DETAILS: It's fair to say that you've changed how Americans cook and eat. Does that give you some satisfaction?
Mario Batali: I wasn't a revolutionary. The idea of eating the whole animal wasn't news—it just wasn't popular at the grocery store. I was given a soapbox near the beginning of the Food Network, when the influence of cookery became something cool in culture. The world was changing. I happened to get a little credit for it. I think I made cooking as much about the sport of it as it was about the pleasure of eating. I was bored after three shows of telling you how to chop an onion. So I had to create a style that evolved into an On the Road of the dish.
DETAILS: You're famous now. Was that part of the plan?
Mario Batali: It wasn't my idea. First of all, I thought I would be a football player. Then I got the shit knocked out of me at age 11. Then I had great hopes of being a famous oceanographer like Jacques Cousteau. And then I got the shit knocked out of me sophomore year by organic chemistry.
DETAILS: But now that you are, how do you feel about it?
Mario Batali: It's hard to say that comfort and a degree of celebrity aren't a lot of fun. It comes with responsibility, but not so much that it outweighs everything else, you know? I'm not going to pretend I'm stuck inside some kind of palace, waiting for someone to save me from my fame. You know what? It's great, I'm lucky, I dig it.
DETAILS: But fame can be a delicate thing.
Mario Batali: It takes 20 years to build a brand, and it takes three tantrums to destroy it.
DETAILS: Are there still any screamers in the business?
Mario Batali: Gordon Ramsay plays that guy on TV. I don't think he can be that guy in his real kitchens anymore, because he's not in his kitchens anymore. But it got him where he is. Now, Marco Pierre White—he was a screamer. It was the late eighties, an abusive time. I learned as much from him as I did from positive people, but it was direction by fear. There was no chance of you joyously celebrating the dish. I've never been a yeller. I've found that a stern lecture in earshot of their peers—allegedly sotto voce—will change the way they look at it next time. If they did it wrong, it means I didn't show them right the first time.
DETAILS: You vacation with Gwyneth Paltrow. Bono comes over and plays football with your kids.
How did you first break the ice with these folks?
Mario Batali: It's an opportunity you can easily blow if you're too suck-uppy. I'd just say, "I'm a big fan of your work." They appreciate what I do too, so it diminishes that wall of "What the fuck are we gonna talk about?"
DETAILS: Who was the first famous person you met?
Mario Batali: Michael Stipe or Bill Clinton. Clinton met everyone in the room. Clinton was that guy. He was with his total brigade when he came to Babbo. We've become friends over time. We help out each other's foundations, but I don't think I'm on his speed dial. Michael Stipe came in, and we were playing PJ Harvey really loud. He said, "I like this place." I said, "Thanks so much." Then I went back in and cooked. Third time he came in, he said, "Sit down. Let's have a drink." These are normal people whose work I just happen to appreciate so much.
VINE DINING: Batali in the wine cellar of Otto Enoteca Pizzeria in New York City.
DETAILS: What kind of intelligence impresses you?
Mario Batali: There are two kinds of smarts. There's Christopher Hitchens smart, which is Yes, I know everything, and I want to impress you smart. And then there's guys like Michael Pollan, with an I want to share it with you smart. You sit down with the share it with you smart guy and suddenly you feel swollen and more intelligent. That's what I'm looking for all the time.
DETAILS: You have two sons. What has fatherhood taught you?
Mario Batali: The worst advice is to try to be your kid's best friend. I'm no pioneer here. You want to have as much fun as possible with them while still imbuing in them a respect for elders, and also a disrespect for the rules that make you think you shouldn't be able to do something. There's gotta be some civil disobedience. That's the high wire. Can't say if I've been totally successful in that, but my sons are 17 and 15 and they still haven't torched the car. You can't be their friend, but you can be their dad, which is still a pretty good gig.
DETAILS: So what does the Batali family do for fun?
Mario Batali: All our best family vacations have not involved museums, they've involved counting bears. So much more memorable and life-altering. You can always go back and see Picasso, but you're never going to see those three bears heckled by those two bald eagles ever again. That's a one-moment thing.
DETAILS: Does cooking run in the family?
Mario Batali: My whole family grew up cooking, for as long as I can remember. We would go to the Lower Valley market in Yakima, Washington, to pick up baby mushrooms and make simple things like tuna in tomato sauce with little vegetables. We were, as I came to realize later, not rich, but we had a rich history of eating delicious food.
DETAILS: What's the best advice you can give foodies?
Mario Batali: The idea that you're gonna make something just like me or Thomas Keller at home is a fallacy. You'll never have the same BTUs, never have the same pan at home, never have the level of intensity.
DETAILS: Ever gonna give up the Crocs?
Mario Batali: Got something better?
DETAILS: How many pairs do you own now?
Mario Batali: Probably 30. I just ordered 200 more because they're about to take orange out of the field. They made a special run for me before they retired the color.
DETAILS: How do you feel about that?
Mario Batali: They're gonna stop the Mario Batali orange! It's preposterous! But they're doing pretty well without me. Nothing lasts forever, baby.