By David Knowles
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – How much do you love Rocco DiSpirito? How you answer that question might determine your reaction to Bravo’s latest Top Chef imitator “Rocco’s Dinner Party,” which premieres June 15.
The former chef at New York’s Union Pacific, DiSpirito embarked on a reality television career back in 2003, shortly after earning a coveted three-star review from New York Times critic Ruth Reichl. Introduced to national audiences on NBC’s short-lived series “The Restaurant,” the handsome but ornery chef went on to become a one-man franchise, penning a few acclaimed cookbooks and appearing on “Dancing With the Stars,” “Top Chef,” “The Biggest Loser: Couples,” “The Biggest Loser: Families,” “Today” and his own series, “Rocco Gets Real.”
Betting that the world is still hungry for more DiSpirito swagger, he returns in “Rocco’s Dinner Party,” an intimate three-person cooking competition that never lets the camera stray from its camera-friendly host for long.
Hosting weekly celebrity dinner parties at his fabulous New York loft — whose kitchen alone is bigger than most Manhattan one-bedroom apartments — DiSpirito gives three working chefs that proverbial “chance of a lifetime” by letting them compete for the right to serve him.
“The chefs who don’t meet my standards won’t serve my guests,” DiSpirito explains. “And the one chef who gets it all right will leave my loft with $20,000.”
In the premiere episode, the contestants plucked from obscurity include Geoff Johnson, a chef at a New Jersey restaurant; Britt Kurent, the owner of a catering company; and J.J. Johnson, a sous chef at an executive dining room.
“Tomorrow night, I have six friends coming over for dinner, and they really expect to have a great time,” DiSpirito tells the chefs, each of whom, it seems safe to say, knows his or her way around a saucepan. On the other hand, think how bummed you’d be if you managed to procure a dinner invite to Rocco’s lavish pad only to learn the food was being outsourced.
Basically a condensed-cast, one-night-stand version of “Top Chef,” the show is divided into two parts. In the first, DiSpirito has the contestants rush through the equivalent of a Quickfire Challenge, during which they whip up a signature dish in 30 minutes. A deftly edited, if not by-now-formulaic cooking sequence ensues. Upping the tension, DiSpirito hangs out in his kitchen offering not-so-constructive criticism to his stressed-out chefs.
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“Usually, we like our lobsters to be alive,” Rocco says, dangling one of Johnson’s rather flaccid crustaceans over a pot. His abrasive, sarcastic tone will ring true to anyone who has ever worked for an overbearing head chef, but it doesn’t exactly endear us to our host.
As the sole judge for the first challenge (it’s his dinner party, after all), DiSpirito keeps the contestants’ feet to the fire, critiquing each dish at length before ever taking a bite.
“When you blend an avocado, you lose all of its texture. You turn it into a slushie,” Rocco tells Kurent, whose arctic char tartare rests atop a brownish-green avocado smear.
With one contestant booted from the proceedings, it’s on to Part 2 of the show: the dinner party. DiSpirito informs the remaining chefs that the arbitrary theme of the night will be the Prohibition-era speakeasy and brings in “celebrity event producer” Jes Gordon to help transform a room in DiSpirito’s many-roomed home so as to align with said theme.
“Jess will be helping you execute your vision for the decor, an important element of any great dinner party,” Rocco explains for those who might be confused as to why having friends over for dinner necessitates an extreme makeover of one’s dining room.
As our chefs toil away over the hot stove, the VIP guests arrive. We meet actors Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Bryan Batt (“Mad Men”), Broadway great Christine Ebersole, “Top Chef Masters” host Kelly Choi, restaurateur and “Top Chef Masters” champ Marcus Samuelesson, and, for reasons lost on this reviewer, Forbes media critic Bill McCuddy. Padma Lakshmi was busy?
At Rocco’s terrace dining table, a five-course meal is served and devoured. Next, the party heads over to the formal dining room, where another four courses are packed away amid easily forgettable repartee.
In the end, DiSpirito picks the victor. “Ultimately, I do know that in one of your dinner parties my guests did have a better time,” he tells the dueling chefs. Unfortunately, one episode isn’t enough to develop a real connection with either cook, so we don’t end up feeling all that invested in who is declared the winner.
Just like Top Chef or any of Gordon Ramsay’s recent vehicles, “Rocco’s Dinner Party” is a personality-driven food show that really isn’t about the chow. And while DiSpirito comes off at times as conceited and insufferable, his rhetorical barbs occasionally add spice to an often bland and overcrowded genre. Is that enough to keep the show going for more than a season? That all depends on how many people are taken with its host.