Rocco Wants a Second Helping of 'The Restaurant'
(Wednesday, August 20 10:07 AM)
By Kate O'Hare
LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) - After sitting through four episodes of high drama and hot tempers on the NBC reality series "The Restaurant," airing Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, chef Rocco DiSpirito found himself in the middle of a real drama of a different kind, when the lights went out in New York and several other cities on Thursday, Aug. 14.
Thinking of his elderly mother, Nicolina, DiSpirito headed to Rocco's on 22nd Street, the Manhattan Italian eatery he runs (and where Mama oversees the cuisine), which has been the subject of "The Restaurant" since its premiere on July 20 (the last of the six episodes airs Sunday, Aug. 24).
"She's there having a party with her brother," DiSpirito recalls, "her two sisters-in-law, who got stranded, and two strangers who came in from San Diego and did everything they could to make an eight o'clock reservation. They literally walked over the Williamsburg Bridge with their luggage to the restaurant. And there were some neighbors from her building and some people off the street.
"There were like 25 people. The table was covered with hundreds of votives -- beautiful. There was wine; there was food. Amazing. I walked into that. That's how I dealt with it. I smoked a few cigars. I talked to a few people on the street, that was it. Then we lost a few thousand dollars worth of food and business.
"New Yorkers don't even get dented. There's no bouncing back from anything. We're just tough as nails."
If the blackout hasn't quashed DiSpirito's enthusiasm, neither has the string of large disasters and small triumphs that has characterized "The Restaurant" so far, from a fire on opening night to the near mutiny of the staff.
Rushed into existence in seven weeks (as opposed to the more usual six months), Rocco's has frequently boiled over in the pressure cooker of reality television. As often as not, DiSpirito has borne the brunt of the criticism for everything from his management style to whether the food arrives hot at the table (or, sometimes, even arrives at all).
"I learned that it's harder than ever, being a chef today," he says. "If I had gotten a degree in psychology and also had a multiple-personality disorder, I couldn't be more prepared.
"You need to be so many kinds of different people. You need to be incredibly quick and responsive. You need to be everything from a charmer and a hustler, to the tough general who dishes out tough love, to the really astute businessman, to the soulful creative artist.
"I guess the other thing I've learned is, you really have to think about what you're going to say next. It's almost impulsive -- when a customer talks to you, you have a way of speaking; when a cook talks to you, you have another way of speaking; when a waiter talks to you ... I learned that it's important to exercise a tiny bit of impulse control and just give it a thought before you let the words flow out.
"You need to be appropriate with everyone. For some people, it's tough love; for some people, it's brutality; for some people, it's grace and charm."
DiSpirito isn't a novice. For six years, he has run the Union Pacific Restaurant, which is blocks away from Rocco's on East 22nd Street in lower Manhattan.
While DiSpirito says that this Contemporary-American, fine-dining establishment is harder to run than Rocco's, he did have 18 months to build it and eight weeks to train the staff.
"Another thing I've definitely learned," he says of the Rocco's experience, "is to never be that ambitious and fearless again. Seven weeks. I really needed six months, and I just should have taken the six months."
There are also no cameras at Union Pacific. "I have to be honest with you and say, I don't know if what I saw from the [Rocco's] staff was true, from reality. I know for a fact that much of their behavior was affected by the cameras. You can see it. It's kind of bad overacting.
"I have a staff at Union Pacific that absolutely adore and respect me. I also have people who work for my management company that would lay down their lives for me, honestly. They are so loyal and devoted, even ['The Restaurant' executive producer] Mark Burnett couldn't corrupt them, when he tried to, to make them a character in the show -- and you know how charming he can be."
And then there were the diners at Rocco's. "We had a dining room at times with 12 cameramen in there," DiSpirito recalls, "and people still did things that you just can't believe they did on television. There definitely were histrionics galore in the dining room."
DiSpirito also got a crash course in reality television. "It was an epiphany for me," he says. "I learned a hell of a lot."
Even with all he's been through, DiSpirito says he's good to go again. "I would definitely consider it. I'm better prepared for it. The same team getting together to do the same job would really produce something extraordinary.
"Sure we had conflicts. There were times we all wanted to kill each other, but at the core, there's a tremendous amount of mutual respect and admiration."