Chef Mario Batali wants to capture old soul of Italian cooking

Chef-restaurateur Mario Batali launched a new Italian regional dinner series at his restaurant Osteria Mozza.
Chef-restaurateur Mario Batali launched a new Italian regional dinner series at his restaurant Osteria Mozza.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Chef Mario Batali prefers to showcase culinary traditions rather than introduce new creations

When it comes to hiring a chef, good cooking skills alone do not cut it with the straight-talking American chef-restaurateur Mario Batali.

He says: "I'm looking for basic life education. I will look you in the eye and ask what matters to you - like your favourite book. I can teach you ingredients, but I can't teach you to be fascinated with them or be fascinating when you use them.

"What makes you interesting is a general state of mind that will make you a better person who is more capable of leadership and inspiring people."

Batali, 56, was in town recently for an In Conversation With session hosted by the Marina Bay Sands (MBS), where he spoke to 30 students from the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy and Temasek Polytechnic.

The session is part of an ongoing series of fireside chats that runs when the integrated resort hosts celebrities. Previous speakers included Japanese film director Naomi Kawase and Golden Horse award winner and Taiwanese actor Kai Ko, in conjunction with the recent Singapore International Film Festival.

While here, Batali also launched a new Italian regional dinner series at his restaurant Osteria Mozza in MBS. It kicks off with the Piedmont region's prized white Alba truffles and Barolo wines.

Dishes include tajarin with Alba truffles, a thin egg pasta tossed in Italian butter, parmigiano reggiano and finished with shaved white Alba truffles; and agnolotti with Barolo Sugo, a pork and veal ravioli cooked in a rich Barolo wine and veal sauce.

The dinner series runs daily from 5 to 11pm and is priced at $128++ or $228++ with wine pairing. The Piedmont menu is available till the middle of next month and, for subsequent editions, diners can look forward to the Italian regions of Emilia Romagna, Friuli and Tuscany.

On changing the menu in the restaurant, Batali says: "It's not always about introducing new things, but to show the old soul of Italian cooking and present it in a way that the customer sees not so much innovation but renovation.

"I'd rather capture Sicily in the 1920s or Naples in the 1870s, than Singapore in 2030. For me, old stuff is far sexier."

The busy chef has had his plate and hands full recently with the launch of his new cookbook, Big American Cookbook, and the opening of his Italian marketplace Eataly in Boston last month.

He is also looking to open Eataly in other cities such as Los Angeles, Toronto and Las Vegas, in the next 18 months. He has no plans, however, to open it in Singapore yet.

Batali, who runs his restaurant empire with fellow restaurateur Joe Bastianich under the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, says: "Do you think Singapore is ready for an experience where more than half of the experience is about buying groceries and eating at home? Or do you think that Singaporeans prefer to eat out more and then go home and relax?

"My problem is that the sophisticated clients in Singapore are more interested in the entertainment value of the restaurant experience and they already know what they are going to cook at home. I don't think they want to make tortellini at home, I think they'd rather make chicken and rice."

He has no plans to open his steakhouse Carnevino here either, although he had spoken about it four years ago in an interview with The Straits Times and even visited a potential location for the restaurant.

He says: "I imagine a good beef restaurant would do well here, but we would have to serve the beef that we want, not just buying a bunch of Australian beef to sell. Plus, we have Cut (steakhouse) across the street and I love chef Wolfgang Puck, I don't want to run over his feet."

Back in New York, he is modifying part of his Michelin-starred Italian trattoria La Sirena into a Barcelona-style tapas bar because of his love for Spanish food.

"In all of Europe, I think the most exciting location is Spain. I would love to do something Spanish in Singapore too," says the savvy businessman in his signature ponytail and orange Crocs shoes.

On this visit, he dined at the MBS restaurants Waku Ghin and Spago and returned to his favourite Bib Gourmand-rated Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang for a "fantastic" meal.

He proudly shows The Straits Times the wefie he took with owner Danny Lee and his son, before scrolling to a photo he snapped with the United States president Barack Obama and his family. The chef had been invited to cook for the Obamas' final state dinner with politicians and celebrities in October.

Calling it the "single greatest professional moment of my career", he recalls Mrs Michelle Obama's involvement in the whole process "from product to plate" and her fondness for sweet potatoes. The menu featured an agnolotti filled with roasted sweet potatoes in a brown butter sauce.

While he may have cooked for many celebrities, he says he is as comfortable cooking for a public figure as with cooking for diners and for his family, and he does it all with the "same level of pride".

It is this sense of realness that makes the fun-loving chef endearing, even as he spouts expletives.

On the use of social media, the father of two sons, aged 20 and 18, says: "Sharing is important as people enjoy being with you, but you can't do it in a way where people think you are showing off.

"My life is funny and I'm never pretending to be anything more than what I already am, which is a cook, a family guy and someone who likes to taste things that people make."

And his advice for young chefs? The host of cooking show Moltissimo - which is entering its second season on the food channel Munchies on YouTube - says: "Look at your work not only as a craft, but also as your lifestyle, then you're in a good place. It's not about being on (reality cooking competitions) Top Chef or MasterChef.

"If you are in cooking because you want to be famous, you are f***ing up."

•The Italian regional dinner series runs daily from 5 to 11pm at Osteria Mozza, B1-42 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Galleria Level, 2 Bayfront Avenue.

•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Old soul of Italian cooking'. Print Edition | Subscribe