Like the lesser celebrity chefs we've all seen so much of, Mario Batali has had it pretty good. After creating and running some of the most successful Italian restaurants in the U.S., he has made enough money to buy Sardinia. He's such a big TV star that even his vacations get made into TV shows. Through his cookbooks, his magazine articles and the deathless repetition of his various cooking programs, he has influenced the way America cooks and eats. But like most celebrity chefs, he understands that mere celebrity is a form of fraud, of failure. What most of them want, more than anything else, is to be a real chef again and create food in restaurants.
So Batali, like Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, is going back to the kitchen. Lately, both men had been restaurateurs more than chefs, leaving the creation and execution of their dishes to talented proxies. But Batali rose to fame for his outrageous, over-the-top Italian cooking, and he has never seemed really happy to oversee an empire. Like Colicchio, who started cooking at Craft on Tuesdays and is now back running Colicchio & Sons in New York City, Batali wants to cook. He's working on the menus for six new restaurants at Eataly, the massive Italian food emporium that he and partner Joe Bastianich are planning to open later this year in Manhattan. There will be a meat restaurant, a fish one, a pasta and pizza operation, a vegetable restaurant, a panino bar and a brewery-gastropub on the roof deck. It's a giant undertaking, but Batali is a force of nature. He is creating all of the restaurants himself, after having spent years away from cooking. Whether he can pull it off remains to be seen. But he's psyched to be even trying.
"These are the first really unadulterated [Batali restaurants] we've opened since Otto, seven years ago," the chef says. "So much has happened since then; the whole terrain has changed. There's the green movement, sustainability, the new world of small-farm sourcing. I'm turned on by that. It's a whole new palette to work from. I'm intimately involved in what the restaurants are going to be." This is not to say that Batali is going to totally neglect his empire in order to be in the kitchen every night. He is up-front about that. "I won't be there in the kitchen every night, but it's my food," he tells TIME. Batali may be working on all of the restaurants, but the one his heart seems to be in the most is the meat restaurant, which will feature two kinds of beef: a grass-fed Italian Piedmontese variety in various raw preparations ("tartare, carpaccio, a little raw-meat salad with apples ...") as well as a grain-fed superbeef that will be engineered at Carnevino by beef guru Adam Perry Lang. "Mario is really out of control with this new project," a young cook told me. "He's so happy to be back at the oven."
The chef is in rapture describing everything from his new dishes ("There's going to be peppery calves' tongue, two meat pastas with meat sauces actually meat juices! plus two rib-eye steaks") to his plan for compliance with HACCP, which every N.Y.C. restaurant is required to follow, for food safety. The man is cranked up. Even the concept of failure seems to be a tonic for him. "There are five ways for everything to go wrong, and I'm a little nervous, but that's exciting," he says.
The whole experience is one that Batali's peers have to find enviable. He can afford to take mega-risks, with mega-rewards; that's what being a superchef does for you. There's always a Mr. Moneybags lined up to finance or partner with for the next project. But a chef has to follow through, and it's to Batali's credit that he is moving forward, instead of just whining about how much he misses the kitchen.
The kitchen, not the TV studio, is where chefs belong. Harold Dieterle, winner of the first season of Top Chef, who has since spent his time producing great food in his restaurant, Perilla, explains why. "You can do wine and food festivals every weekend of the year if you want to. But it's not really sustainable. What are you?" he says. "And it gets boring not cooking. You miss cooking. Cooking's great. Managing people sucks. You feel incredibly detached, because you're not getting your hands dirty."
What about the fact that a restaurant may serve only a few thousand people in one city, rather than millions across a country? Batali has an answer for that: "Good food trickles down, no matter where. When good things happen, they eventually happen in Peoria."
At least, they do if towns have their own homegrown Marios. The James Beard Foundation Awards announced this past week their list of semifinalists (see a PDF) for their regional and national chef awards, and there are no more than a handful whose names would be familiar to most diners even to people who eat out a lot. The truth is that whether in Peoria, Persia or points in between, the most influential chefs aren't the ones who periodically descend to restaurants they've created and then leave again; they're the ones who actually run the kitchen every night. That's where Batali is blessed he has help from guys like Mike Toscano, who will be running the Eataly meat restaurant, and Mark Ladner, who runs Del Posto, Batali's upscale, special-occasion restaurant. Jean Georges can't be in his namesake restaurant every day, but his guy there, Mark Lapico, can. The same goes for Colicchio, with James Tracey at Craft. They aren't the big names, but they channel the big names and make the food come alive. And for those other chefs on the Beard list, the ones who are creating fantastic, blooming bistros in Portland, Ore., Nashville and Savannah, Ga.? Someday soon they'll want to open a new restaurant, and when they do, someone will have to man the stove they leave behind. And, like Batali, they'll miss it.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.