Mario Batali isn't just a chef. The restaurateur is also a business owner, philanthropist and media personality. His culinary empire includes 26 restaurants, five grocery stores and 4,200 employees. And it has made him a multimillionaire, according to Forbes.
But despite his financial success, the most important money lesson he's learned throughout his career is simple: Don't make it the main focus of your life.
"Money comes and comes and comes and comes and then it goes and goes and goes and goes," he told CNBC at Eat (RED) Food & Film Fest, an event Batali hosted as part of Eat (RED) Save Lives, an annual month-long campaign that raises money for the Global Fund, with 100 percent of proceeds going to fight AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Don't worry so much about money; don't become attached to money," Batali says. "Find things that have more value than money."
A younger Batali would have thought differently. When he headed off to college at Rutgers University, Batali originally planned to study finance and work in banking. "I wanted to be a [banker] — I loved the idea of making a lot of money and living a luxurious life," he told Bill Buford in a 2002 profile in The New Yorker.
But after working in a popular campus pizza joint, Batali realized he didn't want to spend his life chasing money. He wanted to be a chef.
Batali faced a similar crossroads later. A rising culinary star in the late 1980s, he became the highest-paid young chef working for the Four Seasons in California. But when the company offered him a position as head chef of an exclusive restaurant in Hawaii, Batali flat-out quit, The New Yorker reports. Once again, he realized that the work wasn't fulfilling, and it wasn't making him better at his craft.
Instead, Batali packed up his life in the U.S. and moved to Italy to work at a trattoria in a small village in exchange for room and board. This time, he wanted to learn to cook like his grandmother, who was famous within the family for her handmade ravioli and traditional Italian meals.
After studying the intricacies of Italian cuisine from top chefs in both London and Italy, Batali returned to the U.S. to cook and later opened his first restaurant with co-owner Joe Bastianich in 1998. From there, the pair expanded, building toward what they have today.
When asked about the best investment he's ever made, Batali smiles and lists off his many restaurants. What's important isn't the number they've allowed him to have in his bank account, but the businesses he's created.
"I don't even know how much money I have in the bank, but I have enough to continue to live a great lifestyle and I'm not that worried about it," he says.
By choosing to focus on the things that truly mattered to him, Batali built wealth and, even more important to him, a career he's proud of.
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