Celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito stumbled into his first triathlon. • "I was working long hours in a restaurant and started having serious back problems," says the New York chef and cookbook author. "My back was killing me, so I had to see a chiropractor." • The chiropractor helped DiSpirito, 42, then asked if he would make an appearance at a charity event in Connecticut. • "It turned out to be a triathlon, and I couldn't even walk a mile, let alone run 3," DiSpirito recalls. "I was in the next to last heat, and all these women over 60 passed me in the water like I was standing still." • That was three years ago. On Saturday, DiSpirito will join more than 1,500 elite athletes from around the world to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles in the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater. • "I am ready," he says. "I've been training."
It wasn't the swim, run or bike that DiSpirito struggled most to conquer. It was the food.
"In New York City you can get anything you want to eat, any time of day, delivered right to your door," he says. "It is a lifestyle of convenience. You end up eating what you want instead of what you need."
DiSpirito loved to cook and eat. He owned and operated Union Pacific in New York City's Gramercy Park and 22nd Street Restaurant, which was the ill-fated home to the NBC reality series The Restaurant in 2003.
"I knew that if I wanted to really compete in triathlons, I was going to have to change my diet dramatically," he says. "But I don't like to think of it as a diet. It is more of a lifestyle."
DiSpirito started off slowly, making incremental changes in his diet.
"You cut back on things . . . alcohol, sugar, processed food, fatty food," he says. "I had to give some stuff up. I had to practice what I call the sweet discipline of denial."
The chef slowly rebuilt his body from the inside out, dropping 30 pounds and reducing his body fat from 18 to 12 percent, beginning in 2006. A stint on the popular show Dancing With the Stars last year no doubt helped keep him in shape.
Typical Ironman 70.3 competitors burn tens of thousands of calories as they exercise the 10 to 30 hours a week it takes to complete what is sometimes called a half Ironman.
"Once you get into shape you can pretty much eat whatever you want because you are burning 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day," DiSpirito says. "But once you start exercising like that, you don't want to eat just anything. You want to eat things that are good for you."
DiSpirito admits he has always been a fan of comfort food, classic American dishes that are big on taste and even bigger on calories. He hated to give up cheeseburgers and french fries.
"That is when I thought . . . why give them up?" he says. "Why not just make a healthier version?"
The result is a new cookbook called Now Eat This: Fried Chicken, Macaroni and Cheese, Brownies, and 147 Other Favorite Dishes You Thought You Could Never Eat — All Under 400 Calories (Ballantine, 2010), which is scheduled to hit the bookshelves in March. The media-savvy chef uses Twitter and Facebook to create buzz for the book and to find out what recipes people wanted overhauled.
"The book will feature makeovers of all your favorite foods, everything from fried chicken to chocolate chip cookies," he says.
DiSpirito would not divulge any recipes, but he says he has experimented in his own kitchen and discovered how to replace butter and cream with all-natural Greek yogurt and onion and garlic puree.
"We'll have a burger that tastes great but has 75 percent less fat (than its fast-food counterpart)," he says.
In the meantime, DiSpirito will keep swimming, running and biking.
"I love it," he says. "You are out there racing with a big group of people, but in the end, you are really just competing against yourself."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.