Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Mario Batali

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Mario Batali was born in Seattle and brought up there and in Yakima. His father, Armando, worked for Boeing for 30 years, but upon retirement opened Salumi, where he makes and sells a wide range of Italian-style artisanal cured meats. Batali went to Rutgers University, majoring in Spanish, theatre, and economics. As a student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a New Brunswick, N.J., pizzeria, moving up to pizza maker. He went on to apprentice at Six Bells in London under Marco Pierre White, La Tour d'Argent in Paris,  Moulin de Mougins in Paris, and the Waterside Inn in Bray-on-Thames before returning to the U.S., where he took over the kitchen at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. He left that job to move to Italy and apprentice in the kitchen at Trattoria La Volta In the village of Borgo Capanne in Emilia-Romagna to learn traditional Italian cooking at the source. In 1993, living in New York, he opened his first restaurant, Po, in Greenwich Village, in partnership with Joe Bastianich. Today, he and Bastianich, sometimes with other partners, own about 25 restaurants, in New York (including the legendary Babbo and the four-star Del Posto), Las Vegas, California, Connecticut, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as two branches of the Eataly Italian market/food court chain in New York and Chicago (with more on the way). Batali is well-known to television viewers for his "Molto Mario," "Spain...on the Road Again," "The Chew," and other shows, as well as high-profile appearances on "Iron Chef America." His Mario Batali Foundation raises money for pediatric disease research, hunger relief, and literacy programs. He is also a vocal critic of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and especially of its deleterious effects on agriculture.

What's your earliest food memory?
Going to grandma Batali's house on Sundays for supper. She cooked all day and made homemade calf's brain ravioli with oxtail ragù. To this day it remains my favorite pasta. It was simply perfect.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a chef, and why? When I was going to college, I needed to make some extra cash. The neighborhood stromboli joint, Stuff Yer Face, was fun and lively and the waitresses were pretty cute. I started as a dishwasher and once I got into the kitchen I realized I loved the energy – I wanted to know more and do more. I was hooked immediately.

Who was your most important culinary influence?
Betta Valdiserri at La Volta in Emilia-Romagna, Marco Pierre White, and my Grandpa Leon and my Grandma Leonetta.

What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?
I knew how to cook before I went to Italy. But when I lived in Emilia, I learned things you can't from a book or in a classroom. Things like how a pasta dough should feel when it's ready to be rolled out and how to improvise with what's fresh in the garden. How not to follow a recipe. How to cook like nonna would. Most importantly, to trust simple dishes and solid technique. [pullquote:left]

You and your partner, Joe Bastianich, have more than 25 restaurants and market complexes in five states and on two continents. How do you, as a chef-restaurateur, maintain quality control over such a widespread and growing empire? 
Joe and I never intended to grow so big, so fast. We had a great group of talent that had trained in our restaurants and were outgrowing their space in the kitchen. When you have talent, you need to find a way to keep them happy. So we decided to give great employees the chance to have a piece of the pie, to keep them invested and excited by asking them to take the helm of new restaurants. So far this has worked out well for us and we've also been able to grow and expand and bring our concepts to more people. The best part, though, is that I know that no matter where I am, I can trust that the restaurant and kitchen are under control. That peace of mind is worth a lot! 

What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out? Go work for free, if you can. Go to a few different restaurants and see what you like and develop your skills and your resume.

How would you judge the quality of restaurants in America today compared with 20 years ago, and what has changed most about them? I think American diners have come a million miles in sophistication. We are more well-traveled and much more well-versed in our own great regional cooking. Restaurants have responded by creating more varieties of experiences. Where we used to think Italian was a good choice, now we have real Neapolitan-style pizza, authentic tortellini and lasagne and bollito misto. It is good on both sides of the equation, better than it's ever been.

Is food retailing, as at Eataly, easier or more difficult than running restaurants, and why?
They're both difficult on many levels. Eataly, by its sheer size and number of employees and number of restaurants, is a different animal entirely. 

Do restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
It comes down to values, really, and a demand for the quality we know our customers expect. Years ago we hired Elizabeth Meltz as sustainability and food safety director, to ensure that our restaurants meet our standards for greenness. Nowadays it feels like this is happening more and more, but when we took her on, it wasn't about feeding a trend so much as it was about taking the next step in development to adjust to our changing world. By doing so, we've helped our planet and we've grown as a company as well.  

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
A barn in the country with a giant spit roaster, a big antipasti table, and wine by the carafe only, that works on the weekends. This will be my retirement project.