Last summer, as Mario Batali—sporting his signature orange Crocs—stepped from his blue Chevy onto the sand and grass drive at Cherry Basket Farms, the herbs, edible flowers and heirloom tomatoes in the garden may well have quivered at the prospect of a storm. From his pale orange hair down to his footwear, Batali—James Beard hall of famer, star-bedecked (Michelin and otherwise) restaurateur, Food Network phenom and all-around celeb chef—is a tempest of electric energy.
But the flavor-bearing plants of this naturally food-rich peninsula need not have feared. Batali was here to help protect the land and water that allow them to flourish. The century-old fieldstone and white-clapboard buildings that now house Epicure Catering in the heart of Leelanau Peninsula’s orchard country was the venue for the celebrity chef’s contribution to the Leelanau Conservancy: a meal for 12 gone to the highest bidder at the conservancy’s annual silent auction.
The August fête was the second time that Batali, who summers on the peninsula, cooked and presided over a meal to benefit the conservancy’s protection work. Batali titled this meal a Roman Lunch Feast (menu and recipes below!), most of the elements for which were prepped and neatly bundled into a fishing charter-sized cooler he brought with him. Flavors included Lonza—medallions of pork tenderloin cured at Batali’s father’s Seattle restaurant, Salumi—homemade pasta, lamb chops trimmed and ready for the grill, and pastry dough.
The kitchen at Cherry Basket Farms, usually commandeered by Epicure Catering owners Cammie Buehler and Andy Schudlich, in what was once the farm’s tractor barn, has been renovated into a chef’s dream. Cement floors, 16-foot-long maple butcher block counter stocked with dozens of spice-filled Ball jars, an arsenal of pots and pans, 10-burner stove, convection oven, views of the ancient, lush beech and maples outside the windows, and orange walls—as fitting for the Batali-inspired occasion as they were a coincidence.
With greetings in Italian and Grateful Dead on the stereo (later, R.E.M. and The White Stripes), Batali set the kitchen rocking. Soon the invitees arrived, including guests of honor, Michael and Patti Chetcuti, whose winning bid bought the dinner and who own a small rustic cabin in the Leelanau hills. With the midday sun filtering through the trees and into the windows, Batali poured glasses of Frascati and garnished them with slices of Leelanau’s late-August-ripe peaches, set out chickpea bruschetta, and laid out spicy salumi, olives and soft, creamy caciotti cheese—a traditional Italian farmhouse cheese.
It was food and drink to work by, because part of the event is the opportunity for guests to help with the meal—and to learn from Batali along the way. The chef is as much teacher as he is artist, imparting culinary skills, history and geography. “He’s fun—more relaxed than you’d imagine,” says Buehler, who worked with Schudlich as the event’s backup team. “He’s just very into educating the guests. If he’s presenting a cheese he explains how it’s made. How it gets its flavor. If it’s Italian meats he’ll tell you what region in Italy they are from. How it’s made differently in Tuscany than in Umbria, for example.”
Batali broke the group into small teams. The Chetcutis’ close friends, Barb and Mike Collins, browned butter for the Cacio e Pepe (a cheese and butter sauce). Meanwhile, Patti worked with friend Kate Vilter, a Leelanau County restaurateur, on the antipasto, a rustically elegant grouping of fresh, blanched fava beans, sliced prosciutto and shaved Pecorino.
Michael, teamed with friend Kyle Evans, a designer for Ford Motor Company, was assigned to assemble the crostata di prugne Santa Rosa (plum tart) into the tart pans. As Michael, a self-described Molto Mario (Batali’s cooking show on the Food Network) aficionado, was putting the chilled crust into the tart pans, Batali stepped over to show him how to quickly trim the sides of the crusts with a paring knife instead of using his fingers—and risking mashing it into a warm paste. “I know, I know, I watched that show,” Michael said, demonstrating for the chef. Batali roared with laughter.
When the grill was hot and almost ready for the Scottadia (translation: finger-burning lamb chops), and Mario had finished off the antipasto with olive oil and an artichoke marinated in balsamic vinegar, the guests were seated at tables set up in the lawn between the garden and the farmhouse. From there they could look over the tops of rose bushes and zebra tomatoes to the neighboring 40-acre cherry orchard.
For three hours, they were fed, taught and entertained by the maestro. Patti still savors the Cacio e Pepe served on handmade pasta with thick, squared off edges. On a trip to New York City later in the year, she took a table at Batali’s restaurant, Esca, and ordered it again. “It’s the texture of the pasta and the taste of the fresh butter. Simple peasant food but so good,” she says.
In an evening filled with divine culinary memories Michael would add one that was not about the food—but it was vintage Batali. Between the prep and the dinner, Michael flipped Batali the keys to his brand new baby blue and orange Gulf edition Ford GT. Batali, with Schudlich riding shotgun, took it for a ride. “A mile down the road you could still hear the tires squealing,” Patti says.
The Menu of the Roman Lunch Feast:
Salumi, Olives, Caciotta, Peaches and Frascati
Lonza, Fave e Pecorino
Scottadita, Piselli e Prosciutto
Crostata di Prugne Santa Rosa
More Mario recipes:
- Grilled Lamb Chops Scottadita with Pom-Pom Mushrooms, Garlic Confit and Mint