What is a holiday meal at home like when you’re friends and family of a James Beard award-winning chef? For those close to Rocco DiSpirito, it involves a meal that is both healthy and delicious, which also happens to be the title of his 13th cookbook, Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious, released in October. His latest cookbook, which showcases over 200 mostly plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free and no-sugar-added recipes, is like taking a glimpse into DiSpirito’s kitchen and diet. His personal journey to improve his health and lose weight has also affected and transformed his culinary career and mission to inspire others to go “back to the basics” and eat nutritious, seasonal and organic food.
“It is really a return to the principles of how my grandparents ate, which was a mostly Mediterranean plan full of fresh vegetables and fruit, healthy fats and with small portions of high-quality organic meats, poultry and seafood and limited dairy and added sugars,” says DiSpirito. “We know about the healthy benefits of this style of eating now, but for them it really was just a way of life.”
Unlike some of DiSpirito’s previous books, which were more diet and weight-loss focused, his current book is more lifestyle focused and provides guidance on creating healthy habits that are sustainable throughout life. Some of the lifestyle habits he encourages include making meal preparation at home a priority, purchasing organic food—which he explains can be affordable—and focusing on a plant-based approach to eating. In addition, a gluten-free and dairy-free approach to eating are also emphasized in his book. DiSpirito doesn’t have celiac, a reason many individuals need to follow a gluten-free eating pattern, but he has adopted a totally gluten-free diet since 2014. Although his diet may exclude gluten, dairy and added sugars, it isn’t about deprivation. Instead, DiSpirito celebrates, enjoys and teaches others ways to focus on all the nourishing foods they can and should include as part of a healthy eating plan.
Gluten-Free Living caught up with the New York-based celebrity chef and discussed his new cookbook and the best tips for celebrating the holidays the healthy way.
GFL: Your definition of healthy eating has evolved since the publication of Now Eat This! and is reflected in your new cookbook. What or who had the most influence on refining your current dietary and culinary approach?
RD: The food and exercise changes I’ve made personally and how my culinary career and food philosophy has evolved was really an organic journey. It started out as a means to get my health in order. The first step for me to get in shape was to reduce my sugar intake, which helped naturally improve my food choices and helped naturally improve my food choices and made me feel better. In addition, I was training about five to eight hours daily for a triathlon I signed up for. I ended up losing about 30 pounds over a year, and that was really only the start of the evolution of my wellness journey. I’ve read books and attended various wellness conferences that really showcased the benefits of plant-based eating that was close to the Mediterranean diet that I grew up on, which focused on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, non-GMO wheat, limited animal protein and limited dairy. It is essentially a return to a simpler way of living and approaching food and eating. Professionally, my personal wellness journey impacted my career and food business, which is focused on helping individuals improve their health through improved food choices. It really encourages me to continue to be innovative to create healthy and delicious meals for myself and others.
GFL: Your new cookbook Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious is the 13th cookbook you’ve written and focuses on mostly plant-based recipes. Has the creative process changed since you’ve written your first cookbook?
RD: The process of developing recipes and creating a cookbook has sped up immensely since my first cookbook was written. I work through the recipe development process a lot faster and have created better strategies for taking pictures of the food for the books. I remember writing parts of my first cookbook, Flavor, in the basement of Union Pacific restaurant. It took about five years to write and complete my first cookbook. The food photography process was also quite different; for my first book, it took about eight months to take 10,000 pictures of the recipes on a Polaroid camera. Today, we have digital food photography, which helps expedite the food photography process. Additionally, I’ve taken a different approach to food styling, especially for my latest book, which really focuses on the simple beauty of the food itself versus extensive props. The photographs in Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious really let healthy food speak for itself and showcase how nutritious food can be beautiful and colorful without a lot of fuss.
GFL: What are your strategies to encourage a plant-based approach to eating?
RD: As a chef, I think the best way to encourage others to eat more plants is really to teach individuals how to prepare and eat fresh, local vegetables. Vegetable preparation goes beyond simply preparing salads or steaming vegetables; there are lots of great ways to include vegetables in your diet, and many of them are outlined in my new cookbook. A few of my favorite preparation methods include spiralizing or ricing vegetables, incorporating them into desserts, and preparing them with coconut oil and aromatics to add great flavor. I also love a good ratatouille and have a great raw vegetable ratatouille recipe in my new book. In my opinion, avocado, which is technically a fruit, has also really transformed the culinary world in terms of versatility of how we can incorporate various vegetables into our diets.
GFL: You follow the dietary principles outlined in your book, which is a gluten-free, dairy-free and no-sugar-added dietary pattern. What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out with a gluten-free diet?
RD: The most important thing is to focus on all the fantastic food you are able to incorporate into your meal plan versus what you feel like might be missing or lacking. When I was 16 years old, I lived and worked in Israel as part of a college work study program in a kosher kitchen. Cooking in a kosher kitchen, we had to adhere to kosher dietary guidelines and make delicious meals with the ingredients we were provided. We focused on the ingredients we were able to use instead of what was “missing,” and we were able to create some amazing and delicious meals. Utilizing that same perspective, focusing on what you can included versus what you cannot include is a fantastic place to start. I also encourage individuals to modify their expectations in regards to gluten-free replacements. It is really best to not try to replicate gluten-containing foods in terms of your expectations. It is very difficult to make a gluten-free bread, and it can take a lot of time in recipe development to create something delicious. It is a good idea to not try to recreate the wheel and try other people’s recipes, because they have likely already spent a lot of time on recipe testing and development. For example, I have a great microwave buckwheat bread in my new cookbook that is fantastic.
GFL: What is one of your favorite holiday memories?
RD: Although my mother traditionally did most of the food shopping for our household, my father always got involved in selecting food for a special holiday meal. On Christmas Eve, we always celebrated the feast of the seven fishes, which is an Italian-American celebration that typically consists of preparing seven different seafood dishes for the meal. I can fondly recall my father being assigned the duty of selecting the seafood choices for this particular meal and going to a fish market in Astoria to make his selection. Selecting quality food items and cooking has always been part of the holidays for me.
GFL: What are a few of your favorite holiday traditions?
RD: I typically enjoy hosting most of the major holiday meals and often do for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. At Thanksgiving, I always like to prepare three different turkeys—fried, roasted and spatchcocked along with a gluten-free stuffing. It is fun to see which turkey individuals enjoy eating the most. At Christmas, I love getting a huge Christmas tree. Putting together large stockings filled with fun gifts that family would enjoy has also been something that I thoroughly love and incorporate as part of my holiday tradition.
GFL: In the spirit of promoting a healthy lifestyle, what are some of your favorite culinary gifts that you like giving to family or friends during the holidays?
RD: There are a few favorite culinary gifts that I love giving to family and friends during the holidays, including:
Coconut manna: I use it for everything; in the kitchen, I use it in all types of dishes and put it in my coffee. I even use it outside of the kitchen, on my skin and to brush my dog’s teeth!
Espresso machines: Always a fantastic gift choice. The espresso machines that are easy to use with the espresso pods are typically a big hit.
Chef knife: Providing someone with a high-quality chef knife is a great way to promote more cooking at home.
Spiralizer: A spiralizer is a nice way to encourage someone to eat more vegetables. Oftentimes, a good spiralizer also comes with a few recipe ideas to get someone started in the kitchen.
Personalized Tabasco sauce bottle: You can purchase a personalized bottle of Tabasco sauce with someone’s name on it, which makes an excellent holiday gift.
Rocco’s Fresh Organic High Protein Shakes: You can purchase a month’s worth of fresh, organic shakes, which are part of my all-natural product food line, Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious. The shakes contain 28 grams of protein and at least 8 grams of fiber and are all gluten free, dairy free, sugar free and soy free. You can order them on my website, roccodispirito.com.
Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious: I humbly think that my latest book would make an amazing holiday gift. It provides guidance on leading a healthy life and is full of simple and delicious recipes. It also includes recipes that would make great healthy food gifts to give to others, including gluten-free breads, spicy pistachio-goji bark and People Puppy Chow.
GFL: What tips do you have for staying on track with healthy eating and physical activity during the holiday season?
RD: I typically suggest that individuals that already have an established healthy lifestyle at least 60 to 70 percent of the time, get a “hall pass” to really just enjoy the holidays. If someone hasn’t quite established healthy lifestyle habits or recognizes that the holidays might derail healthy behaviors, there are a few tips that I generally share to stay on track with healthy eating, including:
- Eating before parties, which can help prevent overeating at the event.
- Limiting high-calorie sauces and condiments.
- Limiting calories from alcoholic beverages. Instead bring non-alcoholic beverages to the party, like a sparkling cider, or, if you want to have an alcoholic drink, champagne, which is a lower-calorie choice compared to other alcoholic options.
GFL: What’s next for Rocco in 2018?
RD: It’s my privilege to experiment in the kitchen and create new, easy and convenient ways for people to eat healthy and delicious food. I’m expanding my all-natural product line and trying out new recipes daily through my fresh meal delivery service, The Pound a Day Diet. Advocating on behalf of food issues has also been one of the most rewarding parts of my life, and I’ll continue my work with HealthCorps, Feeding America and other non-profits I have the honor of working with.
Photography by Flavorworks.