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Slimmed-down chef has a lot more on his plate
Fahrenheit's Rocco Whalen has reduced his girth while expanding his business
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
Chef Rocco Whalen began his culinary training at 19 in Pittsburgh, but he's a die-hard Browns fan and always cooks at the Taste of the NFL Superbowl fundraiser.
Courtesy of Zachary Duvall
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A Cleveland chef who trimmed his waistline on reality TV hasn’t stopped expanding his empire.

Rocco Whalen got cookin’ more than a decade ago when he opened Fahrenheit, an upscale restaurant in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. This year, Whalen took a chance at Cleveland’s new casino, opening a food stand there called Rosie and Rocco’s. The big chef has a large presence, too, at Progressive Field and the Q; his food truck is always parked for concerts at Blossom. And come the fall, Rocco’s signature pizza will be part of the game-day experience at Browns Stadium.

Trimming down while thinking big

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Whalen grew up in Mentor and played football but was teased mercilessly about his weight. He found solace in his Italian mother's cosy kitchen.

Whalen grew up in Mentor and played football but was teased mercilessly about his weight. He found solace in his Italian mother's cosy kitchen.

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Rocco Whalen didn’t get serious about dieting until he topped 400 pounds.  He’s taken off about a third of that weight, continues a punishing work-out routine, and oozes more enthusiasm than ever for his hometown and its sizzling cuisine scene.

 “It’s a great thing to be a part of, the revolution of the chefs, “says Whalen. “Michael Symon, a good friend, a fellow godfather of the industry, just opened garage-sized doors for all of us. But also I think we’re putting out a very consistent product.”

From fancy to ‘down-home’ to innovative cuisine

Whalen grew up in Mentor, went to Pittsburgh for culinary school, then trained with Wolfgang Puck and worked at Hilton Hotels, in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, Arizona. When he came back to Cleveland it was no longer a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of town.

“Michael Symon had just opened Lola,” said Whalen. “And he was starting to take those meat and the potatoes and making them into pierogies, beef cheek pierogies.”

Food truck fare but with artistry

He says street food easily goes gourmet.

“ Let’s go tackle my truck right now. Two shrimp tacos or pulled pork shoulder tacos for $7 with ode to Momocho guacamole with chips and salsa. Whether it’s fried chicken or (a) nice squeeze of lime on some fresh tacos or a burger with bacon- tomato jam, or lobster and brie burger:  Just enjoy your food trucks.”

He knows his nachos, too, and serves an appetizer at Fahrenheit  he calls “Cleveland Nachos.”

We take an apparatus that cuts the potato into spiral chip thin, and we serve them with top-fried, crispy with goat cheese fondue, sea salt, parmesan , chives and a couple more fresh herbs, and you can do some pork belly or some chopped bacon. It’s my take on a nacho without the nacho cheese sauce and the tortilla chips.”

Enjoy it all!  That’s the chef’s key recommendation about the region’s restaurant revival.

 “I can give you five places we could go in my Cleveland tonight and have a fabulous meal that’s on par with New York , Chicago, L.A., Boston, Seattle. “

But Whalen no longer visits those restaurants as often now that he’s made a big change in his lifestyle.

 “Change is good. I actually was on a weight-loss show for the Food Network called Fat Chef that aired in February of 2012. I successfully lost 85 pounds in 16 weeks on the show which added to the weight I lost before and after which was 120-pound total. “

He works out six days a week and avoids what he calls “problem foods.”

“I watch my pork belly intake and my short rib intake. And my favorite salad, my hip salad right now that I’m really into is a kale salad, like nice washed green kale with some salty parmesan, not a lot, just a little, lemon juice , olive oil, maybe a few nuts. But I try to eat healthy and I try to eat greener.”

Your compliments to the chef

Rocco Whalen has a key recommendation for anyone visiting a chef-owned restaurant:  Demand to see the chef.

 “Shake their hand. Say hello. Tell us a story. Enjoy your food, enjoy your scene and have a wonderful experience wherever you’re at in Cleveland, tonight, tomorrow and the next day.”  

Rocco Whalen. His food stand at Browns Stadium is scheduled to open this weekend.

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite.  Next week we’ll visit a Portage County farmer who grows and grinds her own specialty grains. 

Related Links & Resources
Fahrenheit website

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