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Interview with Chef and Restaurateur Mario Batali

Aired April 20, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): The grand opening of Lupa, a new addition to Hong Kong's famous food scene. And this is the man behind it - Mario Batali, one of America's most recognized restaurateurs.

A Michelin starred master of Italian cuisine, foodies flock to his eateries to experience his take on Italian fare. And while already at the helm of almost two dozen restaurants across the U.S., Singapore, and now Hong Kong, he aims to have two more open in Asia by the end of the year.

An Italian-American by heritage, it was his grandmother's hands-on approach that inspired his love of food. And after studying at Le Cordon Bleu and cooking for Marco Pierre White, he honed his skills working in a Northern Italian village.

Once back in the U.S., he found himself gaining celebrity status.

MARK DACASCOS, ACTOR: I have decided that our challenger, Chef English, face off against Iron Chef Batali.

COREN (voiceover): Facing off with counterparts on the hit TV show "Iron Chef America". Opening the largest Italian food and wine marketplace outside of Italy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't eat anything good without me.

COREN (voiceover): And taking his gastronomical adventures on the road for a 13-part series through Spain with good friend, Gwyneth Paltrow.


COREN (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we meet Mario Batali in Hong Kong for the opening of his latest restaurant and we introduce him to the local fare.


COREN: Really? You do?

BATALI: Jell-O wrapped around a weird little claw.


COREN: Mario Batali, welcome to "Talk Asia" and welcome to Hong Kong.

BATALI: It's an honor to be here.

COREN: Your first time here, I believe.

BATALI: And I love this place.

COREN: Fantastic. You are here to expand your culinary empire with your first restaurant here in Hong Kong.


COREN: What was behind the set up?

BATALI: This is a concept we've done before. It's called "Lupa". It's an Osteria Romana, meaning a casual Roman restaurant. It's a little fancier than a real Osteria. And literally, 60 days ago, they started construction, and today we're open.

COREN: But you obviously see a great deal of potential here in Asia.

BATALI: Yes. Well, I think that this is a very food-savvy town and a very food-savvy nation. And it's exciting to think that we can participate with it.

COREN: Let's talk about your beginnings. You were born in Seattle, Washington, but you have Italian heritage. Tell us about that.

BATALI: I'm a third-generation American. I was born just in Seattle and absolutely love it and live for it. It is - the West Coast is a much different thing than the East Coast. And now that I live in New York, I realize how unique and lucky I was. We just didn't - no one really was tied to their ethnicity. So it's just like we were all the same. The food culture and the food ideology is more Italian, but it's like that almost always on the West Coast, so it's just a question of what's fresh, what's delicious. We barbecued, we grilled salmon, we went picking blackberries. It was a very informative time for me to understand the deliciousness of the planet.

COREN: And I believe your grandmother and her oxtail ravioli had quite an influence on you. Tell us about your memories -

BATALI: Well, we grew up eating things that our neighbors didn't eat because we were "I-talians" as they called us. But we had an oxtail ragu that my grandma served with her calf's brain ravioli that was - it made us the most exotic and weird people on the block. Until finally, the kids would come by and taste a little bit of it, and they realized, "Hey, there's something to this weird stuff".

I'll never forget the first time I went to a friend of mine's house - the Christiansons (ph) and looked in their fridge. We were just, like, hanging around. And there was sausage in a package and I'm like, "You can buy that? Where'd you get this?" Because we always made it, so it was just part of our culture.

COREN: Your father was an engineer for Boeing for some 30 years.


COREN: How did he feel about you getting into food and cooking - pursuing a career in that direction?

BATALI: Well, both my parents, when it was time to decide whether I was going to go to university or not, were very excited about the idea of me going to cooking school - a chef school - first. And I'm like, "No, that's not going to work for me". So I went to college, but they were very supportive all the way through. And when I finished college and realized I wasn't going to be a banker or a Spanish theater expert, or a major, or a professor - that I really liked the idea of cooking for a living, they were very supportive.

So, when I went to Le Cordon Bleu, they were totally excited about that. And they've followed me kind of around every single place I've ever been. Eating and loving and criticizing it all at the same time.

COREN: You mentioned Le Cordon Bleu. You went there, however, very quickly discovered that it wasn't for you. You had a lack of interest.

BATALI: And it's one of my greatest failures is that I didn't have the tenacity to stick it out. I should have finished, and I give this advice to all the folks that I talk to - if you start something, finish it. It wasn't even a very long program, but I dropped out about two-thirds of the way through.

COREN: And why's that?

BATALI: I was quite convinced I was much better than them and that I wanted to work in a professional environment. And, in fact, if you really want to learn how to cook like a restaurateur, then you should be working in a restaurant environment. But I should have finished the whole cooking school, even as plodding and as slow as it seemed.

COREN: Your love affair with Italian cooking really soared to a whole new level in 1989 when you moved to Italy. To a small town with a population of some 200 people, in between Florence and Bologna. Tell us about that experience.

BATALI: I was working for the Four Seasons hotel chain on the West Coast, and I realized that I really needed to see some fundament - I needed to go to Mecca. I needed to see something that was not third-hand. So I moved to a tiny little town between Bologna and Florence called Borgo Capanne. I worked in a tiny little restaurant that had 24 seats. It was two women cooking and then there was suddenly two women and a guy - an American. And I learned how to really capture the essence, which is the simplicity which makes Italian food so good.

So it was less about what I learned, but more what I learned not to do. It's to take away some of the white noise in the food that becomes part of the ego that drives it. And when you really have a great dish in Italy, and it's the "holy jeez" moment. You're like, "Wow, this is unbelievable". And it's spaghetti with zucchini. And you're like, "What do they put in this?" And they're like, "Well, zucchini".


BATALI: Right? They don't have to add so many things. And when you realize that pleasure that you get from the simplest stuff is the truly libidinal part of it. It's like, crazy how delicious it can be when there's less of the chef's ego and just perfectly cooked spaghetti, sauteed zucchini, and maybe a mint leaf.

COREN: Well, after three and a half years, you returned to the U.S., borrowed some money, and opened your first restaurant, "Po".

BATALI: Right. I moved to New York - I was actually on my way to Brazil to help some friends open a restaurant Bahia. And I stopped in New York to visit an old buddy, and it turns out that I was going to stay there for a little while. I fell in love with the woman who eventually became my wife. And I borrowed some money, put together my very first restaurant. 34 seats in the heart of Greenwich Village. It was a little dreamy place. I loved it.

COREN: And that was the very beginning of what is now.

BATALI: Right. That was the beginning. Four years later, I partnered up with a guy named Joe Bastianich, and we opened our first restaurant, which was called Babbo, which was - means "daddy" in the Bolognese dialect - because we had both recently had our first children. With different wives.

And it was pretty much a hit. We were very happy. It was kind of a new thought process about what Italian food could be. We didn't try to mimic the dishes that we tasted in any other town in Italy. We made dishes local, with local ingredients, but with Italian technique. And people really kind of loved it.

We also played rock and roll at slightly higher volumes than most people were used to. And so they weren't sure, "Could you turn that down?" "Well, no, we don't really turn it down". "Could you play opera arias?" "Well, we don't really take requests". And we introduced in a way that explained to our customers that, in fact, the customer's not always right. Not to insult them, but to suggest that we have spent a lot of time in our lives getting to the point where we were going to curate an experience that was unique.


COREN (voiceover): Coming up, we get exclusive access to the opening of Mario Batali's newest restaurant.





COREN: When you worked with the famous Marco Pierre White in London - because of an apprenticeship with him - what was that like?

BATALI: He was one of the most tenacious, difficult, temper-tantrum- ridden, super talented creative artist people I've ever met in my life. And the reason that so many people suffered him for so long is because he was a genius in the pan and on the plate. And often, as I realize many years later, you can learn as much about something or somebody by either doing what they do or learning not to do what they do. And he was a very difficult person to make a mistake in front of.

And I've learned that the yelling and the tantrums do much less. I say that if I really want to change someone's behavior, a delicate lecture, sotto voce, but within earshot of their peers, will change something much more quickly than me yelling.

COREN: Do you yell in the kitchen?

BATALI: No, I don't need to yell. I'm - the problem with yelling is, five minutes after you're done yelling, you feel remorse, and then you have to go apologize. In which case, then the whole point of the yell has been negated. Because now all of the sudden, you're asking for forgiveness from someone who you were just trying to get to change their behavior. So, fundamentally, the reason chefs yell is because they realize in their heart of hearts, they had not prepared even themselves for what was obvious.

COREN: Speaking of yelling chefs, Gordon Ramsey - what do you make of that display?

BATALI: He's a good yeller. He's a fascinating character. I mean, he's got so much going on in the media world - I'm sure the restaurant business keeps him going in an emotional sense - but his true masterful ownership is on those reality shows that he does so well at. He intimidates them.

COREN: Part of the act, do you think?

BATALI: I'm sure it's a little bit of both. I mean, after a certain while, you can't - again, can you yell every night? Wouldn't there be something you could do to get over that?

COREN: You starred in "Iron Chef America" and I realize that you're very used to those sort of pressure cooker environments, but surely that must take it to a whole new level.

BATALI: I'm pretty relaxed. I always work - in the "Iron Chef" environment, I've always worked with the same exact crowd, which is Mark Ladner and Anne Burrell. And so it's not so much of a curve ball anymore to have them throw some weird live fish at me and tell me to make something out of it.

COREN: Do you enjoy it? Being -

BATALI: I do. It's fun.

COREN: You are one of the first celebrity chefs. You have 21 restaurants, written something like nine cookbooks, you host TV shows. You have really built an empire and a brand. Was that the intention when you set out?

BATALI: I would say no, I never intended to build a brand. I thought we'd just get going and get a good restaurant going and feel really good about it. And, in fact, I do. I feel really good about it. There was never a manifest destiny to create a brand or to expand out into the world. But what really happened is that, as our really good cooks became so talented that they were capable of doing something on their own, as opposed to letting them go work for somebody else, we built a restaurant around them.

So, at this point, all of the restaurants that we have, have cooks who have an equity position, and we have general managers who have an equity position. And they're owners along with us. And it's because I don't want to lose them to somebody else, that we've really built more restaurants.

COREN: You have restaurants that are famous in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and you cater for everybody across the board. You can walk into one of your high-end establishments and pay $160 a head, or walk into one of your pizzerias and buy a $30 meal. How important is it to cater for everybody?

BATALI: I think it's less of us looking at like a store that's trying to find a niche for everybody, and it's more about the unique ability to kind of divine and create a very unique experience. So, the casual pizzeria we built because we wanted a place where adults and children would feel very comfortable. We both had children and we loved the idea of going to a restaurant that was fun enough for them, but serious enough for the adults.

So suddenly, there is every time and every age and every group - there's a different kind of experience for them.

COREN: A couple of years ago, you opened what must be Mecca for Italian food lovers. It's "Eataly".


COREN: I love the name. 50,000 square feet. The largest Italian food and wine marketplace in the world. I was lucky enough to go there last year. I tried some of your gelato.

BATALI: What did you think?

COREN: Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

BATALI: Thank you.

COREN: What was behind this concept?

BATALI: Well, our partner in that store is a guy called, Oscar Farinetti. And he has an original one that was out of his brain in Farina. So this is not its original idea per se, but the way that we made the restaurants and the way that the experience reflects the Italian-American ideology of a lot of New Yorkers. And the pure Italian ideology of the Turinesian people from Piedmont - just kind of happened naturally. And it's one of the most exciting things we've ever done. And it was very, very highly praised when it got going.

And I just love going in there. It's like you're in a little town on 23rd Street and Broadway. And it's everything from the baker to the - I mean, it's just - it's so exciting. The bakery is one of my favorite things we do. They have a pizza-pasta restaurant, we have a butcher and then a meat restaurant - we have a fishmonger and a fish restaurant. It's just - it's exciting.


COREN (voiceover): Coming up -

BATALI: This, for me, is like inspiration.

COREN: Really?

BATALI: This is when you hear, "ahhhhh".

COREN (voiceover): We give Mario Batali a taste of local Hong Kong.




COREN: All right, let me introduce you to some of the wet market.

BATALI: This, for me, is like inspiration.

COREN: Really?

BATALI: This is when you hear, "ahhhhh". When there's something - when this is - like, you come here - this is so good. And all you barely have to do is barely cook them. Like, it's already perfect. Look, that's alive.

Hi honey, you got a baby? She's mocking me.

COREN: They're not shy. They're not shy.

BATALI: They should come here, get rid of their obsession with needing it to be super clean and understand that it's alive, it's going to be delicious.

COREN: Really?


COREN: Even the one that's swimming upside down?

BATALI: The one that's swimming upside down is telling us something in a secret fish code. "I'm dead". That's what it's saying.

COREN: Time to go.

BATALI: Now that's -

COREN: Chicken feet.

BATALI: Chicken feet - I like chicken feet.

COREN: Really? You do?

BATALI: Yes. If they're made by the right person, I'm very happy.

COREN: Really?

BATALI: Yes. I like Jell-O.

COREN: I like Jell-O.

BATALI: That's what they are.

COREN: Yes, I know, but -

BATALI: They're Jell-O wrapped around a weird little claw.


COREN: How's your Chinese cooking?

BATALI: My Chinese cooking is best left to Chinese people. Or cooks that are practiced in it. But, that said, I love eating Chinese food.

COREN: Mario, what do you make of the whole celebrity chef phenomenon?

BATALI: Well, it's certainly working out for me.


BATALI: Americans became fascinated with food and the making of food and the deliciousness of food and the information about the food. And, as opposed to going to the opera and then going to get the bite, the yuppie friends will go to dinner and they'll talk about it for three weeks before they get there, because it took them a while to get their reservation. So, fundamentally, it got moved from the side of the plate to the middle of the plate. And the food event suddenly became the big thing.

And so, just like you loved the first baseman on the Yankees and whatever way it was or anything that you happen to do, now you love the cook. And you hear about him and you know when they move or where they are, whatever they're doing.

COREN: Now, you are very good friends with actress, Gwyneth Paltrow. And you had the tough job of traveling around Spain with her for four months in a sports Mercedes for a show called, "Spain, on the Road Again".


BATALI: I've never seen it done like that.

PALTROW: Welcome to Spain, baby.


COREN: How's she?

BATALI: She's brutal. I've known her for as long as Bobbo's been open. She is an old and dear friend. She is a heck of a cook. She eats more - she eats more than me.

COREN: Are you joking?

BATALI: No. She eats like a trucker.

COREN: That is not fair.

BATALI: And it's because she exercises so much. But she also has a good metabolism. But it was as much fun as it looked, and then it was even more fun when the cameras weren't on. It was just a blast. And we're so in love with Spain - the both of us. I went to high school there and she spent some time there during her study years. And just the love of the culture, the love of the people, the food, the gastronomy, the music, the art - everything that was there, we got to go and just lounge around. And people moved aside for us and made us the Paella that we wanted in our dreams. And it was just - it was a great experience. The show was a blast.

COREN: As you say, she loves her cooking and she recently released a cookbook, "My Father's Daughter", in which you wrote the forward.

BATALI: Yes. When we were on the road, we often, at the end of the night, would discuss what we loved about the food that we'd just eaten or things that we remembered or dishes that were important to us. And she realized that she had shared so much with her father that she wanted to kind of encapture it. And she did a really great job and the book's beautiful, and the recipes are simple and yet each of the head notes really gives you an insight into the love that she shared with her dad. And that was just kind of a really cool thing.

COREN: The other thing that I got from your forward is that family and food both are important to you and Gwyneth.

BATALI: Right. And if you can do it so that family and food are at the same time, then it's even twice as nice. It gives my children a great sense of place to know where their food comes from and that we share it in celebrating even the daily moments. You know, our dinner table is between six and seven o'clock every night in Manhattan. And even though I have a restaurant business going on, I get home for dinner every night.

COREN: What is your favorite meal to cook for family and friends?

BATALI: My favorite thing is to cook breakfast for my kids.

COREN: What do you do?

BATALI: Every morning - it depends. At a certain point, they used to have almost a short-order menu that's kind of famous in New York called "The Batali Brothers Breakfast Menu". But at this point, it depends on the day. It could be anything from lemon curd fluffy pancakes to just egg, cheese, and ham on an English muffin, toasted, and served with a little hot sauce on the side.

COREN: I have to ask you about your uniform. Shorts and orange Crocs.


COREN: I understand that you have something like 50 pairs of orange Crocs. Is this true?

BATALI: It's probably down to 30. I gave a bunch away this year for a clothing drive. I don't know who's going to be wearing them and whether they'll sheepishly admit that they're more comfortable than the shoes that they normally wear. But I wear what I'm comfortable in.

COREN: And what's with the color orange?

BATALI: My wife gave me these shoes initially, and I just kind of always wore orange crocks because she thought they were kind of cute. But orange has now become the national color of Batali. Like, I kind of own orange a little bit. But it's easily recognizable. It is, in fact - and your purple shirt is another one of my favorite colors - these are the two happiest colors. These are happy. When you look at orange, you smile.

COREN: You set up the Mario Batali foundation in 2008 to feed, protect, educate, and empower children. How's that going?

BATALI: So, the three obstacles to all children's greatness is the fact that they go to bed hungry, that they have some kind of disease or sickness, or they can't read. So I have created a foundation that just deals with those three things. Children's hunger relief, children's disease research, and literacy guarantee. And we make about a million a year and I just donate it to the things that - people that appeal to me. And they ask me, "Can you help?"

We've built two libraries in New York City. We help staff them with the members of my restaurant and grocery store staff who go to read there. We do work with Food Bank for New York and we've got this really interesting project, "Cook Shop" that teaches children and their parents - but fundamentally children - how the decisions that they make even on low income food from a food pantry - how they can tune those up. How they can think about it and identify products that are better for them in a different way.

COREN: What is next in line for Mario Batali.

BATALI: I'm going to do a Carnevino right here in Hong Kong, probably at the end of the summer. And then we have this very interesting big Southern-Italian - what we call in our vernacular, "a red sauce joint" - that will have pizza and the food of Naples, Campagna, and Puglia in a big, giant outdoor space right here in Hong Kong.

This year's openings are all going to be in Hong Kong.

COREN: Well, we're looking forward to it. That's for sure. Mario Batali, great to meet you.

BATALI: Thank you very much.

COREN: Thank you.