What Mario did next

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


Chefs can say the sweetest things. At his restaurant in Shanghai, Jean-Georges Vongerichten once took my hand, looked into my eyes and said: 'Do you want to order from the menu, or should I cook for you?'

A maitre d' conveyed a message from Thomas Keller (of French Laundry and Per Se fame), saying softly in my ear: 'Chef Keller would like to go off-menu for you.'

Mario Batali had me at 'Do you want to try some 'nduja?' The celebrity chef, looking more like a scruffy surfer in his trademark shorts and bright orange Crocs, slathers the soft, spreadable pork sausage on a slice of bread and hands it to me, warning, 'It's kind of spicy; it's got a lot of heat and action.'

We spoke earlier this week at Lupa, Batali's latest venture, which is having its grand opening today. The restaurant, on the third floor of LHT Tower, overlooks the intersection of Queen's Road Central and D'Aguilar Street, with the Coach handbag and accessories shop on one corner. Batali takes great delight in pointing out that Miles and Lillian Cahn, parents of his wife, Susi, started the brand. Unfortunately, they sold it in 1985 when, 'it was a US$400 million-a-year company; now, it's a US$3 billion-a-year company.'

The in-laws went on to found Coach Farm, which produces goat milk products in upstate New York.

Batali had arrived in Hong Kong only the day before, but is as articulate and enthusiastic as you'd expect from watching his cooking programme, Molto Mario, which is showing as repeats on the Food Network in the United States, and his new talk show, The Chew, which is being broadcast on ABC.

The chef is known for his many restaurants - the majority of which are Italian, and located mostly in New York, as well as other US cities including Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Last year, he opened two restaurants at the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore. This year, he's focused on Hong Kong, where, besides Lupa, he's opening the beef- and-wine-centric Carnevino (scheduled to launch in June), then Masseria, which Batali describes as a 'red sauce joint', planned for the end of the year in Causeway Bay.

He's working in conjunction with restaurant group Dining Concepts, which, besides establishments such as Bistecca, Bouchon and Olive, also has two other well-known chefs on its roster: Michael White (of Marea in New York), with Al Molo in Harbour City, and US-based French chef Laurent Tourondel, who's behind BLT Steak and BLT Burger.

'I met with [Dining Concepts managing director] Sandeep Sekhri, knowing that Michael White, who's one of my best and dearest friends, already operated with him,' says Batali. 'Michael and I spoke at length about opening here, and of having Sandeep as a partner. Sandeep really has his feet on the ground. He understands the business, and how to make things work in the best possible way. He understands above all that food needs the right products, and he can help me find them. We agreed a year and a half ago to do this restaurant.'

One of the centrepieces of the 130-seat main dining room is a large sculpture of a wolf - Lupa, which, according to the legend about the founding of Rome, suckled the twins, Romulus and Remus. There's an open kitchen, a large terrace with a vertical garden, and a private room. The executive chef is Zach Allen, who worked at other Batali restaurants, including the original Lupa in New York.

Born in Seattle, Washington, to an Italian-American father and French-Canadian mother, Batali grew up on a diet of homemade food, including his paternal grandmother's calves' brain ravioli with oxtail ragout and his maternal grandfather's bouillabaisse. 'We were considered strange; we ate ox tails, and in our small neighbourhood, people didn't do that. I remember the first time I saw sausage in a plastic-wrapped package, I thought: 'You could buy that?' Because we didn't buy sausage; we always made it.'

Despite this, Batali didn't plan on becoming a chef. He went to Rutgers University in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in portfolio theory and Spanish theatre of the Golden Age. 'The Golden Age of Spanish theatre is the time of playwright Lope de Vega; the time of the first truly performed theatre in European culture. If you think of [Miguel de] Cervantes as the first step into the national language of the Spanish mentality and the self-doubt in the back of the mind and self-deprecating ideology of wondering how and why you're going forward, it's the next step of that, but a little more heroic.'

It sounds pretty intellectual, although not that useful. Batali agrees with a laugh. 'There's really nothing you can do with [that degree]. You can't be an actor. You might teach someone, but nobody wants to learn. When people ask me how to become a chef, I say, 'Go and get a liberal arts degree in something that's of absolutely no financial use, then go learn to cook in a great restaurant'.'

That's the path Batali followed. In 1984, after enrolling in - then dropping out of - the Cordon Bleu in London, he went to work at a pub on the King's Road in Chelsea, where the chef was a young man named Marco Pierre White.

Batali says, 'He was making this fancy food that wasn't in the right place. He wrote the menus in French, even though he didn't speak French; he went down to the wine shop on the corner and had them spell-check his stuff. But his food was delicious and simple, and I could see he was a very gifted chef.'

He was also extremely bad tempered, Batali recalls. 'He was a screamer - physical beatings, almost. You can learn a lot from people; sometimes you learn what to do, and sometimes you learn what not to do. I'm not a screamer.'

While helping him open Harveys, which eventually attained a Michelin two-star rating, Batali walked out on White, after first dumping salt in the sauces that were ready for that day's service, rendering them inedible. The two chefs reconnected - and became friends - after both were featured in a behind-the-scenes look at cooking in the book Heat by Bill Buford, a writer for The New Yorker.

With no culinary training, Buford, who knew Batali socially, asked to work as a 'kitchen slave' at his restaurant, Babbo. In an article that appeared in The New Yorker in 2002 (and upon which Heat was based), the writer gives an often hilarious, account of his time at Babbo, including stories of cutting himself so badly that the protective glove he was wearing began to fill with blood; of eating 'several hundred' imperfectly fine-diced carrots in order to hide the poor quality of his knife skills; and of how Batali - while rooting through the bins to find if anyone was throwing away perfectly usable food, came across hundreds of celery tops that Buford had thrown away while chopping.

From that experience, Batali says he learned: 'Don't let journalists into your kitchen. I learned that a filter is not always a bad idea; I was completely unfiltered. Had I realised he was writing it that carefully, I might not have let him [attend] every meeting, not because I was doing something sinister, but there doesn't need to be full disclosure. He captured a piece of pop culture at a time when [cooking] was really becoming a big thing. It's flattering to have been part of that subject, but in the same sense, if you stand in a very brightly lit room filled with mirrors, naked for 24 hours, it's not always the prettiest thing to see yourself so completely.'

From their first restaurant, Babbo, which opened in 1998, Batali and his business partner, Joe Bastianich, have created a culinary empire that employs about 3,000 people. (The pair recently agreed to pay US$5.25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit by service staff that accused them of illegally withholding tips and overtime.) 'At the end of the day, as opposed to having some manifest destiny where I'm plotting a world takeover, the reason we open new restaurants is because we have great sous chefs and chefs, who have finished with us. And as opposed to letting them go work for somebody else, we say: 'Listen, if you want to come in with some money, we can put together a project, and you can be our partner'. They're all people who have worked with me before, and they had reached the ceiling of their moving forward at Babbo or Del Posto or Lupa. So this is to keep them gainfully employed and not let them slip out of my grasp, because we've trained them so well, and they're really great. I'm all about helping and enabling the people who work hard and love what they do to coming one step closer to my job. I ask them: 'What can I do to help you, to remove from your way whatever is hindering you from achieving your own personal destiny?' I don't force them to be ambitious, but if they want to be sous chef or chef, or be on TV, I'll see what I can do to help them get to that. But it's their own core that will take them there.'

All this doesn't leave much time for Batali to go through bins any more, although he still has a fondness for celery tops.

'We love celery tops. Food doesn't have to be complicated to give complex flavour. You need to understand the spectrum of the palate. If you use celery, cooked, in a dish, then you add a little raw celery and the celery tops, suddenly that which was unperceived as the flavour of celery - which was more a base note, combined with the top note of the raw, fresh, vibrant [fresh] celery flavour - suddenly you feel it differently. It's a much different physical sensation; it makes eating more joyous. Capturing that is much more important to me now than saving the celery leaves from the garbage bin.'