Personal Inadequacies Have Overridden Professional Brilliance
With apologies to the Bard, I come not to praise Mario Batali, but not to bury him, either.
Everybody knows I like Mario, so I've been hearing it all week. “Hey! What about your buddy Mario?” “What do you think of Batali now?” “Man, that's really something about your pal Mario.” Frankly, it's all left me quite conflicted. Before you start screaming, “How can you be conflicted? The man's obviously a pig!,” let me attempt to explain.
I used to work with a guy in radio who was a champ in terms of being offensive. This guy used to bring in nothing but young college-age girls to work as interns, producers, and on-air personalities. Most of them had no experience and little aptitude or talent, but that was okay: our boy was only too happy to “train” them. One of them showed up on my doorstep in tears one night when an attempted “training” session went sideways. After she related her story of being backed into a corner and groped, my wife said, “God, what a pig! Can't somebody do something about him?” It was the '80s and the short answer was “no,” because although being a debauched, leering, philandering, womanizing, lecherous Lothario might have been highly distasteful, it wasn't strictly illegal – and he was, after all, the boss. The law was laid down: “It's my way or the highway.” Women had to take it or leave it. A few of them took it: most of them left.
For all that his personal conduct was deplorable, though, he was absolutely brilliant at what he did professionally. He was an innovative, gifted, talented broadcaster without peer. He was famous for single-handedly turning around the ratings at radio stations wherever he went. Don't think for a minute that his licentious behavior went unnoticed. His moral shortcomings were pretty much an open secret in the business, but, dammit, he got ratings and he made money. As long as he didn't depants some teen intern in the hall and publicly have his way with her, his proclivities were generally overlooked by management and ownership. None of the rest of us could understand it. He was A) physically unattractive, B) possessed of a permanent case of halitosis, and C) married with two kids. But there he was; turning stomachs when he thought he was turning heads. One of my coworkers said it best: “As a professional, you can't touch him. As a person, you don't want to.”
Apparently, that's also Mario.
I don't know the man personally. I was in the same room with him once during a live cooking demo. That's as close to him as I ever got. But even from a distance, I could detect elements of my former radio colleague in Mario's attitudes and mannerisms. Reading Bill Buford's “Heat” reinforced my observations. I've seen Mario described as “hedonistic” and “a man of Falstaffian appetites.” I've heard that he likes to “live large.” That his presence “dominates any room he's in.” Even at the cooking demo, his personal dynamic changed the very energy in the room as he breezed in and immediately took charge of his fawning, adoring audience. He's Mario-freakin'-Batali, fer cryin' out loud! And he knows it. So what that he likes to get liquored up and put his hands where they don't belong? Isn't that a small price to pay for the privilege of basking in his greatness? Ah! But now it's the twenty-teens and, having been caught one time too many with his cargo shorts down figuratively if not literally, the answer appears once again to be a resounding “no.”
Times have changed and are continuing to do so at a dizzying pace. “Take it or leave it,” “my way or the highway,” and similar sentiments are not tolerated as well in the current generation as they once were. And, for better or worse, Mario and his generation are products of their time. I can say that because I'm a few years older than Mario and I know whereof I speak. The world was a different place when it was handed over to us in the sixties and early seventies. The swinging “Playboy philosophy” and the concepts of “free love,” “do your own thing,” and “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” that informed our formative years simply don't fly anymore and anybody unwilling or unable to make the adjustment is riding for a fall. And it seems that Mario, a poster child for the freewheeling, free-loving, hard rockin' past, has, indeed fallen.
And the thing is, nobody is in the least surprised because everybody was in on the “secret.” A headline from Eater sums it up: “The Food World Reacts to Mario Batali News With Anger — and a Lack of Surprise.” Mario Batali, known by some as the “Red Menace,” is a lecher and a creep? Why, we're shocked! (Wink, wink.) So do the right thing already, Mario. Apologize. Admit to what everybody already knows or at least suspects and move on. Great advice. And then what does he do? He goes and pillories himself by attaching a holiday cinnamon roll recipe to his heartfelt mea culpa. (Sigh: facepalm)
The pity is that his personal inadequacies have overridden his professional brilliance. While you may not want to touch him as a person, nobody but nobody can touch him as a chef. A Michelin star, three stars from the New York Times, and a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award for his work at Babbo, GQ's “Man of the Year” in the chef category. “Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.” “Best Chef: New York City,” “All-Clad Cookware Outstanding Chef Award,” and “Best Restaurateur” from the James Beard Foundation. Induction into the Culinary Hall of Fame. Emmy Award-winning TV shows and a raft of bestselling cookbooks. Those are bona fide bona fides if ever there were any.
I make absolutely no bones about or excuses for the fact that much of what I know about Italian food and cooking came from Mario by way of “Molto Mario,” “Iron Chef America,” “The Chew,” and many of his dozen-plus cookbooks. The man is a walking encyclopedia of ingredients and techniques. More importantly, he is a natural teacher who is fun and entertaining to watch as he imparts his knowledge. I came away with more useful information from a single thirty-minute episode of Molto Mario than I did in many hours of more “formal” culinary instruction, and I had more fun doing it.
And it is just a dead-dog shame that so many people, in the interest of modern political correctness masquerading as social outrage, are willing to crucify Mario for being what he can't help being: a product of his time. I'm not saying he's right for some of the things he did. I'm not holding him up as a role model for young chefs or for young men in general. The “product of his time” excuse should not excuse his egregious transgressions, but perhaps it should serve as a prism through which his actions can be viewed and from which a perspective can be taken that might ameliorate the consequences. Mario's a creeper. I get that. He's a low-down, lascivious, concupiscent, satyric libertine. (He also likes big words.) I'm not going to argue. He likes to leer and fondle. Yuck! So let's bring him to account for his actions and force him to accept the mores of modern society no matter how antithetical it might be to his psyche, his adopted persona, and his core upbringing. Make him capitulate and conform to current ethics. If not, kick him to the curb. But let's not erase him as if he never existed.
Right now, as I write, his products are being pulled from store shelves. He has been sacked by his employers. His longtime backers are backing away at a furious rate and future projects are being put “on hold.” He has become anathema; the fashion-challenged face of all that is wrong with the industry in specific and with society at large. Michael Chiarello, Todd English, Johnny Iuzzini, John Besh: they've all been scrutinized for their indiscretions and peccadillos and found scorn in the public eye. But Mario, with all his swagger and bluster, is bigger, much bigger, and so is much more fun to take down and tear apart. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” don't you know?
Another thing to consider as the almost gleeful disassembly of the Batali empire continues to dominate the media cycle is the effect it all has on the thousands of people employed by that empire. Mario's made his fortune. He's worth more than twenty-five million. Even if he never works another day, his future is fairly secure. But as we tar and feather the boss and ride him out of town on a rail, are we giving any consideration to the people who are really being affected by all the bans and boycotts? “I'm never gonna eat at another Batali restaurant!” You think you're hurting Mario? It's the cooks, the servers, and the rest of the staff you're giving the shaft. And they didn't do anything to deserve it.
Yeah, I'm disappointed in Mario and more than a little disgusted. But I'm even more disappointed and disgusted in the people who are chomping at the bit to pile on to somebody who's down. Like the bottom feeding “reporters” who followed him down a New York street snapping pictures as he tried to go to lunch and pointing out to readers that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Apparently they were incredulous that Susi, his wife of more than twenty years, hadn't immediately and unceremoniously turned on him. They had done it, after all; why shouldn't she?
I'm not going to participate in the wholesale slaughter of a fallen icon whose greatest offense was being a misguided member of a misguided generation. Okay, so he should have kept it in his pants. Point taken. But as we censure and castigate him for his iniquities can we at least leave him his pants? Is it necessary to completely expunge him from our collective consciousness. Or can we, perhaps, as the evangelicals say, “hate the sin but love the sinner?” He's still a human being, after all, and capable of redemption. Which reminds me: isn't there some biblical reference to stone throwing? Reading the comments that accompany some of the press leaves me heartened to know that I live in a country with three-hundred million saints and apparently only one sinner.
So I'm not going to remove references to Mario from my past writings and I'm not going to excise his recipes from my collection. I'm not going to throw away his cookbooks, I'm not going to divest myself of products bearing his name or likeness. I will invoke his name in a positive light when the situation warrants, and if he ever turns up on TV again – which doesn't appear likely – I'll watch him. Why? Because even though he's a rotten role model, he's still a good chef. He taught me a lot and he brought me a lot of enjoyment over the years and I'm not gonna trash his ass and toss him in the gutter because he has proven to be flawed. Everybody's had fun sitting in their judgment seats and giving full-throated voice to their righteous moral indignation. Now leave him alone to reevaluate and rebuild his life.