Mario Batali is the famous TV chef whose name adorns dozens of beloved and respected restaurants across the country, including L.A.'s own Osteria Mozza. He came to town to talk about his latest book: Mario Batali's "Big American Cookbook." Instead of Italian fare, its recipes celebrate the regional cuisines of cities like Cleveland, San Diego, Boston and more.
Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson met Batali at his West Hollywood hotel to talk about the new book, where he dines in Los Angeles and what he calls a career highlight: cooking the last state dinner for the Obama White House.
How did this come about? What made you want to cover the greatest country on earth in culinary terms?
As I traveled around the country for the last 20 years, shucking and jiving with my Italian cookbooks, every place I go people want to take me to the fanciest restaurants. And I can tolerate that, and I like fancy, but I also like casual. I like places that don't take reservations. I like places that have people that speak the parlance of the classic American people.
So, everywhere I go, I'd find someone who can tell me where it's likely that I could find a dish made only in the town I'm at. And if I could find something like that, then I'm excited about it. Because for me, when talk about terroir and meroir and all of the kind of highfalutin gastronomic terms, what everyone's really looking to capture in that kind of high gastronomy is something that can somehow express the deliciousness of the very specific place that we're at. And as opposed to making it belon oysters, why not make it an Iowa loose meat sandwich?
And when I can do that, and kind of share that with people and express my love for America and the joy of our natural gastronomy, what I've done is captured, really, the thousand-voice choir that is the immigrant experience that has made America what it is.
It's an ambitious project. It's ambitious enough to try to say you're going to make a cookbook about Italian food because there's so much there. We're talking about a lot of square miles.
Right. And by no means would I ever say this is the only book, or the last book, or a comprehensive book. I started with about a thousand recipes, which are the ones that I thought most piqued my interest, and this is only 250.
So there might be part two, which is just the great roadkill recipes of America or the squirrel recipes of America.
This seems like the kind of food that chefs eat after working.
Absolutely. This is the kind of food that chefs eat after working, or the kind of food that chefs want after working. But this is also the kind of food that everyone in America that works wants to eat at 5 o'clock when they're getting off work.
What you need to be careful with when you make something as simple as this in the ingredient list, is that you carefully pay attention to the technique.
When you make a hanky panky, for example. A hanky panky is this delicious just-from-Cleveland where you take equal parts spicy Italian sausage and hamburger, and you cook it in a pan until it starts to crackle, and it's that important step of cooking it that extra 15 minutes so that the fat completely renders out. It makes it crunchy and crackly. Because that extra difference in the flavor component is everything. Then you add ricotta and a little bit of gouda, and then you put it on black bread or rye bread and put it under the broiler, and then cut it into little triangles and serve it while you watch the Cleveland Browns go 0 and 16 this year. It's one of the greatest dishes of Cleveland!
But, the important step is understanding that last 10 minutes in the pan while you're crackling up the pork and beef makes a big difference.
You cooked at the last Obama White House state dinner. That was your first state dinner, right?
Oh yeah. I don't think you get two. That was my first. That was the 13th of the Obama administration, which in comparison with the Clintons, I believe they had 36 or 48.
I never knew there was such a disparity.
The Clintons are partiers. That's what I've always loved about those people.
You've done a lot of big dinners before. How was cooking at the White House different?
After getting married and having two babies, this is number four. It's not like I'm a crazy patriot but, I'm a patriot. And the opportunity to kind of dance on the biggest stage, for who I know in my mind is going to be perceived as the greatest president of my lifetime, is a remarkable experience. It was an honor. It was a privilege and it was just a kickass experience. To bring four of my people, my oldest, trusted staff, to cook with me.
How did they even approach you about that kind of thing?
Mrs. Obama has been to my restaurants five or six times in the last eight years. I also helped her work on something called the Let's Move program, and she's been on "The Chew." So, her team called me in the middle of August and said "listen, would you be interested in cooking the last state dinner?" I can't imagine anyone saying "let me think about it!"
I'm like "Yes, yes, yes! How quickly can I say yes? Is there somebody else in the running? Can I beat them? How do I do it?”
And we started talking about the menu, and then I'm like, "So when do I drive my van with food down?" And they're like, "No, knucklehead, you don't drive any van with food into the White House. What are you, crazy? This is the president of the United States!"
So, we gave them the shopping list and they bought everything raw through their own suppliers, and then we made everything there. So I brought my four people and they gave us a bunch of cooks from the Navy mess and a lot of other staff. We handmade all the agnolotti, and prepped all the beef, and made all the salads, and made all the vinaigrettes, and made 420 little mini apple pies. It was two full prep shifts and then one service shift, and it was an absolute blast.
Where do you eat when you're in Los Angeles? We were talking before the interview — you said you just ate at Providence.
Man, I'm generally not the fancy restaurant guy, and that is a fancy restaurant. But it's like at the best three-star Michelin restaurants in Europe. You don't walk in and all of a sudden they snoot you out. There's two kinds of smarts: there's "show me" smarts, where people have to impress upon you their smarts, and there's "share me" smarts.
Providence is a "share me" smarts [place]. You're in on the joke. Every detail is shared with you in such a way that you're completely with them. And when they bring you something as simple as these amazing prawns baked in salt and they just drizzle it with a little bit of the roe and some lemon juice... it tastes so much of the sea it's everything about the terroir or the meroir of where we are. It gives me wood!
If I go fancy, I like Melisse. I like anything Wolfgang Puck does continuously forever. They never mess up, they always do it right. Animal because, for obvious reasons, I'm a man of the entire animal, and so are Vinny and John! I almost never skip Pink's hot links. And really only after two. I don't understand how you could possibly get there before 2 a.m., but there is a line at 2 a.m. So I'm pretty excited about that.
I love more casual and more fancy, although in California, you guys don't get dressed up, so don't bother me for wearing shorts and crocs when I go into the places! But everything about this whole city is redolent of excellent. What's the crazy seafood place out in Santa Monica with a name that sounds like an old English boat? Is it Gladstone's? Is Gladstone's a place?
That’s it, Gladstone’s. Fried calamari, and sand dabs, and local halibut. For me, that's what I want to eat. I want to eat simple stuff. I want to eat a big bowl of steamers or some kind of clam. I want to eat crab if I get my hands on it. I want to drink beer. I don't want reservations. I don't want tablecloths, I don't even want to know my waiter's name, although I'm happy to know that. I just want something that says exactly where I am.