Mario Batali guest-edits Food & Wine, ends up in bathtub

Michael Turek

Mario Batali served as Food & Wine’s first-ever guest editor for the April 2013 issue. Batali and Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine, reveal what goes on behind the scenes at the magazine.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Dana, give us the lowdown. You've never had anyone as a guest editor on the magazine in all the years in print. So what happened with this guy?

Dana Cowin: I hate to share the spotlight, but there's one guy with whom I’m willing to do that, and that is Mario Batali. Our readers love Italian food; they have an endless fascination for Italian every which way, and we've given it to them every which way except the all-Mario way. And let me tell you, this was the most fun I’ve had as a co-editor.

LRK: What's the scope of what an editor does? I don’t think most of us realize what goes on behind the scenes.

DC: In the case of asking Mario to be the guest editor, I had a few things on my wishlist. I wanted Mario to teach someone to cook because he's such an amazing teacher. He said, “Jimmy Fallon.” I said, “That will be good.”

We also wanted Mario to do an interview, because often editors will do interviews. Mario said, “What about Jim Harrison?” The amazing thing about having Mario do the Q-and-A, we didn’t give him any guidelines. We just said we want you to have an interesting conversation. It has to have something to do with food, and you take it from there. And Mario’s interview -- which we have the full transcript of -- it was masterful.

LRK: Mario, what was it like for you? You’ve never done this before.

Mario Batali: I’ve written, and I like to write, so I was excited about the prospect of writing, participating or seeing what happens in the world of editing. I had always assumed that there was this kind of grinding urgency as you approached the deadline. And maybe they put on airs for me -- this seemed like the most natural, flawless and fun way to put together a project that I’ve ever seen. It was just a blast. I’m always fascinated by how other people who do things really well do what they do. I got to see a pretty inside scope on this and it was great.

LRK: I have to know about the cooking lesson with Jimmy Fallon.

MB: Well, let’s just put it this way: It started in a swanky, rented apartment in New York City and we started cooking. By the end of the entire episode, me, Dana, and Jimmy are in the bathtub with a lot of strawberries. That’s all I have to say.

LRK: You are joking.

DC: He actually is not. It’s documented: It’s in the issue and it was very unexpected.

LRK: Should I ask, were you clothed or unclothed?

MB: You should ask. You know what? You should get the issue and check it out.

LRK: Now, Jim Harrison. You two have known each other forever. I personally find it difficult at times to interview people I really know; it’s hard to step back. So how did you treat this?

MB: I treated it like a conversation with Jim. It invariably -- very much like his books -- weaves a lot of wide textures together at the same time. We always talk about food, but we always talk about the outdoors, we talk about hunting, we talk about birds, we talk about dogs, we talk about places we like to sit, we talk about the way the wind smells on a Thursday afternoon when you’re in Livingston, Mont. He is exactly how he reads in real life; one of the greatest things about knowing him and then reading his books is that you hear him so clearly in every sentence.

LRK: What ended up, for you, being the thing that either gave you pause or you felt was really challenging?

MB: There was one moment when we were discussing a particular pasta that I had given to one of the editors and they decided that they were going to put cherry tomatoes in it. And I’m like, “But this is in the April issue, right? You know there aren't cherry tomatoes in the northern hemisphere.” We dealt with it and it worked out well. That was the bumpiest of the bumps, though.

DC: To be fair, though, Mario was incredibly gracious. What he said was, “You know, this is not how I would do the pasta, but I understand covers,” because it was the cover pasta that we were talking about. And as we are cooking this together -- because I was not going to let this issue happen without getting a lesson from Mario, which is what I did accomplish with this cover recipe, so I wrote about it in my editor’s page -- in the middle of the lesson, Mario turns to me and goes, “You know, if we call this a Southern pasta, you would have cherry tomatoes in April, so I’m good with that.”

He came around, so it was OK. The other thing is that the cherry tomatoes that are on the cover still have their skins, whereas the first thing Mario taught me was you get the tomatoes on the vine, you pop them in a really hot oven, and then basically you just pluck the little skins off of them. So Mario probably would never have a skin on his tomato -- ever. He doesn’t like the way it feels on your teeth.

MB: That said, this cover looks beautiful.

DC: Thank you.

LRK: So Dana, are we going to see some other names on the masthead in the future? Are you thinking about doing this again?

DC: I hate to say it, but I think Mario sort of broke the mold. He was perfect; he can interview, he can write, he can teach, he was a pleasure. I don’t have a burning desire to do it again. You know, it was my first time in 18 years and it was a perfect experience. Sometimes you eat the perfect peach, you don’t have to have more dessert. I think I’ve got the perfect guest editor, so I’m not sure I need to have another one.

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