When celebrity chefs dine on the road, they’re no doubt bombarded with rich dishes, with expensive touches, as local restaurateurs try to impress the traveling stars.
But sometimes, as I found out when I volunteered to chauffeur Mario Batali around my old stomping grounds of Tampa, Fla., all a famous chef wants is a little lamb brain terrine and some good conversation.
(I have had the chance to volunteer — and by “volunteer,” I mean sending e-mails that say “Please! Let me help!” — for such choice duties a number of times since I won Batali’s grilling contest in 2008. But that’s a story for another day.)
It was nearly midnight on Friday, Feb. 24, when the kitchen crew at The Refinery, got word that Batali was on his way for some snacks after a book signing and cooking demonstration.
Greg Baker, the chef/co-owner who was just named a semifinalist for Best Chef: South by the James Beard Foundation, started reviewing with his crew what they would serve. But as he delivered the first dish, the terrine — served with a wasabi-yuzu-apple mostarda that particularly got Batali’s attention — he was surprised to learn what the celebrity chef really wanted.
“This all looks delicious, but we really want to hang out with the chef,” Batali told Baker.
Taken aback, Baker went back to the kitchen, told his staff to finish up their dishes and come upstairs to join the party.
So once the Apalachicola oysters with wakame and apple and the grilled calamari with sizzling sesame vinaigrette were on the table, what followed was three solid hours of direct access to one of the biggest names in food.
Some of the topics that came up:
●Expansion and branding. Batali’s empire stretches over 20 restaurants, four states (not including Singapore) and employs 3,000 people. The Refinery has a single outpost with 17 people and aspirations. Grow on your terms, and don’t do it too fast, Batali told them.
●Take advantage of the raw ingredients from the Gulf of Mexico and as a result of Florida’s extended growing season. “The Gulf Coast has the potential to create a culinary raw ingredient paradise that smart cooks can capitalize on,” Batali said. “The Refinery is onto that. I dug their mindset and their fearless approach to deliciousness.”
●Own the local food movement. Establish a community garden. Help connect your customers to your farmers. Start a farmers market where the products meet the standards you have for the restaurant. Host it, if necessary.
●Feel free to throw my name around, Batali told them, if you think it will help make things happen.
But the biggest takeaways were intangible.
“Being able to speak freely, as a peer, with someone that I hold in such high regard is something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around,” Baker said. “I’ve found that the culinary titans that I’ve had an opportunity to meet are just down-to-earth people, after all.”
He also said the evening served to inspire his staff.
“They have even more drive now to make it better every day.”