Critic-Turned-Cook Enjoys a Double Helping of Mario Batali


Above: Mario Batali at his book signing. Right: Preparing snacks from Molto Gusto. [Photographs: Leslie Kelly]

20100506-ctc-crostini.jpgThere's almost always a line out the door at Salumi in Seattle, but earlier this week, it was hundreds deep and it snaked around the block. Mario Batali fans arrived early to see the orange Croc-wearing superstar at his family's salumeria, where he signed copies of his latest book, Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking, which he wrote with Mark Ladner. Armandino and Marilyn Batali—Mario's mom and dad—circulated through the crowd, passing out bites made from recipes out of the book. Sister Gina—who runs Salumi with her husband, Brian D'Amato—kept the signing queue moving right along.

The number of books sold in an hour should make Mario's publisher pretty darned happy. It was a heck of a homecoming, especially when the party picked up later during a sold-out event at Tom Douglas's Palace Kitchen.

While 300 folks sampled more snacks from Molto Gusto—hello lardo crostini!—Batali warmed up the crowd by posing for photos and talking about the James Beard after-party at Otto. "I got to meet Peter Gabriel," he gushed about the rock-star-chef-meets-rock-star encounter.


Tom and Mario.

Then, everyone took a seat and Tom Douglas interviewed Mario. But it wasn't your typical dry Q&A, as these two wise-crackers had the audience doubled over with laughter. There wasn't one single yuk-yuk that would translate. It was one of those blissful times when you just had to be there.

And I was, in the front row.

Now, I've witnessed dozens of celebrity chefs shining brightly over the years, but these two were super nova hot. Such great chemistry!

Tom started it off by asking, "If you could sleep with one famous chef... who would he be?"

"You, of course," Mario countered, not missing a beat.

This playful exchange between two giants in the culinary world reminded me of a key ingredient in the making of a great chef: that intangible quality known as charisma. You can't learn it in cooking school. You can't fake it until you make it. You've either got it or you don't.

These guys have got it going on, as does Tony Bourdain, David Chang, John Besh, and many others. (Care to add to the list?) Maybe it's charisma—and relentless drive—that makes the difference in the rise to the top. Then again, I've met some pretty funny, charming, dazzling line cooks, bread bakers and dishwashers during the past year in the professional kitchen, and nobody's lining up to buy books from them. Not yet, anyway.

When taking questions from the audience, Mario addressed that burning query: "Why don't you open a restaurant in Seattle?"

"I have too much respect for Seattle to open up a place and come here a few times a year," he said, acknowledging that, yes, indeed-y, he does have outposts in Vegas and LA, but those are run by trusted friends.

I stuck my hand up and asked something only a former food critic would: "Has Sam Sifton been into Babbo yet? And have you changed the music?"

No and no was the short answer, though he went on to elaborate about the music question. Former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni marked Babbo down because he didn't want to hear Black Crowes while savoring his buccatini. Mario was not swayed: "I believe you've got to be true to what you want to do. We play what we like. And we don't take requests." And it's still damn hard to get a reservation, so there are obviously a lot of Black Crowes and Batali fans out there.

Another thing that distinguishes superstar chefs is that they're always working on the next great project. For Mario, that's virtual cooking classes produced for the iPad, coming out next fall, and the long-anticipated launch of Eataly, the Slow Food-style supermarket with five restaurants and a rooftop brewery coming this summer to New York City at 23rd Streetn and Fifth Avenue.

Tom's got at least three new venues in the works and is moving forward on a direct-to-Kindle cookbook. Plus, there's his farm in rural Eastern Washington that he and his wife, Jackie Cross, tend to.

Hopefully, Tom and Mario will be able to squeeze time into their cram-packed calendar to do some bantering again sometime soon. If you this duo shows up in your city, you've got to catch their act.