Rocco DiSpirito On the Spot

Opening a restaurant is a nerve-wracking undertaking, especially if it’s your first and it has your name on the door. But getting the place up and running while cameras are recording the action takes the stress to a new level, says chef Rocco DiSpirito, the 36-year-old star of NBC’s The Restaurant, which premieres Sunday. The six-episode reality show combines humor, pathos, the Southern Italian cooking of DiSpirito’s family and, of course, product placement. Magna Global Entertainment, a unit of Interpublic Group’s Magna Global USA, helped to line up the show’s three sponsors: American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi.

Q. What made you want to become a chef?

A. I was 11 when I got a job at Sutphin Pizzeria [in Queens] and did it for pocket change. At 14, I took a job at New Hyde Park Inn [on Long Island] as a salad man, preparing all the cold food. The kitchen of any restaurant is an incredibly structured, disciplined place—almost like a dictatorship. But there’s an incredible amount of creative freedom, too, as you get better.

How did it feel to be at the Culinary Institute of America when you were only 16?

I didn’t realize it was anything special at the time. I was the youngest guy in the class, and they all made fun of me because I was so gung-ho and enthusiastic.

Why did you want to star in a reality series?

My goal with Rocco’s is to open Rocco’s. It was a coincidence that I was approached last summer to do this show. I thought this could be either the best marketing move I’ve ever made, or I could be the fall guy for a failed TV show. I agreed to do this because I love TV as a medium and what it’s done for food.

How do you take the criticism from some chefs who say they would never star in this type of show?

I’m flattered that people even care about what I’m doing.

How much input did you have in selecting the three sponsors and how their products are placed?

I didn’t really have any input. The products are integrated pretty naturally into the show. We serve other beers besides Coors, but shots of Coors will be prominent. There will also be shots of American Express cards when customers pay. The Mitsubishi Endeavor is shown with us shuttling things around.

What qualities were you looking for in the wait staff who auditioned?

I looked for people who have some idea of what we do in the restaurant business. A big part of the job is to provide people with a carefree environment to enjoy themselves. Besides food, we’re selling an experience, a good time. I try to determine if someone has the ability to give first and take later.

If you hadn’t pursued cooking, what would you be doing?

Maybe writing. It’s another area that I think would allow me to express myself.

Can you give a hint as to some of the dramas we might see on the show?

Here’s what happens at restaurants: People do drugs. People break up. People get engaged. They hook up in the bathroom and do weird stuff. Things get set on fire. People give oral sex under the table during dinner. That happened at [DiSpirito’s previous employer] Union Pacific twice while I worked there. When they were caught, they were asked to leave.

Truth is stranger than fiction. A restaurant is an extraordinary place. It’s high pressure, high drama. People let their hair down in restaurants. On our opening night, we had two fires, we ran out of wine, and I was served notice that I was being sued by the owners of a restaurant called Rocco, which has been on Thompson Street for years. We settled. I’m going to call my restaurant Rocco’s on 22nd Street.

What was your favorite moment during the making of the show?

When we got the awning with my name on it. My grandfather’s name was also Rocco. It meant a lot.

What was your least favorite moment during filming?

When an employee walked out. She was told to go home for insubordination and got mad when she thought I didn’t take her side. She freaked out and made a scene in front of the customers. It was obvious she was overdramatizing for the cameras, which I didn’t like. I tried to push the cameras out of the way. She won’t be coming back.

Have you had to fire anyone since filming was completed?

We hired 140 people, and we have 70 left. You hire more than you need because you know people are going to leave or get fired.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?

Working with my mother on Rocco’s [78-year-old Nicolina is executive chef]. She brings so much positive stuff to the atmosphere. Her energy, her work ethic, her people skills and her food skills.

And the dumbest decision?

Becoming a chef of a small restaurant when I was 25. I wasn’t ready, and neither was the restaurant.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I would have 15-hour weeks instead of 1,000-hour weeks.