Super Mario: Batali’s farm to table crusade

Anna Meixler

Opening an Italian restaurant in New Haven could seem like a poor business decision. Being a resident of New Haven means having a favorite pie from the three old-timers: Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Modern. Yet the menu of Tarry Lodge, New Haven’s latest Italian incursion, has a separate section devoted to pizza that, according to its website, emerges from “an oven crafted by Valoriani, the storied family operation that has constructed ovens outside of Florence since 1890.” In a conversation with Mark Bomford, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, at the Whitney Humanities Center on January 23rd, Mario Batali explained his rationale for adding to the already-stiff competition and discussed his new cookbook, America Farm to Table. According to his website, the New York City based restaurateur owns 27 establishments from Las Vegas to Hong Kong to Singapore, and in his words, the thought “let’s not go somewhere where the pizza competition is so intense” crossed his mind more than once. But, by Batali’s own admittance, “our expansion [team] has never been one of a rational group of people.”

The Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group (Joe and Lidia Bastianich are Batali’s co-owners) did not choose New Haven arbitrarily. The new location was an organic addition to the two other Tarry Lodge locations in Connecticut, the first of which opened in Port Chester in 2008 and then Westport in 2011. Batali explained that rather than allow other entrepreneurs to poach young cooks rising through the ranks of his kitchens, he strives to provide those budding chefs with executive-chef positions within his own empire. The only way to do that with dozens of such rising talents is to open more restaurants, their locations determined by the places those now-partners call home. By allowing them to realize their career aspirations in their hometowns, they can cultivate their careers while maintaining family roots. For Batali, “cooking is still fundamentally done in the home or the restaurant to serve the people you love…the nature of a true cook is the nature of true generosity.”

New Haven, though, is a hometown that has already experienced an explosion of restaurants in the past few years that categorize themselves as “Farm to Table,” a term that lends itself to the title of Batali’s new cookbook. Tarry Lodge joins Harvest Wine Bar, Heirloom, Oak Haven Table & Bar, Caseus, and various other eateries that have changed New Haven’s food identity from a pizza-oriented destination to what a 2014 post called the “number one foodie city in America.” New Haven has boasted beloved (and delicious) institutions like Mamoun’s and Louis’ Lunch for many years, and is considered by its locals to have a rich culinary history. Only recently has the city accrued national attention for these more cutting edge restaurants.

Friday’s talk between Bomford and Batali drifted from Batali’s own industry beginnings at an institution called “Stuff your Face Stromboli” while he was enrolled at Rutgers, to his status on the food-labeling debate (“Why would you tell someone that they can put 5 percent rat balls in something and not tell us that?”), to his robust social media presence. If you haven’t checked out @MarioBatali, it’s high time you do so on Twitter and Instagram—He eschews Facebook, even though he describes the website as “the Macdaddy of them all.”

Batali also spent a lot of time talking about his efforts to combine the need of a restaurant to make money and create delicious food with his desire to maintain ethical business practices. He monitors the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list to determine which species should be avoided for sustainability purposes, and ensures that all of his restaurants are LEED Platinum certified. Batali insists that all of his efforts serve to make food “more tasty intellectually, and also on your tongue.” Eating without guilt—or with as little guilt as possible—is high on Batali’s list of priorities. “I want my kids to be able to eat bluefin tuna,” he said, “which is why I don’t serve it in my restaurants.” He acknowledges that as a chef, he is “a firm believer in the environment as the first thing we should be protecting.” This commitment to proper choice and sourcing of products is a lesson that Batali is most focused on imparting in his new book. “All the books that I write,” Batali intones, “are about helping someone make something delicious by themselves.” This book, more than any other, stresses that the “best way to make the most delicious food is to find the best products,” rather than the classical recipe-based approach of his other cookbooks. The best products, for Batali, come from local farmer’s markets that not only support the farmers economically, but also feature products devoid of unnatural growing and feeding practices.

Batali is unquestionably devoted to sustainability, provided it is mingled with the pursuit of deliciousness. The best way for college students to pursue those dual goals and change the food system for the better, Batali says, is to “become a part of the system…Find out what farming really is, what processing is, what serving is: Find how food gets to where we are.” And there is no set path to that immersion, he stressed. Given Batali’s college major—business management and Spanish Theater of the Golden Age—your choice of major matters less than the magnitude of your passion. “I stand firmly in the hedonist crowd,” he concludes. “I find pleasure and delight in all the things that I do.”

And to the inevitable question as to which current New Haven pizza purveyor served up the best slice, Batali provided the perfect answer: “Not to diminish the greatness of Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern…but I’ve heard on good rumor and good taste that the Yale Farm students’ pizza is the best.”

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