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.
"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