The Joy Of Cooking Batali Style

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"Frito De' Scampi: It's a fried scampi with soft polenta and lemon. I think people are really going to like it. But what's not to like about shrimp and grits, huh?," asks the effervescent chef Mario Batali.

He is the more colorful of today's celebrity chefs: a round, jolly, good natured fellow with a following in kitchens from bars to bistros, reports CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan.

His unique Italian dishes have won him the acclaim of some of the pickiest pallets in New York.

Just getting a seat in one of his restaurants these days can be like winning the lottery. Popularity, Batali says is the result of his simple food formula.

"We don't do anything like rocket science or anything," Batali quips. "I mean our mantra in the kitchen is 'we buy food, we fix up and we sell it for profit.'"

You might know him as "Molto Mario" on the Food Network, where he teaches just as much about the history of Italy as he does cooking.

"Tomatoes weren't even that accepted by the Italians until about the 1640s," Batali says during one program.

He's also one of the "The Iron Chefs," sort of like WrestleMania in the kitchen.

But that's all just a hobby, Cowan says.

His day job is running a string of Italian restaurants in Manhattan: from the upscale Babbo to a casual pizzeria called Otto.

Add to that his newest venture, Del Posto, which will be his largest restaurant yet.

"We don't know how he does it. I mean, it's just unbelievable. He's non-stop 24 seven," Batali's business partner Joe Bastianich says.

If you can keep up with him, he's full of simple wisdom. Ninety percent of good cooking he says starts with what you bring home in the bag.

"I find more inspiration walking through a market than perusing a recipe book," Batali admits.

Batali adds, "Food can sadly become fashion, and it shouldn't."

Asked if his high-profile and culinary skill can come across as snobbish, Batali laughs.

"Well, my job is to remove that. My job is to make sure we look straight across the table at each other. When you think about it, all my greatest work is poop, tomorrow," Batali jokes.

Everything about him says accessibility. Even his look tells you he's a man who doesn't take himself, or his work, too seriously.

He's that way with his staff too. The atmosphere in his kitchens is often as delightful as the food itself. Pastry Chef Gina Depalma says it all fits the "Mario mold."

"I've been in kitchens where there's a lot of gratuitous yelling. Mario's actually the opposite. He doesn't like a lot of drama. He likes everybody to be upbeat, and happy at what they're doing," Depalma says.

Not that it's never stressful. Just ask Frank Langello. He's Babbo's head chef.

"You're constantly moving. You're up you're down, you're jumping over people's heads, you know, swinging sauté pans under them, you know," Langello says.

That chaos produces a long menu that may appear complicated, but in the end is really nothing more than a home cooked meal. Home cooked, that is, if you had an Italian Grandmother like Mario's.

"All you have to serve with a meal, you get nice tossed green salad and a dish of ravioli. That's about all you can eat," Batali's grandmother believed.

So, would Batali's grandmother be proud of his dishes?

"Of course Grandma would be proud," Batali says. "I don't know if she would understand beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles, but she would certainly give it a shot. The food that we make is very based in our heart. And it's very much based in the feeling of an Italian family. That's what we aspire to in our restaurants."

Batali adds that this feeling is the "ultimate moment of nourishment, satisfaction and delight in one bite."

As a college student, Batali quickly moved from dishwasher to pizza cook at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey called "Stuff Yer Face."

"It was inexpensive. It was made to order. And it was absolutely delicious. And it had the hottest waitresses in town," Batali says.

The excitement of cooking under pressure hooked Batali, he says: "The adrenaline component of a successful dinner service is called a dinner rush. And that's just the intensity of emotion and synapses firing. And that's when I realized, 'Wow, I could probably do this for a living.'"

Over the course of several more kitchens, he learned not only the art of cooking, but the art of dealing with customers who didn't like his cooking.

"It used to bother me a lot more because I took it a lot more personally. Now I realize it's really their problem," Batali says of dissatisfied customers.

"If someone said, 'Well, this is overcooked,' or 'I don't like this,' it was just like, 'You suck," Batali laughs.

Instead of letting complaints eat away at him, Batali channels his passion toward perfection.

It's a confidence he learned while trying to get back to basics: the way his grandmother had always taught.

He moved to Italy to a hillside town between Bologna and Florence where he traded his cooking for room and board above this small restaurant.

"I was an odd fellow," Batali recalls.

It was the education of his life, where he also learned his philosophy of food.

"What I got out of the three years in Italy is not what to put on the plate, but what not to put on the plate," Batali says.

"There's only so much technique can do. If you have the perfect pea, in the perfect height of the perfect pea season, and you just cook it for a couple of seconds and it expresses all that you wanna hear from a pea, then it's perfect, ya know?" Batali says, adding, "And understanding that takes, you have to go through a lot of steps to get back to just putting a pea on a plate."

And as much as he likes to teach people about food, he's also all about the experience of cooking.

A man this portly certainly doesn't have a food interest as narrow as Italy. Batali is all about regional cuisine.

"I want folks who are not Italiaphiles or Food Network fans to understand that good food is within your grasp at all times," Batali explains.

His life has never been just about the food he says, but how the food can bring people together, and that's where the pleasure really comes.
  • Sean Alfano

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