Rocco Dispirito’s Now Eat This! Food Truck is known for its healthy comfort food – and the chef himself is a shining example of maintaining healthy living while enjoying great food. Before this week’s Wine & Food festival storms New York, we stopped by Rocco’s truck to find out about his Thrillist BBQ and Blues event, what he really thinks about the soda ban, and which chef he’d like to trade empires with for a day…
What made you start the Now Eat This food truck?
I wanted to prove the theory in the books in person. So I wanted people to be able to come to the truck, taste the food and see if my theory that healthy and delicious are not mutually exclusive is true.
Why is healthy food so important to you? Why has it become a big part of what you’re doing?
I think everyone knows why healthy eating is important. It’s important to me recently – actually since 2005/6. I had a couple of health issues that really scared the hell out of me. And the alternative was to take a lot of medicines that did things like make you depressed, cause impedance and destroy your liver. I was like, I don’t think I’m going to go that route. And the doctor said – as a throw away – well, you can diet and exercise and take care of everything. And I was like, let me try that. It was a lot better than all the medicine.
What’s the trick to cutting the recipes down? What’s the process behind doing that?
It’s funny – there is no trick. The process is kind of like when boys buy a model car; they take it apart and put it back together again, just to see if they can. And sometimes, you lose a few pieces, but the plane is still back together. So it’s sort of like that. I take a dish apart completely and I look for every opportunity to cut calories, fat, bad sugars, simple carbs and replace them with highly nutritious ingredients that will also help me hold onto the integrity of the flavor. And it’s a long process. It’s sort of like; try this, it doesn’t work, try something else, it doesn’t work. Okay, the first thing and the third I tried work together. So it’s a lot of trial and error.
Is it easier with certain cuisines? Was it harder with Italian?
Mediterranean cuisine is a little easier because it does start out fairly healthy. It’s a lot of plant based food with very little meat and lots of fish, healthy fats, fresh fruits and fresh everything – very few processed foods. It’s taking things like hot pockets, pizza, hot dogs, brownies, cupcakes and fried chicken that really poses a problem. The things that are most difficult are desserts, so when I take apart these dishes, the first thing I do is remove the fat, the sugar and the flour – or any simple carb that’s in. Desserts are made of those three things almost entirely: Fat, flour and sugar. So you have nothing left (laughs) when you take those apart. So then I end up using things like cooked beets, white beans, black beans, red beans, and gelatin. My brownie cupcakes are made with black beans and even kids like them – and they’re gluten free.
In terms of health, what do you think about the new soda ban?
I think it’s an extreme reaction to an extreme problem. I think all things being equal, it’s a bit Draconian and almost totalitarian. But we have a serious problem in this country. 67% of America has a weight issue, and obesity related issues kill more Americans than everything else combined. One in four children is obese; we are raising the least healthy group of youngsters we’ve ever had in the history of this country. And you guys know about the health insurance crisis and what’s going on with that – how expensive health insurance rates are. That’s because everyone’s unhealthy. If we didn’t have to pay for all that medicine and all that care that goes along with obesity related illnesses, it would be much less of a burden on everyone. So there is a big issue and no one is doing anything about it. So I guess Bloomberg’s like “I’ll do what I can; I’ll use executive privilege and do what I can.” I’m personally opposed to soda of any kind, except for this natural soda that I sell that is made with stevia.
When it comes to restaurants, you always say you can go out and still be healthy. Do you think also that restaurants could be doing things differently or do you think it’s all how people order?
I’m starting to think restaurants now approach healthy as an opportunity. They used to sort of hate the idea of having to accommodate any kind of requests or special requests whatsoever. But health is becoming a really big topic, and its getting bigger and bigger. I think that we’re approaching a tipping point in the US culture where even Red Lobster now has a restaurant where everything is under 500 calories. Five years ago, that would have been thought of as insane, so I think we’re approaching a point where everyone is going to be participating. Do they like offering more things? Probably not. It’s probably more expensive to offer these things; it takes more work, plus the expertise required to figure out how to make food taste good and be healthy is complicated and difficult to find. I’ve been doing this since 2005 and I feel like I’m just starting to learn how to do it.
Could you tell us a bit about your upcoming event in the New York Food & Wine Festival?
New York Wine and Food Festival October 12th, 7:00, Thrillist BBQ and Blues. 500 people are coming to enjoy some BBQ from me and a few friends of mine. I’m doing healthy brisket – a Tuscan grill styled brisket and it should be fun. I’m really excited that Food & Wine in New York chose to donate the proceeds to Food Bank and Share our Strength. It makes it a very special event for all the chefs involved because we put a lot of time into food security issues. Three million New Yorkers don’t know where their next meal is coming from, so it’s a big deal.
Could you give us a round up of New York spots you’ll go to during the festival?
Well, you’re asking a guy who goes out once a year maybe. I’m about to expose the fact that I haven’t been out, at night, with any kind of seriousness since the 90’s. The family’s in from out of town and I took them to Minetta Tavern; it was fantastic. The most exciting part of the dinner was that I got to sit next to Rachel Weisz. That was really cool. I enjoyed the evening with her. She had no idea I was there, but it was great. She didn’t know we had dinner together. Any Shake Shack. That’s all I know. Boom Boom Room maybe? I’ve never been, but I hear good things.
If there was a chef or restaurateur there that could swap gigs with for a night who would it be?
I would like to swap this truck for Danny Meyer’s empire. You think he’d go for it?