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Now reading How Food Became Pop Culture

How Food Became Pop Culture

Mario Batali on the evolution of dining and cooking.

This comes from our third issue, Cooks and Chefs. For more great stuff like this, subscribe today.

Up until the late ’70s/early ’80s, nobody in America thought of dinner as much more than something they did before they went out to a game or the opera or the movies. Gastronomy was only important to, maybe, a small group of people, and even then, it was a frippery. No one cared about consuming the information as well as the food.

blahThe point at which people started to take notice of chefs and what they did began in California. Before the Food Network (but after Julia Child) came the California cuisine revolution, where Californians realized that they had the same bounty as France and Italy, and that if they paid attention and made goat cheese and grew baby lettuces, they could have something that was similar to going to a two- or three-star restaurant in Europe without all the travel. And at the front of the revolution were figures like Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller, and Judy Rodgers.

There is almost no more compelling man than Jeremiah. He’s like James Bond. He’s really sexy; he’s really smart; he’s really educated; he’s a really good cook. When his restaurant Stars was at its peak [1. I still consider Stars to be one of the greatest restaurants of all time. This is a place where you could wear a tuxedo, or you could be dressed like me with dirty shorts and a golf shirt. It was luxury—but not overpriced—for the masses. It was very fresh every day. It was all very vibrant. It had piano players. It was this giant restaurant.], Jeremiah would walk in and people—boys and girls—swooned. When he would come over and talk, he was clearly sexy and important and international and fresh. It was educational to watch them—him and Mark Miller and all the people in that scene—work.

Suddenly, going out to an interesting meal became as significant a piece of entertainment in northern California as going to the opera. Food came to the forefront of culture and people talked about it and enjoyed it. Then Wolfgang Puck stormed in and made it very hip to go out to dinner in Los Angeles—not just to eat but to be seen. Suddenly, the nexus of society moved from the inner circle at the opera house to the five cool tables at Spago. It was important for the rich and baronial to be in the rich and baronial spot or they would be mocked by their peers.

And then the Food Network came along with guys like Emeril [2. Emeril, I think, first appealed to a bunch of men—lawnmower buyers and firemen and working-class men. Up until then, it was a woman’s work to be cooking. Now you could master your grill; you could take over the situation; you could triumphantly deliver the tusk of the mastodon to your family in a delicious and remarkable way. You didn’t have to kill it anymore—in fact, maybe you just learned to close the lid on the grill for a little while.]. That’s when, all of a sudden, a lot of voices and personalities came out. There were some that were very successful and there were some that weren’t. There are hundreds of shows that I could list where there was someone on TV for a little while, and then they were gone. But what happened when these chefs started appearing on TV is that people would have a favorite cook in the same way someone would have a favorite first baseman. Then they would go to those chefs’ restaurants and they learned that these different points of view were there. Mine happened to be kind of traditional basic Italian. Emeril’s was New Orleans and “Hey you, wake up, bam! I’m gonna show you how to impress your family, your chicks, whomever it is that you want to impress.”

That was in the early ’90s—I got on it around ’94 or ’95. My show was on at noon and midnight. Suddenly the restaurant—I was at Po—started to see a slight change in clientele. The waiters would come snickering back and say, “Your fans are here, Molto!” They were either under six or over eighty. It was really nice, because the people watching the show were these little old Italian ladies from Leonia, New Jersey, and their grandchildren. It was like, “Look, can you believe it? That purple dinosaur has a restaurant! Let’s go meet him!”

I’m lightening that up, but what happened is that chefs’ voices were becoming distinct as individuals. There was Emeril with his cuisine and Bobby with his grillin’ and chillin’ and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (and a lot of people that didn’t make the cut in the TV world and yet still went on to have great careers as restaurateurs). I was always comfortable in a sort of teaching environment and some other cooks were better in an explosive-situation environment, but the way that Americans started to take food seriously was a fundamental change. Diners became a little bit more savvy, the scene became a little bit more niche-y.

For me, it meant the restaurants were full and my recognition on the street went very quickly from zero—which was easy to measure—to intermittent. It wasn’t as big as it is now. The Food Network, when I started, I think, was in 18 million homes. Now they’re in 160 million homes—they’re in half of American homes. So that recognition wasn’t as big or instantaneous but it suddenly gave me a soapbox to stand on and talk. And say a New York Times writer wanted to talk about Italian food—they wanted to know what a cardoon is or what Cynar is, or what to do with beet stems—they would call me knowing that I would at least have some kind of an answer for them, and it wouldn’t take me a while, and I wouldn’t have to make it up[3. I may have made it up a little bit, but I knew what it was.].

They could say, “Hey Mario, let me ask you about this,” and I’d say, “Sure, the cooking of Calabria blah blah blah,” or “Traditional lasagna Bolognese is this.” This was still in a time when we thought lasagna might just have ground meat, a bunch of ricotta and mozzarella, and some noodles. Once people started the learning of the purity of any tradition—whether it’s Spanish, Italian, Mexican, American, French—they started to become more studious about it, in addition to wanting to make delicious meals at their houses.

The success of my show was based on the fact that I didn’t talk down to viewers or try to talk up what I was cooking. I talked straight across the table, with the facts as I saw them: Here is the fact that Calabrian cooking is much different than the cooking of Naples and the cooking of Naples is much different than the cooking of Venice.

The map we used on the show was my favorite thing, because it was concrete. It used to bother the people at the Food Network that I needed a crutch. A crutch? That’s not a crutch, that’s like a sauté pan! If you see it, you understand it. If you don’t, then you have no idea what I’m talking about. I could talk about the Dolomites, I could talk about the Alto Adige, but unless you see that Alto Adige is right next to Germany it’s hard to make sense of that Germanic influence. The joy for me was being able to explain it to people, because every now and then, every couple of weeks, I’d get a letter from someone that said,“I have not seen that dish since my Zia Zumana died seventeen years ago and I’ve got to say thank you.”

A lot of the people who eventually came to be called foodies were interested in the details—whether it was the shopping or the presentation or the technique. They started putting chefs in categories of expertise. They saw chefs like baseball players with specialties: That’s the best chef in the world or the best pastry chef in the country or the best French chef in New Orleans. That’s when chefs became speakers at events and food shows, and people would line up and yell and scream at you. [4. Jacques Pépin legitimized the chef demo, because you could not question his technique. This guy could tournée twenty pounds of mushrooms in two minutes. Watching him was more heroic than watching me or Emeril. Even though we knew what we were doing, he was about pure technique. He was a pioneer: the kind of chef that was not only technically savvy, but also kind of dashing and important. He was one of those guys.]

Fundamentally, it was new: cooks as important as opposed to cooks in the back. And a bunch of us stormed the stage and took over as much as we could. Some of us concentrated more on TV, and some of us concentrated more on restaurants, and some of us concentrated more on kitchen equipment, and it kind of evolved to where it is now. Quite frankly the rising tide brings all the boats up.

chefcoatNow, when I was on the Food Network, we wore chef coats because “we were chefs.” Now there’s not a chef coat on the network because they realized that they don’t want chefs. They want people that resemble someone that’s gonna be in your house: Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis—even someone who I thought they had forgotten about but is a magnificent woman: Ina Garten. She’s more compelling to them than a chef with a jacket on, because she talks the language, and she makes it look easy, and you know you’re more like her than, say, Bryan Voltaggio. No matter what. No matter who you are, you’re more like her than you are like Bryan Voltaggio, right? You don’t have an immersion circulator and you’re really not even sure why he does.


The problem now is a lot of people go to cooking school because they want to be on TV. They don’t want to cook. And they don’t understand that the real way to learn to cook is to cook for ten years. You could learn how to use a CVap or an immersion circulator, but you first you have to understand the roasting process, and how good meat cooked in a CVap can be, only if you manipulate it after you’re done bringing it to the right temperature, putting a crust on it, and making it fascinating and delicious.

There is more demand now than ever for talented committed cooks, and the commitment is the part that most cooks are lacking. They want to get on their way and move quickly. They want to get their stuff and be a head chef or open a new restaurant with David Chang or Mario Batali or whomever. It’s tough now when someone leaves, and only gives you short notice, because they went to work for the next guy up on the media world food chain. It isn’t like it used to be, where, if someone screwed David Chang, they couldn’t go work for Tom Colicchio in three weeks.

A lot of cooks come in with a lot of different motivations, but most of it is fame, less of it is about the passion for the ingredients. Although that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of great cooks out there who definitely want to go spend time in Italy for two years, and who are willing to earn no money and work double shifts. In America, that’s like kissing the devil. ”You want me to work a double? Lunch and dinner? When do I get to go home?”

When I tell them they get to take a half hour nap on the back of the tomato boxes downstairs with an “Isn’t that great?” look on my face, they don’t comprehend. Everyone works like that in Europe, except the French who now work three days a week—which is why the gastronomy in that country is going to hell.

The silver lining is that there are interesting things coming along to do in the food world that don’t necessarily involve eighteen-hour days and heavy lifting. There are more than just line-cook and sous-chef jobs now. There are lots of interesting high-end, catering-type jobs where you can kind of take it easy and do a board for sixteen people every day.

So as much as the glut of cooking school grads seems silly at the beginning, in the end it’s better because we’re eating better. We’re not eating as much out of the frozen and premade packages that Sysco sells. We’re actually eating food made by people who are interested in making food. Whether it’s a giant restaurant that’s always busy, or a place selling twelve people croissant sandwiches (but they’re buying a real croissant, and they’re buying real ham, real cheese, and making mayonnaise or mustard), they’re participating in a different way, which will elevate both gastronomy and, more significantly, health. The good thing about having all these trained cooks around is that the sentence to eat shitty food—produced by someone who doesn’t care, and didn’t care about the ingredients they bought—is going away. Now everyone pays attention to the food world.

It’s a win-win for everybody that food has become pop culture. It’s not necessarily a win for chefs who want to be on TV, because not many of them are going to make it, unless they’re still interested in the craft that has to be learned—a craft that is just as relevant, in my opinion, as arch-welding, or building a gym, or knowing how to plumb a line when you lay concrete. These are all things that are crafts, things that we do with our hands. Where America went wrong—ten or fifteen years ago—was when we suddenly realized that we could outsource that stuff to a place a long ways away. What we were left with was the fact that we couldn’t use our hands to make stuff anymore. And we priced ourselves out of the market.

Well, now, as opposed to trying to compete with China in plastics, let’s make great furniture by hand and sell it to the luxury market. We kind of gave up and forgot about the craftsmanship that made American cars so cool in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. And now the hand is coming back. And I think that has a lot to do with food. Farming is gonna be hip again and people are going to think about the things that they’re contributing to society. I mean, if we want to make sure that the twenty-first century isn’t a footnote of the twentieth century—the American century—Americans have to produce things with their hands, and that’s what food is all about. Hand-making this stuff is going to be the key to our success, to making us better. So cooks knowing the craft—even if they’re not famous—trickles down to have a much larger effect on our society.

Hopefully what this is leading to is people learning to shop like all good chefs do: We go and get all the best shit and come home and figure out what we’re gonna make. Italy became cool in the gastronomic world in the ’70s because people went there and the what-the-fuck moments or the holy-shit moments were never based on truffles or super-intense technique. It was more like, “God, this is spaghetti and zucchini, and it’s this good?” It was because there was no noise in it. It was spaghetti and garlic and zucchini in season [5. All the buzz around words like locavorism have a basis: it produced a more delicious and simple food. And when you taste it you’re like, “Fuck this is so good, I can’t believe it. How do I get a hold of this information?” America’s thinking, of course, that it’s more about the information than the zucchini. So they have to watch the show to find out about it, and I’d tell them it’s really all the zucchini.]

And it’s happening. We’re starting to understand and appreciate our farmers’ markets and things that are fresher rather than things that are seemingly fresh. We’re a lot more open to seasonal variation and we’re also smart enough to realize that, although it’s nice to have traditional dish, you shouldn’t just eat the same twelve things throughout the year. Going outside that box is intriguing and intellectually compelling as well as satisfying. I mean, the fact that butter and slices of white bread aren’t on every table at dinner right now means we’ve come a long way since the ’50s, baby.


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Right now, the people working in our kitchens are coming to learn about what we’re doing. And one of the compelling reasons for them to be here, I think, is that they see me as a model in a business sense, in addition to a creative sense. They say, “This guy did eighteen restaurants—is he doing something different from Eric Ripert?” And in fact, I am. I’m making a bit more of a brand. I’m trusting a lot more people than Eric has or will. My stuff is a little less hands-on managed. But as a result, you also don’t get that same unique experience. For me, eating at Le Bernardin since they renovated it (since, more or less, it became Eric’s restaurant) gives me goose bumps thinking about what a remarkably curated, personal, and spectacular experience it is for the super-luxury set. I mean you don’t spend any less than $200 per person eating there, but it’s worth it if you have that $200.[6. And that’s a good way to see how things have changed—on the good side—in the twenty or thirty years since the Food Network started. You’ve got Eric, who’s a Zen Buddhist, and has all these buzzwords describing the person he is, but his identity as a chef has grown even more refined in that time. Eric’s palate is so clear, and the plates in that restaurant are so evolved and yet so simple. He’s smart enough to leave it simple and have the evolution be very obvious and transparent on the plate.]

My food is not as personal in restaurants like Otto or Carnevino but it still celebrates the Italian ideology of the goodness of the table. When you go to Carnevino and get an unbelievable steak, it wasn’t because I cooked it. It was because I told the guys and gals how, or figured out a way to get that steak into perfect condition before we put it on the grill.

The biggest fundamental thing I can tell anybody in the business world if they ask me what I’m doing or how I did it is: You don’t have to make all the money yourself. If you’re smart enough to share a certain percentage with the people operating each of those restaurants, and their success is reflected in their paycheck and their upside, then they’re happier and they’re less likely to leave. They’re more likely to stay and cultivate. If they want to leave to open their own trattoria, they can, but all the kids I started with at Babbo now have families, and they like the stability. They like not being accountable for every decision and yet being accountable for their own success by making the restaurant more profitable and sharing in that profit. So it’s become much more of a business than just an artist studio. (Although, don’t get me wrong, Eric’s is an excellent business.)

But we’ve changed the way that our business operates, and now Joe Bastianich and I have a $200-million company. It’s because of grit, but also because we’ve inspired people to work with us, and to be even better than us. Sometimes I’ll go to Babbo and I’ll look at a dish that we kind of talked through but didn’t really follow up on, and I’m like, Fuck, that’s the best dish I ever made up and I wasn’t even there to make it! The cooks’ intuition becomes very much like my intuition and suddenly they’re making a dish that is so right, yet I barely had anything to do with it other than talking about it. I mean, they won’t change the menu without me, but I may not watch it evolve as beautifully as it does.

Look at Mark Ladner. The guy was the opening sous-chef at Babbo, and now he’s the only four-star chef in the Italian community. That guy’s a genius. I get to take a little bit of credit for it, but not much. He’s a guy, who, under my tutelage but not under my control, has become something entirely different. To open a group of restaurants like mine, I need like ten Mark Ladners. Now I have Cruz at Lupa; I have Dan here; I have Frankie at Babbo. Each of the restaurants has their own leader and we talk about things and we evolve things differently, but Mark is the one who kind of took it the farthest away from what I would have thought my normal style is. I eat at Del Posto and I’m so happy, because there are the intellectual and provocative components of Wylie dishes and yet they’re more grounded in things I recognize. When Wylie does a corned-beef sandwich, it’s delicious. It doesn’t look like a corned-beef sandwich, and it doesn’t really taste like a corned-beef sandwich, but it’s delicious and I appreciate Wylie’s mindset. Mark Ladner makes pasta fagioli and it may not look very much like pasta fagioli—but its reaction, its physicality is the same. It’s very thoughtful and still very much in the Italian tradition.unspecified-2 

Of course, cooks need to be brought along and they’re not going to do it by themselves. The point is, Mark Ladner gets an extern in—a girl from the French Culinary who worked with Cesare for a while. She comes in and she’s interested in food photography, she writes haikus about food—she’s got a lot more in the game than any of us ever did from day one. She’s already developed into a tweeting social-media expert, so she’s starting at such a higher bar than Mark or I did when we went in to peel potatoes for Marco Pierre White or Scott Bryan. We didn’t have any of that. A lot of people cooked, because they hated college, or they got fired from the Army, or whatever. But it was kind of like an ex-convict game. That’s Bourdain’s whole shtick about banging each other in the walk-in.

Marco Pierre White and White Heat changed all of our lives. You saw that book and thought, I can look like that guy and be a cook? That was a compelling little piece of story. The guy was almost a barbarian, but he was so soigné on the plate and he had such a good palate that you overlooked his inability to communicate properly without trying to hurt you. That was just part of those times. It’s no longer like that. The litigious nature of our society is such that if, say, you tell someone they look like a cock (meaning a fully bloomed chicken in his maximum capability), they think it means the male genitalia and suddenly you have to talk to the HR department about what you meant when you sexually harassed this poor character. So we’ve lost a little of the art of it, but in that same handoff we’ve gotten a much smarter, more educated cook in exchange. It’s no longer just the lowly grunts who were used to being whipped until their morale improved. Now you have really smart, thoughtful people who are capable of writing haiku poetry, take beautiful photography of their food, maintain their own blogs, and work the fifty hours a week you need them to. But, of course, you have to pay them a lot more.

There’s a whole lot of things happening in our industry as people try and become professionals, and I’d say that most of it’s good. It’s almost all better that we get smarter and better characters. There’s still a lot of shiftiness, but your cooks are smarter about it. It’s not like you have to worry about whether they’re going to be in jail on a Friday night, because cooks just aren’t that tough anymore. The real problem is that we have a lot of really smart pussies coming into the kitchen now.

I worked for Marco, and the last straw was when he hit me with a pan of risotto. I walked out. Often what you can learn from those experiences is how to behave and how not to behave. You can have role models who only taught you what not to do. Marco’s genius on the plate was something that I respected—and now I love him, we’re friends—but the environment was not conducive to good food. And the idea that through fear, intimidation, or violence you’re gonna get better art is just someone thinking that they probably should have done heroin with Lou Reed to understand rock.

I want to empower people that I work with to cook better, to have better experiences, but I also want them to go home and I don’t want them to go home hurt. They gotta still have a good life. As high-minded as that sounds, it’s not that high-minded. It’s about getting the best performance out of my machines. It’s making sure they do better. The best thing about a great restaurant is that I go back a year later and I have a dish that I remember and it’s exactly the same. That would seem almost counterintuitive to a lot of the art-for-art’s-sake restaurants that are happening right now, but that’s what you really base your success on in the long term. It’s not about having a great creative high for two years and then thinking that you’re failing when you repeat a dish. For us, repeating a dish is the core of understanding a great restaurant cook.

When you go to these three-star Michelin restaurants, repetition is the fundamental driving truth behind it, not that the cooks got whipped. It’s that they had to do it again and again and again. And you go to Michel Guérard or Roger Vergé and you have those zucchini blossoms stuffed with the black truffle and the little porky thing that’s around it. Thirty-five years on that dish is still a revolution; it’s still unbelievable. It’s not just creativity—sometimes it’s productivity and repetition. That’s discipline. It’s hard for people to understand that repetition is the discipline that these guys think they’re missing because no one can anymore. Keep in mind the reason that chefs yell at people is because, deep down, they realize that they didn’t properly train their staff. What the chef is angry about is really the chef’s lack of preparation of the staff. Younger chefs tend to yell more than the older ones. The older chefs say I can either train them to do it right or I can just let them wing it and see what happens. All of a sudden the seasoning’s off, or all the flavors aren’t nearly as complicated, or they changed the tomato in your tomato sauce without telling you because they thought they were doing the right thing by saving you money. These are all decisions that you need to monitor and help them with, but that discipline is ingrained through repetition.

It’s rare that people who respond to the beating philosophy will stay that way. They will appreciate your highs and lows, but at the end of the day you want to reward people because they’re gonna stay, but also because they’re talented enough. Maybe they’re not the most talented chefs you’ve ever met but they’re talented enough to get the job done and do it the right way, and they find some satisfaction in it. Happy cooks are better than tortured cooks—they just do better work. They’re easier to stand next to. If you stand next to someone who feels they’re toiling in vain at something that they have to suck out of Marco Pierre White or Daniel Boulud or Eric Ripert before they move on and make it on their own, they aren’t as much fun. They’re also more likely to call in sick on Thursday night and not come back.

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Now, the kind of growth our restaurants have had may involve what the artists might call a vanilla-fication. It’s a more consistent approach to the strategy—a little less artistic. But at the end of the day, when you go to my restaurants, you have a great experience. We were revolutionary when we opened Babbo; now we’re The Man. We’re like Procter & Gamble or Xerox. We’re the big beast. I think our experiences are unique enough to justify how I go about it. I’m not looking for an IPO or a buyout from Olive Garden. I’m still loving the restaurant business, so I’m not ready to go anywhere.

Food becoming pop culture has led to people watching food TV, even if they have no ambition to ever cook what they see on the screen.

It’s always comforting to watch someone do something that they’re really good at. The average American golf handicap is 16.5—most people are 15 and up. It’s fucking great to watch the game. You go to the golf course once a month or once a week, and you never have the expectation that you’re gonna be as good as that guy. It’s the same thing watching anybody doing something they’re really good at, like watching a symphony, or watching porn. They do it all the time; they’re really good at it. It’s the same with lasagna. I may never make the Ducale lasagna with the fifty layers and the meatballs in the one and the quail egg in the other, but just knowing that it exists makes me happy, and knowing that somebody can make it and do the Mexican cartwheel on the porn channel makes me really excited about the future of both porn and food.

That said, what food television has created for us is a continuously growing, hungry group of people: hungry for the information, hungry for the food, hungry for the experience. On every level they want to engage us. So we’ve never had it this good.

Maybe there aren’t enough skilled line cooks this year, and maybe there’ll be more line cooks next year. Or maybe we won’t need as many cooks. Chang says he’s gonna have automated restaurants. I love the idea. Why have any pesky cooks? Let’s just pour the soup in over here and the dumplings over there. It’s funny how the guy who’s the most artistic out of all of them and certainly who plays the tortured artist better than anyone is the guy who wants a machine to run his restaurant. Bubble tea and pork buns—that’ll be his business model.

The thing is that evolution happens and not always in the way we expect, which is probably why living and breathing in the food world is always gonna be worth it. The trick is to keep breathing.