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Mario Batali - Blending the gift of originality with the soul of tradition

by Matt DeLucia

April 2008

    photo of: Mario Batali

I've always admired people who possess the confidence to stand out from the crowd, and embrace their individuality. On a personal level, taking the road less traveled certainly involves risk and requires more than a dash of audacity. However, for those rebellious in nature, it tends to be a more comfortable direction than for the cautious. In business, an entrepreneur’s bold departure from the norm allows them to bleed invention from disparity, turning their differences into success, their uniqueness into gold.

I think it’s true that many of the most recognizable personalities of our time could walk through Main Street USA with barely a turned head if they were to merely dress modestly and avoid their own telltale distinctiveness. But if you took away his bright-orange clogs and vest, his ponytail, his shorts and his green Vespa, Mario Batali would still be instantly recognizable in virtually any small town or big city in the nation. The reason why he is so popular with chefs and foodies, with Nascar fans and average Americans, is that his image does not appear forced or pre-arranged. His personality on-air is not much different from the way he is with anyone else, and his jokes and his facial expressions and his moods always seem natural. The clothes he wears are perhaps the most obvious outward visual sign that he enjoys being noticed, but also that he is a rebel, a non-conformist, and a leader. And he has utilized this uniqueness to his advantage, when combined with his innate culinary talents and his endless source of energy.

When he left New York to spend three years in Italy, he was a relatively unknown chef here in the U.S., yet even more so in the small northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne, population 200. The town folk there wondered who the big red-headed American guy was with the funny clothes. “I was wearing those kind of ‘pajama pants’ that the gym guys wear now,” Mario remembers, “and they were like, ‘Where are you from dude?’ Fashion is not my main forte, but comfort is, and they thought it was a little strange. But in the end it worked out well. I learned a lot of great things and that was probably the real seminal experience in my life, in understanding simplicity and a sense of place.”

When he returned to the States three years later, a college buddy convinced him to help open his Greenwich Village restaurant, called Rocco. Mario brought his Northern Italian ideas with him from his Italy experience, but his cuisine seemed alien to the restaurant’s traditional red-sauce customers. He soon left and opened Po’ (Bolognese slang for “little”) shortly thereafter with one other partner named Steven Crane. The two pooled their resources, 43 thousand dollars, which was exactly what it cost them to open their restaurant, with very little to spare.

“I think there were a couple a hundred left in each of our pockets on the day we opened. Sitting there on a Sunday night at 7 o’clock and not having a customer yet was scary. We opened May 27th of 1993, and there were days in June where we would not see a customer until 7:30. We were sitting around saying, ‘Yeah, we’re hot!’.”

Of course it didn’t take long before the tiny 34-seat Po’ became sizzling hot. Mario’s fresh and distinctive Northern Italian cuisine - slightly Americanized and similar to what he had tried to introduce to New York diners at Rocco - became a huge success. Mario wanted something that was based on Manhattan’s green market, because he thought that was how Italians would cook if they were living here. “When you’re eating food in season and the menu changes and it’s a lot of vegetables and not a lot of reduced sauces, that’s what Italian food should taste like, whether you are in Puglia or whether you are in Topeka. It does not have to be done in a way that mimics anything and that is what got people excited. Plus, the most expensive entrée was $15, and the six course tasting menu was 29 bucks. How could you not love that restaurant? And people did.”

Two years after Po’ opened and Mario became one of the most talked-about chefs in an increasingly chef-centric city, a small television network whose offices were right up the street invited Batali to their studios. He wound up as guest chef on a show called Chef Du Jour, which highlighted local talent and was used by the network as a testing ground for potential TV chefs. His large stature and booming voice, combined with his friendly chatter and vast knowledge of Italy, showed that he could easily connect to the audience. Eventually that guest appearance led to the creation of his own show about a year later, Molto Mario. Anyone who has turned on the increasingly popular Food Network has no doubt caught at least a few of his shows, which Mario filmed 8 at a time for a total of over 500 episodes. His appearances on Iron Chef and countless other cooking shows have also contributed to the chef becoming a household name. Recently, an erroneous New York Post article by Braden Keil claimed he had dropped out of the Iron Chef show and that he was fired from Molto Mario, which had not been filmed for four years. Even though the New York Post is not exactly the New York Times when it comes to articulate reporting, Mario was not happy.

“Keil does not like me, and that’s all right, it’s ok to have a little battle with some press people, but he just came out of nowhere and made up this story. They did not cancel my show, they just moved it from one slot to another, and I think Molto Mario is now on one day a week. And I’m on Fine Living now, which is Food Network’s other brother, but we have not made that show in three years and that was not a decision for me to quit. The same thing with Emeril, Food Network’s PR team has handled things poorly in changing their focus. They should have never said “these people are fired,” they should have not mentioned it at all and moved forward because everyone knows what they are doing. I don’t begrudge them, they are smart business people who have identified where they want to go in their business and I am not part of that team. We both made each other famous; when I started with them they were not very famous and I was not famous at all. Now everyone knows who the Food Network is and they also know who I am, which worked out really well for all of us.”

While most of America was introduced to Mario by the immensely popular shows Molto Mario, Ciao America, and Iron Chef, the investment of time that his television success required hasn’t distracted him from his vast culinary and restaurant-empire goals. But television remains a natural extension of his time spent in the kitchen. He can continue to present his brand, hawk his line of kitchen utensils, and keep America desirous of a premium reservation at one of his many restaurants. His latest television show, which will be seen later this year on PBS, will send Mario into the culinary heart of Spain. This project makes perfect sense, since Batali spent his high school years in that country, where his father was an employee of Boeing. His love of Spanish culture grew deeper in college where he majored in Spanish theatre, a topic that on the surface may seem very un-chef like. But what is a better analogy for a restaurant than theatre; they are in essence a series of complex Broadway-like acts, where the food and the decor and the service crew are the entertainment.

Batali explained the financial concept behind the new television show, called “Spain...on the road again,” which is complex. The show is basically handed over to PBS for free, and is sponsored by large companies who run short ads at the beginning and the end of the program. The new television show will co-star a beautiful Spanish actress named Claudia Bassols, as well as American actress and Batali’s friend Gwyneth Paltrow, so in this sense Batali can be partially excused for doing the show for free. But they will also own the show, and have the option to sell it to Spanish stations such as Telemundo, since it will be filmed bilingually. It’s difficult to imagine who will get the most screen time, Batali or his two beautiful co-hosts. “Gwyneth will eat wild birds and fish, but no four-legged animals. Everyone has their own little quirks, but I just feel bad for her because she missed the jamon. In Spain they eat a lot of eggs, they eat a lot of potatoes, and they eat a lot of crazy fish and rice. There are a thousand ways to get around eating meat. I just tell her when I think she is missing something, and she looks at me like I should shove a broom up my ass.” Contrary to some news reports, Batali says he will not be doing a show with Anthony Bourdain, mainly because of lack of time, which is understandable.

After living in Spain and finishing college, Mario went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu London. While he was there he fell into a job just outside of Chelsea at a place called “Six Bells” working for someone who would have a profound effect on his career, both negatively and positively; Marco Pierre White, who Batali calls “one of the finest generators of story that you will ever see in your life.” The most prominent story of course is the one when White threw a pan of risotto at Batali, an act that Batali says was so commonplace that he didn’t think he would remember it. “When you tie your shoes everyday, you never remember tying your shoes,” he says. Although that incident caused Batali to resign, White’s genius and passion were so obvious that it changed the way he looked at his chosen career, and he also discovered things he would do differently. He looks at White’s reaction to the absence of perfection with anger as a problem with preparation. “Every restaurateur knows that between 7:00 and 8:30 things are different than the time between say 4:00 and 5:30 in the afternoon, and you should train your staff to know and expect that. As you accelerate into the heaviest part of service and you have not been properly prepared, who does it reflect on really? So, that’s why the chef is mad because the chef realizes, ‘Shit, I did not spend enough time training this person to deal with something I know is going to happen every night of my fucking life.’ And that is where that self-loathing comes in and they are so mad they just want to stab themselves. But they do not, because it’s easier to whip the new extern.” Mario says that his own management style began in much the same way because of what he learned from his mentors (“The beaten child will grow up and beat their children,” he said), with yelling and screaming but he claims he’s mellowed since then. “I find it’s a far more effective behavior-changing device in a stern sotto voce within ear-shot of your peers. ‘I told you that we would never serve that way, did I not? So, you’re never going to do that again right or I will cut off your leg, right?’ Never intending to cut off their leg of course.” During our interview, Mario announced to us that Frank Langella, the executive chef at Babbo who has been with Mario for nearly ten years, will become a partner at Babbo early next year. He also mentioned that Babbo’s talented pastry chef Gina DePalma was on a one year paid sabbatical leave in Rome. Batali currently owns 13 restaurants and you don’t expand that dramatically and successfully without delegating and sharing well. “All along I have run into really good people and I tell them all ‘just stick around and you’ll get a slice of the pie.’ Because it would be tragic to train someone really well and then they say ‘I am going to work for Danny or Drew or Steve Hanson.’ The real issue in growth in the restaurant industry is not only getting what you want but capturing what your team wants, and helping them achieve those goals. I think the most important lesson I could teach anybody in the restaurant business is that you don’t have to make all the money. You can make a lot of it but you should share quite a bit of it with your team so that they stay with you, and you get to continue to pick from that tree.”

When Mario first opened Babbo, it was the beginning of a relationship with partner Joe Bastianich, son of famous Italian chef Lidia, and eventually Mario sold off his interest in Po’ and began opening a series of restaurants with Bastianich, all in New York City, and all of them successful ventures. I once read an older interview someone did with Mario where he said he would not open a restaurant in Vegas, yet he will soon own three there. What changed his mind?

“One of the big things that you discover traveling around the country is that there are some people who are petrified of New York City. Even some people who live in New York State will never come to New York City, so they would never taste my food. We thought about that and said, what market can we do that is profitable and yet enjoyable? We looked in every town; Seattle, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, where all of the usual suspects were opening restaurants. None of them really have enough of a restaurant culture to support what we think we need, which is about two and a half turns. We are pretty much full by six, and we’re still full even on Mondays at eleven at all the restaurants. All these other towns do not have that; in Seattle you might be full at 6:45 but you’re empty at 8:30, Boston is the same. Miami maybe you’re empty at 8:00 but you’re full at 11:00. Houston and anywhere in Texas is too damn hot in the summer, Miami the same thing. But Las Vegas is busy pretty much year-round, which makes it a smart profitable move to open a restaurant there.” Mario explained that many chefs from New York and overseas put their name on restaurants with more of a management deal, where your employees become employees of the hotel. In that situation the chef’s name is used but you don’t necessarily operate the restaurant. But Mario and Joe are the owners of their restaurants in Vegas, having partnered with Venetian and The Plaza. “They are our restaurants, and they feel like our restaurants, and that is how we wanted to do it. So that is why we eventually did it because quite honestly there will be people who will never come to Manhattan.”

With Vegas and L.A. firmly under his belt Mario will soon be taking on a new area for him – New England. Deep in the woods of Connecticut is another land of casinos, namely the Foxwoods resort, where currently there are several star chefs with their names on restaurants - and there will soon be a few more. “We are working with a guy named Larry Ruvo who is President of Southern Wine and Spirits in Nevada. We’re going to develop - I hate to use the word food court - we are going to develop kind of a piazza that is a giant wine store within the walls of which would be a restaurant by Joe and myself, Emeril, Rachael Ray and Daniel Boulud. And the restaurants will all have their little terraces into this piazza that would be an interactive wine bar.”

Besides being a prolific television chef and chef/restaurateur, Batali has kept busy writing books for the past 10 years, including Simple Italian Food (1998), Holiday Food (2000), The Babbo Cookbook (2002), Molto Italiano (2005), Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style (2006), Dolce Italiano with Gina DePalma (2007) and the upcoming book to be released on April 22nd called “Italian Grill.”

“There is an entire chapter about spit-roasting; we used a piastra which is a slate plate that sits on top of your barbeque, you cook flat breads on that, you cook shellfish, you can cook different things on it. It’s simple delicious food of my own design. None of the dishes are very traditional, but it’s the food that Italians do make or would make on their grill.” Team Mario also has another book coming out this year that will accompany the “Spain...On the Road Again” show.

No one can keep up a schedule like the one Mario keeps without staying in good shape, yet Batali has a reputation more as a partier than as an exercise guru, partly because of his size and partly because, well, he loves to party. But chefs wanting to emulate Mario’s success shouldn’t think that his partying doesn’t have a flip side.

“They don’t see me play squash four days a week; squash and boxing and golf. If I’m on the road, I always check into a hotel that has a pool, because no matter how much you work and how tired you feel, if you exercise for 45 minutes to an hour in the morning, you feel better. Even if it is at the expense of a half hour of sleep, it’s a smarter thing to do, so I do that five days a week, six days a week.”

One of the questions I had planned on asking Mario during our interview was, “what is the driving force behind what you do?” Perhaps not exactly with that precise wording, but something that might explain to people who respect and admire what he’s accomplished, just what makes him tick. Instead, I asked him what question he would like to be asked, and the question was asked for me.

“What gives you the most pleasure in your job?” he asked himself. “People never ask me, ‘what makes you the most satisfied? What really makes you the happiest person?’ That is an integral question. And in all honesty my answer is a simple one; it is the satisfaction of watching my family grow up and develop while I am able to do my work. And having integrated my family into my work, and having made them an integral part of the decision-making process is what makes it feel like something that has a deeper root than just this year’s lawn or last year’s Casa Mono. Probably the most significant part of it is the satisfaction and joy of having my kids go to a restaurant. When I took them to Osteria Mozza, they were the happiest kids because they knew how much I had sweated that restaurant, and they said, “Dad this is really great!” And having that happen is far more significant than a Michelin star.”

The integration of Mario’s culinary life with his two boys and his wife, Susi Cahn of Coach Dairy Goat Farm, is not an easy trick; it can be difficult to take time off and enjoy the success that has taken years to obtain. In many ways, that familial integration shares many similarities with his partner Joe Bastianich’s life growing up around restaurants, with his parents in the business since before he was born. Mario sees this as fitting and further evidence of the karma that has brought them together as partners in thirteen restaurants (and counting). And some of the memories his children have growing up around the business may be similar – but not all.

“Some of Joe’s favorite memories are smell; he even likes the smell of all of the prep cook’s shoes sitting in a pile downstairs in the basement. He grew up doing his homework sitting on sacks of flower at Bonavia, so he remembers that smell with a certain happiness. Not that they were stinky feet, they were just feet, and when he remembered that I was like, ‘Dude that is so weird!’”

Mario has always had a reputation for knowing how to have a good time, and seeing that his 50th birthday is coming in a few years I asked him what sort of party he was planning. He said he was going on an African Safari with his family. It might sound exotic and dangerous but that’s nothing compared to the canoe ride they made last year when they saw over 500 different species of birds but had to navigate through piranha infested river waters. “Here is the story I told my wife, ‘Don’t worry about the piranhas honey because the alligators eat the piranhas. Don’t worry about the alligators because the anacondas get the alligators. The boa constrictors however, have no predator, so we should definitely worry about that.’ Me, I’m more worried about mosquitoes than anything else.”

Mario looks at vacations and family time like he does his restaurants and his friends and his business. That every moment is precious, every idea potentially wondrous, but keeping the priorities in order is critical.

“Out of 52 weeks in a year, how much time do I have with my 11 year-old? So you have to really evaluate those things from now until my kids get to the point where they do not want to talk to me, which may be as early as 13, or as late as never.”

If I had to guess, I’d say never.

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