Mario Batali could have enjoyed a healthy career as a chef working for the Four Seasons, where he quickly became one of the hotel chain’s most prominent chefs. But at the age of 29, he decided to leave the company and move to Northern Italy to apprentice in the kitchen of a 24-seat restaurant in the village of Borgo Capanne. When he returned to the states, he went to New York, where he opened a small West Village trattoria called Po. But it was his decision to cut his ties with that restaurant and open Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca that helped elevate him from a workaday chef into a celebrity.
That celebrity grew nationally out of appearances on Iron Chef America, but Batali’s star was ascendant years before that show debuted; he won GQ’s “Man of the Year” award in 1999 in the chef category, and earned the title of “Best Chef: New York City” from the James Beard Foundation in 2002. Now, of course, Batali is a global celebrity chef. He hosts his own documentary series for Hulu, publishes a variety of books, pops up on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, and more.
Here, Batali outlines some of the career decisions that helped him make the leap from hot chef in a big chain to a globally recognized brand.
Batali can rattle off a list of important decisions that he made at various points in his career that helped him expand his brand while making sure the focus was on his creative goals, rather than strictly making money: “Passing on big money deals with large unit operators, avoiding commercial ventures that don’t have anything to do with my beliefs or ideals, and generally avoiding all association with projects and products that would diminish the street cred of my brand,” he says.
It’s interesting that Batali thinks about the good decisions he made in terms of the opportunities he decided not to pursue–but if you want to give yourself room to create, what you don’t do can be more important than what you do.
Batali identifies the beginning turning point in his career as the biggest risk–which is usually the way that the world works for people who are aiming high.
“Every career decision, good or bad, links back to my decision to come to New York City and open Babbo,” he says. “It was a gamble, but it paid off.”
Whether as a chef, a media presence, or a human being, Batali doesn’t think he’s peaked yet. So is there anything he hasn’t had the chance to do yet that he wants to?
“Millions of things,” he says, before listing a number of activities that might come as a surprise to people who only know him from cooking. “I would love to learn how to play the banjo. I would love to work with Michelle Obama on nutrition awareness. I would love to travel to India with [actress and cookbook author] Madhur Jaffrey. I would love to break 80 in golf. I would love to sail the Nile . . .”
If the image of Batali strumming a banjo on a sailboat on the Nile seems far-fetched, it’s worth recognizing that 25 years ago, the idea of a Four Seasons chef becoming an international media presence was probably equally unlikely.