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Rocco rocks: Chef takes his talents to TV

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Maybe it was the Kobe Beef with Charred Spring Onions and Galangal Glaze or the Grilled Quail with Pineapple and Huitlacoche that grabbed me by the nose and seduced me into Rocco DiSpirito's red tent.

Chef DiSpirito was here, with 15 other prominent chefs from around the world, at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel - for the 11th-annual Cuisines of the Sun, a sumptuous event that draws a growing number of serious food lovers from across the country.

All 16 chefs got a chance to whirl their whisks, turn up the heat, and prepare some of their favorite dishes during the four-day sumptuous affair. But it was Rocco DiSpirito's spread that first drew my attention on that balmy Hawaiian night. (Perhaps it's my particular penchant for grilled quail, which just happens to be my favorite poultry.)

DiSpirito's introduction to the kitchen was somewhat inauspicious. As a youngster, he worked in a pizzeria in Queens for 30 bucks a week and all the slices (pepperoni, please) he could eat. "It was really just a distraction. Something to do to keep out of trouble," he says with a broad grin.

It wasn't until DiSpirito was about 14 that his future began to jell. "I was working part time at the New Hyde Park Inn in New York when a dinner was being prepared for an Audubon Society bash.

"Some hunters came into the prep room with venison they had just gutted, and the chef, an old-world cook from Germany, asked if I would like to watch him prepare it. I saw him skin, butcher, and prepare four or five dishes, including stew from the toughest pieces of meat. I was fascinated. It was the first time I witnessed the whole process from A to Z."

That was it. At 16, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and graduated two years later, third in his class.

Today, the thirty-something DiSpirito is executive chef at Union Pacific restaurant, in New York, and next Wednesday (Aug. 30, 3 p.m.) begins hosting his own TV cooking show, "The Melting Pot," on the Food Network.

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