It http://query.nytimes.com/search/sitesearch/?action=click&contentCollection®ion=TopBar&WT.nav=searchWidget&module=SearchSubmit&pgtype=Homepage#/naked cam took Rocco DiSpirito 15 years to go from “The Restaurant” reality-TV fiasco to a real restaurant. The 10-year-old but new-seeming Standard Grill, which he quietly took over as head chef last fall, is serving the Meatpacking District’s best American dishes.
Here are spectacularly realized takes on delicately poached black sea bass; sliced beef short rib on the bone that are lusciously near-liquid after 72-hour sous vide cooking and smoked over applewood; killer 60-day-dry-aged, grass-fed steaks; and organic veggies from “trusted farmers” that are as “lovingly cooked” as the menu claims.
Many are grilled at high temperatures over expensive, Japanese white-oak charcoal known as Binchotan, which “is basically smokeless and odorless and imparts tremendous flavor,” DiSpirito says. Small dishes such as wild shrimp wrapped in sea lettuce are cooked inside a little ceramic box known as a konro that’s brought to the table.
But there’s mystery behind the magic. What drew DiSpirito back from the celebrity-chef wilderness into an actual restaurant kitchen? Were TV offers drying up? Or, as he says, was it the irresistible call of a kitchen whose owners were attuned to his own passion for a healthier, environmentally conscious grill menu?
DiSpirito, now 52, launched the marvelous, French-influenced fine-dining temple Union Pacific in 1997. His original dishes, such as scallops topped with sea urchin, tomato, mustard oil and black mustard, earned three-star reviews in The Post and the Times. One magazine proclaimed him the best new chef in America; another, the sexiest. A 2003 cookbook, “Flavor,” won a James Beard Award.
Then — when he could have gone to any kitchen in the US — he veered off-course, into new-at-the-time reality TV. “The Restaurant” was a 2003-04 NBC series that followed the travails of opening and daily chaos at Rocco’s on 22nd Street, a mediocre red-sauce eatery he launched in partnership with China Grill and Asia de Cuba creator Jeffrey Chodorow.
The show drew decent ratings, but it hardly burnished DiSpirito’s culinary reputation. It was full of shouting matches between him and Chodorow, zany customer interactions and DiSpirito yelling, “Clams! Clams!” in the kitchen, which was run by his then-76-year-old, meatball-making mother, Nicolina.
DiSpirito and Chodorow bickered over everything even before Rocco’s opened. Things later turned poisonous over control: Chodorow sued to oust DiSpirito, who countersued and blamed Chodorow for ruining the place by, among other things, replacing fresh pasta with frozen.
A judge sided with Chodorow and, in the ultimate humiliation, banned Rocco from entering the restaurant that bore his name — even though his mother remained in the kitchen.
The show was canceled, and so was the restaurant. Thus DiSpirito went from a kitchen prince to a putz in the eyes of many New York food lovers. He was also ousted from his role at Union Pacific and socked with Anthony Bourdain’s Golden Clog award for “the worst career move by a chef.”
DiSpirito went on to a moderately lucrative TV career. (His net worth’s estimated to be anywhere from $4 million to $9 million by various Web sites that might or might not be accurate.)
Between writing 13 well-regarded books, he popped up on TV more often than “Law & Order” reruns — as a judge on “Top Chef” and other shows and as an adviser to struggling eatery owners on “Restaurant Divided.” He pitched luxury cars on network TV and hawked his line of “superfood” products on QVC. He was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” and Guy Fieri’s “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
In contrast to his ebullient on-screen persona, DiSpirito sounds cautious discussing what drew him to the Standard — and what drove him to put most of his TV work on hiatus. Maybe he feared an ambush after the media drubbing he took over “The Restaurant,” including a zero-star review (of the actual restaurant, not the TV show) blurbed on the front page in The Post.
After the limping Standard Hotel was sold in 2017, the new owner, Hong Kong-based investor Goodwin Gaw, saw the need to beef up its restaurants and bars. DiSpirito tells The Post that Gaw and his partner Stephen Brandman came to him “about a year ago,” with “the intention of elevating” their offerings.
Did he view it as a way to re-establish his kitchen credentials for which he was revered at Union Pacific?
“I’m not intentionally trying to reclaim anything,” says the chef. “My strong desire to combine what I write about in my cookbooks with restaurants is the driver here. It’s my way of contributing something new and important to the world of fine dining.”
DiSpirito liked that Gaw and Brandman were looking to preserve the restaurant’s “grill identity,” but take a “modern approach” with the food, by including organic, grass-fed beef and a number of plant-based, health-aware dishes.
“A plant-forward, organic and sustainable, gluten-free approach, using as little dairy as possible, to a classic grill menu was just too irresistible an opportunity to pass up,” says DiSpirito, who was brought on 10 months ago to upgrade all of the hotel’s food venues. He took up the reins as the Grill’s head chef in October.
The challenge might have taken him by surprise. “I didn’t realize how big a project it was,” says DiSpirito. “The Standard Grill is the flagship restaurant in the Standard [chain’s] flagship hotel. It’s also the venue with the highest revenue. It was important to get this right.” That’s why he’s in the kitchen — every night. “There was no way to accomplish our goals without me cooking on the line. And I do love to cook risotto!”
The chef and the owners made design changes, too, to set the Grill apart from its past: Curtains now cover windows to create what DiSpirito calls a sense of “calm and intimacy.” As at many places, fixtures light the ceiling more than they light the food or the face next to you. “We’re working on it,” DiSpirito says, chuckling.
It’s harder to simply draw the curtains over DiSpirito’s past — but he seems OK with that. He doesn’t regard “The Restaurant” as the disaster that others did: “Of course it was a learning experience, and I’d rather do it differently. But you try things. Some turn out to be good ideas, some not. You grow up and move on,” he says.
Plus, he’s glad: “I was very happy how ‘The Restaurant’ was a vehicle for my mom. She was reborn at 76,” says DiSpirito. (Nicolina, who was the restaurant’s chef, died in 2013 at age 87.)
He credits her with “showing me that it was possible to imbue food with love. That was the secret to her cooking. I’d like to think she’d be very happy to see me cooking today and would probably offer to come help.”