Waking up at 5:30 a.m. to cook on TV seems like a form of gastronomic penance—atonement for all those late chef nights, which typically end in some grappa- or harder-substance-fueled haze just as noble bakers are trudging to their ovens. Yet every morning, Mario Batali can be seen cheerily sauntering in his plaid shorts and orange Crocs to the West 66th Street set of ABC’s new hourlong daytime talk show, The Chew. “By the time most people are getting their restaurant fuzz out of their eyes, I’ve had a half a day and I’m feeling good!” he says during a break in the show’s greenroom.
The Chew has five full-time foodie hosts including Batali, 51; it is, in essence, The View, if half of them were men and they talked about culinary subjects while making banana pudding. In the week since the show’s been on the air, Batali has been getting up so early he’s become the human alarm clock for his wife and two teenage sons. This suits him just fine. Although in Bill Buford’s 2006 book, Heat, about his stint working as a “kitchen slave” at Batali’s three-star Babbo, Buford described him as “an impressively dedicated drinker … known to put away a case of wine during an evening meal” on trips to Italy with his business partner Joe Bastianich, Batali has significantly tempered his indulgences. Two years ago, he even went on a diet that included vegetables—or “fuckin’ vegetables,” as he once called them—and lost 50 pounds; he wants to shed 30 more. He leaves the house with nothing more than water and espresso in his still-impressive belly. And as soon as shooting wraps, it’s off to the gym for bicycling, boxing, or yoga, though he admits, gesturing to his gut, “it’s clearly not making me lose weight.”
In New York, Batali and Bastianich run a veritable Italian-foods empire—Lupa, Del Posto, Babbo, Otto, Esca, the massive Eataly— and Spanish taverna Casa Mono, making it seventeen restaurants they own countrywide. On television of late, he’s been less visible. This is Batali’s first broadcast-TV venture. He was last seen on the 2008 PBS series Spain … On the Road Again, an over-the-top road trip with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Bittman. Before that, he’d had a rather public split with the Food Network, where he was an Iron Chef and host of Molto Mario from 1996 until its cancellation in 2004.
Lately, too, he hasn’t been seen quite as frequently in his own restaurants. The empire has come under fire from some staffers, who have filed several lawsuits for various wage violations. “It kind of sucks,” says Batali. “But it’s America, and when America sucks, at the end of the day, it’s still gonna be good.” At issue are things like, according to employee complaints, not granting overtime, paying below minimum wage for workers who received tips, as well as the improper withholding and pooling of gratuities. “I don’t think if you talked to very many of my staff that they would say that we had mistreated them,” says Batali. “There may be some loop-holey small details that maybe we missed, and if we did, then we’re going to come clean and deal with it.”
He still visits two of his places a night, but he doesn’t linger much. “In all honesty, I’m a little bit less in our restaurants right now because I don’t want to create any litigious problems. I don’t know the names of the people that are suing me, but I know that they’re in there, and I’m just not going over there to hang out, because I don’t want to put myself in harm’s way.”
And so The Chew (along with a cookbook and a restaurant drama he’s developing with the CW) serves as a refuge. Except a war’s on there as well—with fans of the eighty-sixed All My Children, who may never forgive The Chew for taking over ABC’s 1 p.m. time slot. “Dude, they are so mad at me,” says Batali. “It’s as if I had chopped off Erica Kane’s head. They’re not happy, and they’re on the Twitter-sphere, and they’ve got beautiful vocabularies.” They attack him in person, too, calling the show The Spew. He tries to placate them by promising to bring Susan Lucci on as a guest, and explaining that “it wasn’t a Mario Batali decision. It was an ABC-TV decision. I say, ‘I’m just a pawn in the game.’ ”
And with that he must head off into hair and makeup. “It takes me five minutes, just because I don’t really care. I mean, I’m not going to look much better if you put a lot of makeup on me, or a little.”