Emmy Award-winning superstar chef Mario Batali’s secret recipe for creating beloved, critically-acclaimed restaurants starts with a basic idea: Describe the restaurant in just three sentences.
“As Joe [Bastianich] my partner and I always say, if you can’t write what a restaurant should be in three sentences, you need to rethink your restaurant. Because it can’t be everything, but it also can’t be murky,” said the Seattle native, one of America’s most celebrated chefs.
This was one of many sharp business insights that Batali shared at a Q&A event on Feb. 13, organized by Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business and led by Donna Rapaccioli, Ph.D., dean of the school. Recently Batali and Bastianich opened their own local business—La Sirena Ristorante, a modern Italian trattoria in Chelsea and the duo’s first standalone restaurant in New York in nearly a decade.
True to his roots
Sporting a ponytail, pink shorts, a black vest, striped socks, and his signature orange Crocs, a charismatic Batali spoke candidly about his humble beginnings in the food industry and his family tradition of cooking, hunting, fishing, pickling, and making more pies and sausages than they could eat in one sitting.
“At a time when America was embracing fast food and the easier life, we were still doing it the old fashioned way,” he said, recounting his surprise the first time he went to a friend’s house and saw processed sausage that was packaged in plastic.Staying true to his culinary upbringing has paid off in more ways than one for the Italian-American chef. In addition to starring on numerous television food shows and authoring eleven cookbooks, including the award-winning, Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes (Ecco, 2005), Batali’s ever-expanding food empire totals 26 restaurants and five marketplaces. They include New York’s Babbo, Del Posto, and the sprawling Italian food emporium Eataly.
The human touch
As the New York restaurant scene continues to expand with new eateries and food incubators, The Chew’s Emmy Award-winning co-host said that, more than competing for customers, today’s restaurateurs are competing to recruit and retain the industry’s most talented chefs, managers, and support staff. He told a full house in the Law School’s Costantino Room that this realization was one of the reasons why he built his next generation of restaurants “defensively,” and works to help his employees reach a new level of success in their careers.
“There’s always upward mobility in our group, and there’s always a way to express yourself and be a part of the team if you’re so inclined—if you’re ambitious,” he said.
“The most fundamental and crucial tool in all of this is the human touch and the human hand. You have to have people believe you, and you have to trust and believe in them.”
Batali’s commitment to giving back extends outside of the kitchen. During the talk, he spoke about his passion for hunger relief, which inspired him to launch his charity, the Mario Batali Foundation, in 2008. Among Batali’s other causes are literacy efforts and small orphan disease research, he said.
Failure as opportunity
Having worked in the food industry for more than 30 years, Batali said one of the most important things he has learned is to not let the fear of risk obstruct his ambitions.
He also encouraged Fordham business students and alumni to use constructive criticism to their advantage and recognize failure as an opportunity to refine their business aspirations.
“You have to start at the very fundamental beginning . . . and identify a way to make something that is so preposterously delicious that no one will be able to resist it,” he said. “That’s when you have a restaurant concept.”