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Super-Chef Batali: Here’s How I Built My Brand

"We call them 'munchies' now. Then we were just 'starving'," chef, entrepreneur and restaurateur Mario Batali told "Off The Cuff," reminiscing about his undergraduate years at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"In college, when we were hanging around at the end of the evening after many potent beverages," he laughed, "we would get together and decide we were hungry after the restaurants had closed."

"That was the beginning of my sneaky tricks," he continued. "That's when I started to figure out just what 'al dente' meant in pasta and how simple things could actually be remarkably delicious, provided I did not have to do the dishes."

At Rutgers, Batali studied Finance and Spanish Theater of the Golden Age. He graduated in 1982. "After that, of course there were no jobs in Spanish Theater of the Golden Age," he said. But cooking to satisfy those late-night cravings led him to study at Le Cordon Bleu, the venerable French cooking institution. It didn't last.

"I dropped out of Cordon Bleu due to impatience and foolishness. I just thought it was moving too slowly because I thought I was a big shot chef. And in fact I was wrong. And I should've gone all the way through the program," he said.

"The only thing I regret about not finishing it is that the record shows that I didn't finish something that I started. When my children say, 'Dad, but you didn't finish,' I'm like 'I almost finished!' he said in mock indignation. "Not a really good lesson. But I was able to survive merely by cooking with really good people. And cooking in real restaurants is where you see what you need to know to cook. It hasn't affected my overall success pattern, I don't think," he said.

Batali now co-owns restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Singapore and Hong Kong, and he co-founded Eataly, the New York-based food marketplace. He has hosted a number of cooking TV shows, sells a line of food products, and another of peppermills, and has authored a cookbook.

"Protecting the brand is probably a little bit less significant that continuing to promulgate it," he said. "I'm not so worried about overexposure as long as I make my decisions based on [it being] something that I truly feel passionate about and I love. If you find my name on dentistry tools, then you can start to worry about me."

He sees his digital strategy as a key component in promoting his brand. "A website is often enough the first thing that people see when they are introduced to you. It's the easiest way and the least expensive way to get your name out there," he said. "You must also look at it that in the department of first impressions, there is only once chance."

A website, he continued, "should be pretty precise. That's how our web pages are. Everything that's about the restaurant describes our mission statement. It shows you your options so that you can start to salivate and get excited about it. It shows you the wine list so you can really think about it. The idea is to remove the obstacles from the customer satisfaction."

Batali is one of those people who have a "look." In his case, it's a little like the drawing game Head, Body and Legs. The head is rocker: flaming red ponytail. The body is prep meets Patagonia. The legs are suburban gardener: shorts, with his signature Crocs, in a subtle Fanta orange.

"My look is a default mechanism about pure comfort," he explained. "The short pants, I've always worn just because I get warm. The vest is excellent for holding microphones when you need to be audio-ed. And this," he said tugging at his shirt, "is my doff to Brooks Brothers and a kind of preppy look that's very popular in the industry in New York."

As for those shoes, "my wife bought me orange shoes when we were first married," he explained. "And my children, when they were three and four, would go play on something that we call in New York City, the "Houston ball field." Any other town in America would call it a parking lot, because it's cement with a giant chain link fence around it. "

"The children would run out," he continued, referring to his two sons. "Downtown Manhattan: everyone, of course, very cool, dressed in either black or gray. The biggest fear you can have as the father without mom around, is that you can't find them. So you dress them in orange. So orange became the national color of Batali, as it were. "

Now that's branding.