When the opportunity arose for a quick interview with award-winning celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito during the final day of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (#SOBEWFF), Evite editorial director Marilyn Oliveira jumped at the chance to ask the Food Network host a few burning questions about entertaining at home. See what the television mainstay and author of nine cookbooks (including his latest, The Pound a Day Diet) had to say about being a gracious host, creating a great experience for guests, and his not-so-secret tip for handling pre-party nerves.
How does hospitality play into the overall dining experience?
When you entertain at home or run a restaurant, your job is to make people happy, and it’s different for every person. A great environment can make up for so-so food and vice versa. It’s your job to figure out what’s going to make that person happy and to provide that experience for them.
Do you recommend having guests help in the kitchen or doing everything yourself?
I personally don’t have any rules about entertaining at home. Guests typically join me in the kitchen when I entertain because I spend a lot of time there when I’m entertaining. I do a lot of food last minute while guests are there, but my advice to others is to cook food in advance — because I cook for a living, I can be a little more adventurous, so I cook a lot of things right in front of people, and they like to help.
Do people often ask you to help with the cooking?
When I’m in someone else’s home? They kind of expect me to do something. You can see the look in their eye that says, don’t you think it’s about time you offered to cook something, or help cook? And I never mind that, I’m always happy to do that.
How do you handle “lifestyle” eaters such as vegetarians, or people with specific food allergies or sensitivities, when you entertain?
What I like to do is come up with a menu that accommodates everyone. If I have people who are vegetarian or gluten sensitive, I’ll come up with a menu that is gluten-free and mostly vegetables with a protein on the side so it’s easy for everyone. The worst thing you can do is create a situation where the person who’s asked for something special is announced our highlighted in some form, or they’re made to feel like you went out of your way for them. It’s not gracious to do that. You want to be kind, generous, and gracious when you entertain, give people permission to have fun, make them feel like they’re welcome in your home, just like family. And if they have a special request, pointing that out is not a form of graciousness. So if you can come up with a gluten- or meat-free menu and no one has to talk about it, that is much more kind and generous than saying, hey, I made something special for you.
Do you have a favorite style of music or a particular song you like for kicking off a party?
There isn’t one particular music style; it depends on who’s there and what’s happening. Parties are very dynamic and sensitive; you kind of have to monitor the mood and always adapt to either extend it or wind things down because the party’s over. Music is a very important tool for that.
I’m really into something called Sonos – it works off of an IPA and aggregates all the music systems out there, so Spotify, Pandora, it’s all on there. I love just putting in my favorite songs and having Sonos figure out where to get them from.
Do you have a go-to dinner menu for an easy party at home?
My menus are typically based on what people expect when they come to my home. I entertain for a lot of holidays — I’m the guy who hosts all the family holidays — so other than what’s traditionally on the menu, I like to make something new just about every time.
What was your worst entertaining experience?
I took over Thanksgiving dinner from my mother when I was about 19 and decided to make my modern version of it. I made the worst Thanksgiving — I did turkey roulades and sweet potato velouté instead of all the traditional things because I was 19 and just learning how to cook and I wanted to be creative. My sister — I think she cried that night, she was so upset that there wasn’t a traditional roast turkey. What I learned was, there are some things that are sacred, that are hallowed ground, and you shouldn’t change Thanksgiving dinner — it should be exactly what everybody is expecting. Again, it’s your job to make people happy when you entertain, and to make those people happy at the time would have been to just give them what they wanted.
Do you have a secret tip you can share for calming hosting nerves?
It’s not a big secret: It’s called alcohol. A couple of glasses of Champagne before guests arrive is not a bad thing! But if you’re a nervous person, figure out what it is that makes you nervous. So, if you’re worried about cooking, don’t cook everything — buy some things premade from the Whole Foods buffet if you have to. Work from your strengths, whatever your skill strengths are; don’t try to be the chef if you’re not naturally the chef. Again, your job is to make people happy, and the happier you are, the more present you’ll be able to be for them.