With a restaurant empire, several cookbooks and numerous Food Network programs under his belt, Mario Batali is perhaps one of the most recognizable chefs in America. On August 14, the orange-clogged king of the kitchen will return to his summer community in Northern Michigan for an outdoor culinary celebration on the Historic Front Lawn of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons from 5-10 p.m.
"An Evening with Mario Batali," produced by the National Writers Series and Porterhouse Productions, will feature 10 dishes inspired by recipes in Batali's cookbooks (his just-published book "Molto Gusto" features lots of vegetable dishes) and prepared by chefs representing The Cook's House and Epicure Catering.
The event will showcase world-famous mixologist Bridget Albert, who will create a signature Traverse City cocktail exclusively for the evening, renowned magician and MC Billy Harris (of "Magic, Martinis and Mario" fame), a live interview and audience Q&A with Batali faciliated by Zingerman's founder and owner Paul Saginaw, and music and dancing. Attendees will receive access to all event activities and a full dinner (all 10 featured dishes) with their admission. Tickets range from $35-99 and can be purchased at Oryana in Traverse City and online at nationalwritersseries.org.
In a recent phone interview with MyNorth, Batali talked about the inspiration behind the event, Northern Michigan's rising popularity as a foodie destination, and whether he would ever consider opening a restaurant in Traverse City.
MyNorth: How did your relationship with (National Writers Series founder) Doug Stanton begin, and where did the idea for this event come from?
Mario Batali: I believe I met Doug at Jim Harrison's house when he used to live on Lake Leelanau. There was a big dinner and we sat down together and soon realized we had a lot in common. I hadn't yet been aware of his writing, but I have subsequently read every word and am a huge admirer of his work as an author and an artist and an activist. Last summer, he sent me an email telling me he was working on this scholarship project (the National Writers Series Scholarship Fund) and asking if we could do something together. At the time, we didn't have any idea of how big the event would become. I thought, "Sure, I'll go to a little bookstore for 30 minutes somewhere." Then Porterhouse Productions came onboard, and now it's shaping up to be the Woodstock of the summer. (laughs)
MyNorth: The 10 dishes being served at the event are all taken from your cookbooks, in particular your newest ("Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking"). How would you summarize your personal cooking philosophy as reflected in these cookbooks?
Mario Batali: I'm all about the local-vore movement, eating and harvesting and sourcing your products from where you live. The two chefs preparing the dishes at the event, from Epicure Catering and The Cook's House, make the food I love perhaps most in the Traverse City area. They agree with my philosophy that the less distance things travel, the more tasty they will be. Luckily, we have some of the most beautiful food and fish products here, plus our bountiful cherry harvest, which makes that very easy to do. You're not required to do much to these dishes to make them delicious.
MyNorth: Traverse City has been rated by a number of organizations this year as one of the top foodie towns in the country...
Mario Batali: Much to my chagrin. Don't let them come here! (laughs)
MyNorth: Why do you think we're getting that attention?
Mario Batali: It's because it's the truth. It's real. This place isn't fancy or artificial; it's not a chain restaurant town. There is a prevalent ideology here of what makes food good here and around the world, and you see that in many different restaurants. (pauses) That said, I still hope most of them go to San Francisco.
MyNorth: There have been rumors about this for years - could you say definitively one way or another whether you would ever open a restaurant here?
Mario Batali: I will definitely never, ever open a restaurant here.
MyNorth: Why is that?
Mario Batali: Because one of the things I get out of living here is a total sense of relaxation. Even it was just a tiny little restaurant I went to a few days a week, it would take a lot of the joy out of it for me. This place is my escape. Besides, they're doing fine here - they certainly don't need another restaurant like mine.
MyNorth: After this event and your summer vacation are over, what's up next for you this fall?
Mario Batali: Eataly. It's a 50,000 square-foot multi-floor, multi-restaurant facility centered around the slow food ideology opening next month. It will be located in New York City on the corner of 23rd Street near Broadway. It's an exciting project.
For more information on Mario Batali, including his upcoming project Eataly, visit mariobatali.com. For information and tickets for "An Evening with Mario Batali" August 14 at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, visit nationalwritersseries.org.