Blocked out for an afternoon of events and interviews, Osteria Mozza is atypically empty and quiet, albeit for the occasional murmurs of idle banter while the room awaits the arrival of the man of the hour. All heads turn the moment he steps in, arms akimbo and bearing a giant smile on his ruddy face. Media darling, cookbook maven, and restaurateur extraordinaire, Mario Batali is exactly as he looks on television, from his pulled-back ponytail right down to his beloved orange Crocs. The American celebrity chef ’s sunny disposition is worlds apart from the grumpy facade of his famous mentor chef Marco Pierre White, whom Batali apprenticed with during the formative years of his formal culinary training.
The well-loved chef, in town to kick-start a monthly series of regional Italian dinners at Osteria Mozza, slaps the backs of every staff gathered at the entrance, but wastes no time in coming to my table. He pumps my hand, offers to top up my drink and then plonks down into the seat across me: “Alright then, shall we get this interview started?”
Beneath his friendly persona, chef Batali is brisk and businesslike. He speaks just a beat too quickly, barely pauses between his sentences, and I get the sense that this is exactly how he manages to juggle running his empire of 26 restaurants (and counting). That, along with hosting television programmes such as ABC’s The Chew and churning out cookbooks—he has 11 under his belt, including the most recently published Mario Batali – Big American Cookbook: 250 Favorite Recipes from Across the USA. In it, he scoured the country for classic American recipes such as spicy gumbo and regional barbecues, which he then reinterprets with the same passion and flair that he is known for when championing Italian cooking.
On top of all that, he is an active philanthropist who established the Mario Batali Foundation for children’s nutritional education. With countless accolades, including the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: New York City award in 2002, and being known for redefining America’s understanding of Italian food, it came as no surprise when he was chosen by former US first lady Michelle Obama to cook president Barack Obama’sfinal White House state dinner on 18 October last year, with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini as the guests of honour.
“How did you react to that invitation?” I asked, glancing down briefly to scribble in my notebook. There was an uncharacteristic pregnant pause, and I looked up to see him grinning cheekily at me. “Are you ready to hear it?” At my nod, he threw his fists up in the air and cheered: “Like this!”
He turns pensive as he begins to take stock of the impact of that invitation. “It was the greatest professional moment of my life. It wasn’t even on my bucket list, as cooking at The White House was until now, an impossible dream,” he shares, sobering up quickly when he began describing his four-course menu in mouthwatering detail—sweet potato agnolotti with butter and sage, warm butternut squash salad with frisee and pecorino di New York, beef braciola pinwheel with horseradish gremolata and broccoli rabe, and a green apple crostata with thyme caramel and buttermilk gelato. Almost all the ingredients used were sourced locally, a decision that reflects his personal cooking philosophy: simple food that reflects both product and place. “I want to capture the way the wind smells when it blows through town during harvest season, and bring that across to the people who eat it.”
Keeping it simple
“Simple food is more interesting to me than complicated stuff,” he elaborates. “Simplicity, despite its challenges, is most understated. Fundamentally, the greatest challenge with the chefs I work with is getting them to understand that less is more.”
However, he has nothing but praise for Osteria Mozza’s executive chef Peter Birks. “Pete gets it! I only fly in once a year because he gets that Mozza is about the experience of the Italian soul in local specifics. We don’t pretend to be in Parma or Rome. We are here in Marina Bay Sands, and we can create a sense of place
with the ingredients we use, in this case a mix of Italian imports such as extra virgin olive oil with what the local markets bring in,” he explains, his tone brightening as the topic shifts to fresh produce.
On top of the many hats he already wears, chef Batali is very enthusiastic of his current role as ingredient purveyor. “One of my lessons in life is to teach people how to cook. I’m not saying don’t visit my restaurants, but when they are not dining at one of them or somewhere else good, I want them to cook instead of relying on convenient, fast-food options,” he explains. He shares that he cooks and eats dinner at home almost daily, and he wants to encourage and empower Americans to do the same. “Cook and be at home with the family at least three times a week.”
It makes senses then that his upcoming plans mostly revolve around growing the presence of Eataly, his Italian food emporium that champions quality artisanal produce. With four locations in the US, plus a fifth soon to open in Los Angeles, along with outposts in major foodie cities including Tokyo, Seoul, and Istanbul, chef Batali is pushing a firm point of making good ingredients accessible to the masses and inspire them to get into the kitchen.
When asked if he has plans to open an Eataly outpost or a third restaurant here in Singapore, he shoots back with his trademark quick wit: “I have many plans. Do you have 10 million dollars?” “And what if I do?” I countered. He laughed, visibly cheered up by the prospect of banter. “I would open a Sicilian gastroteca with alfresco seats overlooking the beautiful Marina Bay waterfront. The focus would be on pairing small plates and wine, perfect for Singaporeans who I imagine will enjoy not having to commit to a whole meal,” he describes without missing a beat. Ever the realist, he goes on to cheekily bargain. “Actually, I don’t think we need 10 million dollars. A million would do. I am going to ask the guys at Marina Bay Sands,” he deadpans.
Until that gastroteca dream actualises—and I have no doubt it eventually would if he sets his mind to it—Singaporean diners can partake in a taste of chef Batali’s food philosophy and eat their way around Italy with Osteria Mozza’s series of monthly dinners covering various Italian regions. The culinary pilgrimage began in December last year with Piedmont and the dishes showcased its coveted seasonal white Alba truffles, among other regional specialities. While we await the release of the line-up of regions, one thing’s for sure—the food will be simply prepared, but definitely a celebration of both produce and place.
Photos: courtesy of Osteria Mozza, Mario Batali, and Daphne Chen-Cordero