Oh, please," I said to myself, looking over the menu on my initial visit to Union Pacific, New York's trendy, foodie-canonized hot spot. Among the tortured-sounding appetizers was Taylor Bay scallops with uni, mustard oil, and tomato water, and I knew I was in for another evening of . . . Wanton Chef Creativity! The antidote for this particular disease is a plain roast chicken—but I could tell straight off that I'd sooner find a Ring Ding in this kitchen than a chicken that had escaped High Concept.
Look into your heart of hearts, fellow restaurant sufferers, and tell the gastronomic truth: Aren't you sick and tired of it all? After your last meal at some culinary citadel of cleverness, did you not promptly forget 95 percent of what you'd eaten? Are you not about to strangle the next chef who has a deep-seated need to express himself in foie gras and cherimoya?
So when the Taylor Bay scallops arrived, they didn't stand much of a chance with me—until I tasted one, that is, and discovered, in and around those mollusks, a gastronomic music of the spheres. Faster than you can say "confit of wild boar with hoja santa essence and terrine of Hawaiian ogo," my position shifted from "How could a chef be so desperate for invention as to contrive a dish from these ingredients?" to "How could these ingredients have waited so many eons to come together?" And right there I apprehended the truth: The problem lies not in creativity, but in the creators.
It was, of course, Rocco DiSpirito, executive chef and chief creator of Union Pacific, who yoked those yummy things together, and now that I've tasted all kinds of DiSpirito yolks and yokings, I'm ready to put it bluntly—I think DiSpirito is the best creative chef in America today under 35 years of age. (He's also better than many a chef over 35 years old who's better known.) And I think the food at Union Pacific is so good that it has once again made me, when dreaming of dinner, dream of something Higher Concept than roast chicken.
But why do Rocco's delicious juxtapositions and tweaks seem practically fated before they're plated, while those of so many others seem discouragingly random? Is it pure talent that has brought Rocco to this exalted place, or did the specific path he took contribute mightily? And if the latter is the case, what can other young chefs learn from this path that will improve fine dining in America?
I'm voting for talent plus path, nature plus nurture. Which is good news for other creative wannabes: With a modicum of talent, I believe, and better (meaning more disciplined) training, other young American chefs can scale the heights. But for a variety of reasons, it isn't going to be easy.
It is not, for example, going to be easy to follow Rocco's gastronomic path. He was lucky in this regard: both his parents were born near Naples; both had the Old World, southern Italian lust for food in their blood; and both moved to New York ten years before his birth (the blessed event took place in Queens, in 1966). Rocco's grandmother had such powerful foodlust that, in the 1950s, she virtually re-created her Campania farm in her new hometown of West Hempstead, Long Island. "My first memory," DiSpirito told me, "is of my uncle climbing a mulberry tree on the farm and shaking it—with me helping to hold the tarp below." Rocco also helped in the harvesting of figs, pears, cherries, and peaches; in the raising of pheasants, chickens, rabbits, and pigeons; and in the making of wine. "My grandmother was a phenomenal cook," DiSpirito recounts. "We ate at her farm like you would eat in the countryside near Naples—great salads of home-grown peppers and tomatoes, newly laid eggs for omelets with fresh garlic, and homemade pasta always, with long-cooked sauces." The young DiSpirito spent summers at the farm until he was twelve years of age, when his family moved closer, which enabled him to visit more often.
It all makes you wonder: If an American chef, typically raised on burgers and dogs, falls in love with food in his late teens or early twenties, can he catch up? Is inventive brilliance in the kitchen founded on an intuitive understanding of food that begins at the same time as language formation? DiSpirito—in his thoughtful, modest, egalitarian way—scoffs at this idea; I'm not so sure he's right. It is interesting to note, in any case, that the specifics of that early experience are nowhere to be found in DiSpirito's cuisine—there's far more Asian in what he does than there is Mediterranean. Completely ignoring the zeitgeist, DiSpirito rarely offers pasta on his menu. But the passionate spirit of those years rolls through his work like fresh basil through a great tomato sauce.
Another explanation for the "DiSpirito difference" is simply work ethic. Too many young would-be innovators these days only want to get to the creative part—because that's what passes for "sexy" in the contemporary food world. DiSpirito himself told me that if he were running Union Pacific as a restaurant dedicated to the finest technical execution of simple roast chicken or simple grilled veal chops, he wouldn't be able to acquire a staff of talented assistants. "Young chefs today just want to learn the razzle-dazzle," he said. "Without it, in this kitchen I would just get paycheck-earners."
But DiSpirito himself has patched together years of disparate kitchen experiences into an idiosyncratic point of view. At eleven he took a summer job in a pizza parlor working ten hours a day, six days a week; at twelve he expanded his résumé to include an equally arduous job at a Bagel Nosh. The notion that restaurant work is hard, demanding, and not necessarily glamorous came to him early. At fourteen he took an after-school job as a chef at a checked-tablecloth Italian restaurant on Long Island where he learned to present food at a somewhat higher level. At sixteen he became an apprentice at the New Hyde Park Inn, a sizeable restaurant run by a German family and featuring a Continental menu devoted to herring and lamb chops—the kind of place to which no ambitious young chef today would willingly devote a year. And Rocco? "It was amazing for me," he says. "They insisted on things being done from scratch—consommés, sauces, sausages, terrines. My values were instilled there. I got to see the level to which you could take the profession of cooking."
A year or so later, after high school, DiSpirito landed in the one college environment that he knew was right for him—The Culinary Institute of America, located in Hyde Park, New York. "I tried to learn everything I possibly could at the CIA, every moment. When classes were over for the day I started an ice-carving club, just because I was curious. The CIA was precisely what I needed at that time. I came out a completely different person—excited at how much I had learned, but now believing that even more schooling, even more training was necessary."
Upon graduating in 1986, DiSpirito immediately boarded a plane to Paris to work at Jardin des Cygnes, an unstarred restaurant located in the Hôtel Prince de Galles, under the supervision of chef Dominique Cecillon. It was here that Rocco embarked upon the experience that, according to him, had the most profound influence on his development as a culinary creator. And I'll wager that any chef worth his fleur de sel has had a similar experience. That experience was France. "I couldn't do what I'm doing," DiSpirito says, "had I not learned the French base."
Call me old-fashioned, but perhaps the achievement of brilliant culinary creativity is like becoming a virtuoso musician—you have to practice scales. DiSpirito did just that by working in so many different modes over so many years, and by pulling something vital out of each one. His variegated culinary path has given him the ability to synthesize, enabled him to invent cuisine that is internally logical yet seems like no one else's. Creative food, just maybe, is a thumbprint of well-worn hands.
Of course, the road to success was not without its speed bumps. When Rocco arrived in Paris with no work visa, Cecillon told him that there would be no work. DiSpirito, not dispirited, found employment at an American establishment nearby—but soon started working at Jardin des Cygnes, off-hours, for free. "Well, he did feel terrible about what had happened," DiSpirito says, "and subsequently took me under his wing." It was to be DiSpirito's first important French lesson: "I learned about the tradition of kitchen camaraderie in France," he says. "How a chef protects other chefs. It's a lesson I draw on every day, working with my staff."
There were other lessons as well. "I received my first eye-opening, in-depth information about luxury French ingredients," DiSpirito says. "For example, truffles and foie gras. But more important still, I learned about stewardship in general—how to find the best ingredients, how to take care of them, how to handle them."
For DiSpirito, whose approach to information is reminiscent of a shark's approach to flesh, it went even further. "I was amazed to discover," he remarks, "that food can be not only personally important, it can be embedded in a culture as well. If somebody said to the daughter of the restaurant's owner that we're out of mayonnaise, she'd just whip out a bowl and make it—and make it as if civilization depended on it." It's this passion, this obsession, that, historically, led to the most important French contribution of all: the development of culinary technique. It is the glue, the backbone of Western cuisine. "Fusion is a style," DiSpirito says. "It's not cooking; classic French technique is cooking. What the French have done with food will always be the most significant contribution to dining. What we do here in the United States as creative cooks—and, in our more adventurous culture, are now taking to a different level—we simply learned from them." DiSpirito's plain embrace of that historical reality—one that is not made by many young American chefs, who think that creative cooking began in 1988 in Berkeley or SoHo—is one of the primary factors that elevates him above the crowd. "Braise a piece of meat a hundred times," says DiSpirito, "and if you're paying attention, you'll learn something new every time."
But experience will only take you so far. The key to the DiSpirito difference, I am convinced, lies in this simple fact: He invents dishes with a purpose. A purpose— what a concept! I would wager that if you asked 100 young dish jockeys why they are turning out new "masterpieces" every night, 98 of them would reluctantly admit the truth: "Because it's cool." Or, "Because I don't know what else to do."
Everything DiSpirito cooks is informed by a single, nearly mystical, nearly mathematical formula: the balance of four tastes. "I certainly didn't start off thinking about the flavors the tongue perceives—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. To tell the truth, I did not even know what they were. But with time, as I observed my own creative instincts, I realized that what I was doing in every new dish was trying to pull those four flavors into harmony."
Take those Taylor Bay scallops. Each tiny lump of sweet fish sits like a jewel on its shell, surrounded by a limpid puddle of intense tomato water. Okay, there's nothing new about clear tomato water, not since Vongerichten and Bouley unleashed it in the '80s. But I've never seen it put to better use. Why? Because it's the perfect team player in this dish, adding an acid edge that balances the sweetness of the scallops. The creamy curdle of sea urchin that rides on top adds the salty factor, the drop of Bengali mustard oil the bitterness. "I have never created a dish that so beautifully expresses the balance I'm after as this one does," DiSpirito told me. I believe him. The dish is perfect.
But why are there so few such dishes being invented? "Again, it's about balance," DiSpirito says. "Not enough chefs are looking for it. And," he adds, taking the plunge into culinary psychoanalysis, "most chefs are out of balance in their lives as well. We're full of energy, manic, out of our minds. If we could get balanced personally . . . if we could find the time to taste our food . . . if we could find the time to focus our dishes . . . if we could find the time to search for balance . . . the level of cooking would rise precipitously."
One of the liveliest areas of DiSpirito's work is the Asian-inspired raw fish dishes. But why does he devote so much time to these plates? Balance, of course. "I am intrigued by the way Asian chefs have traditionally balanced the fattiness of raw fish with other ingredients. Once you know how much fat is in the fish, you know how to balance it—with acid, with salt, with bitterness, with fruit for sweetness." If you taste one thing other than the Taylor Bay scallops at Union Pacific, make it the Japanese handkerchiefs served with whole-bean soy, soybean purée, and citrus vinaigrette. Raw fish is folded on the plate over other ingredients so that it resembles a handkerchief. But it's not purely a visual thrill; the specificity of the fold affects the way you bite into the fish, which in turn affects the way you experience the texture. "I always use fish with different fat contents," DiSpirito says. "If I can get everything I want, the ideal permutation of the dish has bluefin tuna, aji, shima aji, ama ebi, and madai."
Another preternaturally balanced raw fish miracle was an amuse bouche that DiSpirito whipped up one night—just a little bluefin tuna with madai and uni emulsion topped with beluga caviar. Jazzed up with a dusting of black and white sesame seeds, studded with sorrel and baby herbs, anointed with swirls of bright-green cilantro oil, it was, my friends, the ultimate yin-yang whiz-bang.
But it showed another side of DiSpirito as well—the restlessly inventive technician. He did not, I can guarantee, learn to make a sea urchin emulsion at Jardin des Cygnes in Paris. But the creamy luxury of that emulsion is something that all French chefs would recognize. "It's the kind of creativity I most enjoy," DiSpirito informed me. "Figuring out a new way to do something technically." On a recent visit, DiSpirito said he was making some chicken for me. When I wrapped my mouth around the silkiest, most velvety white meat I have ever experienced, I knew something was up. "Oh, I poach the chicken in a Cryovac bag for sixty minutes," he told me, "and then crisp the skin to a crackle afterwards." Lots of DiSpirito's meats, in fact, have insanely melted, sexy textures. "Basically," DiSpirito says, "I try to forget everything I know when I cook a piece of protein." Lately this thinking has led him into the new technical realm of slow—impossibly slow—cooking. "Sometimes I crisp things before, then cook them slowly—like searing a duck breast, then letting it cook extremely slowly in warm goose fat. Sometimes I crisp things later—like baby lamb wrapped in caul fat, sitting in a liquid environment of goose fat at 160 degrees, then getting seared at the end. And sometimes I skip the searing, like salmon steaks melting in beurre blanc in a slow oven."
Often, however, DiSpirito's technical achievements are not brand-new, but rather, intelligent tweaks of classic techniques. DiSpirito's wonderful foie gras cru, perhaps the best cold foie gras I've tasted in the United States, follows a classic French practice: the marinating and quick-curing of raw foie gras, a practice that's just starting to gather trendy steam here in the States. However, his decision to pair the raw foie gras with a persimmon-and-black-truffle marmalade—remember the balances!—lifts the dish into the stratosphere. So it is with his egg in the hole, which is firmly based in classic brioche technique and the French practice of combining brioche with runny eggs. The pastry is extraordinary—deeply buttery and slightly crunchy without, amazingly tender within. But it's the runny quail's egg in the middle, the gravlax and beluga caviar on top, and the surrounding pool of brown butter and chive oil that would cause Escoffier to rise from his grave in rapture. A notch down in sublimity, but not in flavor, is DiSpirito's take on classic braised oxtail—the shredded, tender meat here assembled into a "bonbon" and perfectly coupled with a sweet garlic cream and tiny vegetables.
You will, in fact, find many ingredients like oxtail at Union Pacific: funky, low-cost ingredients that don't usually turn up on American menus. The reasons turn out to be purely practical. "There's such competition for ingredients today among chefs in New York," DiSpirito notes, "that very often only lesser grades of popular meats and fish and produce are available. I won't use them. Instead I seek those raw ingredients that no one else seems to want, which guarantees that I get the best of them." Once again, Creativity with a Purpose! And sure enough, as you run down the menu, you find a surprisingly high percentage of principal proteins such as veal shoulder, breast of veal, veal tongue, tripe, Spanish mackerel, skate, and congrio. Congrio? "A great South American fish that no one knows," DiSpirito explains. "It has the flavor of hake and the texture of lobster.And I get beautiful congrio."To enhance the fish, of course, DiSpirito simply balances it with curried nightshade and a pumpkin confit.
Which raises another question. Yes, high quality ingredient availability well explains the offbeat main ingredients. But what about all the subsidiary wacky ingredients? What about the Banyuls vinegar, the hon shimeji mushrooms, the lime pickle, the cubanelle peppers, the winter savory, the yuzu, the quince jus, the lily-bulb crisps on steak tartare, the lemon confit, the brain foam—are they not there, at least in part, for the shock value? Not on your life, says DiSpirito. "These are all ingredients I know well. What I'm trying to do is build logical complexity of flavor—and if I use an ingredient, that means I'm absolutely convinced that that ingredient, and no other, is the one that I need."
A waiter at Union Pacific once told me that DiSpirito uses as many as 50 different ingredients in some of his dishes. So, ever seeking to prick the bubble of pretension, I asked the chef if his creations did indeed have 50 components, and if such ingredient inflation were necessary. He looked as though I had punched him. "Well," he remarked, "I suppose that, if you include subrecipes—stocks, oils, purées—you might sometimes reach fifty. And I submit that if I serve you a fifty-ingredient recipe today, there's a reason for every one of those ingredients. However, I do have to admit that my cooking has gotten simpler over the years. I'm sure there aren't so many fifty-ingredient recipes anymore.
"Just a few years ago," he continued, "I felt that I had to live up to the reputation of wild, creative chef. I don't feel that way now." That has to do with his feeling that diners haven't been discerning enough; that they have been too willing to accept new ideas for their newness alone. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in DiSpirito's view fusion has lost its novelty. "There is no fusion anymore," he elaborates. "Every chef today has rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, Indian spices, and fifteen other Asian products in the pantry. But there's nothing intrinsically exciting about this, or even worthy of a name; this is just contemporary American cooking."
There's one last reason DiSpirito's creativity soars: He's in it for the food. In this age of chef celebrity, more than one head has been turned by the lure of lucre, the promise of promotion. Such offers come DiSpirito's way in spades. High rollers love his food, so he has been thrown more restaurant deals than you can shake a wooden spoon at. "My God," he exclaims, "I'm overwhelmed right now just with what I do in this one kitchen. Yes, I am inundated with offers—but if I spent any less time here I couldn't deliver what my customers are experiencing today." How insanely refreshing: a creative chef who is intent on the day-to-day execution of his food.
"Whose work do you revere?" I asked Rocco, finally. "I ate the food of Marguerite Tayel, a chef in Israel," he told me, "a woman who felt her food down to the molecule. I observed David Bouley, who has the lightest, most graceful hand of any chef I've ever seen. I worked with Gray Kunz, who puts together classic cooking and a crazy imagination, forging the most extraordinary synergy you could imagine. And for me, the creative cuisine of Pierre Gagnaire in Paris is currently the pinnacle of the world, more exciting than anything I've tasted in the U.S."
Funny, that. In hours of talking with DiSpirito, I found little to disagree with until this latter statement. I dined at Pierre Gagnaire several months ago, right in the midst of my research for this profile of DiSpirito. I loved my long, leisurely meal at Pierre Gagnaire. But Gagnaire's judgment has failed him. He is great, but at the moment he's only near the pinnacle. DiSpirito is not quite so restlessly creative, but for my money, he's better. Vive la France, to be sure, but long live idiosyncratic American genius too.
Union Pacific is located at 111 East 22nd Street in Manhattan; 212-995-8500. www.unionpacificrestaurant.com
Dinner for two, excluding wine and service, $130.
David Rosengarten is a cookbook author and hosts several shows on the Food Network.