Mario Batali, David Bouley on New York in 1993

Staff Writer
In a project for the New Museum, these two New York food personalities recall where they were 20 years ago
Mario Batali

Melanie Dunea

What was New York like back in 1993? While some of today's rising chefs were running around in sandboxes, Mario Batali and David Bouley were just starting out, battling the grittiness of New York City in 1993, a New York without Starbucks, cellphones, and sky-high rent. And to hear their stories, you might just have to walk to your nearest pay phone.

To publicize the New Museum's latest exhibit "NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star," 5,000 public pay phones have been wired to bring up recordings of notable New Yorkers, recounting the city back in '93. You simply have to dial 1-855-FOR-1993.

Pay phones around the West Village might bring up Mario Batali's recording, where the Italian chef talks about opening his first restaurant Pó on Cornelia Street.

"It was a good time to be here," he says in his recording. "You could open a restaurant in the West Village or the East Village at that point for money that didn’t mean that you had to have a bank roll. You didn’t have to have a rich daddy or an investor or put together a team or anything like that."

Pó opened with reused tables and chairs from other restaurants, a bar built by a friend, and pure grit. "The reigning kings at that point of the downtown younger chefs were the Blue Ribbon boys, Bobby Flay, Tom Valenti, Matthew Kenney, and we’d all open our restaurants and then close them and then go back to the Blue Ribbon and have a couple of drinks and a couple of oysters and relax."

While Pó is still at its original location, the neighborhood has obviously changed. "It’s sad to watch the cost of business push the real individualist entrepreneurs out of the game," Batali says. "That’s what I kind of miss, you know?"

David Bouley, in the meantime, was in the fifth year of his first restaurant Bouley in the Financial District, doing all the small farmer sourcing and ingredient-focused cooking so ubiquitous today.

"When you went into the Bouley restaurant at that time, the first thing you smelled were cases and cases of apples, and the smell was amazing..." Bouley says in his recording at Duane Street and West Broadway. "If you were coming from a pressured life, suddenly you were feeling relaxed, your body is getting excited for food."

Not only does Bouley recount his relationship with the farmers and customers of the time, he also noted the extreme relationship between Wall Street and his restaurant. "I remember one man told me that by the time he got to the maître d' stand walking down the hall from the front door, he had forgotten about the $6 million he lost that morning because of the apples," he said.

The pay phones will serve as wormholes to 1993 until May 26, when the New Museum's exhibit closes. Mario Batali's clip can be heard around West Village, although a trip to a designated pay phone at the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street proved futile, as the phone didn't work.

Bouley's clip is only available on the northwest corner of Duane Street and West Broadway, a representative tells us, but plenty of other notable New Yorkers like Robin Byrd and Chazz Palminteri can be heard on the lines. And while the line is accessible via cellphone and landline, you'll simply hear Speed Levitch telling you to use a pay phone. It's worth sauntering up to a an unused pay phone booth and getting a few stares. Just expect some technical difficulties.

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