Who: Possibly the most famous—and most overexposed—chef in New York, Batali is the carrot-topped maestro of Italian cuisine behind such eateries as Babbo, Lupa, Esca, Otto, and Del Posto. His most recent venture is Eataly, the massive Italian food marketplace that opened in August 2010.
Backstory: The son of a Boeing executive, Batali grew up in Seattle and went to college at Rutgers, where he double-majored in business management and Spanish theatre and paid the bills with a part-time job as a dishwasher (and later cook) at a not-exactly-four-star Jersey pizza place called Stuff Yer Face. After a short stint as a student at Le Cordon Bleu, a "bored" Batali dropped out, choosing instead to get his hands dirty at a tiny pub run by a pre-famous Marco Pierre White, the London superchef who'd also trained noted lunatic Gordon Ramsay. Next came Batali's California sojourn: He worked as sous chef at the Four Seasons's Clift Hotel in San Francisco before taking over as head chef at the Four Seasons's Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara when he was 27. Then it was off to Europe for a three-year apprenticeship at a restaurant in a small Italian village.
Batali returned to New York in the early 1990s, and following a brief misadventure at an Italian spot off Bleecker Street called Rocco, he opened Pó in the West Village in 1993. Critics swooned from the start, but it was only after Molto Mario bowed on the Food Network in 1996 that Batali's public profile was really lifted. Freshly famous, Batali moved on to his next venture in 1998, partnering with Joe Bastianich to open Babbo, an "uncompromisingly Italian" West Village restaurant with a menu showcasing the porcine chef's obsession with offal. Babbo quickly secured a three-star rating from the Times' Ruth Reichl, and Batali's restaurant holdings, media presence, waistline, and ego have continued to expand ever since.
Of note: While Batali's familiar to the rest of the country because of his longtime ubiquity on the Food Network (see below), locally he's known as one of the most dominant forces on the New York dining scene. In addition to the perennially-fashionable mothership, Babbo, he and Bastianich own Lupa, Esca, Otto, Italian Wine Merchants and, in their most ambitious venture to date, Del Posto in the Meatpacking District, which earned four stars from the New York Times in October 2010, making it the first Italian restaurant in 36 years to do so.
Batali and Bastianich also have a hand in plenty of other venues around town: They hold stakes in former Batali disciple Andy Nusser's Iberian spots Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, as well as Ken Friedman's Spotted Pig. And, inevitably, they've exploited the Batali name outside New York with restaurants in Los Angeles (Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, Mozza2Go) and Las Vegas (Carnevino Italian Steakhouse, a branch of Otto, B&B Ristorante). During the summer of 2010, the duo expanded into the high-end supermarket business with the launch of Eataly, a complex on 23rd Street in Manhattan that houses several restaurants and sells gourmet Italian foodstuffs.
On the side: Possibly the only thing Batali craves more than a big plate of pig entrails is a generous helping of publicity. His rise to national prominence started with Molto Mario, a traditional stand-and-cook program that ran from 1996 to 2004 on the Food Network, squeezing out 517 episodes. Molto begat a collection of Batali spinoffs, including Mediterranean Mario, Mario Eats Italy, and Ciao America, and as if all that wasn't quite enough, he also made regular appearances on Iron Chef America. The most heavily branded toque this side of Chef Boyardee has also cashed in with five cookbooks, a line of cookware, a line of wine, and a licensing deal with NASCAR. In September 2007, his TV presence subsided just a bit when a clash with the Food Network ended his decade-long run on the channel. He returned to the small screen in 2008, with a 13-part Spanish cooking series on PBS co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
The look: Batali is hard to miss: If the blazingly red ponytail, year-round shorts, and orange clogs don't tip you off, look for the man teetering on a Vespa with a cigarette in hand.
For the record: Batali is only half-Italian. He changed his middle name to "Francesco" from Francis to make it more Italian-sounding.
Personal: Although he still spends many a late night out on the town, Batali is a married man: His wife is Susi Cahn, whom he met during his days at Rocco when she was selling vegetables and foodstuffs to downtown restaurants. (She now operates the Coach Dairy Goat Farm with her father, Miles Cahn, the founder of the leather goods company Coach.) Batali and Cahn live in Greenwich Village with their two kids, Benno and Leo, and have a summer house on Michigan's Leelanau peninsula.
No joke: Batali will come to your home and cook for you if you so desire. Keep in mind that if you're not in New York, you'll have to provide roundtrip transportation aboard a private jet. Oh, and you can expect the fee to run you close to $100,000.
Birth Name: Mario Francis Batali
Date of Birth: 09/09/1960
Place of Birth: Seattle, WA
Residence(s): New York, NY (Greenwich Village); Northport, MI
Filed Under: Food, Celebrity
[Photos via Getty Images ]