I have been dying to get Mario Batali, whom I have known for more than a quarter century, on Special Sauce since I first dreamed up the idea for our podcast, more than a year ago. And, when all you serious eaters listen to Mario on this week's episode, you'll know why. The man is funny, smart, hyper-articulate, and both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
He describes life at the Batali family table in Seattle as Leave It to Beaver–like, except for the fact that they routinely ate oxtail, calves' liver, and tongue instead of mac and cheese and hot dogs. Why? "It wasn't that we were exotic. I think we were thrifty." His family moved to Spain during Mario's high school years, and it was there that his mom, seeing his passion for Spanish ingredients like jamón ibérico and Manchego, suggested he go to cooking school.
But Mario didn't take her advice, at least not right away. He went to Rutgers, studied Spanish theater and financial portfolio theory, and worked on what's now a legendary food truck, Fill Your Belly. After attending Le Cordon Bleu and working in various New York kitchens, he opened his first restaurant, Pó. There, with 34 seats and a tiny kitchen, he served as many as 210 covers in a night. "You get into that rhythm, and all of a sudden, it's all you're thinking about. At that point, it was almost like jazz music. I could look up and talk to customers while I was plating a six-top, and it didn't really bother me or stop me."
Among the other fun items you'll hear about in this episode: the time chef terrible Marco Pierre White threw a pan of risotto at Mario's chest, and Mario's wedding to my old friend Susi Cahn (yes, I can personally attest that he wore shorts and orange clogs for the occasion). Susi's parents deserve their own culinary shout-out: Her father, Miles, who sadly passed away shortly after this interview was recorded, and his wife, Lillian, who died in 2013, owned Coach Goat Farm in New York's Hudson River Valley and were the first to introduce many NYC restaurants to locally made French-style chèvre.
To aspiring chefs, Mario offers the following words of wisdom: "First of all, you're gonna work hard. Second of all, if you really love it, you're gonna never feel like you're at work. Third of all, get a basic liberal arts education in something that has nothing to do with the culinary arts, so you have something to talk about when you're sitting around cooking besides just cooking, because that's what makes cooking more interesting." Maybe that's why Mario himself has so many interesting things to say—enough that we had to make this interview a two-parter. Next week, we'll delve into his accidental television career and chef/restaurateur stardom.
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