The Hard Rocco Café


Rocco DiSpirito isn’t my type. He flirted and preened like a Chippendales dancer in a chef’s hat all through The Restaurant, last year’s reality series documenting the launch of his Italian restaurant, Rocco’s on 22nd . In pursuit of Martha-style synergy, he quickly graduated from charismatic foodie to Vegas-style showman. Most of the program’s drama emanated from the artificially accelerated deadline set up by financier Jeffrey Chodorow: Open the restaurant in five weeks, ready or not. The answer was, of course, not—and cameras lapped up the professional chaos and interpersonal clashes as Rocco and his new cast (I mean staff) struggled to make the place a success.

But why settle for heartwarming triumph when you can have “train-wreck television”? That’s how producer Mark Burnett impishly describes the second season of The Restaurant in the show’s press materials. Presumably he’s hoping it will suck in all those Omarosa-obsessed viewers left adrift after the conclusion of The Apprentice, Burnett’s other workplace-oriented reality series. The Apprentice styled itself as a show about the business world, but everything about it was synthetic, from the competitions, which may or may not have been fixed, to The Donald’s mercurial firings, which revealed more about the man than the marketplace. (For instance, he dismissed a female contestant for making a poor choice based on friendship, but turned a blind eye when a male contestant did the same the next week.) The Restaurant, on the other hand, makes the inner workings of a business disconcertingly transparent, irradiating Rocco’s on 22nd with its TV eye.

The Restaurant pits Chodorow and Rocco against each other in a gastronomic grudge match: Chodorow plays the corporate hit man, while Rocco comes off as the narcissistic artiste unwilling to get his hands dirty with prosaic details—trivial things like the fact that the restaurant is hemorrhaging money. Chodorow may not have hair as intriguing as Trump’s or own tacky buildings with his name on them, but he’s just as eager to impress us with his mogul style. Instead of barking “You’re fired” at Rocco, he stretches out the torture by staging a corporate intervention to put the place back on financial track. “Only two things come of a restaurant that’s not making money,” Chodorow intones ominously in the season opener. “Close it or fix it.”

The “fix” feels more like an invasion: Chodorow sends in a “task force” to make cost-effective changes. The minions move in, questioning the pricey business cards and flower bill—exorbitant considering that the place has no flowers. Trading his usual puppy-dog gaze for a deer-in-headlights look, Rocco refuses to deal with Chodorow. He makes himself scarce around the restaurant, instead doing interviews and signings to promote a new cookbook. But his absence sparks insecurity and bitchiness in some of his employees. “As far as I’m concerned, I work for Jeffrey,” whines Carrie, waitress and resident gossip merchant. “It feels like our parents just got divorced and now mommy won’t come around here anymore.”

Rocco’s aloofness has always upset the staff. All anyone in this series desires is to bask in the man’s charisma, yet he zips around town on his shiny Vespa, seemingly unaware of his devastating effect on those around him. The show suggests that he’s so busy being a celebrity that he doesn’t have time to mingle with his customers or even cook anymore. Numerous montages feature customers demanding, “Where’s Rocco?” His staff is even moonier: They crave him the way an Atkins dieter craves forbidden carbs. Last season he neglected his employees until they were ready to revolt en masse, and this time he ruffles feathers in the kitchen by bringing in Antonio, a chef from Rocco’s favorite restaurant in Italy. A welcome dose of comic relief, Antonio speaks garbled English à la Roberto Benigni and cheerfully putters around the kitchen, oblivious to the hell breaking loose upstairs.

As the creator of Survivor, Burnett knows how to conjure suspense out of mundane human conflict. The Restaurant amplifies the battle of wills between these two men: In one tense scene, Rocco chats up patrons on one side of the restaurant while Chodorow presides over another, the camera restlessly cutting between the two as if some terrible cataclysm will occur on impact. The pair despise each other, yoked together like Beckett characters in a poisoned symbiosis that may actually prove ruinous. Each thinks the other is a parasite. Chodorow knows all about profit margins and customer satisfaction, but without Rocco’s gastronomic creativity and aura, he’s got nothing to sell. Likewise, the young chef can’t function without Chodorow’s acumen and financial aid. The show suggests that Rocco’s refusal to accept the bargain he’s made may bring the whole house down.

Some media pundits have suggested the duo trumped up the struggle for publicity—a masochistic move that would hardly be good for business. Either way, Rocco has gambled his standing as a serious chef for the chance to be a brand, entrusting his image to producers who don’t necessarily have his best interests at heart. In the end, The Restaurant isn’t just a series about the cutthroat culinary business but also a parable about the dangers of selling your soul—and your spaghetti—to reality TV.