Up Close With Mario

To spend time with Mario Batali—as this author had a chance to do when we shot the cover story for this issue—is to find oneself caught up in a whirlwind of activities: restaurants, television shows, writing, charities, family… the common denominator being a kind of drive, a kind of passion.

Famed as an Italian chef, Mario is most decidedly American. His grandfather left Italy in 1899 to come to work the copper mines in Butte, Montana, but his family is so focused on food that by 1903 his paternal great-great-grandparents had opened an Italian food store.

Even as an American, Batali’s path has not been the classical route to excellence as a chef. He is from the American west, born in Seattle, with his youth spent growing up in the apple capital of the world, Yakima, Washington. He did not grow up in the great urban centers of the east with deep ties to European culture, but he grew up among fruit trees and simple good food.

He has an American’s penchant to recreate himself and to do so without pretense. He attended the great culinary school Le Cordon Bleu but chucked it all to go work in commercial kitchens. By the age of 27, he was the highest paid chef in the high-end Four Seasons hotel chain. Then he chucked it all again moving to the northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne, where he apprenticed in a local kitchen at a 24-seat restaurant, determined to master a kind of traditional Italian cooking that was the trademark of his own grandmother.

A star at the Food Network, with Molto Mario, and famed as an Iron Chef, he moved onto PBS and ABC’s The Chew.

Mario’s life is this great churning of renewal and new options, which makes him a perfect candidate to celebrate specialty cheese and all that surrounds it. Here is an ancient industry, rooted in the storied nations of Europe, now being recreated as American artisan cheeses redefine the culinary landscape.

We discussed his celebrity and Mario told me that he believed if one didn’t use celebrity, it served no purpose. So he tries to use it to accomplish good things.

We may not all have celebrity, but we all have something, and the idea that we can confront life with a willingness to try new things, to risk recreating ourselves and to do good with what we have is a powerful idea. Execution has to start somewhere. Why not with risking a new cheese, sharing it with someone you love and trying to use great cheese to bring people closer and thus to make the world a better place?