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Mario Batali

Chef, Entrepreneur

As a journalist, the most intimidating interview you can receive is Mario Batali. How can anyone take a man that passionate—that larger than life—and put him on paper? (Ok, WordPress.)

“I actually think people know too much about me,” Batali laughs from behind the bar at his latest opening, La Sirena. “I wish they knew a little less.”

Roll cameras.

It isn’t, however, this comment that surprises me. It’s how for all his ability to deliver interview-perfect, Batali-fied sound bites—the kind journalists fantasize about while dreaming Pulitzer—it’s talking about his staff that visibly riles the 56-year-old chef.

“It’s really important is to understand the level of commitment I feel toward each of my 4,250 employees. Their work and their success is tantamount to me—even more than my own. I’ve had my time; what I do now is for them.”

Chef Batali's top 3 tips for success

Why do you think it’s such an important part of a business to support its employees?
“The success of your employees is integral to the success of your operation, even after they leave. It completely changes the atmosphere to have the big boss engaged with you as an individual. For example, I invest in all of my staff’s other projects. And I’m not sure if that’s part of being a good cook, but it is part of being a good businessman.”

Who in particular have you helped recently?
“[Executive chef] Mark Ladner just left Del Posto. He’s left the only four star Italian restaurant in New York City to open a fast food, high volume place called Pasta Flyer. I’ve worked with him for 18 years. And, yeah, I felt a personal loss to see him go. But I encouraged Mark and am even one of his investors. It’s what you do.”

Would you say that’s the best part of your job then? Helping employees start something of their own?
“To see someone who starts as a salad person or a dishwasher become a line cook, become a manager, become an executive chef, open their own restaurant and have it be successful—that is probably the most delicious thing I can have happen to me now. Much more than me opening another great restaurant.”

Tip 1: Support your team

It completely changes the atmosphere to have the big boss engaged with you as an individual.”
The success of your employees is integral to the success of your operation, even after they leave.”

How do you handle failure?
“Like everything, you just have to put failure in context. So, let’s say you make a product you feel strongly about—in my case, a pickled pig’s ear salad—and people don’t like it. That doesn’t mean the dish wasn’t good… that your technique was fallacious. It just means people didn’t want to eat it that day… But who knows what they’ll eat six months from now?”

So, would you say failure is nonexistent?
“It’s not that there aren’t mistakes, but that you shouldn’t be afraid of them. Sometimes you need a disaster to know how to improve… to figure out what failure is so that you can avoid it in the future. As my family always told me: Even if you fall flat on your face, at least you’re moving forward.”

Given your celebrity, though, are people more tolerant of your mistakes?
“People are certainly willing to give me a little more rope. If you’re gonna try calves balls, eyeballs or lips in a sausage, you’re gonna try it at Mario Batali’s restaurant because you believe me. You trust me… You’re probably willing to take a few more risks than at somebody else’s restaurant, which gives my team an incredible platform to play a little bit harder on that side of the field… That’s why I always tell people one of the most important things they can do is establish authenticity and trust with their customers.”

Tip 2: Conquer failure

People are certainly willing to give me a little more rope.”
Like everything, you just have to put failure in context.”

When you first opened La Sirena, it didn’t get the love you immediately envisioned. How did you react?
“It’s crucial to realize that, at any level, you might need to change some portion of what you’re doing—whether it’s a tweak or an overhaul. To be or to think that you have become everything… is either a symptom of blindness, foolishness or laziness. We’re still in the middle of developing La Sirena. It started out as a 500 seat restaurant, which we’re not really good at running, and has taken us a year to evaluate what we want—how we can make personalized, artistic statements that’s commensurate with our smaller restaurants like Babbo. We have made a lot of changes at La Sirena, including making the bar into a real tapas bar with chef Anthony Sasso from our Casa Mono; we changed the main resto into a delicious, simple, creative Italian restaurant with a fantastic 900 degree grill/broiler… [it’s] a little more risk taking, ingredient forward and philosophically in line with our other truly original spots.”

Do you think that message of enduring work is more important now than before?
“At this point, anybody who’s been on Top Chef for 10 minutes considers his or herself a celebrity chef. And I think the problem with that genre of player is that they think that they’re done working once they’ve won the prize, but what they don’t realize is that they’ve been given, suddenly, a platform to play on—one they should utilize to continue becoming a chef.”

As you’re growing and changing, do you ever worry about what people think of you?
“The beauty of New York City is that even if 4 million people hate me, there’s 6 million left. So, I don’t have to worry so much about being liked by everybody. That doesn’t mean I go out to insult or anger anybody. It just gives me a little more freedom.”

Tip 3: Always Keep Moving

To be or to think that you have become everything... is either a symptom of blindness, foolishness or laziness.”


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