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Mario Batali is Asking Restaurants to Turn RED to Fight AIDS

Mario Batali is Asking Restaurants to Turn RED to Fight AIDS

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Mario Batali wants YOU to raise awareness for the fight against AIDS.

Calling all chefs and restaurant owners! Chef Mario Batali and Pat LaFrieda of Pat LaFreida Meat Purveyors have released a call-to-action video urging the culinary world to join the fight against AIDS in the new “EAT (RED). DRINK (RED). SAVE LIVES” campaign (viral hashtag #86AIDS.) Although the campaign won’t officially begin until June, chefs and restaurateurs are being asked to “turn red” to raise money and awareness in the fight to end AIDS.

“If we want to see an AIDs-free generation in the future we all have a role to play,” said chef Batali in the video released by RED. “Turn your restaurant red, whether you’re a Michelin star restaurant, food stop on the freeway, or a food truck selling delicious doughnuts.”

There are a few ways you can get involved. Batali explained in the video that you can add a red-inspired dish or Belvedere cocktail (one of the sponsors of the campaign) to the menu, or a donation line to your checks. As an extra incentive, Pat LaFrieda said that he will be offering a 50 percent discount to any food establishment that buys one of the three special “red” cuts of meat from him. The campaign will occur from June 1st through the 10th.

To date, the RED campaign has raised more than $250 million in the fight against AIDS.

Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaFantozzi

Mario Batali on Why Farmers Should Be the True Stars of the Restaurant World

The premise of a chef becoming a world-famous figure is a recent phenomenon, with multiple television networks airing their own versions of reality cooking shows and competitive culinary battles. But if chef-lebrity Mario Batali has his way, the farmer, a person critical to the creation of the meal on your plate, will take over center stage. In his new book, America—Farm to Table, Mario Batali shifts the spotlight: “where chefs once ruled the waves, local small farmers are the new rock stars.” The famous restaurateur and chef teamed up with Washington Post writer Jim Webster to capture the stories of a select group of farmers from across the country and create recipes from their specialty ingredients.

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To gain access to these deserving future celebrities, Batali looked to his chef friends from Maine to California. He asked chefs from Jose Andres in Washington D.C. to Matt Dillon in Seattle which growers they depend on for their most beloved ingredients the taste and freshness of the ingredients are just as important to the final plate as the culinary art. The chefs' favorite farmers are beloved for the attention to detail, such as the composition of the soil used. The growers highlighted spend months tending to the ground and pore over seed catalogues searching for the best specimens to grow. They care for their fruit trees and vegetable plants just as a chef prepares a clean mise en place and slaves over a stove. But, over the past six years, there has been a continual rise in interest for locally grown food by the public, with farmers markets increasing in number by 76 percent. 

Now, there is no better time to learn to cook with farm fresh ingredients and America—Farm To Table tells you how. The array of recipes Batali has created in this book reveal the true beauty and taste of home cooking with farm fresh food. This cookbook is the perfect companion for a trip to the farmer's market. 

America--Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers

In this new book, Mario Batali celebrates American farmers: their high quality products and their culture defined by hard work, integrity, and pride.

I corresponded with Batali about his new book, America—Farm to Table, over e-mail. Recipes from the book are below. 

What inspired you to write a cookbook that celebrates local farmers?

For as long as I’ve been in kitchens, restaurant menus have been inspired by fresh produce: what’s available at the market and most flavorful. In other words, my cooking has always been inspired—if not dictated—by farmers. In this book, I call attention to their work explicitly. To encourage readers to think differently about the way they approach cooking and creating menus at home.

Why did you pick these specific cities and chefs?

Some cities are ones whose food and culture I love, like New Orleans. Others were picked because they are home to chefs I admire, like Jose Andres. And others were places I wanted to explore, like Damariscotta, Maine. And I got to work with the patron saint of Maine cooking: Melissa Kelly.

Who is your favorite farmer?

Farmer Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm in Hustontown, PA, one of the farmers featured in the book. (Laura Cerri)

In the book, you call farmers rock stars. Can you elaborate?

About a decade ago, chefs were unexpectedly incorporated into the narrative of popular culture. Restaurants and cooking moved to primetime, and young people started to aspire to become cooks. I think that once Americans start to better understand where their food comes from— and the makeup of a more sustainable food system— focus will realign toward farmers. Today, kids want to be Emeril Lagasse. Hopefully tomorrow, they’ll want to be Rick Bishop.  

What is the significance to having an entire chapter about oysters?

Oysters have their own chapter because I love them. But they’re also one of, if not the most sustainable seafood because they can be farmed without impacting the environment. They’re an ocean-friendly seafood option. 

How do you see the relationship between the farmer and the chef growing in the future?

I see the relationship between the farmer and home cook will become more symbiotic. Cooks will come to better understand what is grown in their local food system, what’s seasonal, and what’s tasty and what's affordable. And they’ll cook accordingly.

Which products do you most recommend buying at a farm or farmers market? Why?

Depends entirely on where you are and the time of year, but I can guarantee that if you buy milk and eggs from a local farm your life will improve immensely. 

Beet Salad with Baby Spinach and Goat Cheese and Grilled Skirt Steak with Cherry Barbecue Sauce. (Quentin Bacon)

Recipes from AMERICA FARM TO TABLE by Mario Batali. Copyright (c) 2014 by Mario Batali. Used with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Beet Salad with Baby Spinach and Goat Cheese
Serves 6

2 large bunches beets, with greens
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups baby spinach, washed and spun dry
¼ cup Red Wine Vinaigrette (recipe below)
Kosher salt
8 ounces crumbly goat cheese, such as Coach Farm or La Tur

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cut off the beet greens, leaving ½ inch of the stem on each, and reserve them for ravioli filling or soups. Scrub the beets, toss them with the olive oil, and spread them in a baking pan. Roast until very tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool slightly, then rub off the skins under running water and slice the stems into 1𔊰-inch pieces.

Cut the beets into ½-inch chunks and place them in a large bowl with the stem pieces. Add the spinach and toss with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Season with salt.

Divide the salad among six plates, crumble some of the goat cheese over each salad, and serve.

Red Wine Vinaigrette
Makes 1 cup

¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon ice water
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the vinegar, water, mustard, and olive oil together in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper. The vinaigrette can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Grilled Skirt Steak with Cherry Barbecue Sauce
Serves 4

For the Steak
¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped, plus 4 sprigs for serving
2 tablespoons juniper berries, crushed
1 bunch fresh oregano, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds skirt steak, cleaned of the fat cap and sinew

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 jalapeños, chopped
2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
1 (12-ounce) can Dr. Pepper
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 cup frozen tart cherries
¼ cup red wine vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

In a 1-gallon zip-top bag, combine the chopped rosemary, juniper, oregano, garlic, and olive oil, seal the bag, and shake well to blend. Place the steak in the bag and massage to coat with the herb mixture. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until smoking. Add the onion, jalapeños, and chile powder and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for 3 minutes, then add the Dr. Pepper, orange zest, orange juice, sugar, and cherries. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes more.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or a food processor fitted with the metal blade, add the vinegar, and blend until smooth. Transfer to a plastic container and set aside until ready to serve. (If you’re not using it immediately, the barbecue sauce can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.)

Preheat the grill or broiler.

Remove the steak from the marinade, brush off the marinade, and season aggressively with salt and pepper. Place the steak on the hottest part of the grill and cook for 4 minutes on one side, then turn carefully with tongs and cook for 2 minutes on the other side.

Remove the steak from the grill and let it rest for 3 minutes.

Place 2 tablespoons of the barbecue sauce in the center of each of four plates. Slice the steak on an angle about ¼ inch thick, against the grain, and divide the slices evenly among the plates in little piles on top of the sauce. Sprinkle each plate with some of the ancho chile powder and serve immediately, with a sprig of rosemary on the side of each plate.

Apple Fritters with Cinnamon Chantilly
Makes 12 to 14 fritters

For the Batter
1 cup cake flour
½ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup ice-cold plain seltzer
1 large egg
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the Cinnamon Chantilly

2 cups whipping cream
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar

1 quart peanut oil, for frying
3 Honeycrisp apples, peeled, cored, and cut into .-inch-thick rings

In a bowl, stir together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the seltzer, egg, and oil. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. The batter should be the texture of crepe batter. If too thick, add more water if too thin, add more flour.

Make the Cinnamon Chantilly

Place a metal bowl in the freezer to chill.

Place the cream in the chilled bowl and whip until soft peaks form, then add the confectioners’ sugar and the cinnamon and whip for 20 seconds more. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

In a bowl, combine the cinnamon and granulated sugar. Set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in a high-sided pot until it registers 360°F on a deepfry thermometer.

Dip each apple slice into the batter. Let the excess batter drip off and carefully place the apple slice in the hot oil. Fry 3 to 4 slices at a time until a light golden color. Drain briefly on paper towels and then dredge in the cinnamon-sugar mixture, coating the fried apple slices evenly.

Serve with cinnamon chantilly on the side.

About Shaylyn Esposito

Shaylyn Esposito is the lead digital designer and creative strategist for the Smithsonian online publishing group.

Friends With Benefits

Chefs are vocationally predisposed to generosity. They feed themselves by feeding others. And because their product, their stock in trade, is universally enjoyed and they themselves have become personalities, they are an easy mark for groups trying to raise money for a cause. Not many charities are going to hit up a building-supply-company C.E.O. to donate Sheetrock and hand out drill bits at a benefit. Ah, but the promise of a bowl of fresh fettuccine with shaved white truffle served by Mario himself, well now, that will sell tickets.

And yet most chefs run their famously precarious businesses on razor-thin margins, so being asked to give away tens of thousands of dollars in food costs, travel and labor, common among high-profile chefs and owners throughout the country, even if it represents just 1 percent of their revenue, is hard to justify from a purely financial standpoint, let alone taking into account chefs’ already overbooked schedules. And yet give they do.

“Fifteen years ago it dawned on me that you could look at the extraordinary number of requests we get as something that was a distraction,” says Danny Meyer, C.E.O. of Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates numerous New York City restaurants, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack and the Modern. “Or you could say, ‘Why don’t we be intentional about how to make investments in things we believe in, investments in things that find common ground between our staff and our guests and our community.’ ”

Meyer says that U.S.H.G. restaurants remain strong if the communities in which they exist are strong, and so they choose benefits that support their neighborhoods, like those for Madison Square Park Conservancy. They also work for groups that fight hunger, like Share Our Strength. While U.S.H.G. restaurants give $120,000 in gift certificates (another common form of giving), Meyer would rather close down one of his restaurants a couple of times a year in order to hold a benefit.

“It may cost me $30,000 or $40,000 to close down a restaurant for a night, but if an organization can pull in a quarter of a million dollars, what a great investment, relative to giving a $200 gift certificate that somebody buys for $225,” he says.

Meyer feels that a healthy volunteering culture indicates a healthy business. “There’s a huge correlation,” he says, “between people who care about volunteering, i.e., giving from their hearts, and people who are stars in restaurants.”

The power of celebrity, of course, translates into big bucks. The Emeril Lagasse Foundation raised nearly $8 million over the past six years, and Lagasse devotes 1,000 hours a year traveling and cooking for various charitable causes. Mario Batali, chef and co-owner of restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, helped generate $1.4 million last year in cooking events and personal appearances. Batali estimates that his company spent between $50,000 and $60,000 in food and another $30,000 in labor and expenses for charity events last year.

“Children’s disease research and relief, and hunger relief,” Batali says, describing which benefits he and his staff support. “We will turn down good friends and family members if it is political-, arts- or religion-driven,” he says. “We do it because it feels good to do good.”

Smaller chefs and owners, on the other hand, often find money-raising power in numbers, joining together at one or another’s restaurant for a multicourse showcase meal for which they can charge high-ticket prices — anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars per seat. The host restaurant typically takes care of airfare and accommodations, while visiting chefs cover their own food and labor.

“We probably donate between 10 to 15 grand a year,” says Paul Kahan, well known in Chicago as a chef and partner of Blackbird and Avec, who receives requests year-round from local charities and national benefits. “The cost in time is pretty substantial. Figure you do sweetbreads for 500” — at about $3 per portion in food costs — “the protein plus garnishes usually requires six to eight hours, plus actual time at the event. This doesn’t include events where travel is necessary.”

In addition to the good cause, of course it’s an opportunity to promote their own restaurants, and it gives them a chance to get out of their own insular and demanding kitchens and spend time with their colleagues.

“I do these events because I get to catch up with my friends who are chefs,” Aarón Sánchez, chef of Paladar and Centrico in Manhattan, said, fresh from an event at Jonathan Waxman’s restaurant Barbuto. “I bring beer from the restaurant, we’re having a good time — ‘Hey, how’s the family?’ — we’re tasting everybody else’s stuff. . The meal that Jonathan did the other day, these are guys that are all very close to Jonathan. Jimmy [Bradley] and me and Joey [Campanero] and Michael [Symon] and Bobby [Flay], we have a tight relationship — he knows he can call on us and we’re going to get there.”

“Chefs are very generous,” Waxman says. “We always bring our own food, our own staff, and if we have to pay for anything, we do it out of our own pocket.”

Waxman and others point to Wolfgang Puck as the originator of the chef-driven benefit. In 1982, he set up a tent in the parking lot of his restaurant Spago in West Hollywood and invited Waxman, Paul Prudhomme, Jeremiah Tower and Piero Selvaggio to cook and raise money for a Los Angeles chapter of Meals on Wheels. “I think we raised $2,000,” Tom Kaplan, one of Puck’s longtime partners, remembers. The yearly event, called the American Wine and Food Festival, has since raised more than $13 million for Meals on Wheels.

Puck’s idea was new — flying in your pals to cook and raise money — but with chefs emerging as figures of powerful celebrity, the idea flourished and has now become another facet of the independent chef and owner’s life. Most embrace it as a way to give back to the industry that made them successful and support charities they believe in.

“Whenever we do anything,” Meyer says, “we’re asking ourselves, how can we create a volunteer opportunity, how can we create community wealth and how can we find that sweet spot where our staff and our community and our customers can all come together?”

14 Things You Don't Know About Mario Batali

The chef's thoughts on life, death, transcendental meditation&mdashand the one thing that truly terrifies him.

Mario Batali has become such a household name, even the most casual cooks&mdashor daytime talk show channel-surfers&mdashknow who he is, what he does (cooks killer Italian food . and holds his own against Carla Hall on The Chew), and that he holds a special place in his heart for safety-cone orange Crocs. But if you think that's all there is to know about the Iron Chef, think again.

We uncovered some things you wouldn't expect about the Washington native, like his love of getting his "om" on, his dream of opening a food-focused theme park&mdashand that time he bought 200 pairs of Crocs at once.

He's Really into Meditating.

Jerry Seinfeld&mdashyes, he of Seinfeld fame&mdashgot Batali into meditating about six years ago, the chef said during an interview on the 10% Happier podcast. He took three classes led by meditation teacher Bob Roth, then started doing it on his own for 20 minute a day, every day.

"I'm in a high-pressure, high-tension situation almost every day, if you allow it to become that," Batali explained. "How I had been processing my days and overloaded information was slightly losing my temper every now and then, even if not visible to the outside world. . [Meditation] allowed me to more carefully or more slowly react to what was offending me, bothering me, pissing me off, or totally enraging me."

He repeats a mantra in his head until all of the other thoughts zipping through his mind disappear, and he feels calm. "For me, it's not so spiritual. For me, it's much more about finding calm," Batali says.

Old Gender Roles With Your Dinner?

TO Jenny Moon, the whole business of giving menus to women before men, taking orders from women before men and clearing women’s plates first just didn’t make sense, not in the East Village in 2008.

So, as she readied Apiary for its recent opening there, she and other managers told servers not to sweat that sort of thing. And they made sure the restaurant’s order-tracking software followed suit.

At most upscale restaurants such software lets servers note both the position at a table to which a dish is going and whether the diner is female, so the food’s couriers can plot to present dishes in a gender-conscious sequence.

For instance, servers at some restaurants can electronically punch in “L” for “lady.” But Apiary installed its software without that option. Maybe a gentleman’s dish would be set down ahead of his female companion’s. Would anyone really care?

Yes, as Ms. Moon said she learned when reading a customer comment card one night. “Serve ladies first!” it said.

Ms. Moon, one of Apiary’s principal owners, wasn’t moved to change the software. But she did tell servers that they could and should start considering gender, at least sometimes.

“Read the table,” she told them, “and if it seems like they would appreciate ladies being served first, just do it.”

Although the goal in many public places and in much of public life is to treat men and women equally, most upscale restaurants haven’t reached that point.

Then again they haven’t really tried all that hard. They’ve learned that ignoring gender is risky, and often foolish, because men and women approach and respond to restaurants in different ways, looking for different things.

A broad generalization? Absolutely. It’s also nowhere near as true as it once was.

Certain musty rites — chivalrous from one perspective, chauvinistic from another — have faded or disappeared. It’s a rare restaurant that gives menus without prices to women dining with men. And most restaurants no longer steer the “ladies” toward the banquette, assuming they want to face out toward the room.

But most restaurateurs concede that women disproportionately end up there, whether by request or reflex.

And restaurant owners, managers and servers say that in ways that are often laughably clichéd, men and women — viewed as groups, not as individuals — don’t gravitate toward the same dishes, communicate the same priorities or seek the same emotional payoff from dinner out.

All of that is taken into consideration when menus are written, rooms are painted and thermostats set.

“If you’re doing a special event, you want to know how many men, how many women,” said Moriya Bodie, who was a sommelier at Felidia and the wine and beverage director for Lever House.

“It’ll give you a sense of what to order,” she said. “And if it’s going to be a ton of women, make the room warmer. They tend to dress with more skin showing.”

“The truth,” Ms. Bodie continued, “is that there is a difference. And in the service industry, it’s your job to acknowledge it, predict it.”

I’m regularly struck by that difference when friends hit me up for restaurant recommendations.

Men rarely ask me about lighting. Women frequently do, wanting reassurance that it isn’t too bright.

Women more often ask if a menu has leaner, healthier options. Men more often ask if they can get a decent steak.

In my nightly dining adventures, I’ve noticed that the gender split in many restaurants is uneven, and that the restaurants’ attributes usually explain that unevenness.

At the Greenwich Village restaurant Elettaria, where the bound linen dinner menu evokes a diary and elements of the décor bring to mind a dollhouse, I spotted more women than men.

At the Greenwich Village restaurant Cru, decorated in clubby brown tones and distinguished by a wine list that lets high rollers rack up breathtaking bills, I spotted more men than women.

Mario Batali, a principal owner of the restaurants Otto and Babbo, both also in the Village, said there’s a lesson in their respective bar scenes at 6 o’clock on a typical night.

At Otto, designed to be more approachable, with less swagger, as many as 70 percent of the crowd is female, Mr. Batali said.

At Babbo, men have an edge.

“It’s 50 percent tourists and 50 percent Wall Street dudes,” he said, adding that those dudes are into much more expensive wine.

“Women are looking for somewhere comfortable,” Mr. Batali said. “Men are looking for somewhere to show off.”

A man is more likely to care about being greeted rapturously and treated like an insider, according to the restaurateurs and servers I interviewed.

A woman is more likely to take offense if the restrooms are cramped, ugly and messy. She’s also more likely to appreciate color and playfulness in a restaurant’s design, while there’s more risk that a man will be cool to that.

Chris Cannon, a principal owner of Alto and Convivio, said he thinks of Alto as his male restaurant. It’s in a Midtown business neighborhood. It has higher prices than Convivio and an icier décor. And its customers are disproportionately male.

He thinks of Convivio as his female restaurant. It’s in the quiet East Side refuge of Tudor City and has vivid red banquettes. By a slight margin, women outnumber men there.

Women represent 60 percent of the business at Smith’s, in the Village, which opened almost a year ago, and Danny Abrams, one of its principal owners, said he’s pretty sure why. The front room was initially painted mint green. Small crystals dangle from some of the sconces, and in the restaurant’s early months there was a lot of seafood on its menu.

Although many restaurateurs are happy to appeal to one gender more than the other, Mr. Abrams said he was concerned that he was losing potential business, and he recently made adjustments to court men.

“There’s more meat now — a Niman Ranch pork chop, veal breast, a lamb T-bone,” he said. “Now there are two different fish dishes on the menu instead of four or five.” And the front room has been repainted a cream color, he said.

Many steakhouses have traveled in the opposite direction. They’ve tried to be less one-dimensionally beefy than their forebears — and less monochromatic, too — on the theory that they can lure more women that way.

In truth, ordering disparities between men and women may be narrower than ever. Restaurateurs I interviewed noted that more men than ever veer toward salads, and that low-carbohydrate diets have nudged more women toward generous cuts of red meat.

And in restaurants that cater to the most fervent food enthusiasts and most intrepid food adventurers, women and men in equal numbers stare down fatty slabs of braised short rib or get warm and fuzzy about lamb hearts and veal tongue.

But elsewhere, distinctions persist. Assumptions, too.

When I dined a few months ago at the restaurant Forge, in TriBeCa, the two women at my table were given one kind of amuse-bouche, while a male companion and I were given another.

Ours: a crispy chicken wing. Theirs: chilled cucumber soup with trout.

Stephen Starr, who owns Buddakan and Morimoto, said that women more often hesitate if the name or look of a dish is too blunt a reminder that they’re biting into an animal.

“If it’s something that says chorizo with some sort of egg, they’ll eat it,” Mr. Starr said. “If it’s a suckling pig, they’re not going near it.”

Beyond Apiary, most upscale restaurants still seem to hew to the traditional etiquette of attending to the women at a table before the men.

“You want to offend the least number of people,” explained Phoebe Damrosch, the author of the book “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter,” about her years as a server at Per Se. “If you have a large array of backgrounds, cultures, ages, serving the ladies first will offend fewer people than doing a gender-neutral version of that.”

But these same restaurants endorse and encourage a less traditional approach in other ways. Dealing with a table of both men and women, servers aren’t supposed to present the wine list and then the check to one of the men unless he’s the person who asks for them.

It doesn’t necessarily work out that way, said Beth von Benz, until recently the head sommelier at Porter House New York.

Ms. von Benz said that when she herself is dining out, she’s often eager — as someone who knows what she’s doing — to take the lead in ordering wine.

If there’s a man with her, servers aren’t always as eager to let her.

“There have even been times when a waiter has taken the wine order from me and then come back and gone to the man with the bottle,” she said, adding that this has happened on a half-dozen occasions in recent years.

“That was one thing at Porter House that I was very, very clear about it,” she said. If she took an order for a bottle of wine, “I’d say to the server: ‘Position 3 — the woman — ordered this wine. Make sure you go to the right person. Don’t assume.’ ”

A table composed entirely of women may receive the most unequal treatment of all, because some servers may see it as a less profitable opportunity.

While the veteran servers I interviewed said that there aren’t significant disparities between the tipping behaviors of men and women, they said that women in many cases are tipping on a lower check total.

Because men can generally put away more food and alcohol, “men spend more, women spend less,” said Steve Dublanica, author of the recent best seller “Waiter Rant.” In addition, he said: “Men eat and leave. Women eat and stick around.” So a server attending to women may have to wait longer “to turn the table over, get another group, get more tips.”

“On a Saturday night,” he continued, “you get these two ladies who walk in and say, ‘We haven’t seen each other in ages, we’re going to talk and talk and talk,’ and they’ll sit for four hours. Women are more verbal than men. That’s a scientific fact. And I’m like, ‘Ladies, I have reservations for these tables. You’ve got to go.’ ”

As a consequence, Mr. Dublanica explained, “Waiters are guilty of treating female diners as second-class citizens.”

Ms. Bodie countered that top-notch servers consider it a challenge to do the best for — and thus coax the most from — any table they’re given, and don’t see any advantage in showering less enthusiasm on a group of women.

Although many restaurants continue to make distinctions between the sexes, most at least intend to be more sensitive to anything that smacks of gender discrimination than in the past. And many servers, particularly in restaurants popular with young diners, are less influenced by gender than ever.

“I’m seeing a lot more equity at the table,” said Marci DeLozier, 31, who has worked at Per Se and Café Gray and is now an event coordinator for the restaurant Frankies 457 Spuntino in Brooklyn.

She was speaking primarily as a diner. Five years ago, she said, she often had to fight to get servers to let her be the point person for a group of men and women dining together. Servers had a stubborn tropism toward the men.

But lately, she said, that hasn’t been as true, especially downtown, where she has noticed that if she makes the first eye contact with a server and seems the most inquisitive and purposeful, the server notices, and responds to it. “Body language is recognized in a way it wasn’t before,” Ms. DeLozier said. “I think it’s possible for a woman to take the lead now.”

The Secret of Excess

The first glimpse I had of what Mario Batali’s friends had described to me as the “myth of Mario” was during a weekend in January last year, when I invited him to dinner with some friends. Batali, the chef and co-owner of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is such a proficient cook that he is rarely invited to people’s homes for a meal, and he went out of his way to be a grateful guest. He arrived with a jar of quince-flavored grappa, which he’d made himself (the fruit renders it almost drinkable) a bottle of nocino, which he’d also made (same principle, but with walnuts) three bottles of wine and a white, dense slab of lardo—literally, the raw “lardy” back of a very fat pig, which he’d cured with herbs and salt. I was a reasonably comfortable cook, keen but a little chaotic, and I was delighted to have Batali in the kitchen, if only for his pedagogical interventions. He has been cooking for a cable-television audience for more than six years and has an uninhibited way of telling you that only a moron would wrap the meat in foil after cooking it. The evening, by then, had been effectively taken over. Not long into it, Batali had cut very thin slices of the lardo and, with a flourish of intimacy, laid them individually on our tongues, whispering that we needed to let the lardo melt to appreciate what the pig had eaten just before he died. The pig, evidently, had been five hundred and seventy-five pounds, almost three times the size of a normal pig, and, near the end, had lived exclusively on walnuts, apples, and cream. (“It’s the best song sung in the key of pig,” Batali said.) No one at dinner that evening had knowingly eaten pure fat before (“At the restaurant, I tell the waiters to call it prosciutto bianco, or else people won’t touch it”), and by the time he had persuaded us to a third helping my heart was racing and we were all very thirsty.

On trips to Italy made with his Babbo co-owner, Joe Bastianich, Batali has been known to share an entire case of wine during dinner, and, while we didn’t drink anything like that, we were all infected by his live-very-hard-for-now approach and had more than was sensible. I don’t know. I don’t really remember. There was also the grappa and the nocino, and one of my last recollections is of Batali around three in the morning—back arched, eyes closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor—playing air guitar to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Batali had recently turned forty, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I’d seen a grown man playing air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for “Buena Vista Social Club,” tried to salsa with one of the guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), tried to dance with her boyfriend (who was unresponsive), and then put on a Tom Waits CD and sang along as he went into the kitchen, where, with a machinelike speed, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor. He reminded me that we had an arrangement for the next day—he’d got tickets to a New York Giants game, courtesy of the commissioner of the N.F.L., who had just eaten at Babbo—and disappeared with three of my friends. They ended up at Marylou’s, in the Village—in Batali’s description, “a wise-guy joint where you get anything at any time of night, none of it good.”

It was nearly daylight when he got home, the doorman of his apartment building told me the next day as the two of us tried to get Batali to wake up: the N.F.L. commissioner’s driver was waiting outside. When Batali was roused, forty-five minutes later, he was momentarily perplexed, standing in his doorway in his underwear and wondering why I was there. Batali has a remarkable girth, and it was a little startling to see him so clad, but within minutes he had transformed himself into the famous television chef: shorts, high-tops, sunglasses, his red hair pulled back into a ponytail. He had become Molto Mario—the many-layered name of his cooking program, which, in one of its senses, means, literally, Very Mario (that is, an intensified Mario, an exaggerated Mario, and an utterly over-the-top Mario)—and a figure whose renown I didn’t fully appreciate until, as guests of the commissioner, we were allowed on the field before the game. Fans of the New York Giants are happy caricatures (the ethic is old-fashioned blue-collar, even if they’re corporate managers), and I was surprised by how many of them recognized the ponytailed chef, who stood on the field facing them, arms crossed over his chest, and beaming. “Hey, Molto!” one of them shouted. “What’s cooking, Mario?” “Mario, make me a pasta!” On the East Coast, “Molto Mario” is on twice a day (at eleven-thirty in the morning and five-thirty in the afternoon). I had a complex picture of the metropolitan working male—policeman, Con Ed worker, plumber—rushing home to catch lessons in how to braise his broccoli rabe and get just the right forked texture on his homemade orecchiette. (Batali later told me that when the viewing figures for his show first came in they were so overwhelmingly male that the producers thought they weren’t going to be able to carry on.) I stood back, with one of the security people, taking in the spectacle (by now a crowd was chanting “Molto! Molto! Molto!”)— this proudly round man, whose whole manner said, “Dude, where’s the party?”

“I love this guy,” the security man said. “Just lookin’ at him makes me hungry.”

Mario Batali arrived in New York in 1992, when he was thirty-one. He had two hundred dollars, a duffelbag, and a guitar. Since then, he has become the city’s most widely recognized chef and, almost single-handedly, has changed the way people think about Italian cooking in America. The food he prepares at Babbo, which was given three stars by the Times when the restaurant opened, in 1998, is characterized by intensity—of ingredients, of flavor—and when people talk of it they use words like “heat” and “vibrancy,” “exaggeration” and “surprise.” Batali is not thought of as a conventional cook, in the business of serving food for profit he’s in the much murkier enterprise of stimulating outrageous appetites and satisfying them aggressively. (In Batali’s language, appetites blur: a pasta made with butter “swells like the lips of a woman aroused,” roasted lotus roots are like “sucking the toes of the Shah’s mistress,” and just about anything powerfully flavored—the first cherries of the season, the first ramps, a cheese from Piedmont—”gives me wood.”) Chefs are regular visitors and are subjected to extreme versions of what is already an extreme experience. “We’re going to kill him,” Batali said to me with maniacal glee as he prepared a meal for Wylie Dufresne, the former chef of 71 Clinton, who had ordered a seven-course tasting menu, to which Batali then added a lethal-seeming number of impossible-to-resist extra courses. The starters (variations, again, in the key of pig) included a plate of lonza (the cured backstrap from one of Batali’s cream-apple-and-walnut-fattened pigs) a plate of coppa (made from the same creamy pig’s shoulder) a fried pig foot a porcini mushroom, stuffed with garlic and thyme, and roasted with a piece of Batali’s own pancetta (cured pig belly) wrapped around its stem plus (“just for the hell of it”) tagliatelle topped with guanciale (cured pig jowls), parsnips, and black truffle. A publisher who was fed by Batali while talking to him about booking a party came away vowing to eat only soft fruit and water until he’d recovered: “This guy knows no middle ground. It’s just excess on a level I’ve never known before—it’s food and drink, food and drink, food and drink, until you start to feel as though you’re on drugs.” This spring, Mario was trying out a new motto, borrowed from the writer Shirley O. Corriher: “Wretched excess is just barely enough.”

Batali grew up outside Seattle. His mother, Marilyn, is half French Canadian, half English (it’s from her line that Batali gets the flaming-red hair and the fair complexion), and his father, Armandino, a former Boeing executive, is Italian. In 1975, Armandino was posted to Europe, to supervise the procurement of airplane parts made overseas, and moved his family to Spain. Already, Mario was, in the words of his sister Gina, “pushing the limits.” For Batali, Madrid, in the years after Franco’s death, was a place of exhilarating license: bars with no minimum age, hash hangouts, and flirtations with members of the world’s oldest profession. He was caught growing marijuana on the roof of the Madrid apartment building where the family lived, the first incident of what became a theme: Batali was later expelled from his dorm in college, suspected of dealing, and, later still, there was some trouble outside Tijuana, which landed him in jail. (The time in Madrid evokes a memory of one of the first dishes Batali remembers preparing, a late-night panino with caramelized onions, cow’s-milk cheese, and paper-thin slices of chorizo: “The best stoner munch you can imagine. Me and my brother Dana were just classic stoner kids, we were so happy.”)

“Listen, buster, I didn’t sit on your hard little egg in the blazing sun for six weeks just to hear you say, ‘Ewww, I don’t like regurgitated yak carcass.”

When Batali returned to the United States, in 1978, to attend Rutgers University, in New Jersey, he believed that his future was in Iberian finance (“I wanted to be a Spanish banker—I loved the idea of making a lot of money and living a luxurious life in Madrid”), and his improbable double major was business management and Spanish theatre. After being expelled from his dorm, he got work as a dishwasher, at a popular student restaurant called Stuff Yer Face one can’t help feeling that, in the name alone, destiny was calling. Gina Batali agrees—”This is when Mario became Mario”—although the evidence, a photograph of the young chef with an unrecognizably narrow waist, suggests that Mario didn’t become Mario for another few inches. Batali was rapidly promoted—to prep cook (preparing the food for the evening chefs), then line cook (working at one “station” in a “line” of stations, making one thing)—and still claims the record for most pizzas made in an hour. The life at Stuff Yer Face was fast, sexy (“The most booooootiful waitresses in town”), and happily recreational. (“I don’t want to come off as a big druggie, but a guy would bring a pizza pan turned upside down with lines of crank on it.”) And when, in his junior year, he went to a career conference, attended by representatives from major corporations, Batali realized that he would never be a banker. He was going to be a chef.

“I had a natural affinity for the kitchen, and my mother and grandmother had always told me that I should be a cook. In fact, when I was preparing my college applications my mother suggested cooking school, but I said, ‘Ma, that’s too gay. I don’t want to go to cooking school—that’s for fags.’ “ But five years later Batali showed up for his first day at the Cordon Bleu in London.

His father, still working with Boeing, was now based in England. Gina Batali was there, too, and recalls seeing her brother in the early mornings, when he returned after being out all night, having attended classes during the day and then worked at a pub. The pub was the Six Bells, on the King’s Road, in Chelsea. Mario was bartending at the “American bar” (“I had no idea what I was doing”), when a high-priced dining room opened in the back, and a chef was hired to run it, a Yorkshireman named Marco Pierre White. Mario quit cooking school, already bored by the pace, and was hired to be the new chef’s slave.

Today, Marco Pierre White is regarded as one of the most influential chefs in Britain, and it’s an extraordinary fortuity that these two men found themselves working together, both in their early twenties, in a tiny pub kitchen. Batali didn’t understand what he was witnessing: his professional experience had been making strombolis in New Brunswick. “I assumed I was seeing what everyone else knew already I didn’t feel like someone on the cusp of a revolution. And yet I could see that this was a guy who really looked at preparing food from outside the box. He was a genius on the plate. I’d never worked on presentation. I just put shit on the plate.” He described White making a deep-green basil purée, and a white butter sauce, and swirling the green sauce in one direction and the white sauce in the other, and drawing a swerving line down the middle of the plate. “I had never seen anyone draw fucking lines with two sauces.” White would order Batali to follow him to market (“I was his whipping boy. ‘Yes, master,’ I’d answer. ‘Whatever you say’ “), and they would return with game birds or ingredients for some of the most improbable dishes ever to be served in an English public house: écrevisses in a reduced lobster sauce, oysters with caviar, and roasted ortolan—the rare and tiny game bird, served virtually breathing, its innards to be gulped down like a raw crustacean.

According to Batali, White was so intuitive and physical that he could do things to food that no one had done before. “He made a hollandaise by beating the sauce so vigorously that it began to froth up and become something else—it was like a sabayon.” He was forever chopping things, reducing them, and making Batali force them through a sieve—”which was, of course, no bigger than a tea strainer, because it was a pub and that was all he had, and I’d spend my whole day crushing some chunky shellfish reduction through this tiny thing, ramming it over and over again with a wooden spoon.” White is also said to have been spectacularly abusive. “You know, we were just two guys in the kitchen,” Batali recalls, “and I’m not cooking the fries right, according to him, or the zucchini, or whatever it was, and he tells me to sauté the snow peas instead, while he’s over in the corner doing some dramatic thing with six crayfish, and he suddenly calls out, ‘Bring me the snow peas now!’ and I duly bring them over. ‘Here are the snow peas, master,’ but he doesn’t like the look of them. ‘They are wrong, you moron. They are overcooked, you goddam fucking navvy,’ but of course I didn’t understand what ‘navvy’ meant, and I’d say something like ‘Navvy this, navvy that, if you don’t like my snow peas then make them yourself,’ which made him even angrier.” Batali says White threw a risotto at him: “He was a mean motherfucker.” Batali stuck it out for four months, and then, “frightened for my life,” he dumped salt in a beurre blanc and walked out.

Batali is a person of overpowering self-confidence, but in White’s kitchen his self-confidence failed him. He would like to dismiss the man, but he can’t—after all, White is the person who showed him what a chef could be—and, as a result, White is both wholly loathed by Batali and wholly respected. Even now, nearly twenty years later, you can hear in Batali’s account a nagging irritation at his failure to charm or work with someone who understood so much about the potential of food—that “it was a wide-open game.” From White, Batali learned the virtues of presentation, stamina, and intense, athletic cooking. And from White he learned a hatred of most things French. (White’s pub menu was in French.) He has an injunction against reduced sauces—boiling a liquid like meat broth down to a syrup. (“If you can run your finger through it and an impression is left behind, then it’s not me, it’s too French.”) And a prohibition on tantrums: “It’s so old school, so made for the movies.” But mainly Batali learned how much he had to learn. Provoked by White’s command in the kitchen, he embarked on a grand tour of the grandest restaurants in Europe, tracing White’s skills, like some-one following a genealogical line, back to their origins: La Tour d’Argent, in Paris Le Moulin de Mougins, on the Côte d’Azur the Waterside Inn, outside London. (“You learn the essentials of a place in a few months. If you want to learn them properly, you stay a year, to cook through the seasons, but I was in a hurry.”) At times, he was doing highly tedious tasks (squeezing duck carcasses for twelve hours, to get the extra ounce of juice that went into a duck stock). But he knew the approach was correct. “You learn by working in the kitchen,” Batali told me. “Not going to cookery school. That’s how it’s done.”

That’s what I wanted to do—to work in the Babbo kitchen, as Mario’s slave.

I was accepted—Mario told me, after I put the proposal to him—on “a trial basis.” He said, “The question is space. Is there room for another body?” There wasn’t, but somehow I squeezed in. I would do a night or two “plating pasta,” and a day in the “prep kitchen,” preparing food for the evening. The prep kitchen was run by Elisa Sarno, and she was expecting me at 7 A.M. But a few days before, on January 26th, I was invited to attend a kitchen meeting.

About twenty people showed up. In April, Mario was publishing “The Babbo Cookbook.” The restaurant, he said, was about to come under more scrutiny. There would be television crews, bigger crowds, and restaurant critics, asking if Babbo was as good as it was when it opened, four years earlier. Because the book revealed “all our secrets,” the menu would change, and Batali invited people to propose specials (“a classic recipe done in our way”) and suggested reading old cookbooks for ideas. He reiterated the kitchen’s principles: that we’re here “to buy food, fix it up, and sell it at a profit—that’s what we do” that consistency is essential (“If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don’t serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you’re a dick”) and that the success of Babbo, “the best Italian restaurant in America,” arises out of its style—”More feminine than masculine: people should think there are grandmothers in the back, preparing their dinner.”

There was a labor issue—kitchen rage. A chef had just left because he couldn’t control his temper. He banged pots, threw utensils, “poisoned the kitchen with his anger.” The behavior wasn’t to be tolerated. But implicit in the discussion was an acknowledgment of the extreme stress of being a cook during the dinner service.

When I presented myself to Elisa, a handsome, athletic woman in her forties, whom I’d met before, and liked, she didn’t seem all that happy to see me. I discovered that I was witnessing her kitchen personality—a tough, no-nonsense brusqueness—developed in part because she was a woman of authority dealing with men rarely prepared to cede it to her. She had been at Babbo since it opened, originally working as a line cook, but she hated the pressure and the hours, and was happier here, in what she treated as her own kitchen.

“That’s my little brother. He’s all messed up on Skittles and Moutain Dew.”

I put on an apron and a jacket, and was given a tour. One corner of the kitchen is taken up by the “walk-in”—a refrigerated closet with floor-to-ceiling shelves—and another corner is given over to dishwashing. Pots, pans, and various plastic containers are stored overhead. Elisa was describing each one according to its size, but I was distracted by the dishwasher, who was assaulting a giant pot with a high-pressure gadget that was spraying water powerfully, in unpredictable directions. “These are the one-quarts,” she said, “and here are the two-quarts, four-quarts, six-quarts, and eight, all with their own color-coded lids hotel pans and half-hotels are there, along with the sheet trays and half-sheet trays.” The containers, I learned, were the medium of the prep kitchen—everything went into them so that it could be fetched in the evening—and great weight was expressed in questions like: Is this (chicken feet, say, or a quantity of beef cheeks) to be put in a six-quart or will it fit into a four? I was wondering is this what you learn in cooking school, what a hotel pan is, when Elisa stopped, suddenly realizing that I wasn’t carrying any knives. “Where did you put your knives?” she asked.

“Oh, my God. O.K. Bring them next week.” And then she muttered to herself, “God, I hate lending people my knives.”

She led me into the walk-in, talking fast now, wanting to get on with her day. “This is where we put stuff for the grilling station”—she pointed to a shelf packed with green-lidded containers, indistinguishable from a dozen other shelves with green-lidded containers. “This is the pasta shelf. This is the pantry shelf. Oh, yes, and this is the masking tape. Everything is labelled and dated. Where’s your pen? You didn’t bring a pen?”

Vegetables were in the back. Fish were stacked on the floor in Styrofoam crates, delivered before I arrived, some giant silver Mediterranean thing.

“Time to bone the ducks. Come.”

There were three boxes of ducks.

“Wipe the counter, wet a cloth—do you remember where the cloths are? Get a cutting board, an eight-quart and two four-quarts, a hotel pan”—which ones were the hotel pans?—”and parchment paper. You get sheets from the pastry station. The four-quarts will be for the gizzards. Here, take one of my knives. Will you bring your knives next week?”

“Unpack the duck from the top, so you don’t get blood all over you. Remove the gizzards. They go into a container. Cut off the legs to make a confit, but first chop off the knobby bit at the bottom with a cleaver—use this,” she said, handing me a giant tomahawk thing—”and then remove the breast. You do know how to bone a duck, don’t you?”

“Well, I think, yes, I do. I mean, I’ve done it.” But when? Was that in 1993?

“And you know about the oyster?”

“The oyster?” I asked, and my mind did a calculation. Duck, an animal with wings: fowl. Oyster, molecular thing without wings: mollusk. Ducks don’t have oysters oysters don’t have ducks. “The oyster?” I repeated.

“Yes, it’s the nugget of meat you don’t want to lose. It’s here,” she said, swiftly cutting the breast in half and whipping her knife around the thigh. She had an appealingly easy manner with the knife, which seemed to involve no effort, and the meat instantaneously cleaved in two. I was thinking, I want to learn how to do that, and didn’t quite get the location of the duck oyster—was it in front of the thigh or behind it?—when she was off a deliveryman had appeared.

I looked around the kitchen. In front of me was a wall of cookers, with vats of something boiling on top. The pastry chefs were beside me, cutting up pineapples. Behind me, two guys were making pasta. On the floor was a giant mixer, knocking around a mound of dough. It was seven-fifteen in the morning.

I picked up a duck, removed the wings, and hunted around for that oyster. I felt an obligation to honor this bird in my hand, by insuring that its thigh oyster found its way onto the plate. But where was the little fucker?

As I slowly got through my first ducks, I stacked up their parts on my cutting board. The idea was that you should whip through each one, slice, slice, slice, just as Elisa had done—the knife doing that effortless thing, all edge, no pressure, the meat opening up like magic—and drop each bit into its appropriate container. But I wasn’t sure I was getting it right. I stacked up the thighs on one corner, hoping to hide my first, hacked-up experiments.

Meanwhile, Elisa was opening boxes. (“Frozen pig cheeks,” she was saying to the deliveryman. “Frozen is no good for me.”) The deliveryman didn’t reply he was staring at me. (“Did you count these lamb shanks?” she was now saying. “It’s never the number you say—I can’t run a kitchen if I don’t know the number of lamb shanks.”) His stare was making me very self-conscious.

I looked across at one of the cooks, Cesar, who was doing something with quails. The deliveryman hadn’t moved—was he actually shaking his head?—when, somehow, I dragged the blade of Elisa’s knife, smoothly and delicately, across the top of my forefinger, from behind the first knuckle to the nail. There was a moment: did I do what I think I did? Yes. And the top of my finger erupted in a gush of red blood.

“Did you just slice yourself?” Elisa asked, breaking off her lamb-shank count, and in a tone that said, You’ve been here half an hour, and this is what you’ve done?

“Yes,” I said, “but not to worry.” I wrapped my hand in the nearest soiled cloth. “I do this all the time. You should look at my fingers. A road map of scars and nicks. I think I need glasses. Near-sighted. Or farsighted. Both, actually. Really, it’s what I do.”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?” It sounded like an accusation.

I shook my head, a little worried by her worry. There was a lot of blood.

“Band-Aids are in the refrigerator,” she said. “You’ll need to wear a rubber glove. The Band-Aids won’t stay dry.”

I retreated to the dining room, crunched up the wound with a criss-crossing of Band-Aids, sank the thing into a rubber glove, and returned. It was nearly nine o’clock, and my cutting board had a modest square of about five inches of work space. The rest of it was stacked with pieces of duck.

And so I resumed. Chop, trim, wrestle, pop, thwack. I cleared my board. And, as I did, the Band-Aids started to work themselves loose, and the clear synthetic glove started to expand and droop, filling up like a water balloon with my blood. If I did this again, and sliced off a little bit of this glove, it was going to be a mess. But I was falling behind, and Elisa was looking at me.

She picked up a thigh. To me, it seemed I’d got the oyster. In front and back, wherever the thing was, there was plenty of meat. That wasn’t the problem. “There’s too much fat,” she said, trimming it off, and then added, as if she’d failed to mention a crucial instruction, “You are aware that these are going to be served to people.”

I came to like Elisa she was, I realized, after a few weeks under her tough tutelage, teaching me the basic techniques of a chef, especially knife skills. It seems that I’d been using a knife for years without knowing how to use one. On that first morning, I paused to sharpen my knife, and Elisa stopped what she was doing and stared: I was doing it backward (ergo, I had always been doing it backward). Then, there was this rocking thing. The idea is that when you’re chopping food you want to leave the tip of your knife in place, on the cutting board: you then end up rocking the knife back and forth, and the blade slides effortlessly, and with much more control, through whatever it is you’re chopping. Everyone who cooks probably knows these things, but I didn’t.

Some techniques seemed fussy. Carrots were a trauma. Long-cooking meat broths have carrots in them, along with celery, onions, and herbs, which soften the meatiness of a meat liquid. Evidently, there were only two ways to cut up a carrot, rough cut and fine dice. Rough cut meant slicing the carrot in half, lengthwise, and then—chop, chop, chop—cutting it into perfectly identical half moons (which, to my eye, had nothing rough about them).

The nightmare was fine dice, which meant cutting every bit of the carrot into an identical one-millimetre-square cube. A carrot is not shaped like a cube, and so you painstakingly had to trim it up into a long rectangle, then cut it into thin, one-millimetre planks, and then take your one-millimetre planks and cut them into long, one-millimetre slivers, and then take your perfectly formed slivers, and, chop, chop, chop, cut them into one-millimetre cubes. I seemed to have done my first batch almost right—either that or it was late and everyone was in a hurry and no one looked too closely at the geometric mishmash in the container I’d filled. My second batch involved thirty-six carrots. It took me a long time to cube thirty-six carrots. Normally, Elisa popped around to make sure I wasn’t mangling what I was working on, but she must have trusted me with the carrots—after all, what can you do to a carrot?—so that when she finally looked in I was almost done. She shrieked, “I said fine dice. These are not fine dice. I don’t know what they are, but they’re wrong.” I had been cutting carrots for two hours, and then, like that, they were tossed. I wanted to weep. It was some weeks later that I finally succeeded in getting carrots right, although the achievement was secretly marred by the fact that to earn Elisa’s approbation—”These are good,” she said, picking up my four-quart and dumping the contents into a braising liquid—I had discreetly eaten several hundred imperfect cubes.

I prepared pork for a ragù (only after my first batch was returned—”These are chunks, I asked for cubes”) and learned how to trim the fat off a flank of beef. Jointing rabbits, I was taught how to tie up the loin with a butcher’s looping knot, and I was so excited by the discovery that I went home and practiced. (I told Elisa about my accomplishment. “I tied up everything,” I said. “A leg of lamb, some utensils, a chair. A friend came around, and I tied up her, too.” She shook her head. “Get a life,” she said, and returned to her task.)

I became captivated by the smells. By midmorning, when many things had been prepared, they were cooked in quick succession, and the smells came one after the other, waves of smell, like sounds in music. There was the smell of meat—the kitchen was overwhelmed by the rich, sweet, sticky smell of older lamb. And then, in minutes, it was chocolate melting in a metal bowl. Then a disturbing non sequitur like tripe (a curious disjunction, having chocolate in your nose followed immediately by stewing cow innards). And then something ripe and fishy—octopus poaching in a hot tub—followed by an over-extracted pineapple. And so they came, one after the other—huckleberries, chicken broth, the comforting chemistry of veal, pork, and milk as someone made a Bolognese ragù. Once I mastered some basic skills, I surprised myself by recognizing that I had stopped feeling self-conscious. There I was, in this back room, people’s knives knocking against cutting boards in the same rhythmic rocking way, mine among them: no windows, no natural light no connection to the outside world no idea what the weather might be only one phone, the number unlisted unreachable—surrounded by these intense associations of festive meals.

Mario returned from Europe in 1985 and went to San Francisco, where he was soon joined by his brother. The two of them rented a Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district. Mario’s first job, not a happy one, was for a catering firm, where he prepared the biggest meal of his life, an Apple Computer office party for seven thousand people, which was held at a baseball stadium—he remembers having to push out wheelbarrows of shrimp and distribute them with a shovel (“How much fun is that?”)—but within six months he got what he was looking for, and was made a sous-chef at the Clift Hotel. For Dana Batali, being the roommate was not without the predictable stresses: he had an office job and had to leave at eight, which is when he regularly discovered his brother, along with several other chefs from the Clift Hotel kitchen, in various stages of collapse on the living-room floor, the room filled with smoke and empty bottles, the stereo on loud. Steve Crane, a friend who was a waiter at the time, remembers that he and Mario (“a clown riding around on a Suzuki 1100 painted to look like a zebra”) spent their after-hours at Stars, the restaurant that had recently been opened by Jeremiah Tower, the so-called patriarch of California cuisine. “The perfect resto of the moment,” Mario recalls. “Lively stylized food with attitude and energy— in short, much of the inspiration for everything I have done since.”

This was at the height of the California food revolution—not just of Tower but also of Alice Waters (and her neo-Provençal cooking), of raw seafood and marinated shellfish, of citrusy vinaigrettes and bright-colored salsas. “It was there, during the California explosion, that I first met chefs who wanted to talk about their craft,” Mario told me, “and where I learned that the palate is a very individual thing.” This is where he developed an appetite for vinegars and lemons. “Since then, my food has always been on the upper edge of acidity,” he said. “I tune things up with acidity, I fix things with acidity. A lot of flawed food made by these French guys would be brightened up with just a touch of acidity—to get you salivating.”

The Clift Hotel was owned by the Four Seasons, and after two years Mario was invited to work at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a stately old Spanish-colonial hotel the corporation had just bought and wanted to revitalize. Mario was brought in for all the obvious reasons (“energy, edge, fire, youth,” according to Brian Young, the manager who hired him) he was given his own restaurant, La Marina, and, according to Mario, became, for his age (twenty-seven), the highest-paid young chef in the company. But the experience was restless-making. Mario mentions some “weak pastas,” a smoked veal rack, a grilled lobster with fried artichokes. “The truth is, I don’t have much memory of the time,” he says. “I was staying out late. I was staying out very late.” Andy Nusser, who is currently the executive chef at Babbo, met Mario then, at a late-night dinner party, where someone had brought foie gras but didn’t know how to serve it. Rising to the challenge that a good chef should be able to make a meal with whatever is at hand, Mario prepared a sweet, vinegarlike reduction of orange Nehi soda and Starburst fruit candies. (“First, you remove each Starburst fruit gum from its wax-paper wrapper and put the candies in a saucepan, where, over a low heat, you melt them until you have a bright-colored syrup, and, then, separately, you cook the soda, until it’s reduced by half.”) Nusser insists that the result was very good (and was so impressed that he decided that night to become a chef).

At the end of that year, the Four Seasons management asked Mario to run a more exclusive restaurant, in Hawaii (“They begged me, they were desperate”). Batali not only turned down the offer he quit. He called his father, Armandino. Did he know of a place in Italy where he might be able to work for room and board? He wanted to learn how to cook like his grandmother, Leonetta Merlino Batali.

Leonetta Merlino had grown up working in the first Italian import store in Washington—Merlino’s, which her parents had opened in Seattle in 1903. The store was sold in the late sixties, and it has been a source of aggravating regret to Mario that his father didn’t take it over. (“They lost it,” Mario recalls. “They fucked it up.”) Everyone in the family has powerful memories of visits to Leonetta’s house for lunch (her husband died when Mario was six), which featured her handmade ravioli. Although she made large batches of the stuff, a thousand, twelve hundred at a time, relying on a family recipe from Abruzzi (an improbable mixture of calf’s brains, pork sausage, chicken, Swiss chard, and parmigiano and Romano cheeses), and rolling out the dough with a long pole, prized for the texture it created (“rough, like a cat’s tongue”), she allowed the children only six pieces. They still talk about it (“We knew there were more!” Gina Batali recalls. “We could see them!”), but the grandmother was determined to teach them to eat a family meal in an Italian way, with the pasta coming after the antipasto (a plate of salume and marinated vegetables) and before the secondo, of roasted meat, often lamb, always cooked with rosemary, always well done. The ravioli recipe is still in the family—Mario’s brother prepares it on Christmas Day (Leonetta, having made the ravioli so often she had no idea how she did it, was filmed by a cousin, who prompted her with questions)—as are many other of Leonetta’s recipes, preserved on two thousand three-by-five cards: a pasta sauce made from spare ribs (with, Mario recalls, “this kind of red pinky piggy flavor”) tripe and, a feature of New Year’s Eve, a salty baccalà (dried codfish, rehydrated with milk and cooked until it breaks down and becomes a sauce), served with hot polenta poured out onto a wooden board.

Armandino Batali sent me copies of some of the recipes. I found the stack of three-by-five cards surprisingly moving, a kitchen conversation between the dead and the living. I’ve often thought that food is a concentrated messenger of a culture, compacted into the necessity of our having to eat to survive, and I felt this powerfully as I read these mementos from another generation and listened to Armandino’s children talk about the eccentric-seeming recipes of their grandmother, who had learned them from her mother in the back room of a food store in Seattle, who, in turn, had learned them from her mother, in a house in a village in Abruzzi.

Armandino did not know of a place where Mario might work with a matronly Italian cook in exchange for room and board. But he had some friends who might know. He wrote five letters and got one reply. It was a trattoria on a hill above a town where airplane parts are made for Boeing. Room and board for the son of Armandino? A sous-chef for a Four Seasons restaurant? Of course. When can he start?

The Babbo kitchen is actually several kitchens. In the mornings, this small space—the work area is about twenty-five feet by ten—is called the prep kitchen, and is run by Elisa. In the evenings, it is called the service kitchen, and is run by Andy Nusser. And between the hours of one and five the two kitchens (more metaphors than places) overlap.

“Careful, these plates are extremely dirty.”

During this period, the prep chefs try to finish their duties and the evening cooks get their stations ready. There can be between fifteen and eighteen people in the kitchen. In many ways, these afternoons are exaggerated expressions of something that is characteristic of both New York (where space is precious and its value inflated) and the restaurant business (where the size of the kitchen and the dining room are financial calculations, and a small kitchen means more tables). At Babbo, the space concern is extreme. There is no lunch service because the metaphoric prep kitchen is still working at lunchtime there is also no lunch service because so much of the restaurant’s equipment—tablecloths, napkins, cutlery, plates, glasses—is stored underneath the banquettes where a lunch crowd would sit. (Every morning, the restaurant is taken apart every afternoon it is put back together.) The so-called Babbo “office” is an extension of the plumbing, jerry-built in whatever basement cranny presented itself at the time. (When a hot-water tank exploded—water for washing the dishes had to be boiled—the walls of the office were taken down so that the repairmen could get to the tank.) The desk of Mario’s assistant is near a slop sink, gurgling with the foodstuffs swirling into it. The smell is pervasive.

There is a hierarchy about space. Mario had warned me of this, after I mentioned that I must have been sticking my butt out because I kept getting bumped (“They bump you because they can—they’re putting you in your place”). The next day I counted: I was bumped forty times. Space is Andy’s first concern when he arrives he goes straight to the walk-in to see if he can shift the contents of the large containers to smaller ones (if he can’t, the work being done by the prep kitchen will have no place to be stored). Once, I was helping him prepare a salad. We started in the dining room, because there was no space in the kitchen. We moved to the dark coffee station when tables were being set up, until finally we were backed up against the ladies’ room. If you’re lucky enough to get a perch in the kitchen, you don’t leave it. You don’t answer the phone, run an errand, make a cup of coffee, have a pee, or, when you return, you won’t have your space. Around two o’clock, trays of braising meat come out of the oven, but there is no place to put them, so they are stacked on the first available surface—a waste bin, the pasta freezer, somebody’s lunch. Trays are stacked on top of those trays. And sometimes there are trays stacked on top of those. Partners with Food Trucks

From June 1 – June 10, dining establishments ranging from Food Trucks to Michelin rated restaurants to food markets are being invited to participate in the largest combined food service fundraising campaign EVER! Renowned Chef MARIO BATALI is leading the charge in this year’s EAT (RED). DRINK (RED). SAVE LIVES. campaign, for the benefit of (RED) ( ) , a non-profit organization started in 2006 by Bono and Bobby Shriver to engage the private sector in supporting the Global Fund and AIDS programs in Africa.

(RED) , the newly formed National Food Truck Association ( YOU to join this INC( RED )IBLE culinary movement, generating money for AIDS treatments and positive press and exposure for ALL food trucks nationwide.

HOW do you participate in EAT (RED). DRINK (RED). SAVE LIVES?

There are five quick & simple steps to get started:

1. Think up an awesome (RED) menu item (food, drinks, dessert—skies the limit) to serve during the campaign. Can’t come up with one? It’s cool. Turn an existing dish (RED), turn plates and utensils (RED) or make a (RED) tip jar!

2. SIGN UP at Minimum donation is $10 per day ($100 total), but if your (RED) item exceeds the minimum, you can go to the site and give the contribution balance. We’re flexible like that!
3. Order your SQUA(RED) Reader at For every purchased reader, 97% of the proceeds go to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS!
4. Send a Tweet to your fellow food truck friends, letting them know you joined the campaign: “I’m hitting the road June 1-10, 2014 with @Mariobatali and @RED to #86AIDS and you should, too. Sign up at”

5. Once you sign up, (RED) will send you a “tool kit” with all the (RED) promotional and branding materials you need!

WHY should you participate in EAT (RED). DRINK (RED). SAVE LIVES?

1. GREAT PRESS: Food trucks and the Food Truck Association will be promoted via Twitter, Facebook and various traditional media outlets. Press releases will be sent out to every major paper in the world directing media back to the regional contacts for great press and massive coverage of the food truck industry.

2. DISCOUNTED PRODUCTS: Use beef? You will have access to a DISCOUNT on from a major meat purveyor, Pat “The Meat Man” LaFrieda, in partnership with Creekstone Farms on boneless short ribs, red burger blend or flat iron steak during the campaign.

3. SOME GOOD OL’ FASHIONED COMPETITION: Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vending Association and founder of the National Food Truck Association (that will be launched PUBLICLY during the campaign), is sponsoring a ‘friendly’ national competition between all of the food truck associations coast to coast, with (RED) keeping tabs of the results and money raised. Prizes will be revealed as the campaign nears!

4. AN ADO(RED) CAUSE: YOU will be joining and featured alongside talented and world-renowned chefs, restaurants, bars, bakeries, food franchises, food markets, retailers, foodie blogs & publications and SO many more in what will be the LARGEST movement for good in culinary history. Trust us— you’re not going to want to miss this.

Robin Williams and Billy Crystal are among Mario Batali's favorite customers

When you're a celebrity chef who's at the top of their game, you're bound to get a lot of celebrity attention. In Eater's 2016 conversation with Batali, they asked him who his favorite celebrity guests were. In addition to liking the reaction he got from other customers when Bill Clinton comes strolling in, he also said that some of the best times were when Robin Williams and Billy Crystal would come in together.

"[. ] literally the whole dining room would listen to them kibitzing back and forth," Batali said. "Robin Williams, at the end of the meal, would always go to the bar and get two bottles of champagne, pour a glass for every chef in the kitchen, and bring it back to them."

MARIO BATALI: The proper way to brine

A: Iron Chef Michael Symon and I differ on this point, but I think the answer's clear: Brine, and then cook slowly.

Brining was originally used as a means of preserving meats and other perishables. Since the advent of refrigeration, such preservation techniques have become unnecessary. But brining is now popular for another reason entirely: increasing the succulence of meat or bird cuts that lack fat or flavor. A proper brine contains just enough salt to help the food retain its moisture content. Flavors may be added using cider, beer, wine, vinegars or other liquids, and sometimes spices or sugars (I like rosemary and sage).

A brine is simply a salt solution. For a basic brine, use 1 cup salt for each gallon of liquid. For each cup of salt used, boil 2 cups of water. Add the salt and any spices to the boiling water and stir to dissolve. Add the remaining (cold) liquid to chill the brine then pour the liquid into a container deep enough to submerge the meat or poultry entirely. Place the meat or bird in the cool brine and, if necessary, weigh it down with a plate to keep it submerged. Refrigerate or place in a suitably cool place. Generally, I like to keep it there overnight, but not a full 24 hours. Rinse the meat twice before cooking, and discard brine.

I am once again asking you to stop complaining about life stories on recipes

Rudy Gonzalez and Katie Yates and their son, Joaquin, 11, join in from their kitchen in San Jose, Calif. as Broadway veteran Aaron Albano teaches his mother's adobo chicken recipe as part of Playful People Productions' interactive online cooking class.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

On February 28, Canadian product manager Tom Redman posted a tweet that, unfortunately for him, made him the main bad guy of Twitter that day. He was announcing a new project called Recipeasly, a website that would allow users to strip ads and contextual &ldquolife stories&rdquo from recipe sites like Serious Eats and food blogs, allowing them to skip right to the recipe content. Within a few hours, Redman took the site down in response to overwhelming criticism over its business model, which would strip content that is already provided to readers free of charge and allegedly rob bloggers of necessary income from ad revenue. He got dunked on, hard.

Even though this all happened about a week ago, which is ancient history in the news business, I&rsquom writing about it now because this is a conversation that comes up again and again, often among people who think that &ldquoI just want the recipe&rdquo is an original thought. And yeah, I search for recipes online as much as the next person, and if I don&rsquot feel like reading the prose at the top, scrolling to the recipe takes me less than a second. If scrolling over something you didn&rsquot want to read is the hardest thing you had to do all day, you&rsquore among the luckiest people on the planet.

In a 2019 recipe column for The Chronicle, cookbook author Nik Sharma wrote, &ldquoUnlike a kite whose string is cut and then floats aimlessly in the wind, a recipe with context can be a powerful tool.&rdquo Context reveals the whys of ingredient choice the labor a recipe developer goes through to reverse-engineer and document a dish and the reasons why a dish matters to someone. One of the strongest arguments for the necessity of context was the pizza dough cinnamon roll recipe sent out in a newsletter by Mario Batali, tacked on at the tail-end of a sexual misconduct apology letter. You could certainly just skip to the recipe, but you&rsquod really be missing a lot.

Recipes are ideas that are made by people, and all of the messy stuff that can precede them is a reminder of that fact. People aren&rsquot convenient they might be annoying they can care about a lot of things that you might not care about, and vice versa. We all deserve recognition for our labor: Sometimes that means money that you give me in exchange for goods and services, and sometimes that means you just have to read (or even just scroll through) a story about why I&rsquom transcribing my grandmother&rsquos cherished recipes for you to try at home. You shouldn&rsquot just get to pretend that someone doesn&rsquot matter while you enjoy the fruits of their labor.

At the very least, rather than complaining, be the change you want to see in the world: Put your money where your mouth is and just buy the damn cookbook.