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Chef Rocco DiSpirito pitches frozen food to a tough room at BlogHer food conference


Rocco DiSpirito just might be the bravest man alive.

The celebu-chef -- who did not appear to be carrying any firearms or other form of self-protection -- sauntered into the middle of several hundred hooting, hollering, amped-up-on-coffee food bloggers, and attempted to sell them on frozen food. That's right, he was pitching Bertolli's new line of frozen foods to a group of (mostly) women who spend their spare time crafting recipes, cooking, and photographing, blogging, reading and commenting about all manner of food, glorious food.

I told you he was brave.

Rocco was one of the bold-faced names on hand for BlogHer Food '09, the first BlogHer conference  dedicated solely to food bloggers. About 300 people were in attendance for the sold-out Sept. 26 event at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. It was so successful that discussions are already underway for a second food-dedicated conference, said Lisa Stone, co-founder and chief executive of BlogHer, an online community hub for more than 22,000 female bloggers on a variety of topics including politics, news, technology, family and, obviously, food.

Sponsored in part by the likes of Pillsbury, Bertolli, Cuisinart and Scharffen Berger chocolate, the daylong event featured nine speaker panels staffed by bloggers including Heidi Swanson (101 Cookbooks), Matt Armendariz (Matt Bites), David Lebovitz (The Sweet Life in Paris), Pim Techamuanvivit (Chez Pim), Elise Bauer (Simply Recipes) and Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman Cooks). No topic was off-limits, no details too minor:

How do you photograph meat so it doesn't look ... so gross?

What is your position on placing an inedible item -- say, a flower -- on top of an edible item, like a dessert, and then photographing it? Is that intellectually dishonest?

Elise Bauer, what time do you roll out of bed in the morning, and how much time do you spend at your keyboard?

Should you ever temper your "blogging voice" to make a magazine or newspaper editor happy? And, how do you develop a "blogging voice" that will make magazine and newspaper editors happy?

There were seemingly as many different answers as there were bloggers, and that diversity of opinion led to lively, convivial sessions.

Until the frozen food.

Then it was time to take sides.

At my table, the first dish -- a fresh salad that Rocco made with canned tuna and salad in a bag -- got a tepid response. The reviews for the first course, Bertolli's Lemon Herb Shrimp & Penne, were scathing. One blogger called it "vaguely airplane food" and then later amended that, adding, "There's nothing vague about it." (It didn't help that the food wasn't as hot as it could be, but that is a challenge for a luncheon for 300.) By the time the second course rolled around -- Meat Lasagna Rustica and Tri-Color Ravioli -- the meal was largely deemed inedible. (Me? Thumbs down to the shrimp dish; it was too gummy and gooey. The lasagna and ravioli were better -- but I'd like to reserve judgment until I see the nutritional breakdown on these new products. If it's not too high in fat, or sodium, I could see these as an item you buy on occasion and stow in the freezer for emergency nights.)

One blogger I talked to later in the day said she was "offended" that these Bertolli meals were served at a food blogging conference, and her friend said -- and I swear I am not making this up -- "It's not that hard to make lasagna or make your own pasta."

But these were by no means the opinions of everyone in the room.

In fact, many of the bloggers are working women who love food, but don't always have the time to cook it on a busy weeknight. They said they not only liked the new Bertolli pastas but they planned to buy them as well. (Rocco, you might consider working on commission.) Told about some of the other less favorable comments, one blogger rolled her eyes and explained, "We're all foodies, but some of us are food snobs."

Several mom bloggers said that they found the new pastas to be kid-friendly -- neither too exotic nor too spicy -- and said they found the Bertolli pastas to be a convenient way to feed the youngsters in their house while controlling portion sizes. (That last comment whizzed by me the first time I heard it, but when I heard it the second time it resonated: The packaging, these moms found, is helpful in dictating a cap on the carbs and serving sizes.)

As lunch wrapped up, and the afternoon conference sessions were about to get underway, a departing DiSpirito joked about the tough audience. He'd told the attendees that he was a "reformed gourmet" who'd seen the light when he realized that many of the highfalutin dishes he cooked were simply out of reach for working men and women who could not come home after the end of a long day and spend hours at the stove.

He said it was time to change the conversation -- and raise awareness -- about the food that we eat on a busy Tuesday night. "We can't pretend, or be afraid to admit that -- that's an issue for everyone." 

During a break in the sessions, I had the chance to speak with Stone to ask her about the divide in her troops: They loved the handsome and engaging Rocco -- who worked the room like a pro, pausing for chitchat, food talk and photos --  but not everyone loved his food.

Stone laughed.

"Yep, I've heard it all," she said of the lunch complaints, as well as complaints from some who thought it was downright unseemly that Pillsbury would be hawking its wares to bloggers, many of whom celebrate baking from scratch. (In another sign of the divide, the line at the Pillsbury table was often three-deep, so clearly not everyone felt that way.)

Stone said she was grateful to each and every sponsor -- bloggers would have to pay a lot more than $99 for the conference if it were not for the sponsors, she said.

"One of the things that's important to know is that BlogHer was created to give opportunities for all women who blog," Stone said. "BlogHer is nonpartisan. ... We do not pick a side; we simply empower the women in our network to choose. ... We have a really interesting diversity of foods [here at the conference] that some would consider organic, and some would consider processed. We have Nature's Own ... and we have Bertolli."

"I don't mind getting constructive feedback," she said. "Frankly it's their conference."

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Chef Rocco DiSpirito -- but not necessarily his food -- transfixes the crowd. Credit: lorilu67 via Flickr   

Comments () | Archives (7)

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Thank you so much for your very balanced look at our first BlogHer Food event.

We sent out our post-conference survey last week, and we are busily gathering everyone's suggestions, so that BlogHer Food '10 can be even better than BlogHer Food '09.

I was there. And most definitely disgusted by both the food at lunch (even the panna cotta didn't set up properly) and Rocco's performance. I, for one, didn't find him charming. I felt sorry for him. Handsome? Yes. Annoying. YES! And for him to tell the audience that he keeps bags of the frozen glop in his freezer to whip out when he brings a date home for dinner.....I bet his mother would smack him on his head if she heard that. Please. Rocco. Get a job on the line or something. When you go to a food conference, you don't expect to eat frozen food for lunch! Especially when you're at a St. Regis hotel. Yes, sponsors help to keep the price down but the sponsors need to be the right ones. A good fit for the audience. Campbell's Soup? Did anyone take their soup can home? Yes, many of us are food snobs but even those among us who are not foodies probably don't use that much processed foods. A rotisserie chicken from the supermarket to make life easier? Yes. A can of cream of chicken soup? I hope not. Enjoyed the sessions but truly hated lunch and Rocco and would have walked out except I was enjoying the chatter at my table.

I was at the conference, and like most of the other bloggers there, was disappointed in the lunch. I have to say that it makes me sad to hear that people think that these frozen meals would be ideal for their children. I teach healthy cooking classes to kids, and need to point out that children enjoy good food, like the rest of us. I have worked with ALL types of eaters - the ones who don't like any single ingredient to touch another, the ones who prefer food that is only white, and the ones that will eat anything that is put in front of them. It all boils down to providing healthy options and setting a good example. If time is an issue, it hardly takes any time to cook up a bag of dried pasta and serve it with frozen peas. At least those still have flavor and resemble the real thing...

I was at the conference also and I have to agree with all the comment above - Rocco was charming, but the products were sub-par, especially for a conference specifically geared toward food bloggers. I would venture that most of the people in the room could have prepared penne with shrimp from scratch in the same amount of time it took to heat up the Bertolli product. It might have gone over better if they'd used the frozen products as a base and used fresh ingredients to dress them up - even a shot of parsley would have helped.

That said, the sponsors made the conference possible. I think, though, that they might have gotten a better reception overall if they'd given us coupons for the frozen meals and served something more fresh for lunch.

I keep watching DiSpirito and waiting for him to hit rock bottom. What a waste of a talent and what a complete say-anything sell out! I don't think there is a bottom for him until he co-hosts a series with Semi-Homemade diva, Sandra Lee.
Cooking a protein, a salad and a side vegetable, with rice or bread, should not take hours. Most of the bloggers I know of do just this, showing you where it's worth the bother and where it isn't.
Better sponsors would be kitchenware producers like All Clad or even Revereware, food producers and retailers like Sur le Table who actually improve the quality of life for new and experienced cooks. I haven't seen the nutritional info on the lasagna but I'll take my chances and say it's not going to be a realistic portion, socially or environementally resposible or economical.

I attended the BlogHer Food conference. First, let me say that, overall, it was fabulous. But, regarding the lunch, I agree with a lot of this article and with the previous comment, it's not hard or time consuming to make meals made from real food. Quite frankly, many go to fine restaurants and other countries even and see simple, wonderful tasting dishes made from real food and are blown away. Yet many of us don't think of doing it ourselves. Why? Because we've been marketed to HEAVILY that it takes too much time and too much work. And, that's so incorrect. And, did any of us really believe that Rocco has a freezer full of frozen Bertolli meals? I don't think so. Or perhaps if we did, we'd also think he's not a true chef/food lover because who would choose frozen meals over fresh made dishes. Bertolli could have done better by serving food using some of their sauces, dried pasta, etc. Ironically, those of us who need to eat gluten free and/or vegan fared much better. We were served fresh risotto made by the hotel kitchen staff. It was very good. It was not a portion that would equate with three different Bertolli pasta dishes, but others eyed it enviously. Who doesn't enjoy freshly made risotto? BTW, it's the processed food is a "must" mentality that is also harming those who need to eat gluten free. Just focus on real food and dishes made from real food (excluding gluten) with no gobbledy gook in the ingredients and you'll be fine and healthy. I'm sure the BlogHer Food organizers will learn from the food experience. I plan to attend BlogHer Food 2010 for sure because it's a really great conference! Shirley

I was an attendee at the Blogher food conference, and I would say the reaction to lunch among people I've talked to at the conference has been almost uniformly negative. It's not about being a food snob, it's about the conflicting messages. I'm a working mother myself, who's incredibly busy, and the entire message of my blog is that even without having a ton of time or a fancy kitchen, you can cook good food for your family from scratch. And most of the bloggers in attendance have a similar message -- that good, homemade food is worth seeking out. When you have Rocco DiSpirito asking us "How many of you have the time to buy produce at the Farmer's Market and cook meals from scratch?" you know there's a disconnect. And it IS easy to make pasta or lasagna -- I'm not saying you have to roll your own pasta dough, but buying dried penne and cooking it with some shrimp and vegetables is really the work of minutes.


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