KOHALA COAST, HAWAII — Maybe it was the Kobe Beef with Charred Spring Onions and Galangal Glaze or the Grilled Quail with Pineapple and Huitlacoche that grabbed me by the nose and seduced me into Rocco DiSpirito's red tent.
Chef DiSpirito was here, with 15 other prominent chefs from around the world, at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel - for the 11th-annual Cuisines of the Sun, a sumptuous event that draws a growing number of serious food lovers from across the country.
All 16 chefs got a chance to whirl their whisks, turn up the heat, and prepare some of their favorite dishes during the four-day sumptuous affair. But it was Rocco DiSpirito's spread that first drew my attention on that balmy Hawaiian night. (Perhaps it's my particular penchant for grilled quail, which just happens to be my favorite poultry.)
DiSpirito's introduction to the kitchen was somewhat inauspicious. As a youngster, he worked in a pizzeria in Queens for 30 bucks a week and all the slices (pepperoni, please) he could eat. "It was really just a distraction. Something to do to keep out of trouble," he says with a broad grin.
It wasn't until DiSpirito was about 14 that his future began to jell. "I was working part time at the New Hyde Park Inn in New York when a dinner was being prepared for an Audubon Society bash.
"Some hunters came into the prep room with venison they had just gutted, and the chef, an old-world cook from Germany, asked if I would like to watch him prepare it. I saw him skin, butcher, and prepare four or five dishes, including stew from the toughest pieces of meat. I was fascinated. It was the first time I witnessed the whole process from A to Z."
That was it. At 16, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and graduated two years later, third in his class.
Today, the thirty-something DiSpirito is executive chef at Union Pacific restaurant, in New York, and next Wednesday (Aug. 30, 3 p.m.) begins hosting his own TV cooking show, "The Melting Pot," on the Food Network.
The show will be a departure from his restaurant cooking. At Union Pacific, DiSpirito fancies fusion fare with dishes such as Bluefin Tuna with Yuzu and Fresh Wasabi; Calamari, Watermelon, and Avocado Salad; and a melt-in-your-mouth Kobe Beef with Charred Spring Onions and a Galangal Glaze. And, he says, he "likes manipulating classic techniques and long, low-temperature cooking in Cryovac bags."
"The Melting Pot" will bring him back to his roots. He is the son of Italian immigrants, and Italian will be the theme of his new show. "The show will enable me to revive the Italian culture my siblings and I [rejected] when we were kids," he says. "I realize it's my alter ego - that it's a big part of who I am. It's a complete departure to what I do at the restaurant."
When DiSpirito isn't working up a sweat at Union Pacific, he can be found relaxing at home, strumming a guitar or perusing "Larousse Gastronomique," writings of Waverly Root, and "anything by M.F.K. Fisher." Or maybe dinner at Nha Trang, a favorite Vietnamese restaurant in New York's Chinatown. "I seldom cook at home," he says. Among several mentors he lists Martha Stewart. "What's not to like?" he says. "She not only helped elevate [cooking], but all the attached peripheral things as well.
"Cooking is a great opportunity to express yourself creatively, and get positive feedback immediately. Unlike a true artist, who may have to wait," says DiSpirito, "I want to make an impact on how people value cooking, dining, and entertaining."
And if he weren't a chef? "Hmmm, well, I've always loved the sea, I guess maybe a marine biologist." Fortunately for those diners at Union Pacific, DiSpirito is currently satisfied doing his marine magic on an entre of Wild Copper River Salmon with Rhubarb Compote and a Sweet Onion Soubise. And no one is complaining.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society