Mario Batali wanted to grow up to be a banker in Spain. While studying business management and Spanish theater in college, he worked at a New Jersey restaurant called Stuff Yer Face and “fell addicted to the adrenal rush that happens during a dinner service.” He went on to become one of America’s most successful chef-entrepreneurs, famous for simple, seasonal Italian food (made with every bit of the animal), star turns on television, and an ever-expanding restaurant empire.
HBR: What did you learn in your business classes that turned out to be useful?
Batali: Nothing at all. Business classes were all theoretical then, based on comparing your marginal revenue curve to your marginal cost curve. I enjoyed macro, but you learn more in a philosophy or English class about how to deal with people and get things done.
When you opened your first restaurant, how did you approach leading the kitchen staff?
At that point, there was no kitchen to lead. It was me and a dishwasher, so I learned you can’t get mad at anybody but yourself. Eventually I had a sous chef, and then a morning prep chef, but I stayed integrally involved in every moment of the slogging battle of getting good food out quickly every day. It was when I opened Babbo that I needed to figure out how to manage people—which I did mainly by trial and error. I hired really good people and paid them top wages. I made sure that we were all very much involved, but I was also able to step out and watch the operation from the other side of the window.
Now that you have 14 restaurants, how do you maintain quality and consistency?
All the executive chefs and most of the general managers and wine directors have worked with me directly. They know where I’m going. They understand the shorthand we use in describing how things need to change. I go into most of the New York restaurants almost every day, and we talk about things as they’re evolving. My objective as a manager, of course, is to remove the obstacles that prohibit greatness in the people I’ve hired. So I ask, what is the hardest thing about today? And I say, well, why don’t we get somebody else to do that, or let’s streamline it, let’s make it easier. Then they can enjoy that zenny tea service effect of working through something they know how to do.
What do you look for when you hire executive chefs?
I don’t hire them. I bring them up from my team. The highest level we’ll hire from outside is a line cook.
Have you seen the culture of the restaurant industry grow less hierarchical over time?
It’s really changed in our generation. Twenty-five years ago you got a kitchen job because you had just gotten out of the army and weren’t yet in jail. As food became pop culture—as significant as painting or music or theater—the education level of people interested in it grew much higher. You don’t need to yell as much, and the staff won’t take yelling as much. It’s become unacceptable. Now we have all these smart, thoughtful people helping to evolve new ways of making dishes more consistent and delicious without sweating as much.
You and Joe Bastianich have been partners for years. What do you think makes an entrepreneurial partnership work well?
Mutual respect and trusting each other’s opinions. You have to learn that’s it’s OK not to agree 100% of the time and understand that decisions can be made anyway.
With such an intense job, how do you balance work and family?
No matter what, the kids and family things go in the calendar first, then the restaurant things, then everything else.