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Making Mario

Posted February 8, 2008 by Daria Meoli

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Mario Batali’s road to celebrity-chef stardom isn’t exactly conventional.

How does a man turn himself into a $65 million enterprise? He goes to Rutgers, graduates with degrees in economics and Spanish theater, and hones his stromboli-making skills.

Okay, it’s not the classic Harvard MBA track, but Mario Batali’s real undergrad business training came from working as a line cook at Stuff Yer Face, the legendary New Brunswick eatery. He also drank, smoked, hung out at the Melody Bar, and ate late-night cheesesteaks from Greasy Tony’s.

If you don’t recognize his name, you’ll probably recognize his red ponytail, orange clogs, and scruffy, ruddy face from three Food Network TV shows, Molto Mario, Ciao America!, and Iron Chef America. Maybe you’ve heard that he was named 2005 Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation or have one of his four cookbooks. Or maybe you’ve eaten at one of his eight Manhattan restaurants, from his first, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, to his most recent, Del Posto, which he calls his “fanciest.”

After graduation in 1982, Batali enrolled in the prestigious Cordon Bleu Institute in London, quit shortly thereafter, and worked for three years in a small Italian village. Then it was on to the Four Seasons in Paris and a bunch of other jobs stateside before, in 1998, he became just another sixteen-year overnight success by opening Babbo.

He downplays his skills and says we can be kitchen successes too. “People just don’t shop enough,” he says. “Once you have done your shopping, 80 percent of the quality of your meal is decided. Twenty percent is the technique.”

He was just as self-deprecating during his commencement address to the Rutgers Class of 2005: “Yes, the agile Molto Mario mind…came into its own right here in New Jersey in a school that turned out to be a lot more demanding and inspirational than the more expensive schools a lot of people I know spent their time and daddy’s money at.” And 25 years after he started working its hot line, he was just as happy to return to his culinary alma mater, Stuff Yer Face: “still perfect,” he says.

He says that his Stuff Yer Face experience showed that “you’ve got to get a brand.” Stuff Yer Face has its ’bolis, Batali has his “Molto.” Yet he laments that that secret ingredient too often keeps him out of the kitchen. “It is part of the gig,” Batali says. “I could train a chimp to cook veal chops, but I cannot train a chimp to love it. All the people cooking with me were selected because they also have a passion for the perfect dish.”

Batali concedes that there is a downside to his high-visibility job. Just ask his two sons, ages 9 and 7. “My children and I were out to lunch and there was a particularly interested crowd around us,” Batali says. “So I explain that if we don’t want to be bothered, we’ll just choose different places. I’m nobody in Chinatown.”
But he is somebody to the food snobs of Chelsea, SoHo, and Greenwich Village, who may not be happy about his spring release of Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style. Batali loves the thought of winning over the NASCAR dad with recipes to prepare and serve in a parking lot.

“I think it is amazing to watch these guys drive around,” Batali says. “I’m a rock music fan, so I find people, fast cars, danger, and risk very sexy.” Jacques Pepin and Julia Child never cranked up the amps and played Led Zeppelin covers with the kids or hung out at the Jersey Shore. “It is so much superior to what they call the Hamptons,” he says. “Beautiful beaches, funnier people.”

Better ’bolis too.

Daria Meoli is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.


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