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The Interview

Rocco DiSpirito

by Windy City Times
Celebrity chef and Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) veteran Rocco DiSpirito has combined his passions for food and health into the new cookbook Now Eat This!, which features healthful versions of 150 comfort foods. (For example, DiSpirito’s reworked brownies are 53 calories per serving, as opposed to the 1,500 calories a standard serving size has.) DiSpirito talked with Windy City Times about Greek yogurt, triathlons and DWTS.

WCT: (Andrew Davis) This book actually got me—the king of microwaving—to cook.

RD: (Rocco DiSpirito) That’s amazing! That is huge. The point of this book is to get people to cook and to be in control of what they put in their bodies. I tried to make the collection of recipes and the ingredients so compelling that people would look at the dishes and go, “Would I go have a blooming onion at a restaurant at 1,800 calories when I can make it at home in 30 minutes for 200 calories?”

WCT: How did you decide which recipes to cover?

RD: Great question. Most of my books [contain] original recipes, with very few makeovers. My editor and I decided to do a makeover book because I thought that if we were going to get people to cook healthy food, it would make the most sense to use the dishes that get people to relapse from their diets and make those healthy.

The way I decided to go about getting these dishes was to use social media. In publishing, it’s a slow process; you can come up with a great idea in 2004 and it won’t get published in 2009 and it may not be relevant anymore. So my Facebook and Twitter fans contributed by answering a number of questions and having a pleasant debate over [a period of] three months. I love lobster bisque; I didn’t know that anyone loved it as much as I did. Beef Wellington came up a lot, and so did goulash. So it was a combination of what I thought would be useful, and what my Twitter and Facebook fans said.

The book has been out long enough where I’m starting to hear reactions from people who have cooked from it. They saying things like, “I’ve lost six pounds, nine pounds, 11 pounds. I’m so excited. It’s changing my life.”

My goal has always been to get people to cook. When you cook for someone, you let them know a lot of important things [such as] they mean something to you. Every time you cook for someone, you’re reconfirming your devotion to them. I could talk about different types of salts and olive oils for days, but what’s really important is that cooking is a social experience. Health was enough of a compelling message to get people to say, “No more quick-service restaurants, no more fast food.”

WCT: What was the most difficult recipe for you to replicate?

RD: That’s a good question because some of the recipes were a challenge. It turns out that making over dishes is harder than coming up with original dishes, especially when you’re trying to hit numbers in terms of calories and fat grams. Because everything you do affects those final numbers, there’s much less room for playing and more precision is required.

The desserts really took a lot of time, a lot of trial and error. When I’m in recipe-testing mode, I normally do a recipe a day. When it got to desserts [for this book], it was one recipe every couple of weeks. What I did was take the fat and bad carbs out of the food; with desserts, that’s all they’re made of! [Interviewer laughs.] So you really have to get creative.

WCT: I’m looking forward to trying the desserts.

RD: I think you’ll really love the chocolate-chip cookies. I use white [cannellini] beans as a base; it was one of the discoveries I did. Beans and legumes make really great bases. Japanese cooks use red beans in their desserts. So, with the beans, I can get rid of the flour and fat, and I can use [natural sweetener] Truvia or agave nectar to sweeten it. I would say the desserts were definitely the most challenging.

WCT: I learned a lot from this book. For example, I had no idea there was such a thing as reduced-sugar ketchup.

RD: I know. How about that? One of the things I did was look—as I have in my books—for common ingredients you can find in a grocery store to save time. Now, in this book, I had to look for [convenient] ingredients that save time and taste good. So one of the things I found was reduced-sugar ketchup; it has an artificial sweetener, so that’s a philosophical decision you have to make. If you don’t like it, you can try agave ketchup.

WCT: Plus, the recipes don’t break the bank.

RD: Yes. There are a lot of science-fiction ingredients out there, like [the food additive] xanthan gum, which is a great ingredient but it’s very expensive, so I didn’t use it. There are a couple aberrations to that, like cocoa nips; the average person might find it esoteric and expensive, but I made those decisions in dire circumstances.

WCT: And thanks for including a chapter on salads, because I think many people feel that all salads are good for you.

RD: You’re welcome, and you just have to look at the numbers. [Editor’s note: For example, a Cobb salad goes from 1,090 to 235 calories in DiSpirito’s book.] And usually it’s the dressing and not the salad, and I have a dressings section. The mayonnaise used in some dressings is really insidious. So I had to make over mayonnaise, which is a base for many sauces.

WCT: I notice that you use Greek yogurt a lot.

RD: Yes. Greek yogurt is a miracle ingredient. They make no-fat Greek yogurt to total Greek yogurt. As a source of dairy that replaces butter and cream—with butter having 1,600 calories a cup and cream having 800—you can use it almost at a one-for-one swap. For a baked potato, it’s a great way to avoid the sour cream and butter.

WCT: Could you talk a little about your commitment to exercise?

RD: Sure. It sort of happened by accident, as I wrote in the book. I toyed with exercise, but I never made it a huge priority in my life. Then a chiropractor I see asked me to help him with a charity event, and I ended up doing this triathlon—which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I absolutely loved. Now, several triathlons and two half-Ironmans later, I’ve learned that diet and exercise are important; you’ll have some success if you do one, but not as much as if you try both.

And you have to have a reason to do it: With the triathlons, I am testing ability to achieve the impossible. I couldn’t walk a mile, much less run three, six, 13. I couldn’t swim when I started. Sometimes it’s nice to challenge yourself. My weight, physical energy and health changed. About a year after getting into triathlons, my doctor said that I had remade my body, inside and out.

WCT: Was the triathlon harder than Dancing with the Stars?

RD: I’m sorry; [the show] was harder. That was very difficult. That was doing the impossible mind, body and soul. It was a function of “If I train more, I can do this.” There was no amount of training that would make me a better dancer. It’s biomechanics, it’s psychological—a lot of issues came into play.

WCT: Lastly, I read that you were on a program with [actors] Marisa Tomei and Dan Cortese, where all of you went to Italy.

RD: Yes. I did a series of Webisodes with Marisa Tomei and Dan Cortese for, produced by Bertolli [an international brand of Italian and Mediterranean food]. I had worked with Bertolli for about four years, and it was about seeing where the inspiration for their meals came from. So we met with egg farmers, butchers and other offbeat food gurus. It was really fun.

Now Eat This! is available in bookstores and

Interview by Andrew Davis for the

Windy City Times

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