An Intimate Evening with Mario Batali at the Seattle Art Museum

Steve Pool of KOMO News and Chef Mario Batali in TASTE's kitchen

They’ve cooked for the king and queen of Spain, the president of France, and a host of princes, princesses, and other dignitaries, but serving people in the culinary world feels different, confesses the Bon Appétit Management Company team at TASTE Restaurant and Events in Seattle. For a special fundraiser on Friday, November 4, for the Seattle Art Museum (TASTE’s host), Executive Catering Chef Paul Rosquita and Executive Restaurant Chef Craig Hetherington were serving the internationally renowned chef Mario Batali, so the pressure was considerable.

Batali is considered a gastronomic genius, one of the biggest names in fine dining. Glenn Drosendahl writes, “There’s big, and then there’s Mario Batali big.” With a restaurant empire, countless cookbooks, expansive product line, several television shows, and a 2005 James Beard Foundation Chef of the Year Award, Batali has reinvented Italian cuisine and changed the way we understand food.

Who wouldn’t be daunted to cook for him? On top of that, there was a twist — the TASTE chefs were expected to serve dishes inspired by Batali’s own!

A meaningful menu

Projected to raise $300,000 for the Seattle Art Museum, where his mother, Marilyn Batali, is a docent and frequent TASTE diner, this extraordinary epicurean event featured a family-style dinner with Batali as well as a freewheeling panel discussion among Batali; Thierry Rautureau, The Chef in the Hat™; and Steve Pool of KOMO News that ranged from thoughts on Twitter, the New York versus Seattle food scene, and immigration reform. Dinner included TASTE’s rendition of Batali Fenecchiedde (braised fennel salad with cavolo nero and crostini di gorgonzola), Strangolapreti alla Sorrentina (“priest stranglers” in the style of Sorrento), and Arista alla Porchetta (roast pork loin and Brussels sprouts with pecorino and thyme). The guests also enjoyed signature Batali hors d’oeuvres, such as Involtini di Coppa (pumpkin wrapped in Salumi artisan cured Coppa); dolci (desserts), like Zeppole (Florentine doughnuts with vanilla custard) by TASTE Pastry Chef Will Fausser; and wine and spirits from Wine World and Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen, as live music from The Teaching and the Soul Siren Band played.

With the exception of the vini (wine) and formaggi (cheese), TASTE’s menu was designed to bring Batali back to the Northwest, where he grew up. As is their practice, the TASTE chefs drew their ingredients from close by. The sausage came from Skagit River Ranch in Sedro Woolley, WA; Manila Clams from Taylor Shellfish and the Washington bays; chanterelles from Grandview Mushroom Farm in Arlington, WA; and coppa from Salumni’s Artisan Cured Meats, which is regularly dropped off in TASTE’s kitchen by Amandino Batali, Mario’s father and Salumi’s cofounder and principal “salumist.”

Simply delicious

What made the food so delicious was how simple it was, simpler than one might think given Batali’s eminence and our country’s obsession with embellishment. In fact, when the Molto Mario television show aired originally, Batali started out cooking complicated dishes and breaking them down, dissolving the mystery before viewers’ eyes.

Batali food stylist Krista Ruane with Executive Catering Chef Paul Rosuita

But after requests to see dishes that could be replicated at home, Batali’s style shifted. Batali’s food stylist, Krista Ruane — who flew out to help with the event — explained to me that his cooking is really about starting with what a grandmother would cook, and simplifying it further. And in the panel discussion, Batali shared his advice for cooking creatively: “Don’t take the recipe to the market. Go to the market and get the best stuff, come home, and figure the recipe out… Find an idea that already exists. Then find a nontraditional ingredient that is somewhat in the same family and put it together in a way that would make a grandma proud and would also still lend credibility to the birthplace of that dish… Then take two ingredients out and bring it to me.” Easy, right?

“While it was an enormous responsibility to prepare a Batali-inspired menu for Batali, we welcomed the challenge,” said TASTE General Manager Kristin White, who went to New York City with Paul and Craig to immerse themselves in all things Batali before the event. “Collaborating his style at TASTE was a perfect fit and once in a lifetime experience.”

Batali’s locavore, no fuss, to-the-point cooking is a philosophy already celebrated at TASTE. While neither of TASTE executive chefs’ style is categorically Italian – Paul specializes in Asian-influenced cuisine and Craig describes his style as “Northwest Provincial” – they prefer rustic to frills, boast that almost 90% of their food purchases are local, and like to allow food to speak for itself. No wonder their execution of Batali-inspired fare, with the support of Ruane, was seamless and the flavors spot on.

Paul and Craig are not alone at Bon Appétit in possessing a similar revolutionary spirit to Batali. Founded by CEO Fedele Bauccio, whose parents come from Southern Italy and instilled their core Italian values in him, Bon Appétit was born to celebrate community through good food. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised when Mario told me that he used to work for Bon Appétit, shortly after the company’s founding in the San Francisco Bay Area! Sometimes the world feels quite small and interconnected.

Hats off to the TASTE team for a spectacular night and to the Seattle Art Museum for a successful fundraiser. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Mario wore his signature orange Crocs. While recipes change based on what’s available, certain special items are always in season.

To see more photos from the event, check out Bon Appétit’s Facebook page.