Mario Batali Talks Food in the Mitten’s Northwest

When he’s not noshing street food with Gwyneth Paltrow, busting out Bolognese on The Chew or checking in on his global empire of eateries, Mario Batali can be found trolling one of Leelanau County’s weekend farmers markets and chilling at the family pad in Northport.

For this year’s food issue we cornered the man in the orange Crocs and asked to see the North’s food and wine scene through the eyes of a food culture icon. With summer cherry season coming after the snow melts and morels pop, we asked Mario to also share a molto delicioso Leelanau-inspired recipe from his award-winning cookbook, America Farm to Table, for Cherry Brown-Butter Coffee Cake (recipe below!).

What shapes your cooking and eating when Famiglia Batali is kicking back at your summer home in Leelanau County?  

As with anywhere, we’re driven by the season and whatever’s fresh in the markets. We’ll go shopping and build a meal with what we find and what we know tastes best here. In the summer it has to include cherries and black raspberries. Leelanau Cheese, Tandem Ciders, Mawby bubbles and Black Star Farms cabernet franc are almost always on the table.

What’s an ideal day of eating in Leelanau County look like to you?

I am up early, and breakfast is rare with boys that sleep until 10:30 or 11:00, but if we’re up early to golf we’ll hit Barb’s Bakery or The Tribune in Northport. If we’re out for lunch, it’s Rick’s Café in Leland, or The Garage and Earth, Wind & Fryer in Northport. If we have guests I’ll cook from food shopped at Hansen’s or Tom’s, often including fresh fish from Carlson’s or delish raclette from Leelanau Cheese. Dinner is most often cooked at home. I have a smoker, a pizza oven and an outdoor kitchen for grilling or spit roasting. These meals tend to be simple and based around our shopping at the Northport and Suttons Bay farmers markets.

As a chef and food scholar, what is most exciting about the food culture here in Northwest Michigan?

Location, location, location. We’re surrounded by delicious wine, beer, cider, cherries, produce, fish and dairy that does not have to travel. When fresh is the mantra we are in the den of the Zen master.

As this den of the Zen master evolves as a food destination, what should we focus on, and where should we look for inspiration?

I would stay the course. Celebrate and support our small local producers, artisans, caterers, chefs, winemakers and brewers. Look to places like Charleston, South Carolina, Sonoma County, France’s Loire Valley and Chianti, Italy, to see it in perfect practice.

Speaking of the Loire Valley and Chianti, how do you think our wines measure up on the world stage?

There are some I love, some I hate and some I don’t understand. I must say they’ve all come a long way in the 15 years I’ve been drinking them, mostly by following the example of growers like Larry Mawby, who stress the importance of growing varietals that make sense to this soil and climate and emulate the practices of other wine regions in the world producing world class-wines with these sets of challenges. These are important steps in creating destination wine culture.

Mario Batali shares his Leelanau-inspired Cherry Brown-Butter Coffee Cake recipe from his award-winning cookbook, America Farm to Table!

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