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A Delicious Conversation with Star Chef Mario Batali

“Would you rather build a Ferrari or a Fiat?” Star Chef Mario Batali doesn’t build cars, but even when he explains his passion for excellence in fine cuisine, his choice of a metaphor demonstrates his love for anything Italian. One of the most renowned chefs in America, Batali spends his time juggling between running his top New York restaurants, hosting Food Network shows, publishing cooking books, grooming his Tuscany vineyard, and spending time with his wife and two daughters. When choosing a topic for their “Leading Teams” paper – their last at HBS – ECs Eldad Persky (OG) and Josh Benaim (OI) decided to spare their section mates the pleasure of filling yet another poll and, with the help of HBS alumna and founder of starchefs.com Antoinette Bruno, went beyond the Charles to the Big Apple to get Mario Batali’s view on what it takes to run a great kitchen. Their journey was rewarded with a fascinating (and delicious) glimpse into a magic world of steaming pots and sharp knives.

For more than a decade Batali has managed to be consistently successful in this notoriously fickle business. He attributes large part of his success to long-term relationships with his partners and key employees whose exquisite palettes are complemented by business savvy and extensive experience “in the trenches”. When Batali started planning his new upscale Italian Del Posto in 2003, he turned to his trusted friends who joined forces to bring it to an extremely successful launch in 2006, earning 3 stars from the New York Times Restaurant Review. Contrary to the industry standard, Batali offers his top chefs partnership in his restaurants; they in turn stay with him for years. Many of his staff have worked together in the past; when a new restaurant is launched the “swat-team” is sent in to get things going and show the young aspiring chefs how it’s done.

“We buy food, we fix it up and we sell it.” Sounds simple? Well, think again. Del Posto’s kitchen spreads over many rooms in two levels of sparkling production stations that are equipped with cutting edge hi-tech utilities. Over fifty people, most young and ambitious, work these stations – washing the vegetables, baking the bread, handling the meat, carefully hand-making every ravioli. One person’s sole responsibility is to make risotto. Together they serve up to 200 demanding customers (many of whom are not strangers to the wonders of Finance in a Wall Street, I-Banking setting). Despite the amazing pressure and the uncompromising quality standards, everything seems to run smoothly behind the kitchen doors. Everyone knows their role in this well oiled machine and perform their tasks on a timer like well-disciplined bouncing cranberries. There is minimal talking allowed in the kitchen. Messages are delivered through physical gestures and demonstration. “The old days of prima-donna chefs who scream at their staff and refuse to serve unhappy customers are gone” says Batali. The staff is there to learn and Batali is more than happy to give them an occasional enthusiastic speech about vinegar or wine tasting.

“What do you look forward to in the future?” we asked Batali. After he completes his plan to expand his presence from New York to other parts of the country, he hopes to be able to spend more time with his family on their Tuscany farm and own a home in a different part of the world for each season of the year.

So if you’re heading to New York and wish to celebrate your graduation in Del Posto, Babbo, Lupa, or Esca, be sure to make a reservation at least a month in advance and prepare to leave a chunk of your signing bonus at the door. Oh, and if you see a guy with red hair, wearing shorts and getting all excited about olive oil – tell him we said hi.

May 8, 2006
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