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Interview with TV Chef Mario Batali

F&W talks to Mario Batali, host of Ciao America, Molto Mario, and guest on Food Network’s Iron Chef America.

What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I was at a party, and some squiggly looking dude with a bow tie came up and said, ’How’d you like to be on TV?’ Turns out he was the programming guy at the Food Network. They had me come into the office, and I did a Ready, Set, Cook with Emeril Lagasse, I believe. Then they did something called Chef du Jour, which at that time was their talent-development vehicle; you just went on and shot five shows in one day, and everyone looked really nervous. But they didn’t think I looked nervous so they said, ’How’d you like to do a show?’ Eight weeks later I was on every day. We started out shooting seven shows a day, and it was kind of fun."

What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"People really like simple pastas, and even more elaborate ones, but I think one of the biggest recipe requests we ever had was T-bone steak with sautéed spinach and extra-virgin olive oil. It’s one that you don’t really even need the recipe for, but it was just so visually arresting. When I shot it, you just knew. It was the early days of ’food porn,’ so they went right in for the close-up and then just moved it right along. It was like, Wow! I’d never seen anything shot like that. On Ciao America we worked with one of the premiere food photographers in the world. That’s when that style really became kind of juicy. That’s what really drives those recipe requests, when people see something like that. It’s shot in such a fascinating style. I mean, frothy-crazy."

Can you suggest any tips, secrets or shortcuts?
"When making fresh pasta from scratch at home, if you’re worried about it, get the KitchenAid thing with the roller. My kids and I make pasta three days a week now. It’s not even so much about the eating of it; they just like the process. Benno is the stuffer, and Leo is the catcher. They’ve got their jobs down. Out of the blue on Saturday night, they decided they wanted to make lasagna. And we made it from scratch. Except I got the ragù from Babbo. (That would have taken four hours to make.) We made the noodles, we made the béchamel sauce, we grated the Parm, we layered it. We put it in the oven and we baked it in my brilliant little Copco lasagna pan, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of working sculpture I’ve ever dealt with. And an hour-and-a-half later the lasagna was resting for 15 minutes, and then we ate it. The satisfaction derived from making something so delicious out of a pile of flour and eggs is incredible, and the difference between that and store-bought ’fresh’ pasta is night and day. If you’re going to buy pasta, you should buy dry pasta. If you’re going to make it you can make the real thing, but you shouldn’t buy fresh pasta. It sucks. Tip for cooking fresh pasta: cook it longer than lesser. The biggest problem that people have is that they cook it until it looks like it’s soft enough. You need to really boil it for, like, two minutes, because that allows it to release its starch. When each noodle has released its starch then it is free and able to do what it’s supposed to do."

What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"We all have our own personal styles. Mine is information-driven, based on information I really know. There are other chefs out there who don’t necessarily know it, or haven’t studied very hard, or don’t need information so much. I mean Rachael Ray’s show is very information-specific, but it’s more about what’s in the pan right there. I mean, I make all my meals in 30 minutes, too, and most of my stuff is real-time, which is good. But her show, I believe, is more directed toward someone who is really watching their time, and my show is more directed toward someone who is really interested in understanding the concept of a dish, its execution and its history. So, you know, she’s got her gig and I’ve got mine, and that’s good. I just basically showed up, I knew my history, they turned on the camera, I talked to it. It worked. Lagasse, at whatever incredible number of shows he’s got, those guys work a lot more than I do on their productions. He does a week a month. Rachael, I don’t know, she doesn’t have a restaurant. That show, she is up and fun and interesting. It’s a great show and she actually makes a meal. It’s a great idea."

What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The very first show was probably the biggest disaster. I grated my finger, and I didn’t know to stop. I thought, Well, they didn’t ask me to stop the camera, but they must have seen it bleeding. So I dipped my hand in the tomatoes to hide it. When I pulled it back up there was blood red and there was tomato red, looking radically different. Between the end of one act and the beginning of the next they put a Band-Aid on me, and I came back just like that."

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