Q&A with Mario Batali
Mario Batali is one of – if not the – most famous chefs in America today. He also has a close tie to northern Michigan: a cottage in Northport, which he and his family return to each summer. His time Up North isn't all play, however. In addition to offering up for auction an annual dinner, wine tasting and cooking class for 12 in support of the Leelanau Conservancy in July, he's planning a dinner at the Grand Traverse Commons on August 14 as a part of the National Writers Series. The TCBN talked to him during a mid-July visit.
BN: We keep hearing Traverse City being referred to as an "up-and-coming" foodie town. Are we there yet?
MB: When we started started coming here, 12 years ago, I don't think you could find a farmers market. Now there's Suttons Bay on Saturday, Northport on Friday, and several others we could easily drive to. It's always been a cherry-rich and great farming area, but now people … realize geo-specific things are far more interesting than getting ingredients from thousands of miles away. So, a perch sandwich with the fish right here from Lake Michigan. We just got our first tart cherries and made pie last night. Now this is how we're supposed to eat!
BN: You're hosting 'An Evening with Mario Batali' on August 14. How did that come together?
MB: I met [National Writers Series Founder] Doug Stanton through Jim Harrison maybe eight or 10 years ago. We started to have dinners, and I became a fan of his writing. With Horse Solidiers I started to pay attention and understand it all – that Doug was actually teaching New York Times writers what's going on in Afghanistan. So when he asked me if I'd do an event, I said sure. I was thinking maybe lunch for 30 or something … and now we're talking about dinner for 2,000. It should be amazing.
BN: Tell us about Bitter Feast. A movie you're starring in? And a horror movie?
MB: It was just released, and I saw it a few weeks ago. Now, I am not a horror movie guy – I don't watch the genre – but it was so beautifully shot. I play the antithesis of me. I own a restaurant, and I have a chef who has his TV show get canceled, and he also gets a bad review by a blogger. I fire him, and he storms out and kidnaps the blogger, and it goes from there. If you love food and watch all the shows and read the foodie blogs like I do, it is dead on.
BN: We both shared a favorite TC restaurant that is now gone.
MB: Yes! Taqueria Margarita! It's my biggest lament, really. Their food was so real, I'd tell everyone when they asked me, 'What's your favorite Traverse City restaurant?' I'd say, 'The Mexican place on South Airport Road.' So sorry to see that place go.
BN: I'm sure you're asked all the time: Would you ever, ever open a Michigan restaurant?
MB: No, never. And I'll tell you why. It's twofold. First, I'm on vacation when I''m here, but eventually if I had work here I would obsess about it. And when I'm not here, it would be a scam, because I wouldn't be here. I just wouldn't put my name on a restaurant if either I or my operating partner was not here. I think too much of Michigan people to do that.