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The Maestro

Mario Batali, Justin Stephens

That would be superchef Mario Batali, who recently sat down with Sky’s own Andrew Zimmern at the NYC outpost of Eataly—Batali’s chain of gourmet Italian marketplaces. The two food nerds waxed poetic about travel, fame, family, the importance of simple, delicious ingredients and how the smell of the apple harvest in the Hudson Valley is, in Batali’s words, “the shizzle.”


Batali photographed for Delta
Sky by Justin Stephens.

Mario Batali is unique among big-time chefs. No one in my lifetime has so quietly created an epically global food impact. No one stays truer to his own conscience or plays the game of life with more kindness. And no one stands at the intersection of food and culture with a bigger set of cojones than Batali. He inhales life and exhales joy while managing a culinary empire.

With various partners and collaborators, he runs 27 restaurants and counting—from the B&B Burger and Beer concept about to launch in Vegas to Del Posto and Babbo, two of the most important Italian restaurants in the country. His product lines range from pasta sauces to housewares available in the signature Batali orange. He was a driving force in the foundational success of the Food Network with his show Molto Mario, which debuted in 1996. He has been featured on or starred in some of the best food shows of the past 15 years, including an entertaining run on the Iron Chef America series. And don’t forget his current hit ABC daytime talk show The CHEW, his nine cookbooks, the Mario Batali Foundation and, of course, the Crocs, his footwear of choice.

And then there’s Eataly, his international chain of upscale Italian marketplaces. Today, Eataly in Manhattan is one of NYC’s top five tourist attractions, a food hall that grossed $70 million in its first year of operation. Batali and his business partner Joe Bastianich (along with Eataly founder and CEO Oscar Farinetti) are opening Eataly Chicago this month, and I think it might even be bigger.

But when Batali says that dollars and the fame aren’t that important, believe him. He lives a far less showy existence than stars with half his reach, accomplishments and wattage. He adores his family and wants others to do the same. His wife of 19 years, Susi Cahn, and their teenage sons Benno (17) and Leo (15) are at the center of his universe, an impressive accomplishment considering his career path, or in spite of it. When we’re hanging out, he asks after my wife and son and preaches the importance of work-life balance. “It’s the only thing you got and it’s the only thing that matters,” he says of family. And that’s why in our Age of Celebrity, when falsity and appearance trump reality and substance at every turn, Mario Batali is my ambassador of kwan.

       
Mario Batali photographed by Justin Stephens. Food stylist: Erika Martins. Set Design and Prop stylist: Emily Mullen. Wardrobe assistant: Allison Cirbus. Groomer: Jill McKay. Producer: Liz Lang.

       

ANDREW ZIMMERN: What was your food life like as a child?

MARIO BATALI: We grew up knowing how to forage—not because it was hip or sacred or Alice Waters approved but because it was free. I grew up in Washington State in what would now be encapsulated as a Sunset magazine lifestyle, because we had a cedar deck and we grilled the salmon that someone that we knew caught. But it wasn’t with this highfalutin super ideology. It was just we had delicious food all around us. My dad worked for Boeing, my mom was a registered nurse. We were very middle class, we mowed our lawn, but we also had delicious things always around us.

ZIMMERN: You graduated from Rutgers University. Did you really study Spanish theater? I’m just saying, I read that and I was like, “It could have been a Mario Batali put-on.”

BATALI: Right, it could have been. I went to college having come from high school in Madrid, so I had a good grasp of Spanish, was fascinated by the culture and didn’t want to just get a Spanish language degree, so I talked with the professors and they said, “You can call your degree whatever you want.” So I studied Spanish theater of the Golden Age, which was a fascinating time.

ZIMMERN: Has that fascination informed your career?

       
        Tune in to Batali's playlist.

BATALI: I think so, but I think it’s less about what I studied in college and more about just the way that our family lived. We were lucky enough to spend some time in Spain, which opened up my world, you know? I hadn’t really been east of Idaho my entire life the first time we moved to Madrid. It was fascinating how your prototypical American patriotism dwindled immediately when you saw what other people thought about American politics and American people because of their misinformation but also because of the way that we’re sold our information. So looking at both the political situation and then the artistic and cultural situation, it was a mind-blowing eye opener that has informed the rest of my life. It was the best thing our family ever did and it changed the way we looked at our food, it changed the way we looked at our family and it changed the way I look at everything that I do.

ZIMMERN: Is that how you wound up in London and then afterward in Italy cooking for a couple of years before coming back here?

BATALI: Well, after college . . . I left for Europe, only because I knew the food out there from traveling with my father, you know? So I think what was the most significant part of the puzzle was that I was lucky enough to start to get into food before it was groovy, but I loved it and I wasn’t looking for TV and I wasn’t looking for media. I was looking to do something I really loved, which is the advice I give to everyone I talk to now. If you can find anything you love, whether it’s being a florist or a painter or a carpenter or a welder or a chef, if you love it and you do it, you never feel like you’re at work, and that is part of the Zen-y joy of doing something that you love, which is for me being around food, and the media thing just kind of happened secondarily.

ZIMMERN: At what point did you feel that it was time to go back to the States?

BATALI: I went to an area between Bologna and Florence to work for three years, and I fell in love with the family who had taken me in as, you know, kind of free labor. But after three years, I had learned all I could. I would never have tired of living there, but you get tired of not having any money. So it was just like, you know, it’s time for me to go and figure out what I’m going to do.

       
Zimmern with Batali. Click the image to see more images from our shoot in New York City.
       

ZIMMERN: When did you start cooking in the States?

BATALI: I ran into one of my old college buddies and I decided to come up to New York and work with him, kind of take over his dad’s old restaurant, which was Rocco, which is now Carbone. [Carbone head chef Mario] Carbone used to work for me. It’s an amazing giant circle. I fell in love with New York, met my wife, fell in love with her, then opened Pò in 1993.

ZIMMERN: You opened Babbo in Greenwich Village in 1998. That place is so “you,” and there’s a million and one stories that have come out of that restaurant. It represents New York City, I think, in a very singular time and place.

BATALI: Yeah, there weren’t fancy restaurants. Outside of Gotham Bar and Grill, there was nothing that was really of a premium price.

ZIMMERN: People remember their first visit to Babbo. My dad lived on Horatio Street for 45 some odd years, and I remember my first visit there. I also remember going to the place that was there before Babbo.

BATALI: The Coach House.

ZIMMERN: That was my dad’s favorite restaurant, and the reason he took me to Babbo the first month it opened was because we wanted to see what the new restaurant was.

BATALI: Right. It was, and still is, a great collaboration—my first with Joe Bastianich, who’s been my business partner ever since.

ZIMMERN: How did you guys meet?

BATALI: His mom introduced us. I believe it might have been an arranged wedding.

ZIMMERN: Very sweet.

BATALI: He had just opened Becco, I had just opened Pò. We started meeting and talking and envisioning what was good and not good about restaurants that we were at, and suddenly this lease came up and we said, “Well, let’s do it. Let’s roll through it.” And Joe’s a good partner in that he took care of the details [at Babbo]. The restaurant was an amalgamation of our two points of view, what we thought good fine dining but casual fine dining could be.

ZIMMERN: Do you guys still work it that way?

BATALI: Yes. And it went on. Strangely enough, this week—I don’t know if you saw the USA Today rating of the top 15 Italian restaurants in America: One, Babbo. Two, Del Posto. Three, Osteria Mozza [all are Batali/Bastianich collaborations].

ZIMMERN: How much do you pay attention to lists and what would you tell your fans and food freaks who tend to live and die by them?

BATALI: When you’re on top of the list, the list is [great]. When you’re not on the list you say, “Nobody pays attention to that list.” You take what you can, you know. You try to be on the list, and we’re not on the heat map of the eater.com world because we’re not hot, but we’re busier than a lot of the hot restaurants just because we know what we’re doing and we know how to make people come into the restaurant. We used to be an indie band. Now we’re IBM. You know, we’re the old guard now. It’s frightening.

       
The chef in his natural habitat, aka Eataly NYC.        

ZIMMERN: Do you think that over the course of the last 20 or so years that you’ve moved toward being all things to all people? Because I do notice here in Eataly you have created a one-stop shop for everything, and this is a concept that—and I’m not blowing smoke up your ass—is just a monster. I mean, this is a monster.

BATALI: Well, this is the evolution of someone who first controlled their fiefdom, then became the general for seven lieutenants, who then became the benevolent dictator for several factions of small countries, and now you realize that the happiness of your people is as significant as your success. So we have to create an environment where the customer is happy but where the staff is happy and rewarded and feels comfortable and part of the team. And as these one-hit wonders or the newest, hottest guys come around or I spawn them off and they become the newest, hottest guys, what I have to create is a place that’s better than that in treating the staff and the customer in the same joyous celebratory way.

ZIMMERN: Do you get a lot of joy from being a teammate these days?

BATALI: I’ve found the greatest joy in watching my children grow up, and what I learned from that and how I can relate it to my daily work experience is the most satisfying thing. It’s the most pleasure to see and work with people who become successful and grow to become something else. That is for me the greatest. It’s not the pile of money. I don’t give a shit about fancy cars. I don’t wear designer clothing. I don’t spend a lot of money on watches. I like to travel nicely and I like to spend time with my family. That’s my reward. I have a Honda minivan. That’s my ride, baby.

ZIMMERN: I’m sure your vacation house in Michigan is very nice.

BATALI: It’s nice, but it’s not a luxury.

ZIMMERN: Is it harder or easier these days to get away to Michigan?

BATALI: Easier. As I always say, I go to Michigan because it’s the antidote for living in New York City and my children need to see something that isn’t as intense as New York all the time. In that same sense, coming back to New York in September is the antidote for three months in Michigan.

ZIMMERN: Are there restaurant ideas that fascinate you right now?

BATALI: If we can build green restaurants, completely LEED-certified, gold or platinum, that is making something that’s going to last longer and do better and possibly give us something to sell to a group of people who want to buy it—great.

ZIMMERN: When the first press release came out for your talk show-slash-cooking show The CHEW on ABC, I think everyone’s initial thought was this is going to be a really great hour for the first year, and like so many other good shows in daytime, it’s an impossible nut to crack. But the show’s ratings keep getting better and the show keeps getting better. Does that scare you?

BATALI: I’m lucky that I got on this program. It is so much fun and it opened my eyes to the potential for different kinds of media now, and it’s got me thinking about what else I can do.

       
Batali cruises the streets of Manhattan.        

ZIMMERN: What kind of stuff is in your fridge?

BATALI: I keep odd stuff. A friend of mine will send me frog legs from Okeechobee or another friend will send me doves or venison that he and his friends hunted this week. But for me, a meal isn’t about a 17 courser. For me, it’s about a fundamental main dish, a couple of side dishes that are predominantly vegetable or vegetarian or grains and eating them all pretty much at the same time. I like cooking at my house. We eat on the kitchen counter. We don’t eat in the dining room. I don’t know why we even have a dining room.

ZIMMERN: It seems that cooks in the digital age are trying to beat each other to the punch. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to do that with anything.

BATALI: I like going to a place where the product and the people and the collision of those two is unique. I love to eat foie gras where it’s grown. I’m happy to eat it in Alsace, but I don’t need to eat it on the Côte d’Azur. It’s so less about the chef than the chef wants you to know and it’s more about the place and the soil and Mother Earth speaking to you through the crops and the rain and the way it smells on a Thursday during the apple harvest in the Hudson Valley. That is the shizzle.

ZIMMERN: I see some of this here in Eataly. Of all the things in the entire place for you and me to snack on while we’re doing this interview, you chose a pizza with tomato sauce, garlic and basil and a little sprinkle of oregano and olive oil. It couldn’t be more elemental for you.

BATALI: Right. And my greatest pleasures are the things that are probably based more on the sourcing rather than the technique, because as a wizened and nearly out to pasture technician, I realize that, you know, you can run around and sweat the whole thing, but when I’m having a perfect blood orange in Sicily in the beginning of January and it’s got a little bottarga on top of it, that’s all I’ve got to do.

ZIMMERN: So you don’t really do the modernist cooking thing?

BATALI: It’s not my personal thing, but I don’t tell the boys and girls not to do it. I’m more of a traditionalist, but I’m not a Luddite or anything.

ZIMMERN: You’re a big music, art and literature lover. How do those fields align with yours?

BATALI: When I read Jim Harrison, it’s the same as me listening to the Talking Heads. There is a pleasure in their facility to deal with the tools that they’ve been given, and yet they elevate it to something that is different. You listen to Jack White, unbelievable guitarist, born of the same blues as Muddy Waters and Keith Richards, and you read these words and you listen to this music and you look at these paintings and it’s just like this is the human touch. The human touch is what I listen for, but it has to come from a natural place. //


Related:
Video: Mario Batali Cover Shoot
Slideshow: Mario Batali
Spotify: Chef Mario Batali's Selection

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