Joe Bastianich: Hardest-Working Man in the Restaurant Biz?

Editor
The restaurateur chats about his Progresso endorsement, Eataly Chicago, 'MasterChef,' and weight loss
Joe Bastianich

Joe Bastianich is always working on something.

Joe Bastianich is a busy man. While running restaurants all over the world with partner Mario Batali, he still finds time to go running every day, and is also the new spokesman for Progresso’s new Artisan soups. He took some time to sit down with us for a far-reaching conversation covering everything from his love of soup to the ideal MasterChef candidate, which is currently casting for its next season.

The Daily Meal: You've been working with Progresso lately. What drew you to them?
Joe Bastianich: It's a collaboration where I found a product that I think I could tell a story that relates to my own, that's significant, that's real. I thought they were doing something that was really significant and good and right, and it seemed like a natural thing.

What drew you to their new offerings in particular?
In our family, we ate soup every day, and every day began with a pot of soup, and it still works that way. You still go to my mother's house and the first thing you smell in the morning is burning onions and it's a pot of some sort of soup that begins the cooking of every day.

From the soup, everything is built in the culinary world of the household. And I don't live in a world where my wife makes soup every day and I also live in the real world with kids and everything. With these Artisan soups, I saw that the quality was at a level with something I would use at home and feed to my own family and we have, and they're good for what they are. They're a straightforward product from a company that comes from a long history.

I grew up Italian-American in Queens, so it's one of those brands that resonated with me through the years. Even my grandmother would use their canned beans in making her own soups, so there was some level of trust with me. And in the world of elitist foodie-ism, I think that when you find a product for that price point and delivers that type of quality where you could simply heat up and eat, it's worth telling.

"Whether that's service or hospitality, quite frankly, I don't give a sh*t. As long as when you come to my restaurant, you feel like someone is taking care of you and it feels like if you were eating at my house, then I've succeeded."

How’s Eataly Chicago coming along?
We're going to open in late November.

How will it compare to the one in New York?
It's bigger. It's two levels. It won't have a rooftop beer garden, but it will have some other add-ons that we don't have here. I think it will be integrated conceptually into the Chicago food scene a little bit. As the New York one is New York-centric, I think this will be Chicago-centric. The reoccurring themes stay: pizza, pasta, lots of coffees, and an expanded piazza with giant wine bar where you can order different foods from different areas. There won't be a Manzo; there won't be a tablecloth restaurant. The meat restaurant will less expensive, more secondary/tertiary cuts of meat, more like a meat grill than a full-on steakhouse, if you will. The core elements stay the same; everything has evolved a little bit to fit into the market.

What ways in particular will it fit into the Chicago market?
We always try to respect the indigenous food community as much as we can, so the main restaurant has a lot of homemade sausages that we thought were very telling of what Chicagoans eat. Some of the menu items in the various restaurants pay a little bit more homage to Western sensibility. At the end of the day, Chicago is a Midwestern city, so I think that there’s a respect for the heartland of our country, and of what those people want to eat.

We recently ranked Babbo America’s best Italian restaurant. There's something that I can't quite put my finger on about Babbo, but it's elevated beyond what a normal "good meal" would be. What do you think it is about Babbo that makes it so good?
I think it's a confluence of events. I think the food is a part of it, but I think Babbo is about the energy, the atmosphere, the location, the building itself, the kind of people who work there, and the wine program, so I think there's a lot of magic that happens in that brownstone. The food has always been Mario's take on Italian food. I think he respects a lot of the sensibility and tradition that's willing to kind of blur the line of what a regular Italian cook would do. That's what makes it a little bit different and provocatively interesting.

I know Danny Meyer talks a lot about the difference between service and hospitality. Can you chime in on that?
Well, I don't want to step on Danny Meyer's toes because he's the prince of all things hospitality, but I think that looking at it from an Italian perspective, I would be much less willing to draw a line. I think that in the way that you come to our house for the Italians' love of food and wine, it's about just making you feel at home. Whether that's service or hospitality, quite frankly, I don't give a sh*t. As long as when you come to my restaurant, you feel like someone is taking care of you and it feels like if you were eating at my house, then I've succeeded in both service and hospitality.

You’re recently opened a restaurant in Italy.
It's called Orsone. That's a whole other experience.

How so?
It's just been really great after 30, 40 years to go back with my mom and cook in Italy again for Italians. There's just something about cooking in Italy that, I don't know how to describe it, but you're always so close to the food there. There's an immediacy of product that was indescribable to me until I experienced it first-hand. There's a directness that restaurants have with sourcing food that we don't have here.

Do you think we're at least striving toward that here?
I just think that with the baggage and history of America, and how this country was born and conceived, I don't know if we'll ever get to that. But maybe if you go eat at some little farm and farm-to-table restaurants in Wisconsin, then it'll be close to it. But in urban environments, it is what it is and you will never be as close to the food as rural Italy is. And it's been great. We've served Italians, and it’s a hotel, it's a winery, so it's part of a whole agricultural project. The tradition of the Italian farm was to create products, create hospitality, feed people, give them somewhere to sleep, and give them things to buy. And it kind of completes the cycle of the classic Italian farm. So now we have the winery, restaurant, bed-and-breakfast all in one place and it completes the circle. So it's great.

What can we look forward to next season with MasterChef?
Well, the kids have been great, people really like it, it's doing really well, and it's been fun to do. I was a little bit skeptical in the beginning going in, but we figured out that we can kind of have the same show, have kids as contestants, and it became interesting. They make good television, they're great cooks, they're very savvy, sophisticated, and entertaining in their reality cooking show. And next season we'll start casting, so we're looking for a newer, bigger season and I'm excited.

How would you classify the ideal candidate?
First of all, we're going to have thousands of people show up, so you’ve got to have a good dish. I always say to bring a dish that tells us about you because there are a lot of people tasting, there's a lot of food flying around that day, so you really have to try to pop. Pop on the plate and also make yourself known physically. Do something, just try to grab someone's attention, because there's so much input, there's so many people, and obviously we're looking for the best dishes, we're also looking for interesting people who can tell a story, looking for personalities. It's a great cooking competition, but it's also a TV show, so you need a rare combination of excellent culinary talents but also the ability to express yourself through your food.

I wanted to ask you about the weight loss effort and the struggle behind that.
I think it's such a personal thing. For me, it was about seven years ago, I was just about losing weight for medical reasons I had. For me, it was just incorporating endurance sports in my life. Running, marathons, and triathlons. Just a balance of changing how you look at food as being a reward for your daily activities and thinking of it as being more energy and fuel for ambition. That was the big 'a-ha' moment for me because I was brought up in a world where food was a reward, a celebration, there were always dishes, you had to eat this. And if you can step away from that and fill your life so that you can refuel by food, then everything you eat is kind of like a gas in your tank, it changes the way you feel about things. I don't feel like I have the perfect formula, I think it's a personal thing for everybody.

Are you still able to pretty much eat what you want?
Yeah, because I exercise so much. I run every day. I mean, I still don't eat like 20 years ago, when Mario and I would go to Balthazar at three in the morning and have coq au vin for two. I think I'd be dead if we did that. So I don't do that anymore. But I eat earlier. I try not to eat too close to bedtime, all the things that happen when you get older. But, good sensible choices, I think you can still have a big meal, just try to do it during the day, bigger lunches than dinners. I like to drink wine more in the day than at night if I can.

What's next for you? Is there anything that you haven't conquered yet that's at the top of your list?
I mean, every day there are so many great things. There's Eataly, there's Los Angeles, which is coming down the pipeline, there's Philadelphia, São Paulo, Brazil, is being built as we speak. In the restaurant world, a lot of things going in in Vegas and Asia, opening up in Macao.

Does it ever get to the point where it's overwhelming with all of this happening?
No, there are a lot of great people in the company, people who have full accountability and responsibility for projects, and they them get done right and can be proud of them. Mario and I don't do everything, it would be impossible. But, we do hopefully get to participate and we have a wonderful organization that we can really rely on and that supplies us with a lot of personal satisfaction.

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