Mario Batali is a great chef and restaurateur. I’ve never had the chance to eat at his celebrated restaurants Babbo and Del Posto, but I have eaten several times at Otto, his relatively modest pizza joint in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The food there is very, very good. (Try the gelato — especially the incredibly delicate olive oil one. Or go with affogato — a scoop of vanilla gelato “drowned” in a shot of espresso.)
I’ve also cooked from his cookbooks. Like all great cooks working in the Italian culinary idiom, he exhorts you to apply simple, powerful techniques to top-flight ingredients. And he supercharges Italian food in a way I can appreciate — with generous lashings of chile pepper. Here is a recipe of his I cooked once — damn that was some good stuff.
OK, enough of that. Where was I? Right — Mario Batali has sold out is and is using his name to move frozen dinners for General Mills.
Now, celebrity chefs aren’t saints, and they have the same right to “get paid” as any ambitious person in this culture. Mario pulls off money lust more stylishly than many of his peers. He has (so far) resisted the lame and lucrative temptation to sell his name to a soulless, mindlessly expensive Vegas restaurant, for example.
Instead, he has (until now) satisfied himself with methodically building an empire of (by all accounts impeccably good) Manhattan restaurants. And made himself a star with his appearances on the Food Network — which, as I understand it, bounced him from the lineup for being too rigorous a cook.
I’ve long hoped that Mario would play the role in the U.S. that Jamie Oliver has played in England — a TV-friendly chef with real cooking chops who uses his fame to promote sustainability and food justice.
Mario is just the one. He’s not as famous as that chump Emeril, but he’s a much better cook. He probably doesn’t match the technical wizardry of someone like Thomas Keller, but he’s much more famous. He’s one of the very few Americans who count as genuine celebrities and real chefs.
Instead of an Oliver-like jihad against, say, our rotten school-lunch program, we get this? Frozen dinners?
Come on, Mario. I’ll stop chiding you about this sad deal as soon as you bring your considerable talent and fame to bear on the great food issue of our time: the environmental, social, and public-health ruin served up as a matter of course by our industrial food system.