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Celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito trying for a comeback


Rocco DiSpirito presents a cautionary tale for all those would-be celebrity chefs.

Sometimes fame plays hard. And it won't hesitate to take you down, no matter how serious your kitchen cred. So it was with DiSpirito, who in a flash went from culinary superstar to reality TV burnout.

But DiSpirito's story is unfinished. And the moral may yet be that tenacity and talent can triumph.

"I've learned a couple important things along the way," he said recently while cooking from his new book, "Rocco's Real Life Recipes." "No. 1, don't bite off more than you can chew. That's been a pretty big lesson for me."

These days DiSpirito is chewing far less. His restaurants and television show are gone. His new cookbook got a quiet rollout. And he's spending time with family and friends while doing charity work.

It's an unlikely formula for a relaunch, and it might just work.

For years, DiSpirito was amazingly surefooted. In 1997, he opened New York's Union Pacific restaurant to acclaim. Food Wine magazine named him "Best New Chef" in 1999. A year later, Gourmet magazine called him the nation's most exciting young chef.

In 2003, he agreed to star in an NBC reality show, "The Restaurant," which would chronicle the opening of a second eatery, Rocco's 22nd Street. A year later his cookbook, "Flavor," won a James Beard award.

Then things crumbled. The show and new restaurant started strong, but soon were shuttered, thanks partly to infighting between DiSpirito and his business partner. Meanwhile, DiSpirito left Union Pacific, and a new cookbook got panned.

"I thought our differences could be overcome. In some ways, they were more true to themselves than I was," DiSpirito said of his business partners from that era. "I should have been honest with myself."

A few years of wound licking later, a newly buff DiSpirito is inching his way back. He's made guest appearances on Bravo's "Top Chef" and NBC's "Today" show, has a new cookbook and is in talks for a new television show.

"If Rocco genuinely gets back to wanting to cook, then he will have a comeback ahead of him," said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food Wine magazine. "To me, that's where he shines. He is a great cook.

"But that requires focusing on a single project and putting his passion &

and he has a lot of passion &

into one project."

Informing DiSpirito's relaunch attempt is a new mission &

returning people to the kitchen. And he sounds practically evangelical talking about the triumvirate of food, family and friends.

He praises America's growing focus on artisanal and quality ingredients, but worries that it can border on obsession, which ultimately detracts from what he considers the real value of cooking and eating. "Which is being with people."

This isn't groundbreaking stuff, and DiSpirito acknowledges he is entering a crowded field. "There's definitely a lot of people out there trying to talk to the home cook," he said. "But there aren't a whole lot of professional chefs out there doing it."

He's using those skills &

learned when he was 16 at the Culinary Institute of America and honed in restaurants from Paris to Boston &

to show that everyday ingredients can produce at home the "lusty, big, powerful" flavors people expect from restaurant cooking. Which might make the new DiSpirito equal parts Rachael Ray and Gourmet magazine.

What remains to be seen is whether that's what people want. It's her everyman appeal that pushed Ray to the top. Americans associate culinary high rollers such as DiSpirito with fussiness and may not feel his tricks belong in their kitchens.

Perhaps anticipating this, DiSpirito opted for an intuitive approach for his new cookbook, one that simplifies shopping and meal planning and focuses on recipes that take 30 minutes or less to prepare.

He also favors prepared ingredients, often by brand name. This is where the realism slips a bit. Few of the shoppers DiSpirito is targeting are likely to hunt for his favored brand of marinara.

Recipes run from a broiled salmon with miso marmalade to a chicken risotto drawn from instant rice and rotisserie chicken.

If that last item seems unlikely for a chef of DiSpirito's caliber, that's his point. DiSpirito is a chef without a restaurant, leaving him to cook like the rest of us. And he's finding he likes it.

"I'm pretty pleased with what it's like to not have to worry about the day-to-day of running a restaurant," he said. "I get to cook more than ever and I get to do it for the reason that matters, to enjoy other people."