Iron Chef Mario Batali


Photos by Charles Orrico

Mario Batali is perched at the far end of the long marble bar at Otto, his restaurant at the ritzy Greenwich Village address One Fifth Avenue, his “office,” at which he spends much more time than in his official one twelve blocks uptown. It’s late morning and he’s already breaking his personal “no sugar during the day” rule because the bartender has brought in a batch of lemon poppy muffins made by his daughter, so of course Batali must try one. He gently breaks it in half and offers a piece to his interviewer—“We share in our family, it’s all right,” he reassures—before digging into his half. It doesn’t take long before he’s ready to share a second muffin.

Batali, famed restaurateur, cook (he doesn’t care for “chef”) and TV star, is wearing his signature baggy Bermuda shorts and orange Crocs. It doesn’t matter if he’s cooking with Martha (or Oprah or Rachael) or tootling around Spain with Gwyneth (Paltrow, his co-star in a popular 2008 PBS series), he’s always got bare calves and those clunky rubber shoes over socks. A vest over a shirt with rolled-up sleeves is also part of his usual style. He’s just as ebullient here as he is on TV.

“I’m the same guy,” he explains. “Being on TV a lot makes you more you. It doesn’t make you more outgoing. It just makes you more comfortable.” He’s never taken media training and doesn’t think that people who do gain anything. “They yell, they talk and they say strange things at strange times. I’m pretty much me on TV, the same way I am in person. That’s why I’ll never be an actor. I don’t have two people in me. I’ve got one simpleton, who kind of hangs around and has a good time. That’s all I’ve got. That’s my role.”

imageHe’s no simpleton, as he very well knows, but he does have the role of an enthusiastic, comforting advocate for whatever he’s promoting, which is usually food. His hazel eyes actually seem to twinkle. If Santa had a twin with red hair and a trim red beard, that would be Mario Batali.

The orange motif of his footwear continues to the cover for his iPhone. He’s whipped out the phone to demonstrate one of his newest projects, a “Mario Batali Cooks!” app that’s part video cookbook and part travelogue, with screens that show photos and information about the spot in Italy where each recipe originated. A press release for the app says that Batali “personally created 100% of the content.” The way he expertly demonstrates and enthusiastically explains the features, that seems to be 100% true.

He’s been making an effort to learn about new media, he says. “It’s an amazing thing how children are so interconnected. They’ll be my customers in five years, so I’ve got to figure it out.” In an old-media move, though, he launched his own in-house print magazine this summer, called Viaggio.

Another new undertaking is Eataly, a 50,000 square foot marketplace at 200 Fifth Avenue that has quickly become a hot spot for New York foodies. Launched with Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe Bastianich, and Oscar Farinetti, it includes several restaurants, two of which he claims as his. That brings his total to 16, including eateries in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Port Chester, NY. Singapore is scheduled to be added soon. He owns the restaurants, including his flagship Babbo, the highly regarded Del Posto and the amusingly named Spotted Pig, with his business partner Joe Bastianich.

He’s considered opening a restaurant on Long Island, too, perhaps near his bayfront house in Amagansett. “I love Long Island. We usually go out there in May, for [wife] Susi’s birthday, and then we let it go to the tourists until September and October. We might do Thanksgiving there this year. I like it best when it doesn’t take five hours to get there.” (His own birthday falls on September 19, which he points out is Talk Like a Pirate Day. This year he turned 50.) Loving Long Island, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into working on Long Island.

image“The problem is that I wouldn’t get out there very often,” he says. His two sons go to school near their home in Greenwich Village. “If it was a pizzeria, that would be one thing, but I haven’t found the right location. My favorite part of Long Island is quite seasonal, and January, February, March, there just are not enough people around. I’m not an expert at that seasonal management. But I’ve often fantasized about a small seafood restaurant where you could put your feet in the beach, and work there for four months, and then take the rest of the year off.”

He laughs heartily at the idea because, really, he’s the opposite of that fantasy guy. Besides his many restaurants, Batali is likely to be visiting Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, The Today Show, a food festival or some other event on any given day. “Where’s Mario?” is an ever-changing page on his website, He has had several TV shows of his own, including Molto Mario, and has authored eight cookbooks and written forewords to others (i.e., his name has clout). He also makes breakfast every morning for his sons, 12-year-old Leo and 14-year-old Benno.

Sometimes that just means pouring the cereal, he says, but often he’ll plan something more elaborate for them (while keeping his own intake light): Beignets for a special day, challah French toast for a school holiday or a dish he considers simple—whole wheat English muffin with a duck egg and ham and cheese. He also returns home for dinner every night with the boys and his wife Susi Cahn, whom he met when she was marketing goat cheese for her family’s business, Coach Farm.

“I love to cook at home. I make Sunday supper,” he says. “I enjoy cooking a lot. Simple things, a roasted chicken or a grilled steak. I’m having the [Emeril] Lagasse family over next weekend. We’re going to do porchetta, which is pork loin wrapped in a pork belly, roasted very slowly and then sliced—basically pork chops and apple sauce.” He doesn’t have to cook every night, though. “We have a Mexican babysitter from Acapulco who makes dinner every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. My favorite thing to eat is anything anyone else makes.” (A favorite line of his, also used on The Daily Show.)

Batali also exercises every day, right after breakfast. Yes, Mario exercises! “I swim, I box, I do yoga and I play squash and golf. I do an hour a day at least, sometimes two hours. One of the things I find about managing stress is, if I really pump hard for 60 minutes a day, the stress kind of dissipates a little. It works for me. Even yoga. You can sweat pretty hard in yoga. It allows me to make better decisions.” He swims at a city-owned recreation center in the West Village that costs only $75 a year, he adds, but takes yoga classes privately.

In the evening, if he doesn’t have another obligation, he visits one of his restaurants. “I go in the kitchen with the guys. I plate the pastas. It’s important for me to work in the kitchen. It’s very important for me to stay in that world.”

How does he fit his many activities into one day? “I don’t sleep much. I sleep about three or four hours every day. That’s plenty for me. I feel good.”

The real mystery about Mario Batali, though, might be how such a gregarious guy ever landed behind a stove. According to him, it came naturally as a result of his upbringing.

“I grew up on the west coast. My background is third-generation Italian and French-Canadian partly. I grew up on both sides of the Cascade Mountains, on the eastern side, the very rural agrarian side and then on the suburban side, near Seattle. We moved back and forth several times. My grandfather raised hops. We grew up in a family that traditionally went out and picked blackberries. We foraged. Foraging was hip. I think it was because we were poor and I didn’t know it. But free food from the land was an amazing thing.”

And he learned that men didn’t just gather food. “When I grew up, it wasn’t unusual for the men to cook. It wasn’t unusual for everyone to be involved in the process of cooking, making something delicious. It wasn’t women’s work. It wasn’t in the back of the house, it was always in the middle.” They smoked their own salmon and made their own jam. “We put up fifty pies so we could have a blackberry pie every Sunday. We did all the jams, all the pickles, dilly beans, all this stuff. We were not obsessed. It was just part of our lives.
“I remember the first time I saw a package of sausage at a friend’s house, I thought, “You’re kidding me? In a package?’”

Batali’s father worked for Boeing and his mother was a registered nurse. When he was in high school, Boeing sent his father overseas. “We moved to Spain and that further underlined the potential for deliciousness. Even though Spain was not ready for gastronomic primetime, it was good, it was interesting. But they were still burning the garlic in the ‘70s. Now they’re much more chic,” as he demonstrated in his PBS series with Gwyneth Paltrow, Spain…on the road Again.

Despite his interest in food, when he went to Rutgers in New Jersey for college, he studied Spanish theater of the golden age and economics. “I loved them but realized that I didn’t want to do either one as a career. I worked in a little pizzeria in New Brunswick and really became addicted to the adrenaline and the team nature of the work that was required in a restaurant. I just fell in love with it.”

After he graduated, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, the renowned culinary school in London, but soon got bored. “I dropped out of it and worked for a guy named Marco Pierre White, who was the enfant terrible of our generation. And then I worked in a bunch of restaurants and landed here in New York in 1992, where I fell in love with my wife, opened my first restaurant in ’93 and got married in ’94.” The “bunch of restaurants” he worked in included a little trattoria in the mountains of Italy near Bologna called La Volta, where he learned to make pastas and sauces in an authentically Italian way.

How he came to New York is a roundabout story. “I was actually on my way to Brazil from Turkey and I stopped in Florida, where I ran into an old college roommate. His father owned a place called Rocco on Thompson Street. I came here to run it. That partnership didn’t quite work out, so I started my own restaurant, Po. I sold it to my partner, Steve Crane, in ‘98, and it’s still there and doing well.” That same year, 1998, Batali opened Babbo and launched his present line of restaurants.

Most are Italian, with the exception of two Spanish spots, Casa Mono and the adjacent Bar Jamon, both near Gramercy Park. “I’m an Italian guy and I lived in Italy. The reason I like Spain so much is because I lived there three and a half years. I have no Spanish blood, but I have a passion for Spanish cooking and for Spanish people and for Spanish music and for Spanish culture. I’ve been listening for the past two months to [cellist] Pablo Casals in all of his magnificent splendor in beautiful recordings. There’s something in your heart that Spain really brings you. There’s a lot of intensity and a lot of pathos. But Italy is my home gastronomically.”

The restaurants were “hit hard” initially during the current recession, he says, but are recovering. Sales were down about 10 percent to $140 million in 2009, but they’re back up 10 percent this year, he says. Better yet, profits are up. “During the recession, we learned to more carefully manage the off times. We had to learn more about managing the paper products, even the lighting costs. Last year, we made all of our restaurants completely green certified, which was originally ideological. But what I can tell everybody, once you have all your green stuff in place, your fixed costs do go down. You’re saving energy in a way that affects the bottom line. We didn’t expect that.”

Even when his restaurants were in trouble, he didn’t cut menu prices, which he says are low anyway, with a top price of about $16 at the casual Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, where we’re sitting, and $29 (with a couple of exceptions) at nearby Babbo. It’s all about value, he says.

image“We offer many price points, and I think people understand that the food and the service and the action and the vibe and the buzz all add up to something that’s worth what you pay for it. At the end of the day, that’s what we are. We offer our unique take on food, but we also have magnificent food and we have very food-friendly wine ideology, and yet we’re also about having a good time. None of our restaurants is stiff, nor do they have that many behavioral rules. You can walk in and enjoy the experience on the level at which it presents itself.”

There are new food trends brewing, though, Batali says. “Americans are looking for a story behind the scene. They want to know where their food comes from. They want to know who made it. I would say in the last 15 years, the celebrity chefs have become the thing. In the next 15 years, as people know how to cook, they’ll know that to be truly delicious they need that raw product. So the farmers and fishermen and cattle herders, they’re going to be our new stars. Because at the end of the day, if you have that great piece of meat, you’re already eating better.”

Health will also become a bigger concern. “The hot buttons are going to be food supply, food safety and water. We’re going to go back to the real fundamentals and people are going to understand how great food happens. It isn’t just by a cook. It’s by a thousand people working together, and that interconnectedness is the wave of the future, understanding how all our decisions affect everything, not just dinner tonight. That’s where we’re going to go, both in restaurants and at home.”

He’s already participating in the local food movement, he says. “Long Island is a good example. There’s some amazing farming going on. When I live on Long Island, I want to eat bluefish, wild striped bass, scallops from here. I want to eat corn and potatoes from here. I want to eat things that smell the way the wind blows on Thursday afternoon at my mom’s house when I was growing up. Whether it’s Syosset or Montauk, that geospecificity is something that Long Island has. When there are still such agrarian roots, you can do that. I go local wherever I go. That’s flavor, that’s what the story is about.”

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.