After many failed attempts to sit down with Chef Mario Batali, whose schedule has fewer holes than a malformed sex doll, I finally got few minutes with the man. We met shortly before the beginning of a Magic Martinis & Mario charity dinner, an event Batali was hosting at Del Posto. Something I never realized about Batali is how freckled and fair he is and also how strong his Pac West intonations are. It's almost Vancouverian.
[Batali, in trademark orange clogs, shorts and an orange duct tape tie made by his son, Leo, shakes my hand.]
Step into my boudoir.
[Batali and I take one step into a dramatically lit antechamber tucked behind the grand staircase leading to the event space at Del Posto. Sadly, it's too loud for the interview. We enter the downstairs dining room, set for the charity event and take a seat at an empty table.]
I was excited to be in your boudoir.
The girls are almost naked in there. It's starting to make me sweaty.
[The girls — two middle aged women wearing low cut dresses — weren't naked. Nor was Batali visibly perspiring.]
I wanted to say I saw Bitter Feast [a horror film wherein a food blogger is tortured, Haneke-style, by a embittered chef and in which Batali has a small cameo.]
What did you think?
Pretty sadistic but I did love your cameo.
I had a good time.
Is acting a new career path opening up for you?
I don't think so. For my few lines, I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn't sleep. I just sat looking at them and looking at them. But I enjoyed a cameo like that and playing me. I couldn't play a complicated character.
If you had to, who would you want to play?
If I had to play someone really cool, I'd play [actor and brother of Adam Platt, New York Magazine food critic] Oliver Platt, in whatever role he ever played. He's one of my heroes.
Yeah, he was great in that movie Funny Bones.
You saw that? [Incredulously] Not enough people saw that movie. It was one of the most odd and delightful movies I've ever seen.
The guy who plays his brother, [English comedian] Lee Evans, was amazing.
It was a great flick. Look it gives me goose bumps I liked it so much.
[Batali proffers me his arm as proof. It is true, his forearm sports hefty piloerections.]
I'm sure somebody saw it but nobody I know can have a conversation about it. It's so bizarre and beautiful. We we're amongst the few that saw it.
Who would play you in the movie version of your life?
Hopefully Oliver Platt. We're just gonna switch. He's gonna cook and I'm gonna act. They always talk around Philip Seymour Hoffman. [NB: Fucking called it!] Which is interesting. They're getting closer and closer on a movie about Heat. So it would be interesting to see if that happens.
Who is going to play Dario Cecchini?
That could be Oliver Platt. He could just do the whole movie.
Just like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor! So anyway, mazel tov on the NYT stars.
Thank you, we were very proud. It was very emotional. You work on something so hard and so long and it didn't settle in for five days later. We're interpreters. We're not these gastro-molecular scientist guys. We may be changing a few things but we're just interpreting things that have existed for a long time. For the Italian culture and for a restaurant with a predominantly Italian wine list and Italian staff, to get four stars, for us, feels great. We were literally on the front pages of every newspaper in Italy. [NB: Perhaps slight exaggeration here.]
Del Posto does seem to be a standard bearer for Italian cuisine in the states.
Absolutely. We're carrying the flag.
Also, strangely, the Michelin Guide recently came out?
Didn't love us. You know what, they're all [long pause] interesting [longer pause] odd [longest pause] smart on every level. The Michelin. The Zagat. The Time Out Guide. The Egon Ronay. The Gault Millau. Their business is to sell books and their business is to try to figure out something that their customers understand consistently.
This is, I'm pretty sure, a two star Michelin restaurant. [It lost a star in 2010 and didn't earn it back in the new edition.] Maybe even three in five years. But we pay attention to the Michelin. We really want to know what it is that they think it is we missed.
Do they give you feedback?
Absolutely none. Zero.
You have a few restaurants, each I'm sure with its own peculiar story. What do you see as the narrative of Del Posto?
We started out big out of the gun and then we just cruised. We weren't constantly pushing. Since they took away the star last year, that was a real catalyst to change a lot of things. We got rid of the less expensive part in the bar area. We got rid of about half the tables on the mezzanine. We really made a concentrated effort to make sure that every single person that sat here had a great meal. We didn't do this for once. This is now the way we want to operate for the rest of our lives.
Is this elevated code red level of attention and detail sustainable across the Batali empire?
Well, we're not trying to get two Michelin stars in any other restaurant. I can guarantee that. It's hard work. Babbo is what it should be and I'm happy with it. Though we think it should have a Michelin Star because the Spotted Pig has a Michelin star and Eleven Madison has a Michelin Star and we think we're in that game. But again, we are what we are. If the music offends them, we're not turning it down to get a star.
[There's a bustle behind me. Batali's assistant approaches us.]
Assistant: I just want to interrupt to say a couple of co-chairs are here and want to say hello.
Ok, as soon as I'm done here, I'll be up in a sec. Isabella Rosselini is in the house. She's one of my co-chairs tonight.
Do you ever get star struck?
The first time I met her I couldn't even talk for an hour and a half. And we were at lunch.
How often are you in the kitchen and do you miss cooking?
I cook whenever I want. I make breakfast for my children everyday. I make dinner three nights a week at our house. My Mexican babysitter, Leonora Maya, makes dinner three nights a week, which I never miss. In restaurant kitchens, I go in when I feel like it. I move people out of their stations. My job, at that point, isn't really to set up the station, finish the cooking and walk off the line when I'm done. It's much less about the cooking and the alchemy. It's about removing the obstacles between the greatness of my staff and the greatness they can be.
How do you remove those barriers?
I talk to them.. I taste what they're doing. I look at it. I poke at it. I say, "Is that the best we can do or can we brown it a little more?" For us there isn't only one way. What we've always done is to establish an acceptable window of variation. If you burn something it's burnt. If it's not properly cooked, it's not properly cooked. But there's maybe two minutes in the pan that are absolutely perfect. Understanding that window is how you can cook on a daily basis when things that are going on are liquid around you. So I try to focus that window a little tighter.
I was talking to Chef Ducasse who said he thought of himself more as a creative director than an actor.
Right. I say, why don't we do something with chickpeas, whadya got? It's really their dish. I'm pushing them towards something that makes intuitive sense.
Do you find it difficult to staff such a sprawling empire? Sometimes talking to chefs, they lament the lack of the great American chef pipeline?
Nah, there's a hundred of them. They are great cooks all over. You just gotta find them. And the bottom line is: I don't have to make all the money. I pay guys. I pay them more than other guys pay them. The beauty of cooks is that for a dollar more they'll change jobs.