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'The Restaurant' chef Rocco DiSpirito and business partners continue trading lawsuits


By Wade Paulsen, 04/15/2004 

No wonder reality TV superproducer Mark Burnett decided to feature celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito in the second season of his hit NBC show The Restaurant, which debuts Monday, April 19 on NBC for a six-episode run through May sweeps. Hot food and spicy lawsuits all in one show: how can it miss?

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As previously reported, a major storyline for the second season of The Restaurant is the growing conflict between Chef Rocco and his main partner, financier Jeffrey Chodorow, who wants to seize control of Rocco's on 22nd Street, the restaurant referred to in the title. As discussed during the first season, the driving factor behind the launch of Rocco's on 22nd Street was the backing of American Express, which actually funded the show as well as the restaurant. However, when the cameras stopped rolling, the battles for control -- control that normally belongs to the financier but in this case was split due to the importance of Chef Rocco's TV image to AmEx -- heated up.

Ultimately, after season two filming had wrapped, Chodorow sued Chef Rocco in February, alleging that Rocco had "failed to provide food and service of sufficient quality" and accusing him of "not devot[ing] the time and effort needed to operate the restaurant in a financially responsible manner." Chodorow also seized operating control of the restaurant. In a prepared statement at that time, Rocco said that he "look[ed] forward to having [Chodorow] held accountable for his actions."

Fast forward two months to April. According to the New York Times, Rocco not only replied to Chodorow's lawsuit, he countersued, seeking at least $6 million in damages and the restoration of his 50% control. According to Rocco's court filing, opening a restaurant under his name had been his dream, but "this dream has now become a nightmare. After almost a full year of unpaid time, skill and effort, the outlay of substantial out-of-pocket costs, lost opportunities, and incredible emotional strain, the DiSpirito parties have been stripped unilaterally of any say in the operation of the restaurant that bears Rocco's name and have been wrongly accused of mismanagement and breach of duty."

Interestingly, the relationship between Rocco DiSpirito and Jeffrey Chodorow pre-dates the launch of Rocco's on 22nd Street. Rocco was the co-owner and chef of a Manhattan hot spot named Union Pacific when he started making appearances on network and syndicated TV. Chodorow, who had just fired the chef of the disappointing Tuscan Steak eatery, saw one of Rocco's spots on either NBC's Weekend Today Show or Live with Regis and Kelly and hired him as the consulting chef for the successful relaunch of Tuscan as an Italian-influenced restaurant.

After Tuscan came Rocco's on 22nd Street -- except that, the second time around, Rocco had co-ownership, which appears to be the root of the problems. However, Rocco's countersuit alleges that Chodorow has also breached an agreement between the two over the running of Tuscan.

Or, perhaps, the problems relate more to the fact that Rocco is making a fortune, while Rocco's on 22nd Street isn't, and Rocco is a celebrity, while Chodorow is still a non-entity, despite his non-stop bragging about his "electric combination of uncompromised quality, vision and gourmet expertise." A man who claimed to be "involved in the creation of practically every dish" at his flagship China Grill restaurant due to his expertise "as a lifelong connoisseur of good food" (even though his real-estate development background, not his culinary skill, is the actual reason that he got into the restaurant business) is not likely to sit around silently when all the plaudits are going to his partner.

Although, as noted, filming of season two of The Restaurant wrapped before the filing of the lawsuits, we fully expect to see co-executive producer Mark Burnett bring them into the final episode. After all, how often do producers get a chance to show a courtroom drama without having to hire scriptwriters?

We should add that Burnett has a special reason to feel grateful to Chef Rocco and The Restaurant. Although Burnett's first two TV productions were widely acclaimed -- Eco-Challenge for USA and Survivor for CBS -- he followed these two with a string of disappointments, including Combat Missions, American Fighter Pilots and Boarding House: North Shore before his flagging reputation was revived by the hit The Restaurant for NBC last summer. Now, thanks to The Apprentice, also on NBC, Burnett is once again the hottest producer in reality TV, with several new shows upcoming or in development (most prominently The Contender for NBC and The Casino for Fox). But the comeback started right here in Manhattan.

Chef Rocco, however, appears to be pursuing new reality TV ventures without Mark Burnett's involvement. Variety reports that Rocco and reality-TV powerhouse Endemol USA (owner of the Big Brother and Fear Factor shows) have signed a deal for Rocco to host a five-day-a-week cooking/talk show that Endemol would syndicate in the US. Launch of the show is tentively scheduled for Fall 2005 ... which means that Chef Rocco may no longer be a day-to-day chef in little more than a year from now.

If Rocco wants to know how well ex-reality show chefs do with TV cooking shows, we urge him to contact another person made famous by Mark Burnett -- Survivor: The Australian Outback contestant Keith Famie (also known as "Kan't-Kook-Keith"), who hosts a TV show that runs on the Food Network, a cable channel, at 4 AM on Mondays and 4:30 AM on Tuesdays. We hope Rocco is looking forward to competing with infomercials....

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