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Food + Cooking

No Such Thing As Too Molto Mario

Published in Gourmet Live 09.28.11
Rachel Wharton reveals that the man behind the orange Crocs is leading the fight to feed kids—and feed them well

Mario Batali is busy. He has 19 restaurants, 9 cookbooks—the 10th, Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours, comes out next month—a winery, a recipe app, a kitchenware line, and a line of sauces, and he’s taken on a new challenge as a cohost of ABC’s just launched The Chew when not traveling to Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow for PBS. So why did he create his own nonprofit, a kid-centric organization now setting up mini-libraries and pilot childhood nutrition programs around the country?

The answer, it seems, is so he can achieve the same thing he’d seek from any of his restaurant kitchens—quality over quantity. “I receive literally hundreds of requests a week for events and contributions…” he says. “As opposed to merely dropping a couple coins in every valid box, I decided that it may be more effective and more personal if I started to lead a specific charge.”

More personal is no overstatement: On behalf of his two-year-old Mario Batali Foundation, which focuses on reading, nutrition, and disease-research programs for youngsters, Batali has read aloud to grade-schoolers at a New York City library, helped plant tiny green seedlings at a children’s garden in the Bronx, and tweaked his rich, decadent recipes, turning them into easy, healthy weeknight meals for lower-income families, such as risotto with acorn squash; sautéed pumpkin with chiles, mint, and honey; or polpettine di tacchino, aka turkey meatballs.

The chef has made fund-raising for the children’s programs he finances personal, too. MBF events are as Batali as those orange Crocs or the ragù bolognese he demonstrates on his Mario Batali Cooks! app. One evening last fall in Fort Worth, for example, the foundation hosted a $250-a-head grill-off where three chefs seared sweet Gulf Coast shrimp in the middle of the massive Texas Motor Speedway. Batali commandeered the coals with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson; the Food Network’s Guy Fieri fanned flames with driver Kurt Busch, and Southern chef Tim Love cooked with Kelly Hansen, the lead singer of the rock band Foreigner. (If that seems like an anomaly for the Manhattan restaurateur, remember his 2006 cookbook was Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style.)

In the works for this month is the second annual Swing Session Celebrity Golf Classic. While roving mixologists prepare spiked lemonades on a New Jersey course with Manhattan views, chefs like Michael White create the high-end snacks found at every hole. A portable Batali brick oven will even make its way to the green, ensuring that even if you don’t make par on behalf of the children, you will eat excellent pizza.

These events are a hoot, of course, but it’s the MBF programs themselves Batali is proudest of, especially because they focus on our country’s youngest cooks, something he has personal knowledge of, as he dotes on his two teenage sons and has long made his family meal with them a top priority. Watching what they learned from shopping, chopping, and braising by his side, says Batali, “it seemed that helping other children and their families have access to the opportunity of full realization of their potential would be a good thing.”

“Kids are not born into information,” he adds. “They are simply hungry and follow the traditions—or lack thereof—of their family and friends… I think Michelle Obama has made a great start for education about the relationship between health, diet, and exercise, and I am hoping that the MBF can help amplify this.”

To that end, the foundation targets existing organizations with track records in children’s health and education, like the Food Bank for New York City, Books for Kids, First Star, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “But we don’t just write a check and walk away,” says Darcie Purcell, the long-standing Batali brand manager who now serves as the foundation’s executive director. “We want to add value,” she says, “not just with financial awards but with the knowledge and education that we can provide from Mario and our board.”

With Books for Kids, for example, the foundation worked to fund a private library at the Dewitt Reformed Church Head Start program in New York City, launching a pilot Birthday Book Club program where kids choose a brand-new book to take home once a year, after which a new copy is added to the library in their name.

With the Food Bank for New York City, MBF developed curriculum and recipes for eight pilot Community CookShop programs. Housed in New York City food pantries or soup kitchens, CookShop is a six-part cooking and health class for both parents and young children, covering smart shopping, nutrition, budgeting, and how to put together a meal.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, Batali’s group worked to augment the summer immersion program for foster kids, who have extremely low rates of college graduation. Called the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy, it brings ninth graders onto the campus for five weeks to earn early college credit. With MBF’s help, this summer’s coursework included a nutrition curriculum.

And earlier this year, the foundation also lent its support to the Mario Batali Edible Garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where the chef planted those tiny seedlings this spring. The goal, says Batali, was so that more kids can see what fresh food really looks like, and how appealing that can be. “Understanding where food comes from,” he says, “is a crucial step in understanding the interconnectedness of the whole planet and its inhabitants.”

To that end, his three plots include one section filled with tomatoes, basil, oregano, wheat, onions, eggplants, sweet peppers, and hot chiles. That, you might have already guessed, Batali christened the Otto Pizza Garden.

To donate or for more information check out the Mario Batali Foundation. In conjunction with the launch of Molto Batali, the chef will match the first $100,000 in paid donations made to the foundation after November 1, 2011.

James Beard Award—winning writer Rachel Wharton is deputy editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, and has a master’s degree in food studies from New York University, where she focused on sustainable agriculture and food culture.