed) halibut and chicken in the 160-degree water from the kitchen tap to ensure uniform doneness and no loss of natural juices. It’s the kind of cooking that has lured Manhattan’s most respected chefs.

The way a chef runs his kitchen—his level of discipline, cleanliness, technique, and intensity—is a projection of early lessons. At the age of 15, DiSpirito went to work for Bernhard Breiter, chef at the New Hyde Park Inn on Long Island. Breiter had served a classical European apprenticeship, and he passed on the value of this training to the young DiSpirito.

“Old European standards. Everything from scratch,” DiSpirito remembers. “You did prime rib, you got the whole rib in. Whole rib of beef. You cut your short ribs off, and we did short ribs. We got whole venison there. We skinned ’em and broke ’em down into primal cuts. Now no one sees that stuff. Now I get my short ribs to my spec, cut four inches tall.” Along with basic techniques, he learned from Breiter the underlying ethos of a classically run kitchen. He saw the importance of high values and of passing on those values to others. “He made me understand that nothing should be taken for granted. That you have to earn every step. Kitchen etiquette and efficiency. I resented it. I hated it.”

Recalling the days when he would be smacked in the face with a bunch of celery for mouthing off, or threatened with a knife, he continues, “They were yelling at me all the time. There were times when I wanted to kill Bernhard.” And yet DiSpirito stayed. He stayed because he sensed an ultimate benevolence both in Breiter and in the work of cooking and serving food. “They were investing in me. Today you don’t find a lot of people willing to really pummel cooks until they learn. And you don’t find a lot of cooks who will tolerate that either.”

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