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Eat Up

by Erica Bauwens

Chef and award-winning author Rocco DiSpirito brings his culinary know-how to the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival this month.

Every year in July, people flock to the A.C. strip, and not just to enjoy the Shore and slots. That’s when the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival returns, bringing with it fine food and drinks from across the country, along with cooking tutorials and personalized classes from some of the culinary world’s most recognizable names.

New to this year’s Food and Wine celeb roster is Rocco DiSpirito, the health-oriented chef and author who pioneered the revolutionary Now Eat This! cookbooks. DiSpirito takes favorite and familiar recipes and lightens them up for readers, making healthier options easier to access. But before his first Now Eat This! book debuted in 2010, DiSpirito had already gained acclaim in the culinary world, opening and maintaining one of New York City’s most elite restaurants, Union Pacific, from 1997 to 2004 and being named “America’s Best New Chef” by Food and Wine Magazine. He won the prestigious James Beard Award in 2004 for his first cookbook, Flavor, competed in Dancing With the Stars, starred in a handful of his own cooking shows, and was named the “Sexiest Chef Alive” by People Magazine. And he’s not even close to slowing down.

DiSpirito joins festival alumnus Robert Irvine and Pat and Gina Neely in Atlantic City from July 25-28, hosting a series of classes for guests during the course of the weekend. He talked with South Jersey Magazine before his visit and told us his simple truths about healthy eating.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: What can people look forward to at your events this month?
ROCCO DISPIRITO: I think they should be able to look forward to having a lot of fun. They should show up with cocktail in hand. My demos are super informal and I love when people ask a lot of questions. I’ll also be trying to convince people that eating healthy is affordable and it is possible.

SJM: Have you been to Atlantic City before? What are you looking forward to the most?
RD: I’ve been to Harrah’s before doing food work and I was surprised by the massive foodie interest. I wasn’t sure that foodies and gambling mixed, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see that it does. I’m expecting to have some fun, and to see if I’m still good at Blackjack.

SJM: What goes on behind the scenes with you and Robert Irvine?
RD: Robert Irvine and I have known each other for a long time. We met at an Oscar event in 2004 and he was just starting to take his shirts off in public and really becoming the chef he is today. It’s great watching him grow. But when we’re together, it’s a lot like what you see in front of you. We don’t pull many punches; we enjoy life and enjoy great food and great wine.

SJM: You’re known for your moderation and healthy eating. How do you keep focused at an event like this festival?
RD: There’s always a way to eat healthy, but there are times when you can just give into your indulgences. Hopefully I can be the resource to help those who overindulge. But there’s no excuses; if the choices are alcohol, burgers and more alcohol, maybe think of adding water in between beers or taking the bun off a burger from time to time. There’s always options.

SJM: Where do you see healthy eating going in the future?
RD: I think we’re in the post-trend phase. Food is important to just about everyone and we are in the greater expansion, and what I’m seeing is a new interest in the healthy interest. People’s interest in food has blown up over the last decade, with healthy food becoming its own culture. Two to three years ago, I was one of the only guys doing that but now it’s everywhere, and I see it continuing as a permanent part of the foodie culture.

SJM: What are your favorite food trends right now?
RD: The super foods that I’m in love with are the top 10: kale, collards, sweet potatoes, wild salmon, all that. But the trend that I’m really excited about is that, in the six years that I’ve been working on eating healthy, people are starting to embrace that. We’re really busting a lot of myths. I’m hoping that America continues with that. It’s a good choice for really good reasons, like living a long time, and enjoying your family and friends without all the setbacks that come with being out of shape, like diabetes and prescription medication.

SJM: Any projects you’re currently working on?
RD: I launched Now Eat This! Italy for AOL in April along with another book, Now Eat This! Italian. It’s a Web series where I go to Italy and work on taking classic Italian foods and making them healthy. So I’m making dieting a little easier.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July, 2013).
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