- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito wants to turn a collection of healthy recipes into a lifestyle, and he wants people to feel bad about it.

The key to transforming comfort food into healthy fare is cutting calories while retaining the “sinful” feeling that comes from eating rich foods, he said Saturday in an Associated Press interview at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

“Fried chicken needs to feel bad. You need to crunch through that outer coating, you need to feel like you’re committing a sin,” he said, describing a recipe that involves poaching chicken until it’s almost cooked, then flash frying it so that it absorbs just a tenth of the oil of the conventional approach.

His new cookbook, “Now Eat This! Diet” is a follow-up to his best-selling “Now Eat This!” cookbook. The new book combines a diet plan and recipes with shopping lists, menus and exercise advice, and though it joins countless other diet books on store shelves, DiSpirito said his offers a new approach.

“I think the professional chef who has a particular focus on flavor has been missing” from the diet book industry, he said.

DiSpirito, who rose to fame at his Union Pacific restaurant in New York and later starred in the reality show, “The Restaurant,” said he thinks Americans increasingly are turning to celebrity chefs for guidance in eating healthier. Healthy cooking is not just for the dietitians of the world, he said.

“We’re the gateway to information on entertaining, cooking, food and wine, living large,” he said. “We represent a lot of things to a lot of Americans. Now, we’re becoming a resource for healthy eating. We all got old, some of us got healthy.”

But DiSpirito also looks to his fans for help with his books, using Facebook and Twitter to gather ideas. What started as throwing out a request because he didn’t know what else to post turned into a valuable way to gain insight into his audience, he said.

“I just wanted my book to one, have the most accurate information, and two, America’s real preferences for the comfort food I was going to transform from the bad boys of food to real healthy food,” he said. “The main message was, ‘We love our comfort food and we want it to be healthy … but we would still eat it if it wasn’t healthy.’”

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J.M. Hirsch is food editor of The Associated Press. To see all of the videos from AP’s coverage of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, go to: http://bit.ly/f4lFT6