A young Mario sits down at the dinner table — 6 p.m. sharp, clean hands, clean shirt, encircled by family and savoury aromas you couldn’t imagine — the daily dining ritual. They eat, laugh and play, a time set aside to nourish body and soul, now and for the rest of their lives.
“Food has been used in sacred ritual for millennia,” says Mario Batali, who’s grown up to be a star on the Food Network and co-owner of a 25-restaurant culinary empire that reaches from New York to Singapore. And Eataly — the 50,000-square-foot Italian market Batali co-owns in Manhattan — has become one of the city’s top five tourist attractions, transforming the retail and dining paradigm with the super chef’s signature-adoration for authentic cuisine and communion. “Food’s importance on a daily basis to build and secure relationships with loved ones, friends and associates is immeasurable.”
Unbeknownst to one of GQ’s future Men of the Year (in the chef category), Batali’s traditional family supper would become a foundation for his personal and professional lives, giving him the courage to take risks that would make him one of the world’s most sought-after chefs.
“We grew up pretty much the only Italians just outside Seattle, and to most people, the food we ate made us the strangest people on the block,” says Batali. “Growing up with that sense of history and tradition was so unique and special.”
The tradition of food as the epicenter of life ran thick through Batali’s blood, a third-generation American from Italian and French Canadian immigrants, whose grandfathers on both sides were farmers. In college, Batali worked in a kitchen, and the adrenaline-filled atmosphere thrilled him, as well as the familiar bonding over a meal with co-workers at the end of a stress-filled day.
Batali’s impassioned personality drove him around the world to pursue his new love of the culinary arts, including a brief stint in London for cooking school, an apprenticeship under the first-ever English-born Michelin-star chef Marco Pierre White, and on to California as a sous chef for the Four Seasons. However, Batali’s childhood spent eating his grandmother’s authentic Italian cooking was spoiling his journey — he knew a key ingredient was missing.
“In Italy, you won’t find men in the kitchens making homemade pasta or gnocchi,” says Batali. “You find mothers and nonnas, who learned from their moms and so on. Going to Italy and learning from them was the only way to get an authentic education.”
So Batali set sail for a quiet town outside Bologna to learn the trade secrets of the Valdiserri family, bartering his labour at their quaint restaurant for room and board. “I learned so much more outside the classroom than I ever could inside,” says Batali of his culinary immersion.
“Italians have been making fresh pasta ‘al matarello,’ with a wooden rolling pin and board, for centuries, and there’s nothing a machine can do to create that unique texture and mouthfeel,” says Batali. “Learning the skill requires patience, finesse and time” — three and a half years, to be exact. While Batali admits he could’ve lived that simple life forever, he longed to share with the world his twist on traditional Italian cuisine.
Trial by fire
A visionary at heart, with $300 in his pocket and two bags of laundry, Batali landed in the City That Never Sleeps with a tall order — to reinvent a classic red-sauce Italian American restaurant called Rocco, owned by his college roommate’s father. In signature bold Batali style, he scrapped the entire menu to give New Yorkers something more modern and relevant. But the regulars left, and new customers didn’t come in — leaving Batali bewildered with an empty restaurant.
Passionate and optimistic, Batali didn’t give up on himself. He cut ties with Rocco and opened up his first restaurant, Pó. But again, business was slow — New Yorkers weren’t getting his cuisine, or maybe he just wasn’t right for the city, sparking six months of soul-searching.
On August 26th, 1993, food-and-wine critic Eric Asimov tasted the genius of Batali’s cuisine and wrote a stellar review for places to eat under $25 a head. Batali’s restaurants have been bustling ever since, embraced for their authenticity and feel — an experience transcending any price.
“All of my cooking is informed by my personal experience,” says Batali. Naturally, the family meal tradition that enriched Batali growing up flourishes at all of his establishments. The staff eat together, discuss the ups and downs of the last few days, encouraging growth for the individuals as well as the collective whole.
“Much of the innovation in our kitchens is driven by the fostering of talent and the mentorship of successful cooks, chefs, wait staff and wine professionals throughout the whole family,” says Batali. Cultivating a family — the word he chooses to describe his staff — is as essential and genuine as the food itself.
Three of his restaurants — Babbo, Del Posto and Osteria Mozza — are touted as the three best Italian restaurants in the country, while Eataly has become a foodies’ paradise the world over, with new locations in Dubai, Japan, Istanbul and soon in Toronto, Los Angeles and a second in New York at the World Trade Center.
“Eataly is a decidedly Italian experience — a thing of beauty like no other,” he says. “New Yorkers can buy dry orecchiette made by a nonna in Puglia, drink a glass of wine while pushing the shopping cart, and tourists can walk by advertising executives on a lunch break eating a Neapolitan pizza.”
Pay it forward
Known for developing and promoting chefs from within his chain of restaurants, Batali appointed former Babbo and Del Posto sous chef Josh Laurano to executive chef of his newest work of culinary art, La Sirena, his first stand-alone restaurant in New York since 2005.
“It’s exciting to open a new property in New York… my home,” he says. Whether it’s New Yorkers or visitors from out of town, it’s guaranteed any guests of Batali’s restaurants will be greeted with kindred traditions and authenticity that will feed their hearts as much as their health.
“What’s important is the way we foster a community around food,” says Batali. “Our restaurants are a venue for conversation, rekindling friendships or making new ones — to celebrate both eating and living.”
Photo courtesy of Eataly; Photos by Quentin Bacon; Karen Thornton; Kate Previte; Kelly Campbell