“I want to welcome you to the first time I’ve ever done a demo in a four-star restaurant,” said Mario Batali the other night at Del Posto, as he prepared to show a roomful of guests how to make lobster salad alla Catalana with tomato and celery. “Although the Michelin guide didn’t agree, I think we’ve got a great place.” It was just a coincidence that “Magic Martinis & Mario” — an annual benefit dinner for the Mario Batali Foundation at which the chef demos each dish before serving it — conflicted with a party to launch the 2011 Michelin guide, which had that day declined to give Del Posto two stars after having demoted it to one star the year before. Not that the conflict really mattered to Batali. “They didn’t invite me,” he said, laughing. Del Posto is the first Italian restaurant to get four stars in the Times in 35 years, but it’s still a one-star restaurant in the Michelin guide. It didn’t even make the Zagat top 50.
Batali and business partner Joseph Bastianich were just trying to focus on raising money for underprivileged kids, along with friends Jimmy Fallon, Stanley Tucci, Isabella Rossellini, and Anthony Bourdain, but they didn’t hide their feelings. “I’m slightly disappointed,” said Bastianich of being denied a second Michelin star. “It’s important to us and we’d love to have it, and we didn’t get it. So we’ll try harder for next year. I don’t know what happened; I thought it all went swimmingly, but apparently not. I think the restaurant’s evolved. It takes a little time. Maybe they’ll take another year to appreciate what we do. We’re hoping for the best.”
Batali was taking solace in Eleven Madison Park also being denied a second star. “The Michelin guide guys … I don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said. “The Breslin and the Spotted Pig and Eleven Madison and Del Posto all have one star. If I came from out of town and just booked tables at those, I’d think the book was a little kooky. Because it’s entirely different experiences. That said, I respect it. All I want to do is get a second Michelin star back for Del Posto and a Michelin star for Babbo.”
Losing one star last year stung, but it did prompt the Del Posto team to make some serious changes. They got rid of a number of tables and the less-expensive café. They had a plan to get that star back. But Michelin’s Jean-Luc Naret has said the food is not yet worthy. So now what’s the plan? “I thought I had been executing it! I thought we were doing it!” said Batali, laughing but clearly frustrated. “This is a fully evolved restaurant. This is what we want it to be. You know, maybe the Michelin guys got here early in the year when we were still doing the transition. So, you know, the Michelin guide needs to come back. In Europe, you don’t open to what you want in stars. You’ve just got to keep doing it and doing it and doing it again. So I’m sure if we merit it, they’ll give it to us next year.”
As for his second goal of getting a single star for Babbo, Batali knows what he has to do. “I think that maybe they really want me to turn down my music, which is not going to happen for a Michelin star,” he said. “If that’s why we’re not going to get it, we’re not going to get it. It’s a loud place.” Sometimes, he explained, he had to come to terms with his vision for Babbo being more important than getting in the Michelin guide. “I mean, when you walk into Babbo, there is a palpable, intense energy, and if that is counter to what it’s supposed to be, then there’s nothing I can do.”