James DiGianvittorio’s transformation from police chief to popular online chef surprised even him.
On March 1, the Middleton police chief ended his 38-year career with no specific plans for the future. The one thing he knew for sure was that his passion for cooking would play a part in the next chapter of his life.
“Honestly, I woke up the first Monday feeling lost,” said DiGianvittorio, 59, affectionately known as “Chief DiGi” during his 14 years as Middleton chief. “I knew nothing but being a police officer and cooking, and I was used to long days and being busy.”
Busy is an understatement. DiGianvittorio is known for his boundless energy and dedication to law enforcement — whether it was testifying at the State House as president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s National Counter-Terrorism Seminar in Israel, representing Massachusetts in a Law Enforcement Torch Run leading up to the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, , or simply directing Middleton traffic when needed.
Food has always been an important part of DiGianvittorio’s life. He is happiest when cooking — whether it is in his kitchen, at one of the six grills/smokers in his backyard, or at his prized pizza oven from Italy.
“My fondest memories of my childhood are of my mother, Mary, cooking in the kitchen listening to Italian music on the radio,” he said. “As long as I can remember I have had a passion for cooking. My first job was as a cook at the International House of Pancakes in Saugus.”
Sharing his food with others brings him great joy. During a recent phone call, he had to take a break to run outside and deliver sandwiches to the crew that picks up the weekly trash at his Peabody home.
Throughout his law enforcement career, cooking was a stress release and his creative outlet.
“During the pandemic, I was home a lot and bored —- I get bored easily — so I made some cooking videos and shared them on Facebook. People started following me and sent me text messages and e-mails asking if I could teach them to cook good food. I thought why not?”
DiGianvittorio set up a live online weekly cooking class as a watch party. Participants got a shopping list on Wednesday and cooked together on Friday evenings. (His cooking videos are available through his Facebook page.)
“It started with 15 to 20 people watching and soon it was hundreds of people watching and cooking with me,” he said with amazement.
One of his followers was Meghan Colby, 19, of Gloucester, a Special Olympics athlete who knew DiGianvittorio through his more than a dozen years as a Special Olympics volunteer.
Colby found DiGianvittorio to be a good teacher. She reached out and convinced him to team up with her to create cooking videos for other athletes.
“Unified Cooking, the video series, was born,” said Stephanie Esposito, director of development for Special Olympics, Massachusetts. “The videos share some knowledge about meal prep, kitchen skills/safety, and healthy eating tips with our social media audience and Special Olympics community.”
“Nutrition is important for all athletes,” said Colby, who won three silver and a bronze medal at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. “For Special Olympic athletes, being able to make our own healthy meals is an important independence skill.”
“It has been a wonderful experience,” said DiGianvittorio. “I am learning along the way, too. I build healthy menus that the athletes can cook. We work on basic skills and safety. Sharp knives and hot pans can be scary if you do not know how to use them.”
“I help him understand how to explain skills to the other athletes in a way they understand,” added Colby.
Because of the pandemic, the video cooking sessions did not begin until DiGianvittorio and Colby were both fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The videos are shot in a private home.
DiGianvittorio and Colby have mutual respect for each other and take pride in their meal preparation and video accomplishments.
“Meghan is a very good student. In fact, she has been accepted into a cooking program in Salem,” said DiGianvittorio.
Both agree that the best part of the cooking videos is getting to eat the food they make. The Unified Cooking series will be available over the next several months through Special Olympics.
Meanwhile, DiGianvittorio has turned his attention to launching a professional catering company: Catering Á La Carte.
“I have been catering for family and friends for years, this is the natural next step,” he said.
The retired chief’s days are once again full, but he still will find time to teach. In May, he is planning to hold pizza cooking classes using his Italian pizza oven.
No longer lost, Colby says, DiGianvittorio has gone from being “Chief DiGi” to “Chef DiGi.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.