An orange-haired ball of fire, celebrity chef Mario Batali moved quickly through his “Sicilian Summer Supper” recipes Friday during a Food & Wine Classic demonstration in the basement of the St. Regis Aspen Resort.
He made cauliflower griddle cakes (with smoked ricotta), couscous with clams and fennel, and tuna “dice” with mint and green peas. It was difficult to follow his flurry, but as he prepared the three-piece meal, he doled out many culinary words of wisdom inside the nearly full conference room that seats 400.
Batali, 52, a Washington state native of Italian and French Canadian descent, doesn’t believe in skimping on quality with regard to ingredients for a recipe. And when it comes to wine, either for cooking or drinking while cooking, he adopts that same fresh-is-best philosophy.
“The most important decisions you’re going to make about how good your food is going to be are not in which cookbook or which celebrity chef you’ve decided to follow, but most of them are made in a grocery store … before you get home,” he said. “The potential for success of your dinner is already decided when you’ve loaded all your groceries into the back of your station wagon, or in our case, a minivan.”
Batali, who is an expert on the history and culture of Italian cuisine, pointed out that Sicilian cooking is not as closely related to Italian cooking as one might think.
“In fact, if you were looking at a map of Europe and Northern Africa, you’d notice that Sicily is closer to Tunisia than it is to Milan,” he said. “As a world-famous person (the 18th-century epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) once said, ‘Tell me what you eat. I’ll tell you who you are.’ That is a direct anomaly to the fast-food habits of America.”
Balance is important in cooking, Batali said, noting that many Americans mistakenly have a philosophy of “more is better,” especially when it comes to garlic.
“A little bit of garlic goes a long way,” he said. “They certainly don’t eat a lot of garlic in Italy. We think they do. It’s really about eating the same amount of garlic as the person you want to make out with.”
Throughout his demonstration, Batali provided many other sound bites, some practical and related to cooking, some merely to delight the crowd:
• “Recipes are really good, like using a map to drive around town,” he said, pointing out that they don’t have to be followed to the letter. “Don’t be afraid to drive along, get away and keep moving. So when you see a recipe, if something looks like it’s not right — if you think you’d like to put a little more lemon in, put a little more lemon in. A recipe is supposed to be just like a road map.”
• “So when you’re cooking, if you’re like me, you tend to be a little superstitious,” Batali said. “I don’t know if you ever noticed, but in all of the Iron Chef panels I won, I was wearing the same pair of socks.”
• “A common misunderstanding of restaurant cooking is that faster is better. In fact, fast is pretty good … but everyone knows that slower is better,” he accentuated in a lower, breathless tone.
• “When you’re buying equipment for the house, it makes a lot of sense to go with the professional (equipment), but keep in mind, the professionals are buying stuff that needs to last for 30 years — so should you.”
Batali co-owns several restaurants in the United States and around the world. He is a social activist and has spoken critically against the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method of natural-gas extraction. He lives in New York City.