His Cheshire cat expression, fiery red ponytail and beard, and jolly, offbeat style accented by bright clogs, cargo shorts and a fisherman-style vest make award-winning chef, restauranteur and media personality, Mario Batali, seem larger than life.
The Seattlelite originally blazed his own trail studying the golden age of Spanish theater at Rutgers University, followed by his first disastrous foray into culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu, London.
It wasn't until he took on an apprenticeship with London's legendary chef Marco Pierre White along with three years of intense culinary training in the tiny Northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne (pop. 200), that Batali found his true calling as a creative master chef full of heart, marinara and moxy.
Though he has numerous best-selling cookbooks under his belt, not to mention highly acclaimed wines from his vineyard to his many philanthropic efforts, everything that Batali does is on a bold, brash yet always beautiful level, which carries over into the time-honored traditions he maintains with his wife, Susan Cahn (of Coach Farm, an authentic, regional, artisanal producer of fresh goat cheeses and goat's milk yogurt), and their two sons, Leo and Benno as they split their time between New York's Greenwich Village and a home in northern Michigan.
Batali took the time to give me the dish on what it means to live, laugh and love ... all while operating a business and keeping a kitchen organized.
You're quite the character - perhaps thanks to your red hair and Spanish theater background. What originally inspired your trademark shorts/vest/orange clogs ensemble?
My wife gave me orange clogs the year we were married, and then gave me Crocs when they came out.
Do you ever run into "Batalibees" (wannabe Marios) that have adopted your style as their own?
Yes! Halloween especially.
What turned you around from having a "lack of interest" in the culinary arts while at Le Cordon Bleu London to coming off of three years of intensive culinary training in Borgo Capanne ready and raring' to, and I quote, "plant his orange-clogged foot firmly in the behinds of the checkered tablecloth-Italian restaurant establishment." What a great visual.
Cooking school was slow and the rest of the world is not. The
adrenaline is remarkable.
Do you think you accomplished your goal of turning the staid restaurant industry on its ear?
No, I have merely brought good, regional Italian food and the
bounty of America to the tables at my restaurants.
As a master gastronome on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, you make the process of coming up with six gazillion original dishes in an hour look so easy. Was it always that way for you? Any words of wisdom now that you look back on your many accomplishments?
I enjoy cooking in a bit of a hurry, and I love the whole
Iron Chef vibe. It's fun, [although] the most important
thing is to relax and cook through the dishes.
Do Leo and Benno share your passion for Italian cooking and all of the delicious food that comes along with it? What is your family's favorite dish?
Yes, of course! Our fave dishes are fish tacos on Lake Michigan, the Pici Pasta they make with their grandparents, Armando and Marilyn, and I think we love our Christmas ham cooked in the wood oven.
How does Coach Farm come into play in terms of your restaurant menus if at all? Does Susan encourage you to use goat cheese in your recipes?
We use a lot of local products and Coach Farms produces one of
the best [cheeses]. Susi never suggests menu items, but I make her
whatever she feels like.
I always wonder if professional chefs cook at home - do you? If yes, do you ever get tired of it?
I do, and I never tire of working with the boys in the kitchen.
It provides some of our greatest moments.
At the end of the day when the book signings are over (I hear you were just in my home town, Chicago, promoting your latest cookbook, Italian Grill), your restaurants are closed for the night and it's just you and the boys at home, what do you do as a family to unwind, reconnect and relax? Any favorite family traditions?
Just have dinner and discuss the day.
What inspires you to keep going, opening new restaurants (I think the grand total is somewhere around 14 establishments) and creating new and fabulous recipes, and the cookbooks that help us kitchen-counter chefs become neighborhood gourmands?
I have a great team who needs to be challenged with new stuff pretty often, and it is these challenges that make us better and allow us to have more fun.
Make like Mario with the delicious shrimp recipe featured below, courtesy of his latest cookbook, Italian Grill. In it, Batali brings together his passion for food with his love of grilling to create tasty, smoky simple Italian food.
In addition to 80 recipes, informative side-bars and 60 four-color photographs throughout, the book is a complete reference for grilling basics and techniques. Grilling has never been more popular, and Mario's cultural and historical Italian approach is a must-have for home cooks everywhere.
SHRIMP ROSEMARY SPIEDINI ALLA ROMAGNOLA
The rosemary skewers, which are easy to make, impart an herbal fragrance to the shrimp, and they look both rustic and elegant at the same time. Alla romagnola means that these spiedini are a specialty of Romagna, the eastern part of the region Emilia-Romagna.
1 bunch Italian parsley, leaves only (about 2 cups loosely packed)
1 bunch basil, leaves only (about 2 cups packed)
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1 teaspoon kosher salt [need to check this amount again]
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large shrimp (21-30 per pound), peeled and deveined
12 large rosemary sprigs, prepared as skewers (see sidebar) and soaked in water for at least
2 hours, or overnight
2 lemons, cut into wedges
Toss the parsley and basil leaves into a food processor, add the
bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and ¼ cup of the olive oil, and zap
until the herbs are chopped and the bread crumbs look green.
Transfer to a pie plate or wide shallow bowl, add the shrimp, and
toss to coat well.
Skewer 4 or 5 shrimp on each rosemary sprig (the easiest way to do this is line up 4 or 5 shrimp-"spoon fashion"-at a time on a work surface and run a skewer through them; then separate them slightly so they will cook evenly). Dredge on both sides in the bread crumb mixure, place on a platter, and put in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Put a piastra on the grill to preheat.
Spritz or brush the piastra with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place the skewers on the piastra and cook, turning once, just until the shrimp are opaque throughout and some of the crumbs are browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving platter and serve with the lemon wedges.
Remove from heat and serve immediately with Cherry Barbecue Sauce.
Convonista says: Mario and I chatted in 2008, and this interview was originally released a few days later.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.