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Meeting Mario

By Adam Roberts
February 2, 2007

Mario Batali's in the kitchen at Otto, and I'm at a table waiting for him. There are two bottles of water in front of me: one flat, one sparkling. I'm offered coffee. I'm offered lemonade. I politely refuse, take out my notebook, and wait. And then he appears.

He appears and it's like he stepped out of the TV or the cover of one of his books. His look is iconic: orange hair, orange beard, orange clogs. He shakes my hand and sits down and waits for me to ask a question.

I have effectively suppressed my excitement. Mario's show, Molto Mario (which re-runs now on the Food Network every day at 10:30 a.m. ET) is my own personal culinary school. I TiVo it and study it, and the results have been extraordinary. I brown meat like an expert. I make pasta both from a box (perfectly al dente) and also from scratch. I roll pastry dough with authority, I get my pans smoking hot. Mario is my Mr. Miyagi, my Yoda, and yet he has no idea who I am. I'm here because Barilla is promoting its new charity cookbook, edited by Mario, and I'm supposed to ask him questions about it.

"So tell me about this charity cookbook," I begin.

"Well," he says, "it's a great thing. The cookbook's online, and for every person who downloads it, Barilla donates $1 to City Harvest. I edited it with Giada De Laurentiis and there are recipes from Ashley Judd and Kristin Davis and lots of other celebrities."

"Were there any recipes that weren't any good?"

"No," he says, smiling. "Kristin Davis actually still had her grandmother's handwritten recipe for meatballs."


Los Angeles, Early to Bed
Since there's not much more to say about the charity cookbook (you can download it here), I move on to hotter topics. Namely, his new pizza place in L.A., Mozza.

"What's the L.A. restaurant scene like," I ask. "Is it different from New York?"

"Well, I was nervous," he confides, "because in New York and Las Vegas, you get three turns a night. They're A-markets. But in L.A., people go to bed at 9 p.m., so it's a very different thing."

"Do you have a place in Las Vegas?"

"I'm opening two," he says. "B & B Ristorante, which will be a bit like Babbo, and Inoteca San Marco, both in the Venetian."

"With Mozza, you collaborated with Nancy Silverton. What's it like collaborating with another chef?"

"Wonderful," he says. "Nancy can do no wrong. She's totally O.C.D., which I love. We both have similar, passionate ideologies about food."

I decide to get tough. "So with all these places in New York, L.A., and Las Vegas, how do you do it all? Do you worry you're spreading yourself too thin?"

With a big smile he says, "There've been no disasters yet, right? Plus I have great people. Nancy's there in L.A. looking after everything, and the guys I did Del Posto with are there too. I work with these guys all the time, and that's how I make it work."

As he talks, a few things surprise me about Mario's demeanor. After reading Bill Buford's Heat I expect him to be bombastic and difficult, but he's actually subdued and thoughtful. He's a natural talker and a natural charmer. He listens and responds and does so effortlessly.

"Where do you like to eat in L.A.?"

"Spago," he announces, "it's still great after 25 years. It's an all-consuming, delicious experience."

"Plus," he adds, "you see major movie stars there. I saw Tom Hanks. I met Dustin Hoffman!"

"Do you still get starstruck?"

"I do. I mean, Dustin Hoffman, man. He's iconic."


Feel the Heat
Since Heat is on my mind, as I sit here opposite its protagonist, I ask him about it. "So what did you think of Heat?"

Mario immediately perks up. "Look," he says, "Bill's a friend. But he got a lot of it wrong. It was his interpretation, and he missed a lot of it."

He leans forward. "Like he made it seem there were these huge Machiavellian power struggles in the kitchen. He made a big deal because Dominic bumped me. We were joking, that's how we joke in the kitchen."

"But," he says, "he did capture me. Rough on the edges, passionate, fanatical."

"And," he adds. "You can actually drink a case of wine in one sitting. It is possible."

I tell him that one of the things I admired, reading the book, was Mario's scholarship. He read all of Faulkner during his time in Italy.

"It was Italy," he interjects, "there's nothing to do there at night except listen to Tom Waits and read Faulkner."

"Well one of things I love about your show," I continue, "is how you bring that scholarship into the food. I love how you talk about history and geography and literature when you explain a dish."

"Tell that to the Food Network," he quips. "Food TV doesn't get that. What they're doing, and I guess it makes sense, is they're listening to what the public wants."

"I'm surprised to hear you say that," I challenge. "Your food never panders to the public. You make authentic food that's challenging and people still come to it."

"Well," he says, nodding, "then I get accused of being a bully. Did you read Frank Bruni's piece last week?"

Funny, this was going to be my next question. Frank Bruni wrote a scathing piece, last week, about chefs imposing their desires and demands on diners. It mentioned Mario several times.

"Because I play my music loud at Babbo," he says, "he's up in arms. But that's the experience I want to create. It's the unpredictability that makes it Babbo."

The mention of the loud music makes me think of Bruni's three-star Babbo review, which marked Mario down for the loud music.

"Do you read your reviews?" I ask.

"Of course," he says.

"And do the bad ones bother you?"

"They shoot me through the heart," he says, jabbing himself on the chest. "I don't forget them. I remember, when Otto first opened, somebody said the pizza was like 'Norwegian Flatbread.' Those words still haunt me. Norwegian flatbread!"

At this moment, Mario's P.R. person appears and gives me a meaningful look. My time is up: I've gone over an extra five minutes.

"Thanks so much, Mario," I say, putting out my hand.

"My pleasure," he says, shaking it.

We part ways and I leave him at the table as I put on my coat and scarf and gloves. I feel like a Kung-Fu hero: my master has shown himself and shared his wisdom and now I'll return to the world enriched. I go outside, karate kick the air, and carry on down the street.

I am molto ready to cook dinner like a master.

18 Comments

Congratulations!!! I know you are a big fan of his, so it must of been thrilling to meet him. Great interview too. Way to go Adam!

Very good interview - and I love the iconic picture of MM.

BTW, did you get comped that burger @ BLT? Just kidding!

Your interview made me remember how mad I am that the Food Network cancelled one of the best shows on the channel.

Awesome! It seemed like you kept your cool after meeting Mario. I would've been at a loss for words, too excited to even utter a word.

Bravo. He has to be an intimidating person to have across the table. Sounds much classier in your interview than in other accounts. But who can be that high-charged all the time?!
Lucky you.

One of my favorite interviews ever- I adore Mario too.

Before he was anybody, at Po', my girlfriend and I stumbled in one weekend afternoon between services to make a reservation. Po' was already picking up steam, and Mario had an older gentleman handling the front during this dead time. We were having difficulty making our schedules mesh for a set date and time, when Mario overheard, came to the front, and personally looked through the book and made a booking happen that worked for all. Splendid gesture, still remembered - and the guy's got real Italian chops and almost no American accent when speaking the language.

I adore him, especially -- as you put it -- the scholarship that he brings to food. Incredibly articulate and intelligent. And it's sad to hear that FoodTV doesn't get that ... which, now that I think about, explains why Ming Tsai is no longer there. I run into him often along Washington Square Park and was nearly blinded one day when I saw him dressed in orange from head to toe!

Beautiful interview, well done. You really put the reader on the scene and made MM speak through the screen. Its simple and to the point. Thanks for sharing!

Food Network never asked ME what I want to watch.. I have to ask just who they ARE asking.. I will take one MM over 10 rachels, 50 Giadas and about a million semi-concious females.

Nika
http://nikas-culinaria.com

Three things to say:
LOVE Mario, his food, his authenticity, his passion, his clogs.
Nothing to do at night in Italy? Wait did I mention authenticity?
Who do you think watches the Food Network - or most American TV? Sure - there are some sophisticated, educated, people who have experienced the world - but most are simple, suburban souls who couldn't give a damn about history or geography - that is who mainstream American Corporations and Media Target - HAVE ANY OF YOU EVER BEEN ASKED TO PUT A NIELSEN BOX IN YOUR HOUSE????
Congrats Adam (ok - that's four - sorry).

Great interview. I just came back from the local rec center after reading this and who did I see there but the great Mario himself! With his trademark orange clogs! And of course, it was only a minute before I overheard him talking about cheeses, with the security guard no less!

Too bad that you didn't ask Mario about Barilla. While it is supposedly "the best selling pasta in Italy," apparently the Campbell Soup Company, the American corporation that uses the name here in the states, alters the recipe, so we get Barilla in name only. Not the same as one would get in Italy.
If that's true, I'd like to know why we can't get the real deal.

I didn't have a Neilson box, but I was a Neilson journaling family once. I've done Arbitron ratings, too. Twice. Once for TV and once for radio. It's kind of fun, but A LOT of work!

Wow! That is very cool! You're lucky...but I guess you've earned it.

"I decide to get tough..." -- after you've done more interviews, you'll learn that the question you asked next is the softess of softballs. It's a set-up meant to allow the interviewee to say, "on the contrary blah blah blah." if you want to do a puffy, fawning interview, best not to try and pretend it's anything different.

I never really had a love for Marios food. Its all too weird.

What a useless piece of journalism. And to think it might have gone like this: Mario Batali is a greedy pig. He will do anything for money. He has restaurants all over America. The restaurants are pretty good. This is because in addition to being a greedy pig, Mario Batali is not an idiot. The people who work for Mario Batali work very hard. They want to become greedy pigs too someday. Mario Batali may or may not help them do this. How iconic. End of story.

Very nice interview Adam, I enjoyed reading it very much, especially your question on dealing with criticism. You can do one better than Mario and learn to put the critics words in perspective. Laugh them off, and keep doing what you enjoy. Je t'aime beaucoup. Merci mon ami.

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