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Mario Batali: The future of food is in our hands

World renowned chef Mario Batali says the future of food involves making truly American dishes by hand for loved ones. Photos by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The future of eating, Mario Batali, says, is our hands.

The world-renowned celebrity chef and restaurateur says that in an age in which speed, convenience, and inexpensiveness reign king in the food world, the future will be about getting back to our roots and making dishes by hand—dishes that stir passion, start conversation, and invite company.

“The future of food is probably more now than ever, in America, in our hands,” Batali told a standing-room-only crowd on the 17th floor of East Village and a Facebook Live audience on Friday. “When you make any decision about the food that you’re eating, the restaurants you go to, the kind of places you support, you must realize you are making a political decision. You should think about sustainability, you should think about seasonability, you should think about local farmers.”

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Batali headlined the latest installment of Northeastern’s presidential speaker series, “The Future Of…”, which drew hundreds of online viewers in addition to the capacity crowd. President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, which invites leading thinkers and inno­va­tors to campus to explore what’s on the horizon for the topics that shape our lives.

The discussion was wide-ranging and insightful. Among other topics, Aoun asked Batali about his own history with cooking and how he has built his successful businesses before the pair compared the benefits of American versus European wines.

How the past can inform the future

To understand the future of food, Batali said, we must first understand its past.

For the better part of human existence, food served as a means of survival and little more, he explained. Only in the past century have people really begun to consider food as “something almost luxurious.”

Then, in America specifically, the focus shifted toward creating food that could be made inexpensively and quickly.

“What happened in my lifetime is that after World War II, the Baby Boomers gave the objective to our food-producing community to create inexpensive protein and inexpensive vegetables, so that we could proceed forward with progress,” Batali said. “But what they lost, to a certain extent, was the deliciousness, the uniqueness, the remarkableness of non-repeatable vegetables and proteins.”

My palate has become much more forgiving or appreciative of bitter, much less easily convinced by sweet, much more interested in tart, and overwhelmingly salty. I think bitter becomes more intriguing as you age because you meet more bitter people and you develop a taste for them.
—Mario Batali

Now, Batali said, we as consumers need to be conscious of the food choices we’re making to ensure those choices represent our values as people.

“What’s important to keep in mind, as best you can, is that decisions that you make are informed by decisions you’re actively aware you’re doing. Make sure it represents exactly what you think it does,” he said.

What makes American food distinctive

It is, in fact, exactly that uniqueness—preserved in pockets of the country—that’s ultimately made American food so distinctively American. Whereas once the idea of American food may have called to mind images of hot dogs, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese, American food now is representative of all the cultures of all the people who have immigrated to the U.S.

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While Batali is generally known for his expertise in Italian food and cooking—as an apprentice under London’s renowned chef Marco Pierre White, he spent three years training intensely in the Northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne before returning to the U.S. to invigorate the Italian restaurant establishment here—Batali is focused on American cuisine for his latest book, Big American Cookbook.

“Our food came from the immigrant experience. People came here and what they discovered is that the memories of their food, the dishes they’d make for their special occasions…maybe they couldn’t find the exact ingredient but they wanted to make the dish anyway,” Batali said.

So families would swap hard-to-find ingredients for a close American substitute, and pass down recipes that represented both their heritage and their new home.

“We created a hybrid cuisine over the last 200 years that celebrates basically the roots of all the immigrants, and the idea that is so compelling about it is that now it’s American food,” Batali said. “We celebrate it in such a way that it lets us recognize that yes, we are truly beyond the melting pot.”

Making that food ourselves is the future, he said.

“You have to find a way to get involved with it,” Batali said. “At the end of the day, what makes it more interesting, what makes it more of a joy? When you’re talking about feeding someone, you’re talking about the ultimate gift.”

Batali talks about his childhood, and his palate

After his talk, Batali fielded questions from the crowd as well as social media.

Aoun asked Batali how his own palate has changed over the years.

“My palate has become much more forgiving or appreciative of bitter, much less easily convinced by sweet, much more interested in tart, and overwhelmingly salty,” Batali said, joking that bitter tastes become more intriguing as we age “because you meet more bitter people and you develop a taste for them.”

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In response to a question from Facebook about what inspires him to cook, Batali immediately recalled his family and upbringing in Washington state.

“My family always cooked, and it was something I always loved,” he said. When his mother suggested he attend culinary school after high school, Batali scoffed, not wanting to miss out on the college experience, he said. The Rutgers University graduate encouraged all students to get a well-rounded education before learning their craft, in fact.

Batali has an impressive list of credentials to his name—cooking the last state dinner for President Barack Obama, writing 11 best-selling and James Beard Award-winning cookbooks, founding the charitable Mario Batali Foundation, and establishing 26 restaurant or markets across the world (including the soon-to-open Eataly Boston in Boston’s Prudential Center)—but said the most important thing we can do is create a small moment of stillness after a meal.

“The future of the home meal is in your hands,” Batali said. “But when you’ve finished the meal, let dirty plates sit on table for 20 minutes. It sets a tone for the conversation.”

More than that, Batali said, “it sets a tone for the rest of our lives.

“If every single moment has to be moving forward, we’re never going to find time to relax, we’re never going to get to know each other. If you slowly start taking back quiet, personal time,” Batali said, “you’ll be a better person and we’ll be better people.”

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