MARIO BATALI TRAVERSES the long, brown length of the Palace Ballroom—moving as if on wheels, a windup toy in bulbous Crocs and Nantucket-red cargo shorts. In an hour he’ll be sitting on the Ballroom’s stage next to its owner, restaurateur Tom Douglas—the two men have known each other for years. Batali bounds up a staircase and into a rickety greenroom that hovers above the Ballroom’s catering kitchen. There, a photographer stands fiddling with his flash, waiting to snap a portrait of the most famous chef in the world. Someone passes Batali a sweaty beverage in a rocks glass. The chef smiles for the camera, takes a swig.
He’s just come from Salumi, the cured meat shop in Pioneer Square run by his parents, Armandino and Marilyn Batali. Mario grew up in Yakima, cooking with his Italian grandmother. In interviews he has painted nostalgic scenes of a Campania-style childhood grafted onto the steppe climate of Western Washington. He remembers preserving summer vegetables for antipasti and relishing his grandmother’s ravioli with calves’ brains. She’d dole out an equal number of pasta parcels to each of her guests, he remembers, the same number every time. Washington is where Batali learned to love food.
But for now it’s just another stop on the tour. The chef is currently pushing his ninth cookbook, a vegetable-centric tome called Molto Gusto. The interview with Douglas will be ragged and intimate: both bawdy and philosophical, and weighted with, but never derailed by, a chatty audience. At one point Batali will extend to that audience his middle finger—two in fact, parallel digits goal-posting a grin of long—cultivated confidence—and they will applaud him for it. Then he will sign their cookbooks and be on his way.
Before all that, as the Ballroom fills up with fans, Tom Douglas strolls into the greenroom, glass in hand. Passing Batali he makes a quick swipe at Molto Mario’s crotch, then folds himself into an upholstered chair. Last time they were together, Douglas says, he was very drunk. “And I’m never drunk.” Batali grins.
A woman who works for Douglas sneaks past an event organizer guarding the stairwell, slips into the greenroom, and asks Batali to autograph some books. Douglas blinks with amusement, Batali obliges.