Mario Batali is a well-known persona to diners and TV viewers everywhere with 9 books and TV shows such as the Chew on ABC, Iron Chef, Molto Mario on the Food Network, and a PBS series on Spain and a string of 26 restaurants (and counting) he owns with his partner Joe Bastianich in NYC, Connecticut, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore, Las Vegas, Newport Beach, and San Diego. On the West Coast the duo has partnered with Nancy Silverton for the hugely popular Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. Not to forget the Eataly Markets in NYC, Chicago and projected to open soon in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. Fourteen of his restaurants in the B&B hospitality group are Certified Green operations, a remarkable feat indeed. Batali’s name is synonymous with his own version of authentic and rustic Italian food, and he has redefined the concept of Italian food for diners and viewers in the US and overseas. Batali has a self-deprecating sense of humor, but is obviously a very intelligent, well-traveled man with opinions on a large variety of subjects as I found in my conversation with him. Batali 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. The James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in New York in 2002 and in 2005 he was named the Outstanding Chef of the Year. An avid golfer and traveler, Batali is always seen in his typical attire of shorts and the famous orange Crocs.
We sat down to talk before Mario went on stage at Mesamérica in Mexico last month as one of the headliners of this year’s international event.
Is this your first such event on the international circuit?
Yes, Mesamerica 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?
It was kind of unclear if that was the question that day and I don’t know if you noticed. 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.
Talking about good food, how do you define 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.
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.
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 that 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.
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.