Self-Care and Healthy Eating with Chef Rocco Dispirito
As a foodie, I was so excited to interview world renowned chef Rocco Dispirito for my SuperCharged Life Podcast.
Chef Rocco is a healthy lifestyle crusader, James Beard award-winning chef, and highly acclaimed author of thirteen books, including five New York Times bestsellers. His love of foods began at a young age, learning the craft of cooking from his Mom. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America and Boston University, he continued working with legendary chefs and opened his 3-star restaurant Union Pacific in New York City. He is hailed as an inspiring health expert and is often called upon to speak at events, such as the Partnership for a Healthier America summit in Washington, D.C.
On this episode, we talk about Chef Rocco's battle with social anxiety and how he overcame it, his health philosophy and how he dealt with setbacks, and important life lessons for self-care after loss.
Acculturation and Anxiety
Chef Rocco: I think I was struggling with many, many things. Anxiety was probably top of the list. I didn't really understand and I still struggle with this, what was socially acceptable in class, out of class, in the playground. I came from an immigrant family that had a really hard time acculturating. They were in their 30s and 40s when they came to the United States, so their mastery of English was almost none. We didn't speak English at home until I went to kindergarten and demanded that we change our language at home from Italian to English. So yeah, I was very confused as a kid and I wasn't sure what culture and lifestyle I was exposed to at that time was the right one in public versus at home.
Dr. Judy: Right. I can imagine how that can really create just a sense of dissonance. Because you have a certain culture at home that is honored and then you go to school and these Americanized kids.
Chef Rocco: No one gets it, yeah.
Dr. Judy: Yeah. I'm from an immigrant family myself, and in fact, I'm an immigrant because I moved to the United States when I was nine.
Chef Rocco: Okay, so you understand. You understand really well.
Dr. Judy: Yeah. My parents were in their 30s. I don't think I could do what they did, which is uproot your life, and go to a completely different country where you don't speak the language and try to really-
Chef Rocco: Just make a life for yourself.
Dr. Judy: Yeah.
Chef Rocco: They're amazing, our parents are. That generation... I doubt they're from the same generation, but a generation of immigrants have strength that I don't think I could find if I needed it but if I needed to move to another country right now, say because of, I don't know, coronavirus or something. I don't know if I could do it. I don't know that I could do it.
Dr. Judy: Honestly, I feel like I would not be able to do it and I'm very happy admitting that. I think I'm used to my creature comforts in America and while other countries are very nice to visit, it'd be so different to try to insert yourself in a world where you don't understand.
Chef Rocco: Especially because my backup country was Italy. I am an Especially because my backup country was Italy. I have an Italian, I have an Italian passport, I'm an Italian citizen, and that was always going to be my backup country.
Dr. Judy: When was the last time you were in Italy?
Chef Rocco: A couple of years ago. But I go often, I've written cookbooks there, shot TV shows there. I'm very familiar with the culture. It's funny because it took me until my mid 30s to sort of get rid of my ethics, self-loathing and love the Italian side of me and embrace it and make it part of my work. And had you met me in my early 30s when I was opening Union Pacific and asked me for a meatball recipe, I'd have laughed at you because I'd never made the meatballs. And my mom was making these incredible dishes. But around 36, 37, 38, I sort of was like, "Wow, this is really the most wonderful part of my background."
And all these family members who live this culture, this Italian culture in America, it's more Italian than American, they speak Italian at home, they make their own food, they grow their own food. It's just this most rich and wonderful lifestyle. And in fact, some of their relatives live in what are called Blue Zones, but now, I'm sure you're familiar where people live to 100 and above very often because they have this wonderful lifestyle filled with homemade food, organic food, spirituality, purpose, community. And so, I should have been following that the whole time. Someone should've clued me in.
Dr. Judy: Italian culture I feel like is the epitome of amazing food and so much other things, like you said, community togetherness. I was just recently in Italy myself a few months ago. My husband is Italian descent and he's-
Chef Rocco: Oh, great. Wow.
Dr. Judy: Yes, he's three quarters Italian, a quarter Greek. So we went to Italy and we just love the culture. The food was so good.
Chef Rocco: The people are so nice. It's so easy to get along there.
Dr. Judy: Yes. But like you said, America can be kind of scary for someone who's just trying to figure things out. And so as a kid you actually struggle with some of that anxiety and knowing what the social-
Chef Rocco: On the way here, I struggled with it, always struggling with it. I think when you're born a first generation immigrant kid that grows up in a city like New York, and then part of the city called Jamaica Queens, which is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. So I didn't go out of my house and encounter American graffiti America. I encountered another 100 ethnicities who each had their own culture that I didn't know what I should do. So I tried to hold on to my Italian-American upbringing and tried to sort of embrace the clearly American things like the football and the baseball, all that. So the Yankees were a big part of my childhood growing up, collecting baseball cards. Oddly enough, Bruce Lee was a big part of my childhood growing up, because he was as American as I got at the time and his movies were out all the time at that time. But it's always very confusing.
Anyway, my mom also had to struggle with the same thing. She came here in her mid 30s alone no husband, no children, sponsored a bunch of her family members to come over and then got married and brought a child over. And my dad couldn't come for several years due to immigration policies. And so, she had a real hard time too. But she really made the best of it with her broken English, and all the struggles that she had. She just made it look easy.
The Definition of Success Then and Now
Dr. Judy: You mentioned that in the past your success or definition of it looked different. So what was it in your 20s and maybe early 30s?
Chef Rocco: It's just the nonstop pursuit of something financial, something with a certificate, something with a newspaper article that came with it. It all was very outside, external, not a lot coming from inside. And while that's wonderful, and I do appreciate all those accomplishments and the recognition they come with they don't fill the void, they don't fill the space that we're all trying to fill every day. And I'm very grateful for those opportunities. And to this day, the fact that at the Standard we made it into the Michelin Guides was so important to me and I'm thrilled that we did it, but it's an external thing, it's not long lasting.
So back then it was a lot of reinforcement from people on the outside and that's all I was sort of after. I did have a pure interest in cooking and that turned into creating things for other people to enjoy that they actually enjoyed. And I knew that was true for a fact. And was very lucky to be in New York at that time cooking. That was a very special time in New York. The New York customer base allowed us to be very free as artists. Now in New York, you'll see that a lot of the menus are very similar and everyone's sort of... services are contracting, not expanding. Everyone's very concerned about financial issues and the restaurant business. So this is not our heyday back in the '90s, was the heyday for all of us.
So moving from external recognition to a place where you can derive inner peace is sort of the journey I've been on.
Dr. Judy: I think a lot of people are going to resonate with that, because as a society, we're sort of taught to seek that type of what we call hedonic happiness. Where the soul's burst of joy when you achieve something external or the minute you first land at an awesome vacation spot, you have that amazing flood of positive emotions. But eventually that does go away.
And then as you work further on self-development, and I think certainly as we get older, you start to realize that there's a different kind of happiness where it's really more based on your values and the time you spend with people who you care about. And I think it really clicked for me when I lost my grandmother and realizing that no one on their deathbed is talking about the diplomas and the awards. They're just happy to be there with their family, holding hands with them. And I know that you suffered a major loss yourself. In fact, it was your mother who I know is a hero for you and you want to embody a lot of her values like kindness. She's kind.
Yeah. So my mother was extraordinary in a lot of ways. Anyone who met her could attest to the fact that she made them feel special and loved and like they had value in this world. I mean anyone, any person. And she had a gift for being extraordinarily generous with her humanity, and I don't have that gift. I look to her as an example of a person that I'd like to be more like, and I'm working towards being like her a little bit more every day. But yeah, she was very special, she was very generous, she was a very good mother. The mechanics of being a mom, just being sure we were fed and clothed and taken care of. And then the spiritual side was very important to her. She was able to be unselfish many, many times where it would've been very easy for her to be selfish. When she was sick, she was unselfish, when she was dying, she was unselfish. She made it very easy for us to understand and accept the fact that she was going to die.
She was willing to have those hard discussions, and in the middle of random conversations, she'd say, "When I die, don't be unhappy. I lived a great life. I have you, you have me, I want you to celebrate. Please play music at my funeral. I mean it when I say I want you to be happy." And she left all these crazy instructions and I carry them out at her funeral and I got criticized for it. I was like, "This is literally what she asked for." So she had the presence of mind to be able to conquer the challenges that this world brings you. And I think it was her spirituality that helped her.
The Challenges of Self-Care in the Public Eye
Chef Rocco (remembering his mother's illness): Understanding that this is the beginning of the end. The first heart attack I thought, "Oh, this is okay, we're going to fix this." She survived. And doctors are like, "Yeah, she could live a long life after this." And then every time something else happened it was like, well she might live another five years, she might live another six years, another three years. So that slow process where you realize this is absolutely for sure the end, is a tough time. Of course you can't take care of yourself. Because you're trying to earn a living, take care of your mom, do all that stuff.
Dr. Judy: You come last.
Chef Rocco: Yeah. So I had a few rough patches with myself. I got through most of them. I'm sort of coming out of another rough patch right now, because I had back surgery and the self-care just falls to the bottom of the list. And I wrote a book about health and wellness that just came out. And so it's kind of odd because I'm not in my best shape ever, and I've been on this show in my best shape ever. Well, the Doctors TV show - I think of it like my family because they've been with me this whole journey. And now I'm getting people who are saying, "You look terrible. How can you sell a book in health?" And well I'm like, "Well we're not perfect-
Dr. Judy: Stop judging.
... we've got rough times too." And usually, I come right up front and say, "Listen, this is not me at my best, but this book is a good book. And these recipes still work and keto will help you lose weight." So there's all that going on right now.
Dr. Judy: Oh, it's so annoying that you have to defend that. And as you mentioned earlier, because you have to market your product that's why everyone's looking and they're saying, "Well, but I have this other picture of you from X year and you look this way." And it's so tough because I think you bring up this huge element of self-care, that people still think that it's selfish, that there's a lot of stigma against it. And especially when you're caring for somebody, a loved one. I feel like sometimes it feels like a little bit too indulgent almost to be taking care of yourself in that moment, or at least that's the perception. Well, these other things have to come first. My businesses, my career, my mom, other family members who are grieving my mom. And then where does that leave room for you? So what were some of the rough patches that you went through during that time?
Chef Rocco: So leaving Rocco's and Union Pacific when my mom first became my dependent, I guess you would call it, or the person I had to care for was a rough patch. My self-care was zero. Then I got through a couple of accidents and I don't know, magic in the universe speaking to me. I was asked to be on The Biggest Loser, I was asked to do a triathlon for charity. My doctor told me my numbers weren't great, and I'd been complaining to him that my numbers weren't great my whole life. And he'd always told me that you're a hypochondriac, you need to stop worrying, your numbers are great, you're a young man, you're healthy. And I remember him saying, "Hey, guess what? Your numbers are finally not great, so congratulations. You have something to worry about."
And he said, "I need you to get on these medicines, because I don't like how the numbers look and I want, 20 years from now for you to be okay." And I remember we went through all the medicines. There were three medicines and that was a lot for me, climb from zero to three. And we talked about side effects, side effects are all terrible of course. And then he said, "But you could also diet and exercise." And I said, "Oh, you mean if I do that, I don't have to take the medicines or I'll still have to take the meds?" He was like, "If you do that, you probably won't have to take any of the medicines." He said, "I tell everyone that, but no one ever does it."
I was like, "Okay, I'll be the first. Let me be the first." And so, that confluence of events and the triathlon especially got me on a path where I was really taking good care of myself and learning what taking good care of yourself means. Learning what foods will get you there, what foods will get you to a good weight, what foods will sustain tremendous, endurance, athleticism like a triathlon. And it was a several year period, but I got to the best shape of my life and I was in my 40s. And I sustained that for a long time. I did the United States Championships for triathlons in Florida and I have three bikes on my wall to attest for it. But there were moments where it just fell apart because I lost my mom, my dad, a pet, a few other happened all in the same sort of three to five year period, and then my back surgery and not... I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, obviously, I know that everyone goes through this stuff.
Dr. Judy: Yeah, then you lost your mobility for a bit because you actually needed spine surgery. So were you born with scoliosis?
Chef Rocco: Yes.
Dr. Judy: How did you keep it at bay all of these years?
Chef Rocco: So in my time, there was really nothing they could do. Now they can fix it before puberty if you have it. And if it shows up during puberty, which is where most of the time it does, they can still fix it. If you go to a great chiropractor they can absolutely straighten it out. I don't know if you're a believer in chiropractic care or not, but I am a huge believer in functional medicine and my chiropractor is the one who asked me to do the triathlon by the way, for his charity. And he didn't tell me it was a triathlon, until it was time to show up basically. And so, he kept me working and going without surgery for many, many years because he was really good at what he did.
And the whole time he said, "Listen, I'm going to keep you away from surgery as long as possible. Eventually you're going to need it. I know that. But for the next 10... Let's see if we can go 10, 15 years." We went 20 years without surgery. And then finally just nerves get compressed and all of a sudden your right leg doesn't move anymore and you're in a wheelchair trying to get around and you need surgery. And luckily in New York we have some of the best doctors in the country. And so I went to a place called HSS and they have a great doctor and he took care of it, but it was months of being in a wheelchair, months of complete immobility, and then recovery from surgery, which takes time. I remember trying to get on my bike, which is something I did multiple times a week. An average ride was 40 miles, 60 miles. And I did that three, four times a week with such joy in my heart. And I really loved it.
Dr. Judy: You loved it.
Chef Rocco: Yeah, I remember getting on my bike, I think it was three months after surgery, which was the minimum time you had to wait. And I waited for the day after the minimum time and I couldn't go a mile and I was just so crushed. And then I tried to do my soul cycle, which was something I did a lot and just couldn't get through it. And I think I got really discouraged. But it's probably time for me to get back on and see what I can get done.
Dr. Judy: Yeah. We all have to deal with all of our existential crises. Again, not everybody is a saint like your mom. I think almost every one of us has existential crises of death, changing bodies, things not working the way that they used to. And you had to confront all of those things at the same time. So you did have this, as you just described, this rapid succession of just loss, after loss, after identity change. And there was just so many things happening at once and it's not hard to imagine why the self-care just completely went out the window. So as you think about that now, and as you're getting back on that journey, what led you to say, "No, I've got to start doing that again? Start taking care of myself" and reorient yourself towards that lifestyle?
Chef Rocco: Utter disgust with myself, clothes not fitting anymore, people reacting not so kindly, with less generosity than they used to, and the sense that I really understand how to do it. So I've written about it, I've done it myself, I understand the mechanics of it, I understand the philosophy, I understand the science. And I guess it's taken me a couple of years to understand. Well I worked on the line for two years straight at The Standard. I was able to do that. Funny enough, that skill never is compromised. So I can do that anytime, anywhere for 15 hours, no problem. And I did that every night on the line at The Standard.
And I'm not sure, it must be muscle memory or something, but no matter what my physical condition is, I can cook on the line for 14 hours. Anyway, I understand that some of the reactions from the public comes from just a silly place, but some it's legit, because I have been for over 10 years trying to be a model of what living a healthy lifestyle means and writing books about it and being an advocate for it. And I understand their disappointment. I'm disappointed too. So that's figuring pretty prominently. And then at my age, this starts to become very serious. If I allow this to get too out of hand then then I'm looking at the same problems my mom had and I definitely don't want to repeat that cycle cause that's not a fun one.
Dr. Judy: Right. Yeah. And I think that it is hard because sometimes people think, "Okay, you're a health and wellness role model," and somehow you're supposed to have it all figured out. I think it's so much more motivating and inspiring when you can actually see their entire journey, all the pitfalls, all the times when they struggle. Because if you never struggled, how can you teach people and actually relate to them on that level? Because if you don't know what they're going through and you just say, "Well do this" because this is what happens. I don't know if you have any credibility in some ways because then you haven't even dealt with the challenges. So how can you know what it's like to be on the other side. And so, while people are judgmental, I think it says a lot more about themselves and it does about you. But I know that at the moment it doesn't feel that way.
Chef Rocco: And there have been people who've said, "I don't love that you're going through this, but I really think you understand me now. I think that you understand what the average person goes through," because I'm not average in the sense that I have a food delivery system where I get food delivered to my house. It's my business. So it's not that unusual that you would have your own food sent to you, but I eat the best food you can make every day, except when I'm judging one of the TV shows that you've probably seen on Food Network. Then it goes sideways completely. So I think it's good for me to understand what people who are really struggling are struggling with. And I think it's good for, you're right, it's good for them to see me struggle and hopefully overcome at some point.
The Value of Professional Therapy
Dr. Judy: I like to give my listeners a practical tip that they can take and really improve their life that day. And I think so many people who are listening, they get it, they're like, "Wow, self care after loss?" Any kind of loss, whether it's your physical mobility, your parents, what you thought your career look like in one aspect, the restaurant aspect and then doing something else, kind of reinventing your career. But all of those things are losses and it's so hard to care for yourself after each of those losses and you had so many at one time. So what are some tips that you can give my listeners who struggle with that? And again, still think self-care is selfish and all of those different ideas.
Chef Rocco: One thing keeps coming to mind, because I'm speaking to you, a person who is a neuropsychologist, is that you should work with a therapist at any age, at any point in your life. If you can find a kind therapist who can give you direction generously, and not just sit there and listen, it's going to be a game changer. It was a game changer for me. I believe that if I wasn't the kid that got taken out of class since second grade and I didn't find the wonderful therapist I've worked with my whole life, I don't think I'd be here talking to you. I think I might have ended up like a lot of the kids in my neighborhood, which include deaths from overdose, deaths by police, death in other forms, jail. I grew up in a really part of Queens and those kids didn't have a lot to look forward to.
And a lot of my really good friends ended up in very bad places. I'm not sure that that wouldn't have happened to me if I didn't have the help. For some reason people wanted to take me out of class and help me. If you are a person who is struggling and there's someone who wants to talk to you, or if there's someone in your church or even a professional therapist that you happen to know, or if you don't know, look up in your book of insurance there's probably someone you can go to. And they are game changers. These are professionals with no agenda who will listen to you talk about things that no one else will listen to. And I know there's a lot of people out there who like to say, "I'm not crazy. I don't need therapy. I'm not a crazy person."
It's so not about that. And it's come a long way too, even in my lifetime. From sort of classic analysis, Freudian analysis where you just sat and talked all the time and no one ever said, "You're on the right track or you're not." It's very different now. So that's one massive tip that I'd like to share, that has been a game changer for me. Another thing is the sweetheart of self-discipline. So there are times where you just have to crank that up and understand if you're depriving yourself of something that gives you pleasure but doesn't give you health, doesn't give you peace, you have to do the math on those decisions and decide which is more important. And for me right now, it's very clear I need to make choices that give me health and peace and not just pleasure. And that's just a... it's discipline. Something you have to practice at.
Dr. Judy: I love both of those tips because again, values based decision making, your second tip is so important. Really having a compass so that your decisions don't just come from, like you said, that hedonic happiness, that impulse. Well this is going to feel really good in the moment. It's more what's going to bring me that inner peace and how will I wake up tomorrow morning and just feel really good about this decision that I made? And it is really about what you want in your soul. But I love your first tip too. And for the record, I would be honored to be called a therapist.
I think therapists of all different types of training, can all be really wonderful. My therapist that I had for a couple of years after my grandmother passed away, that was when I really felt like I need to go to therapy, I'm dealing with this grief and it's really hard, she was an MFT and she was one of the most brilliant therapists that I had. And she had such a way about her that was so kind and so nonjudgmental because I had all of these judgments in my head, all this shame and guilt about why I was feeling this way. Like I didn't appreciate my life, but I just had a hard time after my grandmother passed away and it was hard for me. And she never judged me for some of the meanest thoughts that I said to myself in my head, criticizing myself or still struggling with it a few months later.
Chef Rocco: That's because they're professionals, right? A lot of people say, "Well, I have my mom, I have my brother, I have my husband, I have my best friend." But it's going to be impossible for those to be absolutely objective. They have an agenda and they may not even recognize what their agenda is while they're giving you advice. So you need someone who's agenda free, who's objective, and professionally trained.
Yes. And I think sometimes people shy away from it, as you just mentioned all the stigma. I came from Taiwan, psychologists weren't really a big thing there. If I stayed there I probably wouldn't be a psychologist, because it's not really all that accepted even today, even though they've made a ton of progress as well. And so, I even had self-stigma when I was signing up for therapy, but I was just thinking, "You can't be sitting on the other side and treating patients when you've never ever been on the side of being a patient yourself and sitting in that chair." So that was what got me through the door. But I think what got me to stay is like you said, really making sense of the fact that you don't have to be 'crazy' or suffering from a severe mental illness to go to therapy. Professionals can help you through difficult times in your life and teach you coping strategies. And I'm very thankful for my experiences in therapy.
Chef Rocco: If you need to see a psychiatrist and you do need medicine, don't be upset with yourself-
Dr. Judy: That's okay too.
Chef Rocco: Because it's okay. And it may help in the short term and the longterm forever. There are a number of ways to treat yourself when you're facing these obstacles. And I feel like some of the more valuable ones, like the ones we're talking about are the ones that people are most afraid of.