by Liz Daube
As a room full of Jacksonville city officials and reporters looks on, Rocco DiSpirito gingerly dips two fingertips into a pan of simmering sauce. Apparently unphased by the heat, he raises his hand and tastes, his forehead tense, considering.
“I know I’m not supposed to do that. I apologize,” DiSpirito says, his hands still stirring and reaching for other spices. “I cook from instinct.”
He continues to explain his culinary theories: There’s an “algorithm to flavor.” Don’t be afraid to season. Anyone can cook well if they use their palate to combine sour, sweet, salty and bitter flavors. Ultimately, DiSpirito says, cooking is about bringing friends and family together to share a taste of “the good life.”
The celebrity chef was in town to kick-off the opening of Publix’s Apron’s Cooking School in the Mandarin neighborhood on Thursday. The star of NBC’s 2003 reality show “The Restaurant” taught cooking classes in the new kitchen, gave advice and signed copies of his latest book, “Rocco’s 5-Minute Flavor.”
An invite-only lunchtime preview gave everyone from City Council member Art Shad to Florida Times-Union food columnist Dan MacDonald a chance to check out DiSpirito’s food and the new Publix school, which is one of only three in the state. The other two are located in Tampa and Sarasota and have seen chefs like Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Wolfgang Puck.
“This is set up so it looks like Food Network,” said Shelly Carroll, a Publix business development director. “People are busy. They don’t want to shop ... We found that if we gave them help with cooking, they would do it.”
Three screens with different views are arranged in front of the kitchen, and small tables and chairs are set up for an audience to watch and dine.
DiSpirito said his goal in life is to make cooking less intimidating, so the Apron’s school seemed like a great idea.
“A lot of people get caught up with the right equipment, the right wine,” he said. “I think chefs intimidate people. For me, it’s all about trying to get people to the table so they can enjoy each other’s company.”
DiSpirito’s menu included chicken with risotto, a buttery shrimp scampi on toasted bread and a moist, airy tiramisu. Upcoming Apron’s classes will feature everything from gingerbread houses to wine pairings and cost $30 to $150.
DiSpirito’s appearance was demonstration-only, but many of the Apron’s courses will be hands-on. A schedule of classes can be found at the Publix at 10500 San Jose Blvd.
Q&A with Rocco DiSpirito
After the event, the Daily Record asked celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito a few questions about upcoming projects and the culinary pressures of the holiday season. Here’s what he had to say:
DR: We heard you have a new cable television show coming up. Can you tell us about it?
RD: It’ll be on A&E. It’s a hybrid of unscripted drama and a cooking show. It looks at what goes on at the dinner table, those emotions are explored.
DR: What kind of drama?
RD: Well, I think the holiday dinner table is the weapon of mass dysfunction.
DR: Can you give us an example of what happens in the show?
RD: The first episode is about a woman who runs a dating service, but can’t find a date ... A guy she’s had a secret crush on comes to dinner. The idea is food heals, food brings people together.
DR: What advice do you give to amateur cooks during the holidays?
RD: Serve crackers and velveeta cheese in a can if you have to, just get people to the table. Be comfortable when they (guests) get there ... Chill the hell out, and do what you can.
DR: What do you enjoy most at this point: cooking, teaching or eating?
RD: Anytime I cook, because I’m a chef, I’m typically teaching to a certain degree. But there’s nothing that makes me happier than cooking for someone.
DR: Any interesting impressions of Jacksonville so far?
RD: At Ragtime (Tavern & Grill in Atlantic Beach), I had the best gumbo of my life. Whoever left the crabs in there, they had some guts ... The shells were still on the crab legs.