The media savvy chef (@roccodispirito) is turning to the social networks to help decide which dishes he should include in his new book, devoted to healthy versions of popular dishes. He's asking fans directly for their opinions, like in this recent query: "How important is pulled pork and chocolate chip cookies to you for inclusion in my healthy food makeover cookbook?"
Tweets and posts with suggestions came flowing back (with a strong pro-pork sentiment on Facebook).
It may sound like a publicity gimmick for the interactive age, but DiSpirito says the experiment in culinary cyber-populism will make his cookbook more relevant and will hopefully inspire more people to pick up a spatula.
"If your job is to make someone who wants to cook at home feel like they really can, then you owe it to them to figure out what they want," DiSpirito said in a telephone interview.
The cookbook, which is due March 2 and lacks a final title, consists of healthier versions of what DiSpirito calls America's favorite "downfall dishes," those beloved but often unwholesome foods like burgers, enchiladas, mac and cheese and fried chicken. DiSpirito's self-imposed creative challenge was to shave off calories or carbs from classic dishes without making them taste like cardboard.
His re-tinkered burger patty, for instance, includes lean beef mixed with turkey. His "unfried" chicken is de-skinned, poached, coated with low-fat breading, then flash fried in grape seed oil.
DiSpirito is keeping control in the kitchen. But he thought it natural to crowdsource for a cookbook that includes the phrase "most popular dishes," even if it plays against the stereotype of the chef as a culinary autocrat.
Collaborative cookbooks are nothing new, though most are compilations of recipes from multiple sources like the old community cookbooks or the Brass sisters' recent collections of heirloom recipes.
Pam Fradkin, who tracks trends as a customer service representative for the online cookbook store Jessica's Biscuit at ecookbooks.com, said modern takes on "comfort foods" are big right now. The use of social media during the cookbook's creation is new, she said.
"This is different," Fradkin said. "The social media allows for very immediate gratification of what you want now, not necessarily of what you've wanted for the past 10 years."
DiSpirito has a highbrow pedigree that includes an education at the Culinary Institute of America and a successful stint heading the three-star Union Pacific restaurant in New York City. But he's always been open to mixing it up with the masses.
He gained widespread recognition in 2003 with the reality TV show "The Restaurant." The series, which lasted for two seasons, chronicled the rise and fall of his second restaurant. He's hardly been a stranger to TV since then -- he even did a samba routine on "Dancing with the Stars."
It's no surprise that DiSpirito has embraced the possibilities of social media.
There are a bunch of celebrity chefs who tweet or post, among them Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, Giada De Laurentiis and Rick Bayless. Some, like Bayless, actually respond to tweeters seeking cooking tips. But many celebrity chef updates consist of little more than where they travel, when their TV shows are airing and what they ate for breakfast.
DiSpirito is taking advantage of the give-and-take nature of Twitter and Facebook. Who knew people were looking for a healthy remake of stodgy, old beef Wellington? DiSpirito certainly didn't -- until fans told him.
DiSpirito is among the many professionals concerned that Americans love their food shows and celebrity chefs but don't regularly cook and invite people over for meals. He hopes his new book will address the participation problem by getting fans involved in the creative process.
"My feeling is that chefs have done a great job over the last 15 years of getting everyone all frothy at the mouth about the subject of food and wine and cooking and entertaining at home," he said. "I think the next level of this is getting them to actually participate."
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