Even if you haven't heard of the internationally acclaimed Mario Batali, you've probably eaten at one of his restaurants. Known by the nickname "Molto Mario," Batali cooks up cuisine that combines his Italian heritage and American roots. On November 4, Batali graced Duke's culinary culture with a visit to campus. Insinuating hints of minor jealousy, he proclaimed that Duke's new West Union dining hall is a "temple of excellence." Thanks for the stamp of approval, Batali!
The evening began with a VIP reception in the Devil's Krafthouse, the basement level of West Union. Complimentary craft beer was served alongside good conversation.
Notable students and school administrators were in attendance – from DSG reps to LMo. Batali posed in front of a West Union backdrop for photos with various attendees. Pictured, left to right: Will Hardee, VP of Services; Ilana Weisman, EVP, Mario Batali, and Sean Bissel, VP of Academic Affairs.
There was no shortage of food, as the tables were lined with appetizers - from cheeses to chocolate. Only a select number of cooking demo viewers would be tasting Batali's creations, so guests made sure to grab a snack before going upstairs.
The cooking demonstration took place in the Chef's Kitchen, West Union's teaching kitchen. Students were able to enter a raffle for 10 spots to see the cooking demo - although most didn't get a seat! After introducing his sous chef, Batali started off with some advice: "Buy locally, you save money and you have delicious food."
When asked his advice to college students who are cooking for themselves, Batali suggested, "You can't go wrong with a simple pasta. Go to the grocery store or the co-op and find the weirdest vegetable and put it in your pasta." He encouraged all watchers to try to make as much of their own food as possible. "If you're cooking at home, you're already winning the battle."
His first demo dish was Texan-inspired: bean chili. Every morning, Batali says he eats an avocado with lime, some Tabasco sauce, and hatch chilis. Sounds like a spicy way to start off the morning.
For his second dish, Batali made a hand-crafted stromboli. Although he prefers to make everything homemade, Batali suggests doing what's easiest as far as pizza dough goes. "Get pizza dough from the local pizzeria – you can buy it or you can make it. You just have to pound down to make that thin edge even thinner. You don't want a thick layer of bread, but it can be saucy. It's up to you." This man really knows his stromboli.
As an undergrad at Rutgers, Batali studied Spanish Theater of the Golden age. "The thing is, all the Spanish Theaters closed at the end of the Golden Age," Batali joked. He then offered up his advice on undergraduate studies: "Try to find something you really like and study it well. You can make money later on anything you want to do. Become fascinated and become attached to the world, become a part of our planet, and then study your craft." Listen up Duke students: take a deep breath, it's all going to be okay.
When asked about his experience cooking at the White House for Obama's final State Dinner, Batali laughed. "There is more security in the White House than at a Kanye West concert." Clearly Batali has been keeping up with Yeezy. Because everything has to be prepared from raw in the White House (for security reasons), cooking everything brought in was quite the task.
Batali was dressed in his classic chef uniform: a button-down, vest, cargo shorts and Crocs. He loves his orange Crocs so much that when the company announced they were discontinuing the orange hue, he ordered 200 pairs. Duke Dining added to his collection by gifting him a pair of blue crocs as a thank-you.
Attendees were able to take home signed copies of Batali's latest cookbook, the Big American Cookbook. With over 250 recipes inside, I'm itching to buy a copy (and try out his Boston cream pie).
My parting gift? As my friend Julia and I walked out of the Chef's Kitchen, she remembered that Batali had left his stromboli in the oven. It had been forsaken after the famous chef-swapout (where they put raw food in the oven and pull it out fully cooked, seconds later). With no one on Batali's team in sight, we decided to dig in. As the Italians would say, mangia!