Kitchen Guy: Rehabilitating Rocco

By Beacon Staff

Far be it for me to criticize another chef – especially one who right now is famous for being famous a la Paris Hilton. But he happens to be a really good cook, too, and that’s what he used to be famous for.

It’s just that it seems he gets so caught up in his celebrity that he forgets that his thing is creating and cooking great food.

I’m writing about Chef Rocco DiSpirito, who (as of this writing anyway) is a contestant on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. They gave him a pretty talented professional partner, too, but he seems to be screwing it up because when he’s on the dance floor, he’s nothing but a stiff.

Maybe you remember Rocco from a short-lived series called The Restaurant several years ago. He partnered with a well-known restaurant investor-mogul, Jeffrey Chodorow, in opening an eponymous Italian restaurant in New York. As it happened, Rocco’s mother was shown to be more able than her professionally trained son.

The show also highlighted Rocco’s obsession with self, his inability to deal with employment issues (both his own and others who worked for him), as well as his inability to take a leadership role in birthing a new enterprise and shepherding it as it struggled through its infancy. Most people see the “glamorous” side of restaurant ownership. The ugly underbelly is rarely exposed as it was on this television show. In the end, Chodorow (who’s no angel either) fired Rocco, the “partnership” ended in a bitter dispute, and the restaurant eventually closed.

Now here’s the thing about Rocco: He is a very talented chef, having entered the Culinary Institute of America at the tender age of 16 and then studying under the tutelage of some of the greatest chefs working in France. His best-known and most-honored restaurant was Union Pacific in New York and soon after, he was named Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef. In 2000, Gourmet magazine called him “America’s Most Exciting Young Chef.”

He has also published a couple of cookbooks that have had mixed reviews. But Rocco seems to be a guy who is too easily diverted by his celebrity. This behavior continues to deprive the culinary world of one very talented guy who should be spending more time behind the stove than in front of the cameras.

Right now you may be thinking that people in glass houses, etc. etc. After all, I’m a TV cook, too. Have I broken the honor code among television chefs? Not really. It’s just that between the dancing show and other talk show appearances, Rocco’s been making a concerted effort to rehabilitate his image because he really was shown in a very poor light on reality TV. And as a celebrity chef, he’s no fool either. I certainly can’t fault him for his entrepreneurism because he’s also out there hawking a new cookbook.

Good for Rocco. But I still wish he’d get back in the kitchen and cook some great Italian food. And that leads me into my recipe for this week: Chicken a la Romana. You can see me make this dish if you have access to the internet. Simply paste this link into your browser: http://blip.tv/file/1021266/ or click (here).

Chicken a la Romana
4 6 oz. chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
1 tsp. vegetable oil
2 ½ cups sliced mushrooms
1 tsp. garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. olive oil
¾ cup chicken stock
4 Prosciutto slices
4 Provolone slices
1 cup milk
1 Tbsp. fresh tarragon, chopped
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
¼ cup sherry
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. fresh chives, snipped
2 Tbsp. red bell pepper, diced

Pound chicken breasts in between sheets of plastic wrap with a meat mallet until they are a uniform thickness, about ¼ inch. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator.

In a medium sauté pan, heat vegetable oil over high heat. Add the garlic and heat for a moment. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms are brown and cooked down. Add the white wine and cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.

Season the flour with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour and shake off excess.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the chicken and sauté quickly until the breast is golden brown. Turn the chicken, then remove the pan from the heat. While the chicken is off the heat, cover each breast with a slice of Provolone and top the cheese with a slice of Prosciutto. Add 1/3 of the chicken stock to the pan, cover and return it to the heat. When the cheese has melted, remove the pan from the heat and uncover. Remove the chicken breasts and set aside on a plate and cover to keep warm.

Place the pan back on the stove and reduce the heat to medium. Whisk the cornstarch in the milk until smooth. Add the remaining chicken stock, tarragon and the milk slurry. Cook, whisking constantly until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the mushrooms and continue to stir. Add the sherry and some salt and cook until the sauce has thickened to your preference. Remove the pan from the heat and incorporate the Parmesan into the sauce. Place the chicken breasts on plates and cover with the sauce. Garnish with chives and diced bell peppers.