Rocco DiSpirito is an American chef born on November 19, 1966, in Queens, New York. Influenced by his Italian heritage and the traditional dishes his mother cooked, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America at age 16 and then at the Jardin de Cygne in France. He gained experience working at the popular New York restaurant Lespinasse in the 1990s before opening his own successful Manhattan restaurant, Union Pacific, in 1997. DiSpirito later broke into the TV industry with a show on the Food Network called The Melting Pot in 2000. His reality show The Restaurant showcased the opening of his New York restaurant, Rocco. The celebrity chef has published numerous cookbooks and remains active in radio and television.
Becoming a Chef
Chef, author, radio and television personality Rocco DiSpirito was born on November 19, 1966, in Queens, New York. A rising star in the 1990s New York City culinary scene, DiSpirito has expanded his reach beyond the kitchen to become a successful cookbook author and television personality. His career choice was strongly influenced by his mother Nicolina, a superb home cook.
As a child growing up in Jamaica, Queens, DiSpirito learned the recipes for many traditional Italian dishes from his mother. He furthered his cooking skills and expertise by entering the world-famous Culinary Institute of America at the age of 16. After completing his program in 1986, DiSpirito spent some time in France, studying at the Jardin de Cygne with Dominique Cecillon and Gray Kunz.
DiSpirito attended Boston University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 1990. Moving back to New York, he worked at Kunz’s four-star French restaurant Lespinasse—one of the city’s most popular spots during the 1990s—for a time. DiSpirito went on to open his own his restaurant Union Pacific in 1997.
Receiving stellar reviews for his innovative cuisine, DiSpirito seemed to take the New York food scene by storm. He was named “Best New Chef” by Food and Wine magazine in 1999. Around this time, DiSpirito launched his television career, appearing on the Food Network program, The Melting Pot, in 2000. He was also named “America’s Most Exciting Young Chef” by Gourmet magazine that same year.
In addition to his food, DiSpirito attracted a lot of attention for his good looks and was named “Sexiest Chef” by People magazine in 2002. He then became the star of his own reality series, The Restaurant, the following year. Working with Mark Burnett, the force behind the hugely successful Survivor series, DiSpirito allowed cameras to go behind the scenes as he prepared to open a new restaurant in New York City with business partner Jeffrey Chodorow. The eatery was to be called Rocco’s and its cuisine drew its inspiration from his mother and his Italian-American background.
Premiering in July 2003, The Restaurant developed quite a following, attracting more than nine million viewers at its peak. Audiences were fascinated by the challenges DiSpirito and his staff faced in getting the restaurant ready for business. And the drama did not stop once the eatery’s doors were open. Customers complained about slow service. Staff members bickered with each other. There was even a fire in the kitchen. Most people, however, loved DiSpirito’s mother who also worked at the restaurant, making her legendary meatballs.
While all was not well at Rocco’s, DiSpirito scored a great success with his first cookbook, Flavor, that same year. It earned positive reviews and received a James Beard Award in 2004. For his second cookbook, Rocco’s Italian-American (2004), DiSpirito worked with his mother to record the story of her family’s journey to the United States from Italy as well as share numerous recipes reflecting the family’s southern Italian heritage.
In 2004, The Restaurant returned for a second season. The show focused on the growing conflict between DiSpirito and his financial backer Chodorow. By this time, Rocco’s was losing money, and Chodorow began seeking ways to improve the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. Chodorow and DiSpirito could not come to terms on how to best handle the situation. In the final episode, the two were engaged in a standoff over the future of the restaurant. Rocco’s closed a few months after the show ended.
Off-screen, Chodorow and DiSpirito were involved in a legal battle over Rocco’s as well. The two sued and countersued each other’s companies over the terms of their contract for the restaurant in 2004. Eventually, the clash between the two subsided and the case was settled quietly in early 2005, according to the New York State Unified Court System Website.
While he may have left the restaurant business, DiSpirito has remained a popular celebrity chef. He hosted a radio program on a New York radio station from 2004 to 2005 and has written several more successful cookbooks, including his most recent effort, Rocco Gets Real (2008). This is also the title of DiSpirito’s new television venture on the A&E Television Network.
In Rocco Gets Real, DiSpirito helps individuals kick up their culinary game to create dishes for important real-life events, such as a celebratory meal, a family reunion or a Sunday dinner.
We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!