Mario Baali And The Recessing Cult Of The Haute Chef
Image Credit: Batali left Six Bells Pub over an argument on risotto | Pexels

Mario Batali had dreams very far removed from the kitchen when he was growing up. He had ambitions to become a banker in Spain. He pursued business management and Spanish drama in college. But life has its own way.

 During his college years, he worked at a restaurant named Stuff Yer Face in New Jersey, and he quickly became enthralled by the thrill of the dinner rush. Eventually, he turned out to be one of the most successful chef-entrepreneurs in America, renowned for his uncomplicated, seasonal Italian cuisine (which makes use of the whole animal), appearances on TV, and a flourishing restaurant chain.

 Batali was once synonymous with high-end dining; that luster is now tarnished by the MeToo allegations he eventually settled. In 2021, the Guardian reported that Batali, along with his business partner and their New York City restaurant company, paid $600,000 to resolve a four-year investigation by the attorney general’s office into sexual harassment allegations made by employees against him and his restaurant managers. But such is the culinary world.

His culinary origins began very early and very much at home. Mario’s great-great-grandfather left Italy for Butte, Montana, in 1899 to work in the coal mines and eventually moved further west to settle in Seattle. During his childhood, he observed his grandmother crafting oxtail ravioli and other traditional Italian dishes that had been handed down for generations. According to PBS, Mario's father, a 30-year Boeing engineer, opened a meat-curing shop in Seattle as a retirement project, attempting to replicate the Italian foods store Mario's maternal great-great grandparents opened in 1903! In the mid-1980s, prior to launching Harvey’s, the well-known chef Marco Pierre White procured a job as head chef of the Six Bells pub on the King’s Road in London. He was allocated an employee budget of £500 for the week, and he allocated himself £400, leaving £100 for a sous-chef. The person he selected for this role was an up-and-coming American, Mario Batali. Because there were no finances left for a washer-up, they agreed to take turns with the job, and they worked jointly for several months. White’s was a uniquely brutal management style – par for the course at least back then for star chefs – and that may have been one of the reasons Batali walked. Legend goes that it was over a risotto that Batali considered perfect but White less than perfect. According to the story, Batali left after dumping two large handfuls of salt into every sauce that was bubbling in the kitchen. 

Picture credit - Instagram | @mariobatali

But his star was on the rise. People were drawn to Batali's personality, which was full of life, joy, and cheerfulness. He wasn’t the typical suave, slick chef of the New York culinary scene. A jolly man with his ginger hair tied back in a ponytail, Batali was the sort that came off as well-liked. "When he showed his appreciation for someone, it created a special bond," said one person interviewed for a documentary about Batali’s incredible rise and precipitous fall. His incredible talent was also a factor in his popularity. At the tender age of 29, he was already a sous chef at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. To hone his skills even further, he went to Italy and then eventually partnered with Steve Crane to open their first restaurant, Po, in 1993. A rave review by the New York Times kickstarted his haute status. Batali became a well-known figure in the US due to his innovative and delicious interpretations of classic Italian recipes. He featured in numerous Food Network programs and was a regular on Iron Chef and The Chew. Furthermore, he owned 26 restaurants all over the world and was a consultant and financial backer for many others. The Spotted Pig in New York – favoured by the A-list – was for years place du jour of the city. A place frequented by so many celebrities had to also ensure extreme privacy, which meant turning a blind eye to whatever else went on behind closed doors in the restaurant. Reports of free substance use, a lewd work environment, and Batali’s roving eyes and groping hands had always been going around, but they did not gain momentum until #MeToo happened. At that point, the stories about the "Weinstein of kitchens" could not be stopped, just as Batali's fall could no longer be checked.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that a lot of terrible behavior went unpunished because chefs were treated as bona fide rock stars in the haute cuisine world. At a time when bad behavior is deservedly being called out and perpetrators of said behavior are being brought to action, and rightly so, Batali serves as a great reminder that terrible behavior is just that—terrible—and has no place in the kitchen or anywhere in the world, even if you happen to be a gifted chef who revolutionized modern dining as we know it.