October 14, 2011 10:01 pm

FT Foodies: Mario Batali

What was my big break? It was with Marco Pierre White at the Six Bells. After two days in a kitchen run by Marco you’re either committed or changing jobs

Chef-restaurateur Mario Batali runs a food empire of 18 restaurants across America and also presents The Chew talk show on ABC. In 2008, he set up the Mario Batali Foundation, which educates children about food and nutrition.

Do you have a Proust’s Madeleine, something that brings back instant memories?

My grandmother’s gnocchi with oxtail sauce. We’d drive home after baseball practice to our home outside Seattle, and the windows of the whole house would be steamed from the pasta water, which she’d kept waiting.

When did you realise you might make a good chef?

When I was studying Spanish theatre of the Golden Age at college I realised that I enjoyed the intense work of a kitchen much more. I started out as a dishwasher then became a line cook at a pizza restaurant called Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick.

What was your big break?

It was with Marco Pierre White at the Six Bells [in Chelsea]. After two days in a kitchen run by Marco you’re either committed or changing jobs. I stayed there until I couldn’t anymore – that was the day he launched a risotto at me from four feet away.

How did you start your first restaurant?

I was on my way to Brazil but stopped in New York and fell in love. In 1993 I opened my first restaurant Po with all the money I had, about $22,000. It was a success after three months – overnight we got really busy.

How do you keep up your love for food?

New Yorkers are insane about food right now, so it’s interesting to watch them and talk to them.

Is the customer always right?

I hate to break it to them, but no. A lot of people think they can go into an Italian restaurant and order whatever they want. We spend the whole day making things that we think they should try, so that’s what we hold the line on.

Is there a food business you envy?

I like what David Chang is doing, and Tom Douglas in Seattle.

How would your staff describe your management style?

I’m more of a “share your smarts” than “show your smarts”.

Are we at a peak in food culture?

There’s food and then there’s food with a story. People love the idea of the relationship with the producer or cook. I think the next group of celebrities will be the farmers and the fishermen.

If you wanted to impress someone what would you make?

I’d find out what they like and prey on that.

‘Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals From My Home to Yours’ by Mario Batali is published this month by Ecco ($29.99)

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