Born in Queens, NY, and educated at the Culinary Institute of America, Rocco DiSpirito is well-known as a celebrity chef, cookbook author, TV host, and food truck purveyor.
1. How do you juggle it all?
"It's not easy. You have to carve out time, make decisions. It's like expediting in a restaurant kitchen, where every 3 seconds you have to make value judgments on time priorities. I've got the books, the TV show, the food truck, the catering, and I have to prioritize based on deadlines and the people I work with. But I always leave time for my family. My 86-year-old mother lives next door, and I show up at her place every night at 7 p.m. to watch her game shows with her. She's always asking me, ‘Why don't you go on the shows?’"
2. Your Now Eat This food truck and the Now Eat This book series all serve up healthy, low-calorie recipes. Why is healthy cooking such an important part of your repertoire? Has it always been a priority for you?
"A confluence of things put me on the path. First, getting out of the day-to-day restaurant business gave me time to think about my health, which was good because my doctor was urgently requesting that I reassess what I was doing. I had 20% body fat and weighed 214 pounds. Then, in 2006, my chiropractor asked me to do a charity event, and I agreed. The event turned out to be a triathlon. At the time, I couldn't walk a mile. So I started to eat better and exercise. And the harder path paid off. I got down to 170 and 10% body fat, and eventually did an Ironman."
3. How did you transform your own diet?
"I have always eaten high-quality foods, but they used to also be high in fat and calories, so I took those out as much as I could. I quit refined sugar cold turkey. And I dropped 10 pounds in 2 weeks. When I realized that I could take something like lobster bisque and make it lighter and taste just as good if not better, I said to myself, ‘If I could do this with everything, I should share.’"
4. How did your efforts to eat better impact you professionally?
"It was a culinary challenge. Taking apart a classic dish and then rebuilding it as something healthier -- it felt like the Bionic Man each time. Often these were dishes that no one had really looked at or considered changing in a long time. Some, like lobster bisque, wound up better than the originals. In terms of my culinary journey, that was a very satisfying thing: to reduce the calories, yet retain the flavor. It's a type of cooking I had never done before. I was incredibly surprised by the results."
5. What can't you resist, regardless of the calorie count?
"Great wine, wine so good that it changes your outlook on life. But I don't drink often. I save it for a special occasion."
6. Do you have a regular exercise routine?
"I do a lot of biking. Five times a week, I bike a fast 20-plus miles. And I do resistance training three to four times a week."
7. You visit schools around the country, doing cooking demonstrations, and getting students excited about eating healthier. Why are kids such an important audience for you?
"It has always been important to me to teach others the value of what I do. Cooking changed my life for the better when I was 11. I want to impart that to kids. Plus, with obesity being such a widespread problem, I want to give kids the resources and skills to make healthy choices."
8. When it comes to food and eating, what are three lessons you want every kid to learn?
"Sugar is bad. Learn how to cook. ‘Healthy’and ‘delicious’ are not mutually exclusive."
9. Did the food you grew up on -- and the cooks you grew up with -- influence your approach to healthy cooking and eating?
"I love Italian food, and on the list of most obese countries, Italy is No. 26 while the United States is No. 1. Clearly, Italy has a successful system that produces healthy results. It's delicious and healthy and fresh. Growing up, there wasn't a dinner that didn't have six kinds of vegetables."
10. Which of your healthy, low-calorie recipes gets the most converts?
"The fried chicken, the macaroni and cheese, and my black bean brownie cupcakes."
11. What is your best health habit?
"My best habit is being conscious of everything that I put in my mouth. I consume thoughtfully. I always think about the importance of making better, healthy choices when it comes to what I eat."
12. What is your worst health habit?
13. You're in your mid-40s now. Is there anything you wish you had known about health, say, 20 years ago that you are just learning now?
14. What do you cook for yourself at home?
"I eat a lot of grilled fish, like grilled salmon glazed with mustard, tamari, and agave nectar. I also really like seasoned chicken broth."
15. How do you stay passionate about your work?
"I know this is going to sound clichéd, but if you do something that you love, you never work a day in your life. I feel like I'm playing with toys. Traveling for work sometimes leaves me tired, but this is a field that is full of passion. It's so dynamic, so exciting. You can feel like a master, then find 100 things that you don't know. I'm always learning. There is no way to get bored."
16. What six ingredients are always in your pantry?
"Stock in a box, sea salt, sherry vinegar, canned black beans, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and herbs fresh from the garden."
17. What else other than nutrition do you consider when crafting a recipe?
"There are a lot of things available today that make life in the kitchen easier, like peeled onions and peeled garlic. It's important to take these things into account when writing a recipe, so that people will actually cook them and so that the success rate will be high. Cookbooks should be practical; they should be written to be cooked from."
18. If you could cook a meal for anyone living or dead, who would it be, and why? What would you serve?
"My grandmother. She died before I became an executive chef. She was such a supporter and fan of everything I did. I would serve her an assortment of Rocco's greatest hits. I'm sure she would be surprised at the flavors of the healthy dishes I've created from the recipes she taught my mom and me."
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