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The Traditions of the Table

A Conversation with Mario Batali

HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

Chairman Bruce Cole talks with Mario Batali about the ways in which food conveys culture. Before becoming a chef, Batali studied medieval Spanish theater, witnessed the California food revolution, and lived in Italy to learn about its culinary traditions. Founder and owner of Babbo in New York, Batali also appears on his own television show on the Food Network and has written five books on cooking.

Bruce Cole: How does food fit in a culture? How did you become a chef?

Mario Batali: When I was a child, our whole family cooked. All my cousins cooked. All my aunts and uncles cooked. It was part of our heritage. We would load up the yellow Cutlass Supreme station wagon and pick blackberries during blackberry season or spring onions during spring onion season. For us, food was part of the fabric of our day.

When I got to college age, my parents suggested, why don't you go to cooking school instead of going to a traditional college? I said that's not for me. That's ridiculous. I want to go to college and live the toga parties and the whole experience. And I'd never been to the East Coast, so I was very adamant about it. In retrospect, I'm glad I did, because if you approach cooking as a trade school, then you may not have as many interesting things to think about or do later on in life.

After that, I started to train in economics, and I hated it. I never really entered that world and went to a cooking school in London. Since then I've been cooking in great places all over the world: mostly California, Italy, and a little bit of France.

To get to New York, I was actually on my way to Brazil to help someone open a restaurant and stopped in Florida and met an old college buddy of mine who had a restaurant called Rocco. I came up to open that and I've been in New York for eleven years.

Cole: I read when you went to college that one of the things you were interested in was theater.

Batali: Spanish theater.

Cole: Spanish theater. So is there a relationship between theater and being a chef, opening a restaurant?

Batali: Absolutely.

Cole: What's that?

Batali: It used to be that you would go out to the theater and get a bite or you would go to the game and get a bite or go to the concert and get a bite. At this point in our society, the bite is often the main event. So it has to be more than turkey and gravy and potatoes. The lighting and the buzz and everything in addition to the food have an impact on what the customer feels. In that way, it's very much in the theatrical sense.

Cole: That's a cultural change from the old steak and potatoes restaurant?

Batali: Absolutely. Twenty years ago if you were going to be a cook, it was because you didn't make it in the army. It was the last stop before you were on the street. Now people realize there's creativity to it and there's a buzz about it on the street. It's an entirely different field.

Cole: And a chef has become a kind of glamorous figure in this day.

Batali: Yes. Well, that's the funny part. It worked out for me great.

Cole: You talked about how you wanted to experience things. You wanted to travel. You just didn't want to go to cooking school straight away. One of the things I think is interesting about your writings and your show is that you talk about food as culture, about the expression of regions and times. Can you talk a little bit about food as an expression of who we are and where we've come from?

Batali: Once you become an elaborate and well-developed culture, anything from Rome or the Etruscans, for that matter, the food starts to become a representation of what the culture is. When the food can transcend being just fuel, that's when you start to see these different permutations.

In the Italian culture for hundreds of years, as long as Parmigiano Reggiano or prosciutto di Parma has been being made, it's been an expression of not only their hunger and of their love for things that taste good, but the artisanship of the products themselves.

Parmigiano Reggiano is as well-developed a brand as anything man has made, from Ferrari to Apollo 11.

Cole: One of the things I was struck with when I watched your show was the regionalism in Italy. I am an art historian, and if you talk about Italian Renaissance art, I'd say: "Well, that's wrong, you have to talk about regional or Neapolitan or whatever."

Batali: Absolutely.

Cole: Regionalism is a strong feature in Italy even today, although the country has been united for over a century: regionalism in dialect, in architecture, and--it always strikes me--in cooking, as well. What's happening with that now?

Batali: Sadly, it's being kind of homogenized and washed out. But I think that the rise of a group of people called the slow food movement is doing a lot to try to protect and preserve those traditions.

Kids today want to eat their risotto with curry and shrimp and sour cream, not risotto alla Milanese, like they should, in my opinion. But that's just because they have to push those edges out before they come back.

Think of American food. In my generation, growing up in the sixties and seventies, Banquet Fried Chicken and TV dinners were the thing. Now people are back into roasting their own chickens and TV dinners are a point of kitsch. It will be interesting to see what survives another hundred years.

Puglia and orecchiette and bisteca alla fiorentina aren't going to go away. It's fascinating to travel around Italy and realize just how many different ways they make spaghetti. In the hearts of all Italians, spaghetti pomodoro or spaghetti aglio peperoncino are dishes that are revered, that will never be messed with.

Cole: That's how I always test a restaurant, go in and get an order of spaghetti al pomodoro. If they can do that really well, they can do everything well.

Batali: Exactly. If they can do it brilliantly, then they have a chance.

Cole: What is the slow food movement you mentioned?

Batali: Slow food started in B.R.A., the Bordeaux Regional Development Agency. Their battle now is against the European Union, this group of bureaucrats, deciding how many bathroom doors you're going to need in this house that's been there for seven hundred years in Sardinia. This is a place that's been making clean and delicious cheese for five hundred years and they stir it with a stick from an artichoke plant. That's what makes the cheese separate, what separates the curd from the whey. That's what gives it the flavor. The EU would rather have it all made in a plant owned by Barilla, which is all right, but it's just not going to preserve the individual distinctions of specific products or grains or whatever tradition.

Cole: It's a fight against that kind of homogenization of food. They attempt to keep traditional ways of cooking and localism and typical characteristics--

Batali: Exactly. Exactly. They speak about it in dialect and celebrate it as opposed to trying to eradicate it.

Cole: Can we talk about the globalization of food? Is that going to happen? Do you see a fusion coming? You said that you didn't want lemon grass in your lasagna.

Batali: And I don't. There's a big battle going on in France right now among the three-star chefs. There are the traditionalists and there are the radicals. The traditionalists are Bocuse. The radicals are Pierre Garnier.

Half of them feel that they should be respecting the traditions of their grandmother's table and half of them feel that there should be no rules-- and that there's no reason not to have lemon grass if there's lemon grass around. They feel as if there were a new color introduced to Tiepolo, it would be all right that he painted with it.

Let them all go wild. In the end, it will be the audience who chooses which restaurants they want to go to. There certainly shouldn't be any rules. I don't really care for a lasagna bolognese taco, but someone might.

I love the tradition, but I'm also known for pushing it out a little bit to the edge. Generally, the edge that I bring it to isn't globalizing or homogenization. It's more getting into very specifics of regionality. That seems shocking to many people. To eat the boiled head of a pig sliced like salami is very strange. It may seem cutting edge, but it's actually a lot older than any of the other traditional salami.

Cole: Let's talk a little bit about the history of Italian cooking. Or French food. What does the food express about these various civilizations? Of course, French food is all Italian-based, right?

Batali: As they say in Italy, Italians were eating with a knife and fork when the French were still eating each other (laughter). The Medici family had to bring their Tuscan cooks up there so they could make something edible.

Cole: That's right.

Batali: But that's also a joke. French and Italian cooking have been elevated to a really high art form. There are pockets of great food in Spain, but there are also pockets of very mediocre food in Spain, and the same in Morocco and the same in Croatia and the same in Germany and the same in Austria. Cooking in France and Italy has a particular high resonance and it's hard to say how or why it developed other than that they've been smarter and there for longer.

The proximity to the Mediterranean I think has a lot to do with that, whether it's been a calming influence or just a generally good thing. Certainly the food is far superior in France and Italy to the rest of Europe. You don't think about good German food like you think about a good pot au feu or lasagna bolognese or bolito misto.

Cole: So food doesn't necessarily translate into other cultures. I'm thinking about English food now.

Batali: Well, it's amazing. English food in the last thirty years has come to grips with English products, their dairy culture and their cheeses and their creams and their seafood.

The English have been burning everything for so long and no one paid attention to them. But now there are guys like Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver, and Gordon Ramsey. The London restaurant scene is as vibrant as anywhere in the world--London, Paris, New York.

In America, I would say New York and New Orleans are the two most interesting food towns. In New Orleans, they don't have a bad deli. There's no mediocrity accepted.

Cole: Obviously Italian cooking has played a big role in the United States. And you have a new television show about it.

Batali: The passion of the Italian or the Italian-American population is endless for food and lore and everything about it. What I do is I travel around and instead of my showing someone how to cook, I walk in with a completely hands-off approach and they show me their dishes.

One of the surprising things to me was when I think of Little Italys, I think of Neapolitans, Sicilians, mostly southerners. When you go to a little Italy you expect to see polpetti, you expect to see cannelloni, you expect to see all these things.

Well, I went to St. Louis--their Little Italy is called The Hill, and as opposed to being even Bolognese or Tuscan or southerners, these are all people from Lago di Garda. Every Italian restaurant in town has five or six risottos on the menu. It's like, what's going on over here? It was just not what I expected. And in the same sense they were so Italian.

A lot of these people I'm traveling around the country and meeting speak Italian at the house. Third or fourth generation and they're still speaking Italian.

My father stopped speaking Italian because his father so badly wanted to be an American. A lot of Italian-American immigrants lost their language and a lot of their tradition, but now it's coming back. It used to be, I think, that Italian wasn't cool. Italians were the street sweepers and the marble guys and the yard guys. Now Italian design is cool with Pavarotti and Ferrari. Everyone is like, hey, Italy is hip. It's no longer vergogna to be Italian. It's not a shame to have that culture and have that language.

Cole: I was thinking about the role that food played in your family and how cooking was important. I imagine there was a lot of time spent around the table. But it represents more than food, right?

Batali: Right. It's basically the whole concept of the supremacy of the family unit in the Italian culture. That's all based on the relation of the mom and the children and the bambino. There are all kinds of myths going on in the Italian culture, and the way they celebrate is through their food. It's the tradition of the table where the Italians celebrate most of their triumphs and successes.

Cole: Let's talk a little bit about these traditions and what they represent and what kind of memories that provokes or evokes in your viewers and your readers.

Batali: When Italians think of the great moments of their life or of their growing up, generally they remember it with a gustatory sense--something that smelled like this or something that tasted like that or the way that the tortellini were always served on Christmas or on special holidays.

Every region has its own specialties, and whether it was Christmas Eve and the seafood dinner and the seven courses, whichever family you were from, it's a visceral part of your life. Like myself, when I talk about a great dish, I often get goose bumps. I'm like, whoa, I'll never forget that one. The Italians are just like that. It's not all about food. It's part of the memory.

Cole: And it's about the thing that the memories are associated with. Did you meet anyone that reminded you of your own family?

Batali: Exactly. You see these people and you see them sitting down at the table and you're like, "This could easily be my family right now." The way that they're talking about whatever dish is just remarkable.

Cole: There are movies where food plays a leading role. I was thinking about Big Night.

Batali: Absolutely. Not only the food, but the battle between what the cook thinks is high art and what the customer just wants to eat. The whole thing of the risotto as a side dish with pasta: It's a battle. If no one is ever going to ask for risotto on the side of their spaghetti again, we have won something. We've turned them around.

In New York, a lot of people come into the restaurant and it's not that they don't want what's on the menu, they just want to flex a little bit. They want to control the situation. "Tell the chef I want sauce on the side and I'd rather have it boiled." I have to send them back and say, "Tell the customer to go somewhere else."

Cole: Not just Big Night, I was thinking about the role food plays in The Godfather.

Batali: Absolutely, just that very first festa, the marriage and the very opening of The Godfather. The food is there, but it's not like in your face. They didn't hire a food stylist to make sure it was just right, but it's so much a part of the daily regular thing.

Cole: The Sopranos--

Batali: Exactly. He's getting the cold pasta out of the fridge and he's going to eat it at the table.

Cole: In The Godfather they actually incorporated the recipe for bolognese sauce in the movie. Apparently Puzo and Coppola [Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, writer and director of the film], were doing a scene of one man teaching another man how to make spaghetti sauce and went through this whole thing to figure out how to translate it into sufficiently manly language.

I'm just reading The Leopard, which I've got to confess I hadn't read before, but it is one of the great books about food. It plays such an important cultural role.

Batali: Well, my intention is to make sure that we think about it without becoming too intellectual about it. There are pockets of restaurateurs throughout our country right now and in Italy, France, and Spain, who spend all their days figuring out how to confound the customer. It's to the point that the food doesn't even look like food. There's form instead of substance. It becomes almost Dada.

It's surreal. What they're really doing is they're certainly making a statement. I don't know if they're making lunch. It's important to remember that the statement and the lunch need to come together every now and then.

Cole: One of the things I like best about Molto Mario is that you don't really fetishize the food. It's very direct. It's a lot about the quality of the ingredients and about the history of those ingredients and where they fit in to the whole scheme of Italian cooking. It's definitely not over-intellectualizing.

Batali: The tradition of Italian cooking is that of the matriarch. This is the cooking of grandma. She didn't waste time thinking too much about the celery. She got the best celery she could and then she dealt with it.

The reason that I developed the style of talking about the historical use of these ingredients is because after I've cut an onion ten times, I can't tell you to cut an onion again. It's like, all right, "now we chop it very carefully, slicing down this way, watch the knife, it's going in, now it's going out. Then I go across this way and then boom, ba-da-boom, ba-da-boom."

It's more interesting to talk about the whole lily family and say, did you know that lily bulbs are also part of the onion family? It's like the stream-of-consciousness way I think about food when I'm just cooking it. That's how the show developed.

At this point, we're moving forward. The Food Network is getting a little more entertaining than I would have thought a couple years back. They're in eighty million homes now. This is no longer a niche market. This is right behind MTV and ESPN.

Cole: But it has been frustrating to watch as fewer of the shows seem to be hosted by actual chefs.

Batali: Well, they have what's called the cooking school bloc, which is in the afternoon between one and five. It will be interesting to see how my show, which is travel and food tied together, goes across America.

Cole: Your old show Molto Mario was not just about cooking.

Batali: That show--and this new show, too--say a lot about the rise of Americans' understanding of food and its value as to more than fuel, and that it's a cultural thing and that we are really starting to understand and relish our various regional differentiations. I'm talking not just barbecue and barbecue sauce, but the ways that different corners of the country eat.

Cole: Is there American cuisine?

Batali: Sure.

Cole: What is that?

Batali: Well, I'm from the Pacific Northwest. The cooking of the Indian tribes of those regions--salmon on the barbecue and corn in the summer and whatever your garden has, just chopped up and sautŽed with basil in a ratatouille or a caponata--is very much a part of every person in Washington State's culture.

In growing up in Seattle, I don't know a single family that didn't barbecue or cook on the weekends and make its own kind of simple, pared-down, what I call Pacific Northwest cooking. It's based on whatever is local and whatever is in season. In that way, it represents some of the best things about regional cooking.

Think of New Orleans. There is a culture of food that is, at this point, very American. There's a place called Pearl Oyster Bar in New York. A woman from Maine, Rebecca Charles, does Yankee seafood and chowders and fried oysters and lobster rolls, and it's brilliant. It's not heavy and it's not contrived. It's just the food that she grew up eating.

Cole: Someone said that America is a mirror held up to the world. I think that's true. We have this diversity.

Batali: Right. Think of the cooking of the Southwest: Arizona, anything on the border of Mexico, the rich chili culture, the unbelievable stews.

Cole: Tell me about the name of this particular restaurant. What does Babbo mean?

Batali: Babbo means daddy in Tuscan dialect. My partner Joe and I had each had babies within two months of the opening of this restaurant. Our rule of thumb in the name selection for restaurants is that it be five letters or less and that it be completely phonetic so that if someone calls and wants to find our phone number, they can't make a mistake. So Lupa, Esca, Babbo, Otto. The next one is Mono, monkey.

Cole: What's that going to be?

Batali: That's going to be a Spanish restaurant just off of Grammercy Park, a little forty-seater. The chef here, Andy Nusser, has been here since day one, and I've known him for fifteen years. He went to high school in Spain and I went to high school in Spain. So we've always fostered this idea that we'd do some little Spanish place. This is going to be the first one.

Cole: We know Molto Mario the restaurateur. So let's talk about Molto Mario as author. Did you envision writing?

Batali: When I was in college I used to write little ditties and short stories and poetry for my friends. Writing a book is another thing. It is so much different from my traditional day of dirty fingernails and greasy hair and hot pans. That was one reason I really enjoyed writing the first book. And since then it's been great. I've written every word of all my books.

Cole: You've written every word. That's wonderful.

Batali: Yes. I have research assistants, of course. I'll say, "Give me everything you can find about veal falso magro" or "everything you can find about pecorino di fossa" and then I'll consume that information and try to redo it in my own words. But I enjoy the books. As a matter of fact, I just signed to do my next book with Ecco Press, a new primer or encyclopedia. This will be my take on what classic Italian cooking is.

Cole: Do you admire other cookbooks? Artusi, for instance?

Batali: Oh, man, love it.

Cole: That's the great classic.

Batali: L'arte di mangiar bene, by a classic guy. Just brilliant. He was a Tuscan-born Bolognese, and his take on food was very much emblematic of the time, but he wrote it down very, very well, in a gentlemanly, scholarly way, without making it seem like too pretentious.

Cole: Is there some analog in English like James Beard?

Batali: I would have to say Beard probably is the one. But I just was introduced to the writings of Lucius Beebe, and I'm going to read him.

Cole: What about Elizabeth David? She was a pioneer, right?

Batali: I've read every one of her books. When I was a cook and twenty-four years old those were the kinds of books that were the inspiration to understanding the value of simplicity in cooking. I read her book, An Omelet and a Glass of Wine, and for two years I would just make that. I would concentrate on making the perfect omelet.

Cole: They're not easy to make.

Batali: Right, and not throw a bunch of stuff in it, which was my way at that time. I lived in San Francisco from '84 to '88 and all the California chefs, Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, everyone was doing it. At that time it was important to me to be able to make a perfect omelet with nothing in it.

Cole: What's next after this cookbook and Mono?

Batali: We're going to do a restaurant on the west side, on Tenth Avenue and Sixteenth Street, that will be our ode to classic Italian cooking. It won't be modern. It won't be hip. It won't be a specific region. It will be classic Italian cooking done in a very comfortable environment in a room with a forty-foot ceiling.

Cole: Are you going to branch out, outside of New York, like to Washington?

Batali: Well, my dad took over the whole state of Washington when he opened his little place called Salumi. Have you been to Seattle recently?

Cole: No. I was talking about D.C.

Batali: Oh, D.C.? D.C. is a complicated market that I don't understand very well. The restaurant business is a slippery slope and it gathers speed very quickly when it's going downhill. Your guys may be doing exactly what you told them to do but for some reason there's a lack of focus. From a great restaurant to a B-minus player can happen in six weeks.

Cole: How do you share your time then with all your restaurants?

Batali: Babbo is my spiritual home. I'm at Otto first in the morning, because it's closest to my house. It's also the only restaurant we have open for breakfast.

Cole: When you left California and you went back to Italy, what did you hope to learn that you weren't learning here?

Batali: At that time the Four Seasons wanted me to become the chef, and I didn't feel that at age twenty-eight I was ready to become the chef. I was also fascinated by what Elizabeth David and some others were writing about traditional cooking and simplicity. This is in a time when if you made a risotto it had to have grilled eggplant, smoked squab, and mascarpone in it.

I wanted to get to Italy and see the cooking hands-on. I went with the intention of staying six to ten weeks and I stayed three-and-a-half years. I lived in a perfect little town with these two brothers whose obsession in life at that point was to show me how cool Italy was. We would drive seven hours to taste cheese and then come home. It was not unusual for them to go anywhere just to show me a moscato grape.

Just living and working in their restaurant was fulfilling. I didn't speak Italian when I got there. I had taken a couple of lessons and did a year in college, but in six months, I became regionally submersed to the point that I can curse in dialect.

Cole: So this was a submersion, a complete cultural submersion?

Batali: Complete. I was in a town of about 110 people. If you want to talk, you've got to talk Italian.

Cole: Can you cook authentic Italian cuisine without being able to speak Italian?

Batali: I would challenge any American cook, regardless of what they've learned from their mom, to operate a restaurant and not have spent any real time in Italy. It doesn't make you bad. It just makes your food not real Italian.

My partner, Joe, spends a lot of his time in Italy and has grown up in an Italian family, but it's more about what we don't put on the plate to make it feel more Italian. You can only learn that when you're there. When they do pappardelle with peas, in Bologna, it's pappardelle and it's peas. That's it. And that's why it's so good, though, because they found the pea in its perfect expression. That's it. It's a pea.

Cole: The study of culture and languages is one of the things the NEH encourages, so it's been fascinating to hear you talk about the part food plays. Thanks for spending some time with us.

Batali: I enjoyed it.