By the standards of celebrity-chef omnipresence as established by Mario Batali, Mario Batali has been keeping a fairly low profile of late. He spent only two weeks this summer in New York, and since his return he has been rebuffing interview requests left and right. A radical lurch into Garbo territory? A decision to forgo the spotlight and stick to his knitting? “Dude, we’re always doing the knitting,” he says. “It’s about managing the amount of blab that’s out there. By cutting back, you can make the next time a little bit … bloppier. A little more significant. You know, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard about Batali in, like, three hours! Let’s see what he’s doing now!’ ”
What Batali is doing is sitting on the corner of 17th Street and Irving Place at an outdoor table in front of his Spanish restaurant Casa Mono, eating pig’s feet and pickled pearl onions (“Pearls before swine”), quaffing white wine, and posing for camera-phone pictures with the endless stream of fans who interrupt his dinner. The choice of venue is purposeful, for this week marks the debut on PBS of Batali’s latest television venture: a thirteen-hour travelogue-cum-food-porn series, Spain … On the Road Again, in which he rambles around the Iberian Peninsula with New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, Spanish actress Claudia Bassols, and his pal Gwyneth Paltrow, consuming the local cuisine and culture. For Batali, of course, exposure on the tube—from Molto Mario to Iron Chef America—is nothing new. But the presence of Paltrow in the upcoming program, he believes, “is gonna bring me into another world.”
Even apart from the Gwyneth factor, the Spain series, which airs Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, represents a clear attempt by Batali to play on a different—and more prestigious—media stage. Though he made his bones as a TV personality on the Food Network, he developed the new program with PBS in mind. As Batali points out, the appeal of the original Molto Mario had a lot to do with his off-the-cuff disquisitions on Italian heritage and culture. “My show was never just dump and stir; my shtick was information,” he says. “And the Food Network, quite honestly, was tired of me and couldn’t find a way to use my information.”
The decision to focus on Spain was an even bigger departure, but one that made sense both in terms of Batali’s biography—he spent his high-school years falling in love with food in Madrid—and the future trajectory of his persona. “What’s strategic about the show is that it puts me in another place, so I’m not trapped in Italy, but it doesn’t put me in a place where I’m not comfortable, like ‘Mario Does Poland,’ ” he explains. “So this move adds Spain to my brand, but who knows, perhaps next the Mediterranean? Perhaps the world?” Batali uncorks a Dr. Evil–esque cackle. “Maybe I know a lot about the world! The world, I say, the world!”
Worldliness is certainly at the core of the Batali brand, right up there with decadence, extravagance, and hipster glamour. No longer a celebrity chef in the sense of being merely famous, he’s become intimately entwined in a particular kind of celebrity culture. He spent part of this summer hanging in Italy with R.E.M.—Michael Stipe is an annual vacation partner—and then moved on to Bono’s house in the south of France to work up some ideas for the philanthropic Red campaign. In a couple of weeks, he’ll head out to California to cook and play a round of golf with Tiger Woods, a regular at Lupa. His friendship with Paltrow is such that, as he tells it, she practically begged him to let her appear in the Spain series. (“Listen, Batals, you’re not gonna cut me out on this deal, are you?”) The central implicit conceit of the program, in a way, is that the idea of Batali and Gwyneth’s touring the Prado with Ferran Adrià isn’t a trumped-up, made-for-TV fiction: It’s a kind of a vérité window into how he really lives.
Batali knows that the show, for this reason and others, isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That his critics will find it infuriating, and that others may see the spectacle as meandering, pointless, painfully self-indulgent. “My worry is, how many times can you watch me eating something and saying, ‘Boy, that’s good,’ before you say, ‘Fuck you! I’m not tasting the shit!,’ ” he frets. “That there’s no real payoff for the customer other than saying, ‘Hey, they’re having a great time, this is a great show.’ The blogs that hate it are gonna be like, ‘Who the fuck cares that he’s eating with Gwyneth Paltrow, she’s a vegan anyway,’ or whatever.”
But no small part of Batali’s charm is that, deep down, he doesn’t really care. He pays lip service to the dangers of overexposure and lovingly mocks those younger chefs who have stolen a page from his media-courtship playbook (on Zak Pelaccio: “The fatty barbecue dude, he burped yesterday and it’s in the papers”). But Batali’s experience with extreme notoriety has so far been little but beneficial. “My restaurants are always full, my businesses do well, my books sell well, the events I do are well attended,” he says. “And there’s very little downside. No one chases me down the street. I’m not the Beatles. I’m a fucking cook.”
There are those, to be sure, who argue the contrary: that the celebrity side of Batali’s identity has now completely superseded his chefhood. “It’s because of this misconception that people have that the chef is the cook,” Batali retorts. “The chef is the guy who directs the cooks, and who also knows how much the toilet paper costs and how to calculate when you need to repaint. The chef runs the business.” And by that standard, Batali’s chefly credentials remain unimpeachable. His culinary empire, which stretches now from coast to coast and through Las Vegas in between, rakes in millions of dollars every year. And its expansion continues apace. In October, Batali and his partner, Joe Bastianich, will open a new restaurant called the Tarry Lodge, in Port Chester, New York.
Batali is confident that his formula will work as well in Westchester as it has in Manhattan. But even if he’s wrong, it’s hard to imagine that the lesson he would take is that he’d worn out his welcome. The cornerstones of his empire in the city are, by his reckoning, better than they’ve ever been. The lifestyle that his fame has afforded him he finds sweeter every day. What passes for him as work, others would regard as fantasy. “When people ask, ‘How are you, man?’ I say, ‘Life is a constant source of joy, every breath a gift!’ And they say, ‘Fuck you,’ because it sounds like crap. But it isn’t crap. It’s my life.”