Cheftalk Q And A With Mario Batali
With fourteen restaurants, eight cookbooks and a host of television shows, including the ever-popular Iron Chef America, Mario Batali is arguably one of the most recognized and respected chefs working in America today. This, combined with his larger-than-life personality is the reason that he has received accolades like GQ Magazine’s Man of the Year and the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.
Recently ChefTalk.com had the honor of having Mario Batali visit our community to answer a few questions. Although Mario couldn't get to all our questions (he is a busy guy) he did get to fair number of them (who would of thought he was such a nas car fan?). We have compiled Mario's answers to the questions he was able to answer for you to check out below. We have to admit, it was pretty darn cool to see "Mario Batali" in the "Who's online" section of the site.
Q: Many of the recipes in Molto Gusto call for specific ingredients that may be difficult to find outside of big cities. While I appreciate your desire to work with, and recommend, the best ingredients possible I was wondering why you chose to not supply alternatives and/or generic names?
A: The purpose in writing Molto Gusto was to provide the simple recipes and ingredients we use at Otto to the home cook. We tried to use basic, fresh ingredients—peas, tuna, linguine—along with different ingredients that you might not use every day, but are still available—fava beans, octopus, and cardoons. The recipes are simple, and we go through many variations on the same ingredients—Linguine with Clams, Cacio e Pepe, and Lemon. We try to encourage people to seek out new ingredients and appreciate their simplicity.
Q :What are a few of your favorite recipes from "Molto Gusto" that we should try?
A:We’re all about the simplicity of the Linguine cacio e pepe, and the pizza—any pizza, but especially Lardo, which is one of the more popular ones at Otto.
Q: Who is the one chef or family member who, in your early years in the business, had the most influence on your career and why?
A: I had the honor of working with Marco Pierre White at Six Bells in London. He was the first to take me in after culinary school, and he’s still doing great things.
Q: Was their ever a time when you thought about giving up working as a chef?
A: Sure, and every chef has moments where they feel like giving up. But once your heart finds what it wants to do, there’s no way of quitting. It’s an addiction.
Q: Hey there Chef. I greatly admire your work and just have a bit of a two-parter. As a cook coming up through the ranks and having experienced both success and failure, I was just curious as to what your single greatest success and single greatest failure have been as a cook/chef.
A: My single greatest success would be coming to New York. My single greatest failure Is not being able to be in the kitchen at all of my restaurants at once. So perhaps my biggest failure is not inventing a time machine. I’ll get on that.
Q: Are plans to do a "Spain on the Road Again" part II and if so who would you want to travel with this time? Have you considered other countries such as "Italy on the Road Again" etc?
A: We initially had plans to do another series, and I’d like to, but who knows what the future will hold!
Q: I have one particular question I've been dying to know since I first ate at Carne Vino in Vegas: How do you get your gnocchi so dang fluffy???!!! I love gnocchi and have had textures range from very gummy to fairly soft. But I had never previously had them as soft AND fluffy as they were at Carne Vino. Of course I am not asking for your secret recipes, but what tips would you be willing to share?
A: Boiled russet potatoes that are passed through a food mill. Not too much flour, kneaded gently until sticky. And a really good egg.
Q: In most countries street food is real big for the working class people. Great local, cultural food can be found in all parts of Asia, Mexico, South & North America. I don't remember having any street food in Italy, or any being offered on the street. I did see most of the local foods/vegetables offered at the local markets in the Piazza's. I travel to Mexico a lot, and love eating at the street carts, I find some of the more authentic tasting foods while rubbing elbows with the locals. My question is, why do you think there isn't many street foods in Italy, and what are some of your favorite street foods in the USA and around the world?
A:In Italy, street food is found not in carts on the street as you would see in New York or Mexico, but in the small restaurants and shops in town. Italians like to take their time to eat, and street carts largely service peoples who are on the run to eat. Italians can’t fathom people eating and walking.
Q: On television, you sometimes cook using ingredients that come from specific regions of the world, and even then, are available only during part of the year. Specific mushrooms and some veggies come to mind.
When cooking in the US, where some of these ingredients aren't always available (or might not be the quality you would prefer), would you be happier substituting a similar fresh, local ingredient and creating a dish that's excellent in it's own right but not exactly what would be made in Italy for example, or would you try to obtain the imported ingredient and create an authentic version using the exact ingredients, even though they might not be as fresh as the local substitute?
user: web monkey
A: Exact ingredients may be hard to come by and may vary by region. It is best to go by what the recipe intends to create.
On my shows, especially Molto Mario, I purposely try to introduce the viewer to unfamiliar ingredients and different regions of Italy, to give the viewer a taste of Italy, as well of a lesson of sorts, from home. So yes, in the US, the ingredients might not be available everywhere, and I always encourage you to use what is available to you locally. In addition, it never hurts to try something new—to try to modify a recipe to include an additional ingredient or substitute an ingredient for another. Try it out. Let me know.
Q: Just as I am in awe of having a chance to ask you a question, I have to wonder, with all your success and ability and as much as you inspire most of us...Who inspires or makes you go a bit starstruck whether it's cooking, farming or what? And, are you a Doctor Who fan? If so which one is your favorite Doctor?
A: My dad inspires me in a way. When I get frustrated I just look at all the success he has, and it inspires me to persevere. My kids inspire me. They keep me on my toes in the kitchen!
And yes, I am a Doctor fan – my fave doctor is a tie ‘tween tom baker and david tennant
You have a vast knowledge of music in your repetoire, which piece of music is your favourite ?
Over the years you have tasted many dishes, but which dish do you enjoy the most when sitting down with your wife and boys ?
A: Hunger is still such a huge issue, even in the United States, and nutrition education is not readily available to young kids across the nation, or even the adults who teach their kids how to eat. One of the goals with the Mario Batali Foundation is to provide a structured nutrition education curriculum for kids, teens and adults, so that the knowledge can start young and continue to grow and be reinforced at home.
The Foundation also focuses on funding children’s literacy as well as Children’s disease research.
As per your other questions, currently I love the new album by the National, and I love to eat anything that I’ve made with my family.
Q: As an advanced home cook I wanted to ask what kitchen tools you would recommend to anyone to have in their kitchen (other than basic knives and pot/pan set) for everyday to advanced home Italian cooking.
A: One item that I can’t live without is a nice pasta pot, or a nice heavy bottom pan. Having a really good quality pot and a pan that will last you through any cooking success or disaster is something no one should forego.
Q: I haven't read the book but am planning to check out Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style. Seeing that you wrote a book with NASCAR in the title, I was curious about who your favorite driver is or if you have one?
A: Michael Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson are great drivers. My perfect tailgating menu would be sausage and peppers, some shrimp kabobs, chili, wings, and a lot of good beer.
Q: We've all seen you use different knives on Iron Chef America and your various cooking shows throughout the years, but what is your knife of choice (type/maker) at home?
A: I’m not really particular about any certain brand of knife, just a chef’s knife that’s razor sharp and easy to handle. I would really recommend sending your knives out every so often to be professionally sharpened—especially if you have good knives, it really makes a difference.
Q: I'm a new culinary student, what advice can you give to someone who is just starting to learn in the kitchen?
A: You may get frustrated sometimes, but just remember that it takes practice and patience!
Q: I'm just wondering what's your take on sous-vide cooking, if you're using it also in your restaurant? is it better? Do you use any other gastronomy ways of cooking?
A: Sous vide is great, but not really my kind of style. We don’t really use it at our restaurants, well, because its not really our style. But It is a delicious way to cook meat and retain all of the delicious juiciness of it.
Q: I like to thank you for coming to cheftalk. I would like also to say your family is very nice up in Seattle at Salumi. How do you get ready for Iron Chef and do you know they are going to pick you before the match begins? Do you know the secret ingredient before the show?
A: To get ready for Iron Chef, my team and I talk over our overall strategy and mentally get in the game. We do know who will be competing before the show, but we don’t know the secret ingredient. It’s ok though – it keeps things fair and interesting!
Q: Do you ever work with eggs from pastured chickens? I would be interested in any adjustments you may make when using them, or any other thoughts you may care to share.
A: Of course the difference between store-bought eggs and the eggs you buy from your local farmer is staggering. Good, fresh eggs, especially from farmers that take care of their chickens and let them live as chickens were meant to live, make the best pasta, the best pastry crust, and the best dishes, period. What would I do to modify recipes? I would simply not use pasteurized eggs.
Q: Who in your opinion was your mentor?
user: Ed Buchanan
A: I have many mentors, and all have contributed to my professional development, and continue to contribute to my professional development. Marco Pierre White, for taking me in after culinary school; my father, for realizing his own culinary dreams; my wife and my kids, for teaching me new things every day at home.
Q: How do you suggest we go about building a relationship with various vendors if you're a home cook? I'm a little intimidated to talk to butchers, fish mongers, cheese mongers, etc. I have full intent to talk to them and ask questions while I'm there and then the words come out and it sounds like I don't know what I'm talking about. Please shed some light on this.
A: The best way to get to know your vendors is to tell them what you cook, what you cook with, and what you need, and to ask them what they like and what they use. Listen to what they say. Every vendor wants to know what their customer wants, and if the customer talks to them, they will get to know you and what your needs are as well.
Q: I'd like to know, what is your favorite pastry?
A: I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, but I love any fried pastry—zeppole, or fritele.
Q: You must have a very busy schedule and I wonder there are enough hours in the day to do all that you do. I am curious though, what do you do (not cooking/food related) for fun in your down time? I'm going to shoot for a two fer here and ask, since today is Mother's day, how did you celebrate the day?
A: In my downtime, I like to golf, I like NASCAR, and I’ve taken up swimming. I spend a lot of time with my family, doing all sorts of things. I spent Mother’s Day with them – my folks were in from Seattle so it was nice to spend that time together just being together. And I love Loretta Keller – she’s the best! Tell her I say hi back …
Q: I have limited experience beyond practical cooking and was wondering if you had a favorite reference, book or otherwise for folks to expand their knowledge?
A: The Splendid Table. It’s a timeless classic.
Q: I have embraced the philosophy of Italian cuisine, eating locally, simply, letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with Diabetes 2 months back. As a result of that diagnosis, I have had to drastically cut all grain based carbohydrates from my diet. That means breads, pastas, and risottos are very limited.
The good news is that the little amount that I am allowed to have, I make it so it is off the hook. My question for you is, given the restriction, what would you prepare someone who was not allowed to have pasta/risotto/bread or any other sugary item and still have the Italian philosophy?
A: Jason, you can still eat great, no matter what your dietary restriction. I recommend you check out my new book,Molto Gusto, for great, simple recipes with vegetables. Meats are also a great option, and you can prepare and serve meat with vegetables instead of grain.
Q: As I've said before, your leaving Food Network was one of their great losses. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the overall quality of food programing nowadays. Not just on FN, but overall.
A: I think we need a return to cooking programs that highlight the beauty and complexity of food and that showcase different uncommon dishes and preparations.
Q: I have family that cannot eat wheat products and therefore can't have pasta. I'd love to cook some good Italian dishes with pasta, but what alternative do you think has the most "pasta like" flavor? I tried brown rice once and it was awful - in my opinion.
A: Pasta can be made with different non-wheat flours, and as long as there are good eggs in there, it should taste similar, though the texture will not be the same. Ground nut flours can make an interesting pasta. For a pasta alternative that is just as tasty, but not quite pasta, try using vegetables, such as zucchini, cut into pasta-like strands, cooked in the same way as pasta, and topped with similar ingredients.
Q: Of all the various skills required to present a completed dish - from beginning to end - from knowledge of ingredients, knife skills, cooking methods, portions and combining of ingredients and then to the presentation - what would you define as the single most important skill on which a aspiring or beginning chef to focus on and seek the most experience?
user: Tall Corn
A: We all start with knife skills, but a passion for learning and trying new things is something you just can’t teach.
Q: Is the Olive Oil you use on your show, Molto Mario, Frantoia?
A: Certainly. I like Frantoia, but I also like Tenuta di Capezzana.
Q: Will you be hosting a new cooking program on TV soon?
A: I hope so!
Q: When you are in your home town of Seattle, what restaurants do you eat at?
A: My family back there runs a great little restaurant out of their shop, Salumi.
Q: I'm a 14 year old cook who wants to be a chef. I have one big question though. How can i learn the flavor of individual ingredients, like the bay leaf for example. I don't want to add to many other flavors to cover it up, but I don't want it to overpower a dish. But if I were to eat a bay leaf or other ingredients raw, it would probably be terrible. Do you know any techniques to get to learn individual flavors?
A: To learn the flavor of individual ingredients, cook simple foods. Cook one vegetable with simple flavors—asparagus with lemon and olive oil, and identify the olive oil flavor, salt and pepper, asparagus, and lemon. As you taste individual ingredients separately as part of a whole, you can learn to distinguish them in dishes.
Q: I have typically used the "Double 00" flour when making pasta. Years ago I worked as a cook for Massimo Spigaroli at Al Cavellino Bianco in Polesine Italy and there were two old Italian ladies that made all of the pasta. The flour they used was "Double 00".
My question is do you use the "double 00" type of flour when making your pasta? If so what brand and where to find it? Lastly, do you use different types of flour depending on the type of pasta you are making?
A: I use double 00 for pizza and pasta. I like the one they sell in the Italian shop in Chelsea market, but you can buy it in any store that sells Italian products as well as anywhere online. For pasta, I also use durum semolina flour for a harder wheat and a thicker pasta.