Before Mario Batali was Molto Mario, a celebrity chef with 26 restaurants, TV shows and cookbooks, he was just an Italian-American kid from Washington state.
“We were hop growers,” Batali says about his family. “We went to the lower valley [in Yakima] to buy vegetables to pickle in our antipasto. Helped my Aunt Marti make dilly beans. We were big picklers. For us that was it!”
“We’d go down to Dash Point Road and pick all the blackberries for free and you could and come home and make 50 pies, one for every Sunday of the year, except for two, obviously,” he said. “My favorite dessert to this day still is plain, fresh blackberries and vanilla ice cream. That’s what I want. That’s what America wants, it’s the new white meat!”
Batali’s family still does business in Seattle. His sister, Gina, runs Salumi, a cured meats shop and restaurant his father, Armandino Batali, opened in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. People line up around the block for a porchetta sandwich or a pound of Finnochiona Salami.
Mario Batali and the Obamas’ last state dinner
In October, Mario Batali had the great and rare honor of cooking the last state dinner for the Obama presidency at the White House. The president and first lady hosted the Italian prime minister and his wife, so presumably they chose Batali because he’s an Italian-American chef.
“They only let you bring four chefs on your team and you cook for 400 people,” Batali said. “You can’t bring any food. You have to buy stuff through their stuff. It was a total blast, we had a great time. Met the dogs and walked around the garden and got big hugs from Michelle … Mrs. Obama and the President.”
“But it was just a remarkable experience,” he said. “Jerry Seinfeld is there and George Stephanopoulos is there and James Taylor is there and Joe Biden is there. Everybody was really cool.”
Batali wrote up a handful of menus for the First Lady to choose from. He cooked Italian-style food using all-American ingredients.
“We did agnolotti of sweet potatoes with brown butter and sage,” Batali said. “Then we did a frisée salad with roasted Hubbard squash, dusted in fennel pollen and finished with arrope and pecorino de New York. Then we did a beef braciole, modern style. And then a green apple crostata with buttermilk gelato and thyme scented caramel.”
“Yes, it was a presidential dinner, I’m quite pleased about the entire thing!” he said. “They were just happy. Then Gwen Stefani comes out and sings. And everybody’s like, yeah! We’re at the White House! Of course Gwen Stefani is singing, why not?”
Batali came into the KIRO studio dressed in his signature look: shorts, fleece vest, ginger hair tied back in a ponytail (in a scrunchie!) and, of course, he was wearing those shoes. I asked him if he’s tired of talking about his orange Crocs.
“No! It doesn’t bother me! They’re funny! Even Michelle Obama comments on them,” he said. “I wear only one look. It took me years to develop this highly refined, completely haute couture look. So I’m never gonna drop it, even for the president.”
I also uncover the history of Chef Boyardee, who was, in fact, a real Italian chef, and basically America’s first celebrity chef. I also chat with a former White House chef who cooked for both Bush families and the Clintons.