Celebrity chef Mario Batali has plenty to be thankful for, and a Thanksgiving Day spent cooking with family is near the top of the list.
- Posted on Oct 26, 2016
In my wallet I carry a faded blue index card with my grandmother’s handwriting on it. It’s a recipe, her biscotti recipe. Like all good cooks, she kept tons of recipes in her head—one cousin actually filmed her making her famous ravioli with pork sausage, chicken, Swiss chard and Romano cheese just to have a record of how it was done.
Other recipes were kept in a box of crinkled note cards and pages cut from the newspaper with notes scrawled on them, the result of infinite trial and error. This one she wrote down.
My grandmother is no longer alive, but with a glance at the card I can hear her voice, smell her kitchen, taste the anise seeds on her cookies. I can recall how she only let us grandkids eat nine pieces of ravioli even though she rolled out twelve hundred at a time because the ravioli was only the primo, the first big course after the antipasto, and there’d be roasted meat, usually lamb with rosemary, for the secondo, not to mention treats like biscotti for dessert.
I grew up in Seattle, part Italian on my dad’s side, French-Canadian on my mom’s. I liked nothing better than to hang out in the kitchen and watch my mom or my grandmother or my aunts—it was usually the women—cook. I absorbed everything they did. Good food feeds our very souls, and theirs was good. But I didn’t fool myself. It took a lot of work. A casalinga (home cook) like my grandma didn’t just happen overnight.
“You should go to cooking school,” my mom told me.
“No way,” I said. I wanted to go into business and make enough money so I could eat at the best restaurants and order anything on the menu.
When it came time for college, I chose Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and decided on my major: business management. Yet somehow cooking followed me.
For instance, my sophomore year at Rutgers, my brother Dana was a freshman at nearby Princeton and the two of us headed into New York for Thanksgiving at our uncle Pat’s. We volunteered to do the turkey. There we were in the kitchen, we’d just stuffed the bird and it was ready to go in the oven, when we dropped it on the floor. Dana and I looked at each other for a moment. What to do?
Then I burst into my best Julia Child imitation, raising my voice an octave: “Remember, you’re always alone in the kitchen!” We both howled with laughter. We picked the bird up, dusted it off and popped it back into the roasting pan. No one would be any the wiser. To this day whenever I cook a turkey I like to lower it toward the floor for a moment, in homage to that Thanksgiving.
In New Brunswick I got a job at a popular student place called Stuff Yer Face. I started out as a dishwasher, but it was only a matter of time before I was promoted to prep cook and then line cook. Not to brag, but for cranking out stromboli I was one of the fastest in my time.
Maybe my mother was on to something. Perhaps cooking school was the place for me. Farewell business management. I headed off to London and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu.
I would like to tell you that from then on it was a very logical progression: “Molto Mario,” the Food Network star, the owner of restaurants and food stores, the author of cookbooks, was launched. But it wasn’t anything like that. My career had a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs. Sometimes it’s the byways that test you and make you what you’re meant to be.
I went from cooking school to working at one of the top restaurants in London, under a brilliant and sometimes exasperating chef, to catering mammoth corporate events in San Francisco to becoming a sous chef and then head chef for one of the top hotel chains in the world.
I was all of 27 years old, making more money than I’d ever dreamed, cooking delicacies at a swanky spot overlooking the Pacific Ocean and staying out too late, much too late. Something was wrong. All the good reviews couldn’t make up for the emptiness inside. I was successful, but it was someone else’s idea of success. My benchmark was still my grandma, and I wasn’t there. Not even close.
My dad was an executive for Boeing and did a lot of work overseas. “Dad,” I asked him, “do you know of some small restaurant in Italy where I could work with an Old World cook in exchange for room and board?”
Turned out that through a friend of a friend there was such a place, a tiny trattoria on the top of a hill above Bologna on the edge of Tuscany. I could hardly find the spot on a map, but I packed my electric guitar—as if I’d be playing it—my headphones, a few CDs and my clogs.
I stood alone at the train station in this hilltop town, without a word of Italian, feeling totally lost. And yet I was also home. I felt it in my heart and soul, something more real than the swanky joint overlooking the Pacific.
I stayed at that restaurant for three years. It was the loneliest and happiest time of my life. I spent six months just learning how to make pasta. In the mornings I’d go out foraging in the countryside with a relative of the owners for mushrooms, truffles and berries. Talk about fresh ingredients. We’d pick weird little watercress that grew along the river and a bitter dandelion that he boiled.
I discovered how the good earth offered up delights with every season. The food was simple. No fancy sauces, no steam tables, no pans of stock. After dinner I’d retreat to my room and listen to music on my headphones, gazing at the mountains and feeling at peace.
Julia Child was right. You are alone in the kitchen. Alone to savor the smells and tastes and the bounty of what nature provides. You can discover the holiness of the simplest things, a sprig of parsley, crushed oregano, the pure yolk of a farm-fresh egg.
I was a changed person when I came back to the States, grounded in what I wanted to do. The first restaurant I opened, in New York’s Little Italy, wasn’t a huge financial success, but I met my wife, Susi, there.
Early in our courtship, I cooked a birthday dinner for her and my mother at the place, rushing back and forth from the kitchen to see what they thought of each dish. Finally we locked the door, my father took out his accordion and we all sang songs and ate until four o’clock in the morning.
See what I mean about good food feeding our very souls? The next place I opened was Po, and then came Babbo. These restaurants made my name. Then I started my TV show and writing books, going on tour around America, collecting more recipes.
Which brings me back to Thanksgiving, my favorite of all holidays. Yes, it’s about turkey and stuffing and sides and pecan pie—one of the very best I’ve found was in Oklahoma—but it’s also about being grateful for all the good things we’ve been blessed with. Those original Pilgrims would have given thanks to God not only for turkey but for lobster, clams, flounder and unheard of exotica like maple syrup and sweet corn.
For many years Susi and I celebrated in the city with our two boys. We’d watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then I’d take my sons to serve food at a church soup kitchen on Ninth Avenue.
What the boys saw was something I had witnessed over the years: that the face of hunger isn’t someone who looks down and out, drinking Sterno in a gutter. These were regular people you’d pass on the streets, fellow straphangers on the subway. The boys learned that helping anybody is the most important thing in life.
Now that the boys are older, our Thanksgivings are at our house in Michigan, where, as at the feasts of my childhood, family and friends gather. Michael Symon, my buddy and colleague on The Chew, busts my chops because I plan my Thanksgiving menu in August. But then, in cooking, isn’t preparation everything?
In my childhood we had turkey and potatoes and pies, of course, but we also had antipasti: pickled vegetables and prosciutto, salami and pecorino, honoring the rich mix of heritages in my family.
That’s another thing I love about Thanksgiving. No matter where your family’s from—Sweden, China, the Dominican Republic—everyone agrees to work with the same restraints. The fundamental building blocks are the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes and the vegetables, but then you can add anything you want, even a side of pasta.
On Thursday I start prepping at 6:00 in the morning. Last year I smoked my turkey, so I got my smoker going at 3:30 a.m. to get the temperature right. We take a nice long walk on the beach with our dog, then I go back to the kitchen. No one helps me until 2:00 p.m., when I say, “All right, everyone come in.”
Both of the kids, Benno and Leo, have one or two dishes that they’re responsible for. Susi does the desserts. By 4:00 everyone’s done. We clean the house and take a break before the guests come over, around 5:00.
Now, here’s the most important advice I can give you for Thanksgiving: You should enjoy the entire process. Enjoy creating the menu, the shopping, the preparation, the cooking and, most important, the guests. Use tried-and-true recipes. You could even do a warm-up the month before so you’re confident.
Do something that is family. Share the work. I make two turkeys so there’ll be plenty of leftovers for midnight raids of the refrigerator.
Finally, at the beginning of the meal, give thanks for all your blessings. As it should be very clear, my blessings are many. I can look at the table, at the food, at our family and friends, and then think of the index card in my wallet. My grandma would be very proud.
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