Four Questions with Rocco DiSpirito
For the last few years, celebrity chef and television personality Rocco DiSpirito has hosted Dine Around Downtown: Cooking at Home Edition, a virtual series featuring chefs from Lower Manhattan restaurants who cook up signature recipes and share tips for crafting everything from complex gastronomic delights to go-to comfort foods. The series was a 2020 innovation in an effort to support local restaurants who suffered financial losses during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two years later, it’s still going strong. Though we’ve now thrown two live events — the annual Dine Around Downtown Community Food Festival, which returned in June, and the upcoming Lunch Box event on October 13 — back into the mix.
We caught up with DiSpirito to learn a little about his involvement with Dine Around, and why it’s so essential to support local restaurants in tough times as well as good ones. You can also catch him on your computer screen on August 4 for a Dine Around Downtown: Cooking at Home Edition episode with Luke’s Lobster; register here for tickets.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with Dine Around Downtown and what it has meant to you, especially as restaurants have been getting back on their feet during the pandemic?
The reason I’m working with [Dine Around team Craig Raia, Shelley Menaged and Ron Dizon] is thanks to a goat that I brought into a fifth grade class about 15 years ago as part of a James Beard Foundation program called Spoons Across America. Shelley was running it — it was an in-school program where chefs brought in farmers and food producers; cooked dishes, and did demonstrations, as well as brought kids into their restaurants to expose them to the food industry. And one day, I brought a goat in and milked it and made cheese in front of the kids, right in their classroom, and that was a Shelley production with me. Whenever she calls, I think of that goat in that fifth grade class at Mott Hall in the Bronx. It’s always a wonderful memory. I’m always thrilled to work with her.
It’s been really like a metronome. Craig and Shelley are like the metronome of my pandemic life, the really dependable and focused and strong producers of a little show that they came up with that I’ve really enjoyed being a part of. There’s nothing more satisfying for a chef than teaching. We are full-time teachers and part-time chefs. If you ask any chef, that’s what they’ll tell you. They teach more than they cook.
This was a project that was absolutely worth the time and effort and was impactful.
How have the restaurants responded?
The response from my point of view has been overwhelmingly positive. I think for them, it’s been a very low lift, and a lot of great exposure, especially because it’s micro-focused to people in their neighborhoods and in their community and their immediate community. Chefs get a lot of general exposure on social media and in the press, but it’s very infrequent that an organization like Downtown comes along and says, “Hey, we know how to reach out to 20,000 of your immediate neighbors who will actually come in and support you in one way or another. And we’re going to teach them how to do it, tell them how to do it, and give them the links and give them the resources, and help them be very helpful to you.
I think for some chefs, this has been a lifeline. Especially in the early days of pandemic.
How important is eating local and supporting your local restaurants?
In times of crisis, we often think about these large foundations and make donations or do what we can to help them, while people right next to us are in trouble. We miss those people sometimes. Instead of just focusing on donating to large foundations, when you’re in a community like downtown Manhattan, one that’s so populous, so vibrant, there’s so much energy and usually so much need, it makes a lot of sense to reach out directly and try to make a difference locally. You can have a really big impact.
I live in this community. I love this community. I’ve chosen it as my home for almost 15 years. Actually much longer. I’ve just been in my current home for about 15 years. I think it’s one of the most exciting and colorful, vibrant, diverse, strong, beautiful areas of New York City.
In June you did a live event for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the Dine Around Downtown food festival. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to see all these restaurants back out in the community?
I think thrilled is the one word we could use. We were thrilled with the turnout, thrilled with the chefs, thrilled with the quality of food, thrilled with the energy, the vibe. There was no question people missed this event and love this event and have nostalgic, warm, gooey, sweet, delicious feelings about this event. Everyone I ran into was just like, “So happy you’re back. So nice to see you. Oh, I’m so thrilled this is back in my work community.” Just an outpouring of really good feelings about the event that made me thrilled to be a part of it.
I hope this event continues well beyond our lifetimes and it becomes a legacy event for Downtown Alliance. It’s beloved and needed, and especially this year. The pent-up demand was palpable. The excitement for this was so real and so measurable. Just a quick glance across the Plaza and you could tell people were thrilled to be there.