Mario Batali: chef, movie star
How’s this for a slice of irony?
Mario Batali, dressed in a suit, no orange Crocs in sight, is seated at a gleaming restaurant counter in a Manhattan eatery, haranguing a chef who works for him: “In a down economy, green doesn’t play,” Batali insists as part of a profanity-laden rant. “People don’t give a damn where their hamburger comes from as long as it tastes good.”
It’s the last thing anyone would expect to hear from the ambassador of Italian cuisine, a man who wholeheartedly endorses the eating local philosophy. But according to Batali, that was part of the fun in playing the role of an angry businessman named Gordon in the low-budget satirical horror film “Bitter Feast,” which was designed by writer-director and self-professed foodie Joe Maggio to send up the contemporary culinary culture.
“It was hilarious,” Batali says. “Every line I said was everything against what I believe.”
The movie, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and heads to DVD this week, tells the story of Peter Gray ( James LeGros), the chef at a New American eatery called Feast, who abducts a food blogger after he publishes a rumor that Gray’s television show is about to be canceled.
Gray chains up the writer in the basement of his country house and forces him to execute seemingly simple tasks, such as making eggs over easy without breaking the yolks and grilling a steak medium-rare — and tortures him when he fails to achieve perfection. In one instance, he strikes the man in the face with a hot frying pan; in another, he kidnaps the writer’s wife.
Maggio, who had worked in kitchens himself and had been a butcher at Magnani’s in Oakland after college, was inspired to write the script after reading a particularly vicious Frank Bruni review of Gordon Ramsay at the London that ran in the New York Times a few years ago. Maggio said that living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, where foodie chatter has reached a fever pitch, helped him flesh out the concept.
“Every time I open my e-mail, there’s an invitation to a new dinner club,” Maggio said. “Everything is locally sourced, right down to the china you’re eating off of that was done by a potter who lives in Brooklyn. I can’t get sausage anymore without knowing what the pig ate. Everything comes with a little placard next to it with this long description of where it was raised, how, by whom, is this person an old hippie, what kind of music does he listen to.”
Batali was approached to do his cameo in the film by the producer, Larry Fessenden, whose children attend the same school as Batali’s. He immediately sparked to the black humor in the idea of a wronged chef taking revenge against a critic.
“How much better can it get?” says Batali, adding that even at this point in his storied career, he still reads reviews. “Especially bloggers! There’s a lot of anonymous bloggers out there who just take potshots, write it down and suddenly you can cut and paste it, so it’s almost like it’s entered the world of real journalism. The premise was interesting that there was some accountability.”
Despite the untold hours that Batali has spent in front of the camera, he says he was quite nervous about acting — he’s much more comfortable being himself on-screen. “Generally, when I’m doing my shows, it’s completely improvised so there’s no way I can mess it up,” he says. “The idea of having to nail three lines and eye contact and blocking and everything petrified me. For two days, I didn’t sleep.”
Maggio says he was star-struck when Batali showed up on set to shoot his scene, which was filmed at the West Village eatery 10 Downing.
“I think the man’s an artist,” Maggio says. “I was as nervous with him as I would be if Ingmar Bergman were to come back from the dead and be there. I didn’t want to make mistakes. Also, we were dealing with food culture, and I’m an amateur. I thought maybe we were doing all sorts of things wrong and he was going to think I was an idiot.”
Batali, though, is a huge fan of the film and has watched it multiple times, a fact in which Maggio takes great pride. “I don’t care what any film critic says,” Maggio says. “Mario Batali thinks we nailed the foodie culture, the restaurant culture and also the way we presented the food and dealt with the food. He gave us his thumbs up.”
Maggio is continuing on in the culinary world — as a writer on the upcoming PBS travelogue series “The Kimchi Chronicles,” which documents Marja Vongerichten’s journey to explore her Korean heritage through travel and food with her husband, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
And Batali is sticking with acting — after a fashion, anyway. He has another movie role lined up in a film tentatively titled “As Cool as I Am,” from director Max Mayer, a friend of Batali’s wife. But this time, his part is a little closer to home.
“I’m actually playing me,” Batali says. “I’m actually on-screen, and then I have dialogue with this character from the TV, I look to her and I say something. It’s kind of magical realism. I like the idea of that because it’s very easy to do.”
Eat your way across L.A.
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