Iron chef, author, restauranteur, Food Network personality, and native Seattleite Mario Batali was in Bellevue to raise money for Hopelink as a guest speaker during the recent Reaching Out Luncheon. We caught up with Batali before the show.
Tell us about growing up in Seattle. Simply put, growing up outside of Seattle was idyllic. I was lucky to have grown up with a ton of family around. Both sets of grandparents were close by, as were all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. We spent a lot of time up in Yakima and the east side, almost always around my Grandpa Leon’s Hop farm in Moxee – berry picking, cooking, playing outside – just being kids.
Your family has quite a legacy in Pioneer Square. Tell us about that. My dad started a crazy delicious salami-curing facility and a sandwich shop/luncheonette called Salumi. My sister Gina and her husband Brian Damato took it over a few years back, and itís better than ever. If you do not know about Salumi, I am afraid I really have nothing to say; we cannot possibly speak the same language, or even live on the same planet.
Did you always want to be a chef? I like to joke that being a cook was the job you took after you leave the Army, and before you headed to prison. It wasnít a glamorous career, and certainly the idea of a celebrity chef when I was growing up was never a thing. I really didnít know what I wanted to do. When I was at Rutgers University, I got my first restaurant job. I was hooked.
What does the Northwest do better than anywhere else when it comes to food? Wild blackberries! When I was a kid, we used to cruise down Dash Point Road between Seattle and Tacoma, loading the trunk with wild blackberries and raspberries. Later, my mom and I would make jams and pies, and we had a stash for the entire winter. Thereís nothing that compares to that. You can go berry picking in many areas, but none will be as delicious as those berries.
What is your favorite Northwest ingredient?
Dungeness crab for special occasions. Blackberries in everything.
Tell us about your new book, Big American Cookbook, due out this fall. I’m so excited about Big American. The book has 250 recipes from across the United States. We researched and looked at eight regions across the states and picked up on family meals and celebratory meals that have, in many cases, been passed down generation to generation, from cook to cook, from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law.
If someone thinks they “can’t cook,” what is one meal you think anyone can master? I think that mussels are a great starter dish for a novice cook, because they tell you when they’re done. Thereís no guesswork. Aside from that, you need a flavorful liquid to steam them open and for this, I think it’s perfectly fine to use last nightís white wine! Serve with some crusty bread, and you’re done.
We heard you recently got your hands on a “lifetime” supply of your signature orange Crocs as they were being discontinued. What is it about them that you love so much? They may not be in vogue, but they are damn comfortable! And in the kitchen, when youíre on your feet for hours and hours, you need comfort; then you can throw them in the dishwasher at the end of the night.
What is your go-to comfort food? Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe is always comforting to me.
Tell us about your foundation. I started the Mario Batali Foundation in 2008. I was getting close to 20 letters a week asking myself or the restaurants to help support various charities by donating either food, or a meal, or my time, and while I wanted to help out every organization, it was becoming too difficult to handle and track. I knew I wanted to support the causes that were close to my heart, and I realized that starting a charity was the best way to allocate these funds. MBF focuses on children’s charities in the areas of children’s hunger relief, literacy, and children’s disease research. Our mission is to ensure all kids are well-read, well-fed, and well-cared for.
Tell us why you agreed to help Hopelink raise money and awareness. Hopelink is aligned to do so much of what we do at the Mario Batali Foundation – including helping low-income areas, families, and children especially. In 2014, Hopelink served more than 2 million meals! That’s incredibly impressive, and I’m proud and excited to help Hopelink build their community and network even further. I love to be able to work with other (larger) foundations and touch areas and people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.