Mo Rocca is a writer and humorist, a regular correspondent on the CBS Sunday Morning show, a panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and an Iron Chef America judge. He has appeared on Ugly Betty, The Tonight Show, VH1’s I Love the 70s and I Love the 80s, The Countdown With Keith Olbermann, and he was a regular on the Daily Show until 2003.
Rocca lives and eats in Chelsea. We chatted with him about the gay-Thai connection, the best restaurants in his neighborhood, Iron Chef America, and his passionate love of red meat.
What are your favorite places in your neighborhood to eat?
I eat most of my meals across the street at Le Singe Vert. It means the Green Monkey. It’s a simple French bistro. It’s my Regal Beagle, and if the kids don’t get that, it’s my Peach Pit. If I’m alone, I sit down at the bar and Maya will make me a Sidecar, with sugar on the rim. If I have a couple of those I’ll get a headache, because I’m a lightweight and I can’t drink a lot of sugary drinks, but now that I’m on Prilosec I can drink wine. I used to have trouble with wine. So then Maya pours me a glass of red wine to have with my hanger steak, or my steak frites, or my duck. I love duck. There is nothing more tragic than a gamy duck. I have learned how to sniff it out — if it’s gamy at all, I don’t want it.
How do you like your duck prepared?
At Le Singe Vert, they do duck confit or just duck breast.
My love affair with duck has led me back to Thai food. I remember growing up in suburban Maryland in the mid-’80s, a Thai restaurant opened and it seemed very exotic, the way that my father said sushi was exotic in the ’70s. Anyway, Thai food is inescapable now. Apparently Thai food is Chelsea’s regional cuisine. Thai food is keeping the gay population of New York alive. If there were an all-gay soup kitchen in Chelsea, that’s all they’d serve. Don’t ask me why.
But in any case, I got sick of Thai. I liked Spice, that was my other go-to. But duck led me back to Spice and back to Thai food. Because why was I only eating pad Thai and drunken man noodles when I could have been eating crispy duck?
So wherever the duck paddles I will follow.
Where else have you paddled after duck?
Do they paddle or do they waddle?
I think they do both: paddle and waddle.
At first I wasn’t nuts for Cookshop, because I can’t eat anywhere where it’s too loud. It must be a cue from my caveman ancestors — if it’s dark and loud, my appetite shuts down and I fall asleep. It’s like I understand that we’re under attack from pterodactyls and that’s my signal to run into my cave and hide and fall asleep.
So if it’s dark and loud, I get extremely tired and the people with me get very offended and think I’m bored by them. I think dark, loud restaurants are for people who can’t hold conversations, and have nothing to say. And so at first I found Cookshop too loud, but now I like it.
I always love Five Points, and I love Noho Star — the potato pancakes with sour cream.
But I need red meat. If I could put a cow on my terrace I would. Someone would have to cook it for me, because I don’t cook, but I’d have it out there ready for the slaughter. If the management company re-zones my building, I’ll make my terrace into a cow pasture.
What happens when you don’t eat red meat?
My fingernails start to crumble, and become cloudy, almost opaque. I become weak, my skin becomes translucent, it looks like I have skim milk in my veins. I languish.
Not coincidentally, that’s how many of the people at those fringe-y, left-wing co-ops look. They can barely pick up your jug of soy milk to bag it.
Oh, this is why everyone hates me. I’ll just say it: Some — and please say I said “some” so that I don’t get an organic mail bomb — some vegans look like they’re about to drop dead. Red meat is the reason I’m robust and alive!
This has gotten you in trouble before?
I’m on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and once I made a crack about vegans, and people got very upset. On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t make cracks about vegans on NPR. The only dumber thing you could do is to insult vegans on Pacifica Radio.
Yes, I think The Village Voice has roughly the same demographic.
Well, along the same lines, where’s your favorite hamburger?
I’m revealing that I don’t move in more than a three-block radius, but New York Burger on Sixth Avenue is really good. They might want to go with a new name though, it’s so generic. I get the Chicago burger with Thousand Island dressing, cheddar, and bacon. It’s so delicious; I love it. I order it medium now because I like to be a little bit careful, but it has to be a true medium.
You know, one of the big problems with chicken — and Le Singe Vert is mostly infallible on this — is how difficult it is to get a half-chicken that is tender and moist through-and-through. It depresses me so much when you get to that part inside that feels not only tough, it almost has the texture of sandpaper. You know, the little grains of chicken fall off the cross-section when you cut into it.
Now at Dirty Bird To-Go on 14th Street, it is not your typical Sophie’s poultry choice: Usually, when you’re faced with rotisserie chicken and fried chicken, it’s really a choice between healthy and delicious. But somehow, their rotisserie chicken is both healthy and delicious! It really is that good, they have answered the riddle of non-fried, tender, juicy-through-and-through chicken. They have cracked the code. Maybe it’s the dirt in “dirty,” I don’t know.
What do you eat when you’re alone and no one can see you?
You know, I really don’t, and part of that is maybe how pathetic my refrigerator is. I don’t have any shame stories of eating. I mean, if eating a pint of Haagen-Daaz is shameful, then I’m not ashamed.
I actually don’t eat a lot indoors, I can’t seem to keep my refrigerator stocked. And it’s not a good thing, because when people come over I have nothing to offer them.
Except the cow on your terrace.
Yes! I’m too busy with animal husbandry. I’m too busy being a gentleman farmer on my terrace.
How did you get involved with Iron Chef?
One of my agents called up and said: Do you want to do this? And it’s like three blocks from my apartment…
Which is within your radius.
Exactly. So I starve myself the day before, no kidding, and then when we tape, I eat between 12 and 13 plates of food. Sometimes they make more. But anytime you have Mario Batali or Bobby Flay cooking for you for free, you’d be foolish to turn that down.
You did a piece on the CBS Sunday Morning show about your doctor telling you to lose weight — are you dieting?
Well, it wasn’t so much losing weight, but really more of an issue of pulling my waist in and strengthening my core. I feel silly saying it because it all sounds so trendy, everyone focusing on their core, but the issue that she identified is that I have a gut. So basically, I’m at the gym doing a lot of ab work.
Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always imagined that if I was trapped on a desert island, and could only do one exercise, it would be squats. It’s so dumb, because even if I was trapped on a desert island I could actually do 40 different exercises, because I’d have a couple branches, and some coconuts, and plenty of room. But for some reason, I always imagined doing nothing but squats because it’s so good for your haunches, your quads — it’s a good overall exercise, plus cardio.
But now, it’s crunches. I’d do nothing but crunches. I want to look like Mike “The Situation” from the Jersey Shore. Other people want to look like Vinnie or Ronnie, but I want Mike The Situation’s abs. And not just for vanity’s sake: In the last five years, for the first time in my life, I’ve had some back trouble, and having a strong core is the best preemptive against back pain.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
When I was shooting a piece on Mexican hot dogs, a producer and I tried cow eye tacos. I love Mexico, and I love Mexican food. And I believe my friend Jeffrey Steingarten’s premise, the one he makes in his book The Man Who Ate Everything, that most allergies are imagined, and you should eat everything. But I might challenge him to eat an eye taco.
It’s just that my head isn’t quite there yet. It’s very gelatinous. The biggest problem is that it tastes exactly like you fear it will taste. If it didn’t taste like aqueous fluid, it wouldn’t be so unnerving. If it tasted like meatloaf, for example.
Who is your ideal dining companion, living or dead?
It would be my friend Catherine’s step-father Johnny Apple, RW Apple. I only got to eat with him a couple times, and to be able to eat with someone who has a great story about every dish, every condiment, every utensil, that’s hard to beat. For that, I’d gladly pick up the check.
Appropriately enough, his memorial service had a better menu than any memorial service since Nero’s.