Had an eventful week right after Thanksgiving, with a “conversation” in a New York auditorium with Mario Batali and a “conversation” in a San Francisco book store two nights later with Clark Wolf. I use the scare quotes to denote that these were not authentically natural, intimate, free-flowing conversations, but public, occasionally shticky discussions about food and my book. (Mario and I joked that we were ex-lovers; afterwards, privately, we wondered if someone would blog about this. Sure enough, someone did.)
But this isn’t to say that these talks were canned. Mario surprised me when I asked him about his countrywide aspirations. I noted that for years, even as he expanded his restaurant portfolio, he’d never opened a place outside of New York City (and barely even outside of his own Greenwich Village), and now, all of a sudden, he’s partners with Nancy Silverton in a new L.A. restaurant called Mozza and has two restaurants on the way at the Venetian in Las Vegas. It appeared to me that Mario was heading down the Puck-Colicchio-Vongerichten path of trying to build a multi-city empire, with all that that entails: weekly jet flight; struggles to maintain quality control; wracked, pensive, solitary scenes of emotional despondency on luxury-hotel balconies, asking oneself, “What have I done?” while a wedding party obliviously makes merry twelve stories below.
Rather reassuringly, however, Mario told me he really intends to remain a New York guy, and that this is as far-flung as his empire is going to get. The L.A. place, Mario said, came about only because he holds Silverton in such high regard and liked the idea of combining their talents. He would never have otherwise invested in the city, he says, since its citizenry tends to eat early and go home early–unlike New York’s, which is sufficiently diverse in its dining habits that his restaurants can reliably pack in three seatings a night. Vegas, Mario said, is the only city outside of New York in which it makes economic sense for him to have a restaurant, because it, too, can fill three seatings; its spend-mad vacationers will dine at all hours, so it’s a good investment. I have to admit I’m relieved that Mario won’t be doing a Babbo in Singapore and an Otto in Orlando.
As for the San Francisco bookchat at the lovely Book Passage store, all I can say is, Bay Area foodies live up to their billing. Clark Wolf happened to bring up the subject of the Paris Tasting, a notorious (to wine people) 1976 blind taste test by snooty French judges that put California wines on the map. I interrupted Clark, thinking/saying “Whoa, but are people here going to understand what that is, the Paris Tasting?” The audience, as one, gestured to me that of course they know what the Paris Tasting is, who doesn’t? Wow, San Francisco foodies. I shall never again doubt you.