Orange alert: Mario Batali talks charity and talks trash at Apron's Cooking School in Tampa

Chef Mario Batali, who gave a demonstration at Apron’s Cooking School in Tampa, says his family is going to try living on food stamps — “that’s $124 for the family” — this week. 

Getty Images (2009)

Chef Mario Batali, who gave a demonstration at Apron’s Cooking School in Tampa, says his family is going to try living on food stamps — “that’s $124 for the family” — this week. 

TAMPA

He wore his signature orange crocs and signed cookbooks with a bright orange Sharpie. Afterward, Mario Batali whipped through a few recipes for a crowd of 300 at the Pepin Hospitality Centre on Friday night, dropping the f-bomb a couple times along with stories of his grandma's cooking and tips on how to sear a steak to achieve multiple layers of flavor.

Before the sold-out Apron's Cooking School demonstration, the TV chef, owner of 16 restaurants and markets, and author of 10 cookbooks sat down with us for a few minutes, sipping a latte after an afternoon of golfing at TPC Tampa Bay.

I heard you were gearing up to do a golf show. True?

Yes, I'm going to be on Hank Haney's show on the Golf Channel. It's going to be me, Adam Levine (Maroon 5, The Voice), (boxer) Sugar Ray Leonard, and model Angie Everhart. (Former basketball player) Charles Barkley was on it, one of the most beloved figures in sports, and he had a swing like this (Batali stands, demonstrating a duck walk with something like a constipated baseball swing). It's going to be great. We're all average American golfers, around a 15 or 16 handicap. We're going to Cabo next week, and the winner gets $100,000 for their favorite charity.

I imagine that would go to your foundation. Talk a little about what the foundation does.

I started it to lessen the pain of me having to say no to just about everyone who came to me. Every marching band and boys club comes to me for donations. In 2005 I realized I had given away $2 million, but there was no focus to it. The Mario Batali Foundation is for children, with a three-pronged approach: literacy, diseases and hunger relief.

The foundation and the Food Bank of New York have this CookShop program to educate parents and kids about nutrition and getting the best value for their money. Next week, me and my family are going to live on food stamps; that's $124 for the family.

Seems like you have a leg up trying to eat well on that amount.

Yeah, I'm a good cook. Give me a rutabaga and I can make something out of it. But the question is, can you thrive on that amount of money? You can make it through the week, but can you be effective? What would be possible with just 25 percent more? With the food stamp program there should be a point system, the less processed a food is, the less points.

But back to the foundation. We focus on smaller diseases. Not that leukemia isn't worthy, but give your money to a smaller group and $100,000 can really do something, maybe triple a research budget. And with literacy, we just opened our first library in Manhattan. My family and staff go read to the kids. It's a program that allows kids to own their own books. That's important.

You're an avid reader. What are you reading right now?

I think I'm going to have to give up my e-reader. I never remember the name of authors or books with it. But right now I'm reading Adam Gopnick's new book The Table Comes First. It's a really funny one.

Have you spent much time in Florida?

I lived and cooked in Tampa back in 1984. I worked at a place called O'Neill's off of Bayshore. I was just back from Le Cordon Bleu. I loved La Teresita and Ybor City, and you could go to these Clearwater hotels and hear Jimmy Buffett songs. I loved the western Florida vibe, but there wasn't enough going on gastronomically yet.

Do you still think Florida is behind?

I don't think it's behind at all. Floribbean cuisine has this really remarkably different mind-set, like Southern California in the 1970s, it's its own kind of Berkeley. Where else are you going to get grouper? Florida is a place that has such geospecificity in its DNA.

Lara Cerri contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

Orange alert: Mario Batali talks charity and talks trash at Apron's Cooking School in Tampa 02/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 3:30am]

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