A Conversation with Mario Batali

With Chef Mario Batali

If you live in the US you cannot help recognize Chef Mario Batali, though his famous orange Crocs at times seem to steal the spotlight. There is a story going around that since the manufacturer was discontinuing the production of the orange hue that he likes, Batali ordered 200 pairs so as not to run out of his favorite footwear. Batali was one of the first chefs to achieve celebrity status in the late nineties. He opened his Babbo restaurant in New York in 1998, followed by being awarded the James Beard Best Chef in New York in 2002. After that his career snowballed and his TV shows catapulted him into the spotlight. He went on to open restaurants in Las Vegas, California, Chicago, Boston and overseas. Along with partner Joe Bastianich.

Currently his restaurant empire with partner Joe Bastianich stands at 23 restaurants and counting. On the West Coast, the duo has joined with Nancy Silverton for three Pizzeria Mozzas, Chi Spaca and Osteria Mozza.

In 2005 James Beard Foundation voted him the Most Outstanding Chef of the Year. The TV shows that followed such as Iron Chef, Molto Mario on Food Network, the PBS series on Spain with Oscar winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and Chew on ABC, have made him a household name not only in the US but also in countries like Hong Kong and Singapore. He lives with his wife and two sons on the East Coast while overseeing his enterprises, filming TV shows, and making appearances all over the country. An avid golfer and traveler, Batali is always seen in his typical attire of shorts and the famous orange Crocs.

Batali with his self-deprecating sense of humor is a very intelligent, well-traveled man with opinions on a large variety of subjects. Vocal, outspoken, very much in the public eye, and seemingly always on the brink of controversies regarding various issues, he is a somewhat polarizing figure.

Our conversation at MESAMÉRICA 2014  in Mexico City where he was a headliner.

Is this your first such event on the international circuit?

Yes, Mesamérica is the first such international event for me. I used to do Aspen, Colorado, and one more event every year but because my kids are in high school I prefer to be around and not miss any time with them.

You recently participated in a conversation in NYC in conjunction with the MAD Symposium about who is a chef. So how do you define a chef in the present world?

I think a chef is a very good cook who also has the added capability of managing a kitchen well. You cannot be a very good chef without being a very good cook because you can manage people better but it does not bode well for your restaurant if you are not a good cook yourself. The two jobs can live together but they are not mutually inclusive. You can be a great cook and a shitty chef and a shitty cook and a really great chef provided you have good cooks in your kitchen.

What is your definition of taste?

I feel taste is two things. Firstly taste is what you want to project to your friends and associates by telling them what you think is good so they think highly of you.Taste is also your personal reaction to something when you see it, taste it, look at it, or smell it. When you watch it on TV it’s what your first initial reaction to it is and what it does for you, but it is more often the first one and more often it’s just a projection. The difference between the two is palate since taste is different from palate. Palate is the ability to distinguish between lots of different flavors. You can have that distinguishing palate and have that taste as well.

These days we have chefs doing research, public speaking, working with anthropologists and historians, bringing back forgotten ingredients, and so on. Is this changing who a chef is?

I guess that is the same as trying to find out who a professor is. There are teaching professors, research professors all different kinds. Similarly, the entire category of chef is first based on generosity and ability to make things for other people. If you have that you can work it in a thousand ways. I would not get worried about finding a unique definition for a chef. There can be a research chef, anthropologist chef, and Alice Waters-like chef, a teaching chef, or writer chef. All are different as I am different from a lot of other chefs, but the fundamental thing is that they are all chefs.

Lots of young chefs stateside and internationally are coming up with own food labs and research units. Is that a trend or is there a need for it?

I think as long as your restaurant needs it you should have it and if you don’t have the need then there is no point. I don’t have a food lab and I have 26 restaurants and I guess we have a built-in food lab in each operation. My business is basically producing for the guests at my restaurants and probably I am old school and the new school is about the development of new recipes. I just work on my recipes in a less dangerous and more emotional environment and it’s my way of working and looking at it. I guess to have this research interest you need to be very smart, and maybe I am not smart in that way.

You are very smart!

You can be smart in one field and not necessarily in others. You have to diversify, divide, deliver, and conquer the field you excel in.

I recently dined at Relæ in Copenhagen where your silver is stored a drawer under the table. What is your opinion about this trend for understated and casual dining?

That entire concept is a statement and whatever happens in these instances is to provoke you and challenge you. It is a much more of a theatrical performance to excite you, make you feel good, and draw attention. If you look at societal tumult and the talk that only 1% of diners want formal then there is need for only 1% of such restaurants to feed that 1% of people. Fine dining is not over and definitely good food is not dead but maybe that exalted level of super, high maintenance service, luxurious chairs, fine appointments on the table maybe less and less interesting to a lot more people. I don’t love a fancy experience every week anymore and go to maybe three or four formal dining experiences a year, and that is plenty for me. Personally I would not mind spending a couple of hundred dollars on a fine bottle of wine at David Chang’s noodle bar in NYC as I would at the more formal Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant.

The reason casual dining is becoming prevalent is because the customer wants it and not because the chef decided to do away with the tablecloths. The chef decided there is no more reason for that expense because the customer no longer appreciates it as much anymore. The chefs and restaurant owners are only providing what the customers seem to want now.

What are your thoughts on restaurants offering a mélange of cuisines, what I call confusion of fusion?

Using different ingredients from different countries than the mother cuisine is interesting to me. The idea of having a Korean barbecued taco absolutely works for me. Though the idea of having Chinese noodles and Asian noodles on the same plate actually does not make sense because they don’t have the same texture and it doesn’t work.  Using different techniques and different styles together is fine provided you are not out there simply trying to prove that you can play every song. I have a problem with it as I am not ready for my Bulgarian Chilean Cebecheria because it simply shouldn’t exist.

Well at least the Peruvian-Japanese fusion seems to be working out and accepted everywhere.

There is fusion that makes all the sense in the world. Japanese makes sense because it can go with almost anything.

Coming to the trend about natural, local, foraged etc. on restaurant menus, it can seem like too much information. What is your take on this topic?

You need to be able to tell your customer what they need to hear and essentially it depends on the server. There can be a good waiter and a bad waiter. Sometimes there are customers who go to dinner and know what they want to order and are confident in their choices, comfortable in their environment and are ready to pay. They sit down and want dinner in six minutes and are not there to listen to the chef’s message for the day as they have come only to enjoy each other’s company and are not interested in the chef’s explanations and descriptions. Though the server will be at times insistent on delivering that regardless.

One of the big transitions in the last twenty years chefs is the chef’s slow movement into the dining room. Chefs are making their presence known either by being there in person or by mandate from the back of the house. Some people love that and are tickled pink to hear how the cats tongue was pickled and then marinated, grilled, smoked, and dragged in hay and carried the forty yards and they go out to dinner for that stuff. A lot of other people just want to sit down and have a delicious dinner and they only ask questions if they are intrigued. Though a chef has become part of the conversation but it does not mean that the chef has to be at your table.

Do you think reality TV shows contribute to diner’s enhanced expectations and are changing diner’s perceptions? Now so-called foodies have grandiose visions of what they expect, not realizing there is a price tag attached to such food.

I agree with that and the epic price tag part and there is no category of shows that I find more abusive, and more successful! Look at how much money these shows make. They make hundreds of millions of dollars a year on TV, so clearly there’s a market for it. But there’s also a market for bad bagels and cream cheese. I’m not going to go for either of those markets. You have to choose what you want to be in.

In the same sense that watching a soap opera about doctors doesn’t really change medicine, this isn’t really going to change food. At the end of it in my opinion these shows are not really going to change perceptions.

What does the term foodie mean?

It simply means it’s a club you get to join for free. This is like a conversation where someone states, “I am a foodie” and asks “Are you?” And the response is “No, I am a blogger.” Anybody can say what they want these days they can say I am a chef or whatever. People will say oh my spouse is a chef and asked where he cooks will say, “Oh! At home.” I am ok with that and it does not annoy me at the moment.

Young cooks and culinary students these days aspire to be a celebrity chef like you. Is it a realistic dream?

Well the good news is everyone can cook; you can do whatever you want. The bad news is there are like seven TV chefs jobs a year and maybe less.  In reality only a couple of people will make it because it’s like being a professional basketball player, there are only a couple of guys that are going make it, but it should not stop you from trying. There are not many openings out there, but it does not mean that you should not dream of it.

But if your only objective is to be a TV chef then you should work on a Plan B. It seems glorious and exciting to people to be famous.

So is being famous a burden?

Not a burden, but a responsibility. Sometimes you don’t want to be famous It takes twenty years to get where I am and it takes three cranky days to mess it up. So if you are not going to be nice to people just stay home or put on a mask. Look at Tom Cruise; that guy can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized but that does not mean he is giving up his job. He makes 25 to 30 million dollars a movie working for six months a year, so though there is a price to pay but it’s still worth it.

You are involved in environmental debates such as fracking etc. Why this interest?

I am not against fracking but I am against a big company in the energy business not telling you exactly what is going on. I don’t want it to stop and in fact maybe in the end it might turn out to be something good but I am just against it as it is now.

You have also been vocal on the subject of GMO’s. Any comments on that?

I am interested in non-food topics as well. It’s GMO politics and if you follow me on twitter you see people telling me to stick to my cooking. Why should a cook not have an opportunity to talk about these issues and if you don’t want to listen don’t follow me. There are people who have the added capacity to do their jobs and then do more. Some people have the capacity to only do their jobs and there are people who don’t even have the capacity to do their own jobs. You have to achieve your potential by doing what you can and what makes you feel good.

Your Mario Batali Foundation is doing great work for children. What motivates this interest?

Being involved in my foundation and in the Food Bank in New York is something I like to do and it also gives a very good lesson to my children and the people that they know. I look at these being part of my job as a cook and the generosity and desire to take care of people. It’s how far you can extend it and not go without talking to everyone about it. There is a part you have to keep to yourself to keep a sense of normalcy.

Then Enrique Olvera walked in to welcome Batali and thank him for coming to the conference and apparently it was their first meeting. Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese was there as well and the topic switched to the MAD and where we would all meet again. And I could not resist asking:

Are you going to be at MAD this year?

No, because sadly MAD happens in August which is a bad month for me as this year I have to drop my son off at college.

I also had to ask one question to satisfy my personal curiosity regarding Batali having worked at Stuff Yer Face during his undergrad years at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the early 80’s.He did verify it and we exchanged mutual notes on all the Stromboli preparations we had enjoyed in those days since I had been a student there at the same time. He said he remembered it being good, fresh, inexpensive, and perfect for a student’s budget.


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