Events — 27 October 2011
Strand Books Hosts Chefs Mario Batali, Michael White, & Frank Bruni

Blog: Mario Batali, Michael White, & Frank Bruni at The Strand

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Chef Michael White, Chef Mario Batali, Phaidon editor Emilia Terragni, and journalist Frank Bruni participate in a panel discussion on Italian cuisine, on the occasion of the publication of the cookbooks The Silver Spoon and Molto Batali (October 26, 2011).
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With 18 miles of books for sale, Union Square’s Strand Bookstore is officially the largest mom-and-pop spot for literature fanatics in Manhattan. It should be no surprise then that Wednesday night’s special panel discussion in Strand’s old-fashioned Rare Book Room, was filled by mostly moms and pops. Former New York Times critic Frank Bruni was on hand as moderator to keep the conversation flowing between Chef Mario Batali (EATaly, Babbo), Chef Michael White (Marea, Osteria Morini), and Emilia Terragni, editor of Phaidon Press. The conversation was built around the promotion of Terragni’s English-translated traditional Italian cookbook, “The Silver Spoon: New Edition,” and around Batali’s latest offering, “Molto Batali,” his 10th cookbook, but it evolved into a bevy of other, delicious topics.

The fundamental question that continued to be debated throughout the hour long discussion was ‘can we eat very good Italian food today without having travelled to Italy?’ All three panelists seemed to agree that ‘yes, we can’- Terragni being a full-blooded Italian now living in London and Batali, with his Italian roots agreed as well. Chef White, a Midwesterner without an Italian bone in his body (a point that would be noted repeatedly, for effect), but still managing to make exquisitely unique yet authentic Italian cuisine, stressed the importance of using the freshest ingredients from your immediate environment as the Italian way of cooking, but a method that can truly be leaned upon wherever you reside geographically. The chefs were willing to admit however that there are in fact some items they prefer to import from the ‘old country.’ Chef White opts for imperative ingredients like canned tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh seafood, while Chef Batali leans on Italy for items like pantry ingredients simply unavailable domestically, bottarga (dried roe), and some of his favorite prosciutto di parmas and salumis.

Despite the explosion of Italian cooking in Manhattan, said Chef Batali “I’d actually go as far to say that regional Italian cooking is underexposed in New York City. I can’t find a region that is even properly represented, which really shows a lack of true commitment of other cooks outside of this room.” Luckily, Chef Mario Carbone of Torrisi Italian Specialties was seated in the audience as an onlooker, so he was clearly not slighted by Chef Batali’s remark. He digressed, intimating that two men in his growing employ are looking at breaking ground on the first Batali project in Brooklyn focused on authentic Tuscan fare.

The conversation was captivating- from Terragni’s old school Italian mindset (Of the cookbook’s new edition, she questioned whether the recipes were ‘too hardcore for Americans,’ but with 2000 different ones she stated with a laugh “if you don’t like it, don’t make it”) to the incredibly eloquent and energetic Chef Batali, to White’s more jovial and wisecracking demeanor- keeping the crowd interested and engaged throughout. The last twenty minutes were opened up for a Q&A with the audience, to which point the panel both accepted praise and praised each other profusely, and rightfully so if you’ve ever dined at virtually any of their properties. Interestingly enough, Chef Batali suggested that “thirty years ago, becoming a chef was what you did after getting out of the army, and before you went to jail.” Chef White countered that as recently as twenty years ago he “told [his] father that [he] wanted to be a cook, and [his] father asked ‘yes, but how are you going to make a living?’” Seems so far, they’ve both done pretty well for themselves, but they both pointed to a much more sophisticated clientele in 2011′s New York City than when Babbo first opened its doors in 1993. And now, even with 19 restaurants under his belt, and more and more previous soux chefs underneath him, moving forward and opening their own places under the Batali umbrella (for fear of their talents working for a Danny Meyer or even a Michael White), he left us with one final suggestion to bring the experience of Italy back home- “The next time you have dinner, leave the food, and the dishes on the table for twenty minutes after eating, like they do in Italy. Italians still enjoy the experience of eating. They celebrate the table.”

Strand has a bunch of excellent upcoming readings and panels. For more information check out the Events at Strand.

- Jane Van Arsdale

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