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Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 9: Mario Batali here. For more smart talk and hot gossip with Greg, Helen and a ton of special guests, check out the rest of this season here.
Mario Batali: Between rehearsal and production on The Chew, there’s usually about an hour. In the morning I do meditation, and in the afternoon — late morning or afternoon — I do some tweets, and then around dinnertime, I always take pictures of where I am. But I don’t always do it immediately. When I’m ready to do my tweet, I do my tweet or my Instagram, but I don’t really do it all the time. I just do it when there’s nothing else happening.
Helen Rosner: Does that social media mindfulness stem directly from the meditation practice? That feels like —
Mario: No, I would say that the relief from the social media mindfulness is, in fact, the meditation. Which is to try to empty your mind to get to the bottom of your sea. Not to try to find the frothy bits at the top.
Greg Morabito: I love that people are always asking you, "Hey, it’s my birthday. Can I get a retweet?" And you always seem to do it. That’s the nicest thing.
Mario: Hell yeah! Why not? It’s not that hard. For me the more interesting questions are, "I got three pounds of moose meat. What should I do with it?" And I’m totally interested in participating with that. When they say, "I had a meh experience at your restaurant in Las Vegas," well, which manager did you talk to? And when I’ll say, "Well, did you talk to a manager?" "No, I’m talking to one now." I’m like, "I’m not the manager." I’m not there, so I can’t fix it right now. I can see what we can do, where we went wrong, and I’ll get back to you, but I’m going to talk to the manager to find out if someone actually said something was wrong. If they did, then we owe you something to fix it. If you’re just using Twitter to tell me that you don’t like me, I’m all right with that, but why don’t you just tell me to fuck myself. Instead of complaining about your linguine with clams, which I know was probably just as I would have made it. Just tell me to fuck myself, in which case I’ll say, "Mmm. Maybe we should part ways."
"If you’re just using Twitter to tell me that you don’t like me, I’m all right with that, but why don’t you just tell me to fuck myself."
Helen: Speaking of both fucking yourself and linguine with clams. That brings us right to something about which I was very excited to talk to you about, which is the book Heat.
Helen: Which is the book that taught me how to make linguine with clams.
Helen: Because there’s this beautiful moment in this book, that was published in what, 2004, 2005?
Mario: I believe it is — maybe, yes, either 10 or 12 years old.
Helen: It is a robust pre-adolescent as far as a book goes. It is by Bill Buford, and it is this incredibly sprawling, phenomenally prismatic profile of you and your development as a chef. And there is this moment where he — as part of the course of getting into your soul and your mind — works the line at Babbo.
Mario: Oh, there was a long moment.
Helen: A very extended moment. He talks about the process of making the linguine with clams. And I read it as an impressionable young person, and I was like, "Shit. I could do that."
Mario: You can.
Helen: And I did.
Mario: Yes, and?
Helen: I became a food writer.
Mario: Just out of that one particular dish?
Helen: I ate a clam and I woke up the next morning and I was M.F.K. Fisher. It just happened.
Mario: You’re so lucky. So many people try with so many clams and never become anybody, let alone M.F.K Fisher or Helen Rosner. You’re lucky.
Helen: I’m very lucky.
Mario: You are.
Greg: Well, this is probably as good time as any to introduce our guest on the Eater Upsell today. Mr. Mario Batali. You know him from television, you know him from cookbooks, you know him from his scads of restaurants in New York, LA, and Las Vegas. Welcome, Mario.
Mario: Well, thank you very much. I’m honored to be here in the hallowed halls.
Helen: Yes, the very beautiful Eater Upsell studios.
Mario: It is nice.
Helen: Gaudily decorated.
Mario: There’s a motorcycle parking lot on Sixth Avenue in front of you.
Helen: So you drove your Vespa here?
Mario: I did.
Helen: How many Vespas have you gone through in your life?
Mario: They give me one every year.
Helen: They give you one!
Mario: But I give it back. I don’t have a collection. I have one from the 50s at my house in Michigan that was built in Vietnam, and it was gifted to me by a friend of mine. It’s a little harder to ride than the ones that they sell to us here, but it’s still a lot of fun.
Greg: When did the Vespa riding start?
Mario: I’m going to say 10 years ago, 11 years ago. Once Babbo, Lupa, and Otto were open and Esca opened, then I needed a way to get around town, a little bit more than just walking. I could walk to Babbo, Lupa, and Otto pretty quickly from my house, but Esca was a bit of an adventure. So now, I get around that way in town. It’s economical. It’s quicker than — when Obama was in town a couple of days ago, I saved hours compared to someone in a car. The insurance is only $400 because how much damage can you do to anything besides yourself on a Vespa? It’s also kind of a groovy way to get around. I like it. All’aperto. I like feeling the breeze, even though you’re wearing a helmet and sunglasses.
Helen: What verb do you use to drive? I feel the word for Vespa is, like, you tootle on it.
Helen: I’m tootling around on my Vespa.
Mario: I think I tool. You can ask the Twitter people. They think I’m a tool too, so it’s okay.
Helen: Look at that tool tooling on the Vespa.
Mario: Look at that tool Vespa-ing around.
Helen: What color is your Vespa?
Mario: Right now, it’s matte black.
Mario: Which is kind of cool looking.
Helen: Batmobile black.
Mario: Batmobile black.
Helen: You have a Batman pin on your Croc.
Mario: I do.
Helen: I stared at you earlier.
Mario: Adam West, the original actor on the non-cartoon, his birthday is the same as mine.
Helen: Is that why you have the Batman pin?
Mario: Mmhmm. Because I’ve always loved him.
Helen: He’s great.
Mario: That show was one of the funniest shows of all time. If you look at it again, it’s even funnier now, because they were busting everyone’s chops.
Helen: There was so much absurdity to it, at a time when — I think that original Batman show was one of the first entities that punctured the self-seriousness of superhero comics.
Mario: I believe so.
Greg: It’s gotten so self-serious now.
Helen: Batman is the most serious.
Mario: It’s dark and angry now.
Mario: But as are all the other ones, like the Avengers and all of those kind of Marvel things, they translate much differently now. It’s never seemingly for the good of society. It’s more like for the well-being of the creatures themselves.
Helen: It’s always sort of a mirror to the mood of the world, right? The whole idea that Superman originated in the 30s or 40s as this manifestation of physical perfection and success from creators who felt alienated and ugly and imperfect. We use these modern myths in order to soothe ourselves.
Mario: Right. That there’s someone perfect makes us potentially closer to perfection.
Helen: Exactly. Angry Batman gives us permission to be angry.
Greg: So, Mario, I’ve had the experience of dining, on multiple occasions, at your restaurants at night, and seeing you actually come into the restaurant and go to the kitchen or go somewhere else. I’ve actually heard from friends that they’ve had similar experiences. They were at Otto and they saw you go into the kitchen, which is I think — for somebody who has a lot of restaurants, for somebody who is very prominent in the media — that’s pretty rare, I’d say. I’m curious: Do you try and check up on your restaurants a certain amount? Do you have a routine? What is your M.O. for that kind of stuff?
Mario: I have anything but a routine. I’m in most of my restaurants — I’m in Otto everyday. I’m in Babbo everyday or I miss a day or two. I’m at Lupa two or three times a week. I’m at Esca not so much, unless Dave wants to talk to me, because Dave’s kind of the king. I’m at Del Posto twice a week. I’m at Eataly five times a week. But there’s no rhythm to it. If a friend of mine is in the dining room, I’m going to go say hello to them, I’m going to try and do some portini or something for them. Or if people I don’t know but I want to know are in there. There’s really no reason other than keeping the consistency happening in the kitchen all the time. You can pretty much tell, just by smelling the air, whether the tomato sauce is right. You can see whether the dough is right in the pizza. You can see how thick the viscous is in the spaghetti water in the boiler, and whether they’ve changed it. Actually now we have ones that filter themselves, so we don’t have to worry about that thick viscosity that Bill was so enamored with by the end of the night. Now they filter and take all that starch out.
Helen: But he liked it so much.
Mario: He loved it, but —
Helen: This is the same passage as the linguine with clams section. When he talks about how in the course of the night, the spaghetti water becomes phenomenally savory and gloppy.
Mario: Right. You could almost not wreck anything, because you put it in the right place. It was salty enough, it was sticky enough, it would hold to the condiments, so it worked out well. Now it’s a little less, but I think it’s better for the pasta because it’s consistent from six o’clock to eleven o’clock.
Greg: Have you ever thought about selling pasta water?
Helen: Oh my god. That’s amazing.
Mario: I would feel bad.
Greg: I feel like you’re the chef that taught everyone about pasta water.
Mario: Yeah, yeah.
Mario: Yeah, but they can make their own.
Greg: That’s true.
Mario: I would assume that if they wanted to buy my pasta water, they’re not trying hard enough. They should.
Helen: It’s water personally blessed by Mario Batali. You could call it holy water.
Mario: No, no, no, no. No.
Helen: Add a sprinkle of it.
Mario: That’s silly. It would be nice in a scepter, though, wouldn’t it? To pass it out while you’re wandering through a food and wine festival somewhere, and hit the people with a—
Greg: Maybe there’s a little fountain in Eataly that you could just fill up.
Helen: Bring your baby to it and —
Mario: It’s salty. They’ll spit it out.
Mario: You could have a little baptism going on there.
Helen: We’ve founded a religion, guys.
Mario: St. De Cecco, the baptist. I like that.
Helen: Perfect. It’s the Eater Upsell’s first official religion.
Helen: Adherents can send us money at Upsell@Eater.com
Greg: You’re in your restaurants all the time. Do you also eat out a lot? Do you check out what else is going on?
Mario: Yeah! I like it. I try not to go to anybody’s restaurant on the first three or four weeks that they’re open, but every now and then, you just end up at one. Sometimes, they’re not even new. I hadn’t ever — I had heard of Red Hook, but I’d never realized what a splendid place it was until I went last Saturday. We walked by Brooklyn Crab, which looks like a crazy Mexican bar in Tijuana. And then we went to Hometown Bar-B-Que and it’s this amazing, delicious place in a town that almost looks like it could be San Luis Obispo. I was like, "This is what, this is where, why don’t I have —?" I could live there if I had a 24-hour launch driver to pick me up and take me to Manhattan when I needed. It was so fantastic, and the food was so great, and Carla Hall’s opening two blocks from there.
"I’m interested in much more beyond just groovy Brooklyn. I’m thinking there’s a lot of cool stuff to Queens that I just need to discover."
Mario: And Pok Pok is there, and I’d only heard about it, I never really went. So now I’m gastro-touristically interested in much more beyond just groovy Brooklyn. I’m thinking there’s a lot of cool stuff to Queens that I just need to discover outside of the 7 train. And Arthur Avenue’s still one of my favorite places, compared to the fact that the real Little Italy here in New York isn’t so real anymore. It’s not really Italian, but Arthur Avenue still is. You go to Randazzo’s, and you go to the bakery, and you go to Mike’s Deli. That’s still really legitimate to me, as opposed to the Little Italy here which has spots of shining glory, but not consistent shining glory.
Helen: It’s sort of Epcot-ified. That winds up happening — it’s super the case in New York, but it winds up happening in any city of a sufficient size with a sufficient tourist gaze, where you realize people are coming for this one thing, the vibe of whatever neighborhood. And suddenly, or over the course of many years, you look around and it’s become Disney World.
Helen: It’s not actually the old, thriving Italian neighborhood of Manhattan. It’s a facsimile of it that’s catering to tourists.
Mario: That’s particularly evident during San Janeiro. All of those little stands there. They don’t really have a restaurant there anymore. The Italians, god bless their souls, they got wealthy and they moved to Staten Island, where they live in the country. So now, who’s next? There’s Chinese, there’s Korean, there’s all kinds of Asian culture that is kind of encroaching on it, which doesn’t offend me. I think that it’s all right that Chinatown’s much bigger and more important now than Little Italy is, but if you want Little Italy, you should go to Arthur Avenue. That’s where you find it, really.
Greg: As much as specifically Manhattan’s Little Italy is not necessarily authentic restaurants or old places — I still kind of can’t hate on it, because people love it so much.
Mario: No, no, and I agree.
Greg: It makes people happy.
Mario: I agree. You get some red sauce at Il Cortile, there are still places that are good. Nico’s still good. There are great restaurants there, so I don’t diminish it. It’s just not as consistent as — it’s not like you’re walking through an Italian town.
Mario: Like Arthur Avenue is. It really feels like that’s a 100-year-old place. They could shoot The Mafia here. I mean shoot the movie, The Mafia, here. And it would be all right. You don’t want any mafia getting shot.
Helen: No, no mafia. I also think the state of Italian food in New York has evolved so significantly — in large part, thanks to your efforts — that there used to be a centralized place and everybody got eggplant parm and it had red sauce on it. And then Po happened and Babbo happened and people started becoming aware of the regional differences in Italy. And Italian food went through that extraordinary evolution in the American palate, where suddenly it was allowed to be fine dining. And it didn’t have to have hyphen-American appended to it.
Mario: And it didn’t only have to be red sauce.
Mario: Suddenly, the 21 regions of Italy became something that people would recognize, because keep in mind, we were there helping build it, but Americans were traveling and becoming much more sophisticated at the time. So they knew the difference between Puglia and Basilicata, the difference between Veneto and Piemonte — that they could understand it, and be perplexed and delighted by it, made our job that much easier. It wasn’t like I had to break the choir in. They were already ready to sing. I was here at a good time. When I became a chef in the 70s, it was the last thing you did after you got out of the military, before you went to jail. And it has become a groovy job in that interim, not because of me, because people started to perceive their food as their entertainment. It used to be that you went to the opera and then you got a bite. Or you went to the game and you got a bite. You got a bite and then went to the movies. Now the bite could become the entire evening for a group of friends who are gastronomically interested, fascinated, and provoked by the chefs or the experience. David Chang came out of nowhere and put no backs on chairs and started doing fine dining experiences with very loud music and it was like, "This is very interesting now." It’s no longer that I have to sit with my grandma’s clothes on and pretend I’m refined, when I can get something totally thoughtful, totally delicious, and totally remarkable, and gastro-specific and geo-specific, here in New York City, in what feels like what might been a punk rock bar 20 years ago.
Helen: Yeah. I feel like other versions of luxury and high culture evolved way faster than food did. Food was stuck in this Francophilic, 1950s, starchy waiter thing for so long, and then it was allowed to be culture.
Mario: Right. Well, James Beard and his acolytes. All of a sudden we started to celebrate American food. And someone went to New Orleans and discovered K-Paul and all of a sudden it’s like, "Holy moly, we got some stuff here." And Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters and Mark Miller and all the people in California started making food that was not pretending or apologizing. It was more like, "Look, this is what we got. We got Chino Ranch. We make these carrots. They’re fantastic. We got these great abalone. We got sanddabs instead of Dover sole." All of a sudden, it’s like, "Hey, let’s look at us." That changed everything. I don’t know if you ever went to Stars. You guys are probably too young, but Stars was an explosion of joy and deliciousness and Jeremiah Tower. Sexy food was suddenly a thing in San Francisco. Not just where we went to eat and pray at the temple of Alice Waters, which was also a great restaurant. But Stars and Zuni and Campton Place, those places were — they made chefs groovy. And then Marco Pierre White comes out with White Heat and you’re like, "Not only groovy, sexy. Look at that guy with a sturgeon on his lap. I want to be like him." All of a sudden, kids are thinking, "Wow. A chef might be kind of like an actor." And now we’re looking at the way Top Chef and all of the other TV shows have gone. Unfortunately, kids are coming out and they want to go to cooking school because they want to be on TV, not because they love cooking, and that’s it where it gets a little sticky. There’s a thousand jobs in it, but it’s a little hard to describe to someone, "Listen. Now you’re going to be a prep cook for two years," and they’re like, "No, no, no. I want to be a sous chef in about six weeks." It’s hard to figure that out.
Greg: As a young Mario, as a young chef, did you look up to anybody? Were you like, "I’m going to be like that guy —"
Mario: I did a stage at Roger Vergé. I did a stage at Marc Meneau. I worked with Marco Pierre White. I’ve wanted to be all those guys, and not — I mean, Meneau and Vergé were kind of sexy, because they had this old world glory about them. Marco was more like a punk, and seeing and working with that, I think what piqued me the most was that food, which for me previously was just something to eat and pretty good and delicious in our family. You could present it and you could think about it in a way that would take it to another level. And Marco was the first one that really showed that to me. And he did these little tagliatelle with oysters served in oyster shells with this little kind of raspberry beurre blanc. And it was just like, "What the hell is this? This is so good and so challenging to me." Man, I wanted to be like that. So I withstood six months of abuse from this guy, because I knew that I could take something away. It’s almost illegal now to be that abusive, and I think it actually is abusive. It is illegal to be abusive, but there was a time when you’re learning from someone and you realize, I must give myself to this,so I can take away something away from it, and then I can reinterpret it.
Helen: Are there people who are cooking today that get that same feeling into you? When you eat something, you’re just like, Jesus.
Mario: I would say what intrigues me the most now is the confidence of a cook to let the natural product sing by itself. It’s less is more. What I learned when I worked in Italy, in Bologna, was that as much as it was 1988 and I wanted to put smoked squab and grated calf’s liver frozen on top of the pasta — the pasta that blew me away the most in Emilia-Romagna were the simplest ones. It was pappardelle with peas and butter and that was it. There wasn’t any smoked eggplant, there wasn’t any trick. There wasn’t a base or a nest of something. It was just perfect peas in season, the butter from Guffanti, which is the same producers of the parmigiano-reggiano, and pappardelle that we made by hand. When you taste that, it’s a holy shit moment. It’s like, "I don’t even really like zucchini, but I’m having spaghetti with zucchini in Naples and it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten." Because it is so much about that, and its so simple that it just knocks you down. And when you’re traveling through Italy, you can go to Massimo Bottura and be blown away by his total thoughtfulness. But you can just be blown away across the street at Hosteria Giusti when they bring you fried cotechino with zabaglione in the middle of summer and you’re like, "What the fuck." And it’s so good, it makes you die.
Helen: How well does that translate to not being in the most beautiful part of the most beautiful country?
Mario: That’s a good question, because I’m not sure that in Dayton, Ohio at the prison, I’m enjoying these dishes as much as I am when I’m sitting at the Amalfi Coast. But you know, there are times when the juxtaposition of either a comfortable or beautifully curated restaurant doesn’t really matter, if you’re eating something so good. When you’re in Domilise’s in New Orleans, and you have the best po’ boy ever. It’s not a fancy place, but it’s kind of attractive, because of what it is. It’s not pretending to be anything else. And god bless her soul, Dot, who died last year or maybe even two years ago at this point — that place was quintessentially idiosyncratic, yet it was so perfect. It was just three ladies of a certain age over 65, just dusting the shellfish and the seafood, and throwing it in the fryer, and bringing it out, and serving with with nothing other than a smile and the best bread and the best crispy shrimp and oyster po’ boy. You’re just like, "I don’t need a fancy restaurant now. I just need something that’s authentic or specific to where I am."
Helen: Something that we think about a lot over here is how important is the food to food. Obviously, it’s a certain degree of importance, and so much of those po’ boys at Domilise’s are about being in that room and about having gotten there through a neighborhood where you’re looking around, having left behind the touristic trappings of New Orleans, when you go out to Domilise’s. And the psychological priming that goes into getting there, and then waiting in line, and then watching people go through this ritual, and then sitting down and taking that bite. None of that is inherent to that sandwich. The sandwich in some way encapsulates all of that.
Helen: But if you took that po’ boy out and you put it in a sterile room, and you put seven other po’ boys from other places in that sterile room with it, and you blindfolded yourself and you took bites. Your ranking of the quality of those sandwiches in your mouth would have nothing to do with the ranking of the experiences of going to these places.
Mario: Right. I wonder though, in a blind place, if I had a Domilise’s versus a chain restaurant po’ boy — I have to think you and I would know the difference.
Helen: I would hope so.
Mario: I would think that bread and the temperature — the problem is that you couldn’t possibly do it in an empty white room, because it needs to be that close to the fryer. It needs to be in that room that has a mediocre hood working over the back grill. Right? And you need to smell that old fryer oil, but it’s not old, you just smell heavy fryer oil. I don’t smell old. It’s not old, like a Chinese restaurant in a bad town where you’re like, "Oh my god. They haven’t changed that oil in three weeks."
Mario: So, it would be hard for us to truly measure the purely physical response, even with blindfolds, unless you’re in the right spot because it has to be cooked right there. It can’t be produced in a lab at Tulane. You know? So we would be stuck.
Helen: But there is something to putting the oysters in the oyster shell with the raspberry — I mean, that you can put into a sterile, white room and you could look at it and say, "There’s something happening here."
Helen: There’s an intellect behind the decisions you made in making this food, as opposed to something like a po’ boy, which is an organically evolved dish.
Helen: I don’t know where I’m going with this.
Mario: Or a jambalaya. But I know, it’s very easy for us to celebrate the cuisine of New Orleans because it is so specific. You could make a jambalaya on the West Coast, but when you’re in New Orleans and when you’re in Louisiana, it’s just different, because you’re right. You’ve taken the 40 mile-an-hour — whatever they call that boat with the fan behind it. You’ve gone out to Donald Link’s place and you’re in the place and you’re tasting it and it’s just like, "I don’t care if this is wrong or right. It’s fucking right." And it’s because you’re surrounded by that. Now if you ate it at at the University of Iowa campus and it was made by the same chef, would it feel the same, taste the same? Maybe if he flew up with a cooler that day, but probably not.
Helen: And the value of that. Greg has spent a lot of time in New Orleans. I’ve spent less time, but a lot of time in New Orleans. You also, presumably, have. A lot of it, if we were sitting here eating the world’s best jambalaya in this ugly black studio that we’re sitting in right now — for all of us, the pleasure would be in the memories that it triggers. And the nostalgia, and that it gives us this wormhole back to when we ate it in the right room at the right moment with the right people.
Mario: It’s your Proustian moment. It’s your madeline.
Greg: So as much as you have these rock and roll, downtown restaurants with really exciting food, I think you and your team and Joe and your partners have created some really luxe experiences, especially in New York. I’m specifically thinking about Del Posto.
Helen: My favorite bar in New York City.
Mario: It’s pretty cool.
Greg: As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never been to a restaurant that has service like Del Posto. The experience is on this other level, but also, I was just at your newest place, La Sirena. That was also this kind of luxe — in my mind, it felt like being at an Italian resort or something like that.
Mario: Right, exactly. Well, that was our intention. I think one of the things about La Sirena that makes you feel particularly good, is that either you’re outside or you’re inside, almost outside, but you’re 12 feet off the street. So there’s an elevated, luxurious, almost cruise-ship-y feel, because you’re above the fray, but you’re in the fray. Which makes me feel good, and I eat a lot on the street in New York. I love sitting at Da Silvano or anywhere I can get a chair outside, because I don’t mind the noise, or the grit, and the stuff. What is a little different is the elevated terrace there. That makes it feel good. We spent a lot of time making it feel relaxed. But keep in mind, like all Italians, when you see them kiss each other on the cheek and throw their jackets over their shoulder at the Rome train station, that was 150,000 days of practice. It takes a lot of work to make it look effortless.
Helen: This is my favorite Italian word. Sprezzatura.
Greg: What is that?
Helen: It is the illusion of effortlessness, when in fact there’s a huge amount of work behind it. It’s singularly my favorite concept in the world.
Mario: There you go. And we’re trying to get there, it’s a big beast, so it’s not exactly everything, but it will be, in the end of the first year. La Sirena will be exactly as we dreamed it. It was at 75 percent when we opened, and everyday it crawls a little bit further forward. The food is where I want it to be, the service is almost where I want it to be, but the feel of the room and that giant cocktail bar that we’ve never had before, it’s enticing.
Greg: I think it’s groovy.
Mario: Yeah. I love it.
Greg: It’s cool.
Mario: We’re proud of it.
Helen: Opening these huge places — Del Posto, when it opened, was one of the largest restaurants in Manhattan.
Mario: Yes. 28,000 square feet.
Helen: Which is like, many houses.
Mario: Yes. Many.
Helen: It’s like six or seven homes.
Helen: And then you’ve got your places in Las Vegas, which are in Las Vegas and therefore legally required to be gigantic.
Helen: Your other places in New York, though, are very intimate, both in scale and — there’s a feeling of intimacy at Del Posto, but how do you carry both of those in your head at the same time?
"It takes a lot of work to make it look effortless."
Mario: We’re only as good as our team. And the trick is to make sure that each of the team players understands the experience and the crucialness of their participation in the experience. Even if you’re in a a big room, if you’re with a captain and a back waiter and a bus team, and all of them are working together, you’re almost cocooned. And that’s the intention that we’re trying to do at Del Posto, and I think we’re succeeding. That is eventually how La Sirena is going to feel, although La Sirena is this wide open place. When you’re in your table and your team gets you, you get them, you’re kind of protected not by any boundaries, but you’re in a space where you feel, "Yes, I can get everything I need here. I don’t have to worry about what’s going on over there. It’s not like I’m at an LA cocktail party, looking over everyone’s shoulder. I can be focused on my table." And that’s what we’re trying to do, but that’s only though the empowerment of each of the staff members to feel themselves as individuals, but also be part of the greater team. And that’s really where you gotta go.
Greg: My experience at Del Posto was that I thought it was a very relaxing meal, because the service was so on it, but in this totally unfussy way.
Helen: I once had a very aggressive captain and she made me feel like I was on trial.
Greg: Oh really?
Helen: But it was in a really fun way.
Mario: Good. Was she Sicilian?
Mario: Yes, I know exactly who you’re talking about. And once you’ve got her approval, which doesn’t take more than the right glass of wine, then everything’s good, but she is adamantly opposed to not paying attention to what’s going on, so she brings it in. Hopefully, in a comforting, eventual way, but she is very fastidious about what she does.
Helen: No, the meal was wonderful.
Mario: Oh good.
Helen: It was just very much a sort of, "Oh no. I’ve displeased mother," kind of thing.
Mario: "I’ve offended her." Right, right. I understand that completely.
Helen: No, I loved it.
Mario: And I love her too, and I hope that everyone’s experience is at once, at first a little intimidated, and then you realize that she’s really only interested in the success of our table.
Helen: And I think fear makes things taste better.
Helen: It all works out in the end.
Mario: Good. I’m glad.
Greg: Del Posto. Man, that’s an institution.
Helen: 10, 12 years old.
Mario: 10 years old.
Greg: It’s the anniversary, birthday restaurant for a lot of people I know.
Helen: A couple of my coolest ever New York moments happened there, and one of them, you will probably be able to fact check this memory for me, because I cannot remember. But I was there in the last two years and there’s a piano player at Del Posto, for anybody listening who has not been there. It’s a huge restaurant that has a central, sweeping staircase and there’s a piano player upstairs, right?
Mario: No, well, he’s on the main floor.
Helen: On the main floor.
Mario: Yep, but he’s behind the stairs so you might not see him all the time.
Helen: So, he’s a hidden piano player, and at one point, I was there with a couple of friends and we heard whispers from a table next to us, and we started sort of eavesdropping and one of our servers helped clarify, and told us that Burt Bacharach had been in the restaurant —
Helen: And went and did a session at the piano.
Mario: Yes. He came in with Mike Myers.
Helen: Yes. That was it. So, I could not remember if it was actually Mike Myers.
Mario: Oh absolutely.
Greg: And they were in Austin Powers together
Mario: Yes, exactly. Well, they’re friends, and they’re working on a couple of projects, and Burt actually played there. Now, there’s a guy named Dred there, one of my favorite piano players. There’s three people that work there regularly and Dred — you’ll be listening, you’ll be listening, and all of a sudden, you’ll hear in the background, duh-duh-duh-da-duhhhh, and you’re like, he’s playing Led Zeppelin. He’s playing a Zeppelin song right now. He’ll play "Kashmir" all the way through, in a way that’s almost unobtrusively so hip, you’re dying how great it is. Yet, for 80 percent of the customers, it’s just a beautiful tinkling piano noise in the background and you’re like, "Oh my god. This is even cooler than I ever imagined."
Helen: It’s just magical.
Helen: I don’t know.
Greg: What a detail.
Helen: And the vespers have gold leaf on them.
Mario: Yes, they do. And those vespers are the right things.
Helen: Oh my god, they are —
Mario: Our cocktail bar is pound for pound as interesting as any of the groovier East Village members of society. I think it’s really cool, but it’s not cheap. It’s not as sneaky as some of those — whatever that place is, that you have to go through the hot dog stand, Crif Dogs, to get in.
Greg: As someone who has fine dining restaurants, do you check out if there’s a new place that’s serving a tasting menu? Do you or your partners check it out?
Mario: Of course we do.
Mario: I was at Gunter Seeger last week. Fantastic.
Greg: I’m so curious about that place.
Mario: You walk in, first of all, it’s next to Fatty Crab, and you’re like, "What the hell am I’m walking into?" You’re walking in, and you’re on another planet. You’ve entered the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The music is slightly loud, but it’s weird, classical, curated music and then there’s ELO, and then there’s Led Zeppelin, and the kitchen is in the back and you meet Gunter. Everyone has to go say hello to the chef, which I think is kind of cool. And then it’s a 14-course — very much wherever the stars are headed these days. It’s 14 courses, you can do pairings. You have to pay in advance on Tock. T-o-c-k. Which I thought was kind of cool, because the idea of getting to a meal, and not having to argue with your friends or anything, and getting out, getting in an Uber and being done, is — I like that. I don’t know how it deals with the tip.
Greg: Yeah, I didn’t realize that.
Helen: I love it in theory. 100 percent completely adore in theory, the idea of pre-paying for your restaurant meal. But then it turns out that every time I’ve experienced it, I feel like I’ve missed that punctuational moment at the end of the meal that comes with the gesture of getting a check, sending it back, getting it back, signing it — it’s like a denouement.
Helen: It’s a nice, clear signaling.
Mario: Well here it works, because I’m not one to not drink, and I only paid for my food, so I got a check for the wines that we drank and I tipped on that. Even though they tell you not to tip. I’m a tipper. I like tipping. It doesn’t make me feel big or important, I just like the generosity of tipping. So I put a tip on that and they said, "Sir, that’s not required." I’m like, "You know what, let’s just let it slide. It feels good for all of us, doesn’t it?"
Helen: It turns out, I guess that’s the secret. I just have to drink more.
Mario: Right, you need to drink more. Even if you do the pairings, that isn’t included in your original check, so you ended up paying anyways, which I felt good about.
Helen: Perfect. I’ve solved my problems. It all lies in the bottle of wine.
Mario: I go to a bunch of restaurants, as often as I can. I went to Blanca a month ago. And that’s not a new restaurant, but it was the first time I ever got to see Carlos’ food in that environment, and it was fantastic and delicious and well-paced and just — there’s so much going on in New York City. It’s such a great town to be in, and by no means is it the only town in America where groovy stuff is going on right now. We’re in the renaissance right now of the restaurant experience, for both guests and chefs. In a way, there’s a thousand ways, so many ways, to give and get pleasure that are equally provocative and simple to do. You go to Buvette and then you go to Via Carota and then you go to Maialino and then you go to Carlo Mirarchi and it’s like, "Wow. There’s so many things going on in this fabric." It drives me crazy.
Helen: How do you find the time? Seriously, you’re on a TV show, and you write a billion cookbooks at once, and you have uncountable restaurants, and you appear extraordinarily on podcasts.
Mario: Like this one.
Helen: Like this one, for example. Seriously, how do you fit it all in?
Mario: I’m a very good manager of my time. I don’t waste a lot of time, but I do sleep almost everyday. I work in unusual times. When I’m traveling, that’s when I write my books. I go to the restaurants almost every day or everyday. I go through Eataly every day. As long as you understand that if you categorize or compartmentalize your day and say, "I’m going to spend an hour at Otto and maybe everything won’t be 100 percent, but the marching orders have been made abundantly clear at one hour." Then, I go to Babbo and I’ll be there for two hours and I’ll watch the service and see if there a bottleneck somewhere. Are we not getting our desserts out in time or are the appetizers too slow? And we evaluate every single detail. At Babbo, once your order has been put in the computer, if your appetizer isn’t on the table in eight minutes, we have a red flag, because we need it to happen in eight minutes.
"There’s a thousand ways to give and get pleasure that are equally provocative and simple to do."
Helen: It’s like those screens at McDonald’s.
Mario: Right. Well, we don’t have those. We just have people and we’re looking at the tick. I can go in and when the expediter — Frank Langello, the executive chef, he’ll write when the appetizer went out, and I can go and look at seven tickets in a row and see whether it looks like, "Ooh these might have been a little long." Maybe they overwhelmed us with tickets at one point. Or maybe were weren’t ready at one point, or they ordered long. If you order bucatini first course, it’s a ten and a half-minute cook, so it can’t possibly be out before eleven minutes, but other than that, all of the other things have to be in order. And I can see that. I can sense that when I go to the restaurants. Is there something that we’re doing wrong? Are we not addressing the terms of our customers? Are we not getting the food out fast enough? Or is it possible that food came out too fast? If someone’s really languishing over their first course, we have to make sure that we don’t fire it until they’re ready, but we also have to pay attention that they’re are 17 other tables and we’ve got to get moving along here. So we manage it, and we think about it all the time.
We didn’t decide to open 28 restaurants. We decided to open a restaurant called Babbo. And then because Mark Lavner was so good, we opened Lupa. Because Mark and Zack were so good, we opened Otto. And because Dave Pasternack was so good, we opened Esca. And each one of the restaurants is built on the fact that a general manager, who was a number two somewhere else, and a chef who was a number two, or a wine director who was a number two. It was either they’re going to reach the ceiling of our place and they’re going to work for Danny Meyer or they’re going to work for Drew Nieporent. So as opposed to letting that happen, we said, "Listen, if you’re going to put together some money or some ideas or some thoughts, we will become your partners." So in each one of my restaurants, there is a chef partner and a general manager or a wine partner. And they’re always constantly worried about whether they’re doing the right thing, so we talk in candor about our flaws, or our mistakes, or our customer’s dissatisfaction, provided they tell us. If they just tweet us, I’m not going to try to figure to how to deal with it. Basically, if they talk to us about it, we address it immediately. We have twice weekly meetings with the general staff about how to address what we think may be going right, or may be going wrong. We generally spend more time on what’s going wrong, but we always are very careful to make sure that everyone knows, even on a bad day, we’re still doing a good job.
Helen: You’re like a general.
Mario: Yeah, exactly.
Helen: I mean, this sounds like military strategy.
Mario: Well, it kind of is. Or sports strategy. You know, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. We have to answer it in that way, and when you have 4,000 employees, you have to figure out a way to make them all feel good and empower them to make decisions that they’re capable of making right, at the moment of the fire.
Helen: Are you a CEO?
Mario: I’m not sure what I would call myself. I think I would call myself a chef-owner-partner.
Helen: COP. You’re a cop.
Mario: A cop.
Helen: You’re just a cop.
Mario: I’m just a cop, but a happy cop. You know, a good cop can take a bad situation and make it work out for everyone in the neighborhood.
Helen: This is a good metaphor.
Helen: This works really well.
Greg: Well Mario, we’ve come to that part of our show called the lightning round.
Greg: We’re just going to ask you some questions.
Helen: And you can say whatever you want.
Mario: I’m going to take a sip of water.
Helen: Mario Batali drinks a glass of water.
Mario: A third of a glass.
Greg: What did you just drink now?
Helen: Describe the water using the language of fine wine.
Mario: It’s New York City tap water, I’m hoping.
Helen: Mario, if you were alone in a convertible, driving down a long open road with music blasting, and you were singing along at the top of your lungs, what song would it be?
Mario: What have I been the most excited about this week? It’s not much of a lightning round, is it? I would say Allman Brothers.
Greg: Did you ever go see the Allman Brothers?
Mario: Of course, like 50 times. They were here for a month every year for the last ten years, and then for the last two years, they kind of haven’t been.
Greg: Have they ever been to your restaurants?
Mario: Yeah, of course.
Greg: That’s the one thing I know: That the Allman Brothers always go to really good restaurants, and that’s why they come to New York.
Mario: They’re good eaters. A lot of musicians — it’s changed. It used to be kind of whatever, and then Metallica started coming in, and Rush and you’re like, "What?" And these guys are drinking killer old Barbarescos, and they’re sophisticated diners, because they’ve seen it all. One of the things about Babbo and Lupa and Del Posto, when rockers come around on tour and they’re missing Italy, they come to our restaurants and they are so happy. They’ve seen it all and they like it a little on the simpler side. Sorry, I interrupted you.
Greg: Who’s your favorite person who’s ever — a celebrity, musician, or movie star — what was your favorite guest experience like that?
Mario: Oh, there are so many. Having Bill Clinton in the restaurant is always a joy, because everyone just stops. But I must say, Robin Williams used to come in with Billy Crystal, and they would walk in and literally the whole dining room would listen to them kibitzing back and forth. Robin Williams, at the end of the meal, would always go to the bar and get two bottles of champagne, pour a glass for every chef in the kitchen, and bring it back to them. And of course you will follow him forever because of that. It’s just a remarkable thing to see someone who so loves what they’re doing and where they’re at, as opposed to trying to hide from the public and pretend they’re not there. That said, Michelle Obama has been one of my favorite customers, because she’s just so delightful. She gets it and she’s inquisitive and doesn’t mind participating with the restaurant, even though there’s 600 security guards right outside the door.
Helen: Have you ever been starstruck?
Mario: Oh, all the time. Keith Richards walks in to the room and you’re like, "Ah, ah, ah," and then you realize you don’t understand what he’s saying anyways. He’s fantastic. Let’s see who else. Robert Fripp. King Crimson. One of my all-time favorite guitar players. I love him so much, I don’t even know what to say to a guy like that, so I’m just, "Mr. Fripp, I’m a big fan of your work." That’s it, we can’t possibly have a conversation, although with a guy like Bono or Michael Stipe, I can have a regular conversation and we can become friends, because, I don’t know what it is, maybe I held them at a different place. Fripp was so cerebral for me and Starless and Bible Black was such an important piece of my twisted mentality. U2 and Rattle and Hum, that was so much more of a party scene than a private scene. I’m into that in a way that I can converse with them.
Greg: So, moving through the lightening round.
Helen: No, no. We can stay on that. I want to know more about Bono’s glasses.
Mario: Bono has a lot of glasses. He doesn’t really give them to anybody but the Pope.
Helen: As a glasses wearer, I feel a strong connection to that.
Mario: There you go.
Greg: So Mario, you’re at the airport, you have an hour to kill. What’s your strategy? What do you do?
Mario: I try to find one of those massage chairs. I think that’s my best way to spend time at the airport, if I’m waiting.
Helen: Like, the mechanical ones or the human massage —
Mario: No, no, no. The ones where there’s a human sitting in it. Maybe it’s vibrating, I don’t know. They’re doing such a good job, I feel pretty good about it. But I try to do something that I wouldn’t do somewhere else. I generally don’t go for the food and beverage, unless I’m in Chicago, in which case, I go to Rick’s place, which is the Frontera guys. In my opinion, the best airport food situation. Except there is an oyster bar at the New Orleans airport, in which case, I know that if it’s Apalachicola season, which means you’re not in a month without a R, then you can have pretty good oysters and some pretty interesting things. Not to diminish the greatness of whatever I’ve spoken about, but those are the ones that I love the most.
"I think an Old Fashioned’s a good way to judge a bartender: a sugar cube, a muddled orange slice, really good bourbon, and maybe just a little bit of water."
Helen: Great answer. If you show up at the perfect bar and there’s the perfect bartender and the perfect spirits and wines and beers on offer and your perfect drink is sitting there waiting for you, what is it?
Mario: Depends on the season, but I am a big fan of a classic Old Fashioned. I think that’s a good way to judge a bartender, because they all would love to make it something more important, but this is a sugar cube, a muddled orange slice, really good bourbon, and maybe just a little bit of water. Crushed ice means I’m in the wrong place. Right? But they all don’t have to have those two-inch perfect glass cubes, I’m all right with three or four regular cubes. But crushed ice on any bourbon is just a bad idea, unless we’re making bourbon slurpees, in which case, I’m all right with it.
Helen: That’s a different game.
Helen: If you could bring now-closed restaurant back to life for just one meal, what would it be?
Mario: I would bring whatever Jean-Louis Palladin did. I think he was removed from us much too quickly. He was one of the most talented, and for me, visceral and guttural chefs. He got the dirty part of the snail and the burgundy. He was one of my faves and he’s long gone. And secondarily, I would say Stars, because Stars was fundamentally — if you look at all of my restaurants, something in each one of them is a direct copy from Stars.
Greg: How many meals did you have at Stars?
Mario: Oh, hundreds.
Mario: I lived in San Francisco for three years when it was in its heyday and we would go in in golf clothes. We would go in shorts after work. I would never put on a suit, but it was everything from tuxedos to surf shorts there, and you would meet everybody from San Francisco and it was just — it was just do delicious and so gastronomically perfect. Mark Franz and Dave Robinson, Jeremiah, they were all on fire. I loved just watching them. I would watch them at the end of the night, take their inventory and figure out what their menu was going to be for the next day, because it was always changing. It was so influential to me and Jeremiah is still one of my heroes.
Helen: Are the homages like literal direct objects? Or things —
Mario: No, just feelings. The loudness of the bar, the comfort of being able to eat at the bar, the simplicity of the design, the kind of way we operate our menus. Stars had sometimes just massive menus and then the next day, it would be completely different. It was always interesting to watch the scallops come in, and be this, and then the next thing, and then be smoked on the fifth day. It was fascinating to watch them operate both the business, but also the juiciness of having something feel so new everyday.
Greg: Do you binge watch TV shows, and what was the last thing you binge watched?
Mario: I try to, but at the end of the night — I do it with one of my sons, who’s home. We started watching, what’s the one with Bill Macy —
Mario: Shameless. I watched Shameless for the first three seasons and then they all get ahead of me and all of a sudden — I’m not binge watching by myself. I want to do it with somebody. So they’re on season five and I just bail out. That said, I like the idea of binge watching. I just don’t really — every time I get the urge to watch TV three days in a row, one or two of those days, I read a book. I’m reading 32 Yolks right now and I think it’s fantastic. I think Eric’s one of the smartest guys, so that’ll take me like, four days. Then I’ll watch a little TV and then I’ll pick up another book.
Helen: I was going to ask, what’s the best book you’ve read lately, but you anticipated my question.
Mario: The Ancient Minstrel, I think. Jim Harrison’s last book would be favorite book.
Helen: Of all time?
Mario: No, no. Of all time, it’s a toss-up between The Sound and the Fury and his book, called The Road Home.
Helen: The Sound and the Fury is solid. I’ve never read Harrision though.
Helen: No. I guess I should.
Greg: Right now.
Helen: I’m missing out on the canon.
Greg: If you couldn’t do what you do, which is a multi-faceted life and career, what would you do?
Mario: I always thought I wanted to be a marine biologist and then I met organic chemistry. And I studied as hard as I could, which I didn’t have to do very much in college. I was a good student and if I read the material and went to class, I could pretty much get a B+. Organic chemistry, I studied my ass off and I got a 71, which is just two points above not getting any credit for it. I realized I couldn’t be a marine biologist. But if I could do something that would only involve a small part of my brain and perhaps use it in a way that would be perfect, I would be a pool boy in Malibu.
Helen: That sounds kind of like a dream.
Mario: It would be perfect. I would surf in my spare time, and I would shuck oysters and go abalone diving and — imagine if you only had to work six or seven hours a day for somebody to keep their pool clean, or a group of people to keep their pool clean. All the things you could do. When I don’t have The Chew for a week, I’m so productive. I have from seven in the morning till one in the afternoon. Unstructured. And it’s amazing how many things I can get going. How much trouble I can cause in my world.
Helen: Last question. If someone tells you they want to be you when they grow up, what’s the piece of advice you give them?
Mario: I’d tell them: Study hard, pay attention, get the best grades you can, read outside of whatever you have to study, go to college, study something that has nothing to do with the trade, and then talk to me after that.
Helen: Strong advice.
Greg: Well Mario, thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell.
Mario: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan of Eater and I read it everyday.
Helen: Oh and we’re a big fan of you. We eat at your restaurants whenever we can.
Mario: I love that.
Helen: Thank you so much, Mario. You can check out more of his stuff on Twitter, and on ABC, and at the bookstore, and in many locations around America.
Greg: And in real life.
Mario: In real life. Here I am.
Greg: He’ll be in the restaurant.
Helen: Tooling around on his Vespa. Thanks Mario.
>Mario: My pleasure.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin
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