By Abigail Cadelina
I walked to the front row of Angelico Hall and saw an aisle seat in the press section labeled “Reserved Abigail Cadelina” and felt like a VIP star at an awards show in that moment. But of course, the true star of the hour would be Chef Mario Batali, the world famous chef and restaurateur turned Iron Chef on Food Network who came to Dominican University’s Institute for Leadership Studies Lecture Series to discuss his new book “America- Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers.”
“Are there any foodies in the house today?” Liam Mayclem, host & producer of KCBS’ “Foodie Chap,” asked the audience (made up of mostly of older caucasians), who roared with excitement. Hmmm, did Mayclem say “foodies” or “groupies?”
Suddenly, the audience’s roar transformed into thunderous applause as their food celebrity appetites were satiated when Batali appeared from behind the curtain. He entered the way a plain person would walk into a grocery store and his outfit matched the “I’m a regular person” feel with his long, sandy blonde hair in a ponytail and black vest over a white long sleeved shirt and shorts. He resembled the self-portrait on his book cover; perhaps that casual farm style is his marketing strategy for his chef and media personality commodities.
Mayclem and Batali took their seats on two red sofa chairs set in the middle of the stage with a table between them. Mayclem began the interview style conversation with Batali by saying, “Let’s talk about cannabis” and the audience laughed at his reference to the medical convention that was taking place simultaneously in another part of campus.
Now that the herbal elephant in the room was let go, the conversation with Batali really began. The chef described his humble upbringing in Yakima, Las Vegas, and Seattle. He said, “We [Batali and his family] went to farmer’s market not because we were cool, but because what we did was cool, we weren’t sacred, it’s just what we did.”
Mayclem asked, “Do you remember sticking your fingers in things where they shouldn’t be?”
Batali recalled that in his family, cooking was synonymous with hanging out. He remembered in the kitchen that “Two bites is tasting, three is eating, and when three happened, it prompted a ‘Get outta my kitchen!’ from Grandma.”
Unexpectedly after this anecdote, Liz Chiarolla (Events and Conferences Director, Institute for Leadership Studies at Dominican) entered the stage with a bottle of wine in her hands that she poured for the two conversers to drink. Mario hugged and picked up Chiarolla and declared “I love California! I’ll meet you in the back room after?” The audience’s delight at the interruption was echoed by their communal applause and cheer.
Since I was sitting in the stage right section of the audience, it was difficult for me and for those sitting around me to see Batali’s face, which took away from his stage presence because we were unable to visually connect with his expressions. It was refreshing when Batali turned away from Mayclem and faced the audience and teased the host’s heritage by urging, “How many of you want to make out with a guy with an English accent? I do!” Because he was an entertainer and not simply the subject for an interview, Batali never missed an opportunity to convey his goofy personality, and the audience applauded him every time.
Still, Batali recognized the purpose of his visit was to display the “earth care” principles of his book surrounding farmers and their roles in producing quality food. “I want to taste food the way wind blows in Marin County. When I go somewhere, I want to eat food that lets me know where I am, like the dirt. [The] farmers near us are custodians of soil. If you want to know why a zucchini in my restaurant tastes so good, it’s because it took 10 minutes to get from the dirt to my place. You should talk to a farmer and learn how that ingredient (a fruit or vegetable grown), not meal, resonates with your core.”
Batali asserted his book is not solely about healthy recipes, but the “blind love you should feel for people making your meal better [farmers]. The deliciousness of a local farm resonates with soil and water and wind, which is Northern California.”
Mayclem’s last question to Batali took into account the place of their discussion. “Since we are at a college and there are students here, what is the importance of education?”
Batali answered “My advice for anyone who wants to be a chef is to go to a liberal arts college and not learn cooking, but to become someone who understands how to solve problems and wants to master and take care of it, that’s what cooking is about, that’s what restaurant business is about. Become categorically interesting in life.”
In one hour, Batali was able to connect with his audience through personal stories, spontaneous addresses, playfulness with people and wine props, humor, and articulation for his passion for the farmers who grow the ingredients that make the meal a memory. Even the added tip about the function of college got me thinking…
Toward the end, an audience member raised her hand to comment, “Thank you for letting me know my husband doesn’t need to cook food til it’s unrecognizable.”
Batali chuckled in response and reaffirmed his steadfast stance on organic farming and cooking by stating, “Soil and water and air are the most unique gifts and it’s squandering of our potential to not use it.”