Sunday, May 1, 2011

Through the Cooking Glass

One thing was certain --- it was the chicken’s fault entirely.

To be more specific, it was the fried chicken’s fault – which is where this story begins --- a story of Fried Chicken, Phoenix, and Fraud. (See, I can be alliterative and rip off Lewis Carroll at the same time. If you don’t get it – go here.)

Let me explain: This week, work took me to Phoenix to make a client presentation. I flew JetBlue, since the trip was booked last minute and their rates were the most reasonable. This meant that – once I finished my work and answering email offline - I could spend the rest of my flight eating Animal Crackers and watching DirecTV. And it was in precisely this manner that I, too dumb for CNN and too smart for something Bravo calls “Pregnant in Heels” (“Future Housewives of New York City”? Seriously, Andy Cohen, does your obsession with rich white women know no boundaries?) would up tuning in to the Nate Berkus show.

Oy – OK – we need to pause here (I know, you’re getting whiplash from my tangents.) In case you need background – Nate Berkus was a local interior designer in Chicago who became famous after his partner was killed in the Indonesian Tsunami and he wound up decorating for Oprah. I’m not really clear on the order of events, and I’m too lazy and indifferent to look them up, but the gist is basically: Wave, Drowned, Contemporary Home Décor, Oprah, Famous…his own tv show. He’s got one of those rectangular-shaped heads that James Van Der Beek made popular during Dawson’s Creek, and a moderate amount of talent, but he’s basically just someone who became famous off of the tragic death of a spouse. Think Prince Charles, but gayer…or Jackie Kennedy. 

But gayer.

Anyway, from what I can tell, his show basically conforms to the same formula of daytime chit-chat – segments on lifestyle, health and fitness, home and garden, cooking; all integrated with a mix of minor celebrities and “average folks.” From Donahue and Oprah, to Ellen and Rachael Ray, to The Doctors and Nate – all these shows are pretty much the same, and really rise and fall on the talent of the host and the mix of subject matter and star wattage they pull together.

On that score, Nate is pretty much on the bottom (no jokes, please.) His show has been roundly panned and the ratings stink, so I wouldn’t have ordinarily watched it. But my channel surfing was abruptly halted by two things that would have caught my eye on their own and which, in combination, were irresistible: a hot guy and fried chicken.

The guy was Rocco DiSpirito, a once-lauded chef prodigy who, at a very young age, was receiving rave reviews for his work at a Manhattan restaurant called Union Pacific. After the plaudits came the articles, the cookbooks, the girls, (the gay rumors), the tabloid-star status, a failed restaurant, a failed reality show about a failed restaurant, weight gain, weight loss, and the slow, steady rise back to credibility with guest shots (Good Morning, Tampa!), better guest shots (Today), guest judging (Top Chef), more books, and a return to the tabloids. His reputation among his peers, and in the world of fine dining, is pretty mixed – some still consider him a genius for his work at Union Pacific and would best characterize Rocco as great talent and great promise, though not fully realized or sustained; others would call him a sell-out, and a bit of a fraud, who traded on his talent to obtain mass market appeal, both as a chef and as a personality. Sort of a male Rachael Ray, but with actual underlying skill and not just huge man hands and 400 ways to make a hamburger.

(Did you really think we were getting out of this column without a Rachael Ray joke? More on Rocco’s huge man hands, later.  Oh...and the phto of Rachael...too funny not to post.)

Anyway, there was Rocco (who, I say with deep shame, is pretty attractive) looking all fit and towering over Nate Berkus, the box-headed waifish widower, showcasing double chocolate chunk cookies and fried chicken as part of promoting his cookbook, the “Now Eat This! Diet Cookbook” (a follow up to “Now Eat This!”) The basic premise is that eating healthy can be fun and flavorful. This is not innovative – virtually every celebrity cookbook or weight loss book, from Bethenny to Marilu Henner, markets the same idea. What was innovative, however, was the approach – everything from the cookies (which substitute much of the flour and fat with pureed white beans) to the chicken (not oven-“fried” – but poached in chicken stock and flash-fried for 30 seconds) uses a series of substitutions and techniques to obtain maximum flavor with minimal caloric impact.

Shortly after landing, I logged on to Amazon and bought the book.

To its credit, the book is founded on basic principles of nutrition, weight loss and exercise science. Yes, the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, balancing those calories across a range of healthy carbs, proteins and fats in decent proportions. I will admit it is nice to see a weight loss program acknowledge you can’t realistically – or healthfully – load up your plate with bunless bacon cheeseburgers and gorge your way to long-term fitness.

But it’s also kind of awful.

First, it must have been ghost-written. Rocco may have come up with the recipes; may have dictated much of the content – but the voice is somehow all wrong. It simply doesn’t read like it was written by the same guy you’ve seen on television. The structure, the use of language, the point of view – it’s all askew, like it was written by someone trying to write in the character of Rocco DiSpirito. If you’ve ever seen fan fiction on the internet, you know what I mean. (Fan fiction is when ordinary people write episodes of their favorite television shows, only they make up a fictional plotline – like having the bar in How I Met Your Mother invaded by an intergalactic space tiger and holding Neil Patrick Harris hostage in nothing but a silver Speedo.)

Second, I realize that boosting the confidence of the reader is important, particularly in a cookbook, but is it really honest to say, “If you have slathered peanut butter between two slices of bread, you have cooked.” Okay – No, you haven’t. You have not cooked. You have prepared food – and even that is a stretch. You have not cooked. And if you didn’t cook, why would you buy a COOK BOOK? Even if it were in there to calm the bookstore browser who might be on the fence, I think that person would probably have made up their mind by the time this sentence appears ON PAGE 74!!!

Didn’t Rocco use to be a chef? How would Daniel Boulud or Dan Barber react to that sentence? Also…slathered? Really? (Slathered is the kind of word to take you right back to fan fiction about NPH and that space tiger, but I tigress…I mean, digress.)

But this last part is the best. Really, you can’t write stuff like this…you can write ABOUT it, but you’d never be able to make it up.

The last section I read before our weekend guests arrived was the section about dining out. We live in New York City, where most people use their ovens for extra storage (When I was single, that’s where I kept the good shoes – in boxes of course.)

Actual photo
The dining out section reminds the reader to avoid alcohol (“the epitome of empty calories”) and – if one does indulge, “Resist the urge to order a bottle of wine” because “you’ll probably drink less and there is no pressure to finish the bottle.” It also urges Rocco’s followers that, “Honestly, there’s really no dessert that you can order in a restaurant….And don’t even try a bite or two. No one has that kind of control.”

Marcelene and her boyfriend, Rory, arrived around noon. We showed them our home and then decided to go exploring. After a stop in Southampton, Marcelene wanted lunch – some place where we could sit outside, with a glass of wine (“the epitome of empty calories”) and take in the early spring scene. We went to Pierre’s.

Pierre’s is a French bistro and bakery market in Bridgehampton…it’s the kind of place where they put butter in everything – including the tap water. It was just about 3pm, so the Saturday lunch crowd was waning – particularly this early in the season. We had no trouble getting a table for four right outside.

Right next to Rocco DiSpirito.

There he was, in the Ray-Bans and baseball cap he apparently wears anytime he ventures out of doors without a camera crew and entourage. I’ve seen Julianne Moore walk Bleecker Street with no make up and a denim jacket during the full on Saturday rush, not to mention Steven Spielberg, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Michael Douglas – all within a block of my home. No sunglasses. Rocco – methinks you’re safe.

Rocco's Actual Dessert Plate
But, for sheer schaedenfreude, nothing could beat the bottle of white he and his lady friend were polishing off as they left behind the last bite of a chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream. I couldn’t help myself but lean over and say, “That looks delicious…I wish I could eat dessert. I tell myself it won’t be so fattening if I only have a bite or two, but no one has that kind of control.”


  1. BUSTED!! How funny is that! It's like when that lady busted Michael Pollan buying his son Captain Crunch at the grocery store. Love it.

  2. Just stumbled on your blog yesterday . It's a scream! I'm alternating reading the posts from newest to oldest and from oldest to newest. (That way the middle won't feel like an end.) I'm so sorry to see that you haven't posted in a very long time. I hope that you and Neil are well, traveling, and just too busy to blog. Thanks for taking the time to write all this.