Chef, Channel Parting Ways, but Observers Say He Has Little to Worry About
By RUSSELL GOLDMAN
Sept. 6, 2007
"Molto Mario" means "a lot of Mario," but fans of the Italian-American master chef Mario Batali will be seeing much less of him on Food Network this season.
The network has decided to stop airing "Molto Mario," the program Batali began hosting a decade ago but which despite regular reruns has not been in production for nearly three years, a Food Network spokeswoman told ABCNEWS.com. Batali will, however, continue to appear on "Iron Chef America."
Batali, known for his innovative variations on traditional Italian dishes and often described as a revolutionary chef and brilliant businessman, has been at the Food Network since 1996, helping to simultaneously raise his profile and that of the channel.
Though Batali has had a long and successful run on the Food Network, observers say he has little to lose by pulling back from the channel. Batali owns 14 restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, has written several best-selling cookbooks, has a sponsorship deal with NASCAR and is reportedly in talks with PBS to produce a special on Spanish cuisine.
"Mario Batali is still part of the Food Network family," Carrie Welch, a Food Network spokeswoman told ABC NEWS.com. "Sometimes family members go off and do other things. We completely blessed his decision to go to PBS. … He is still going to appear on 'Iron Chef America.'"
"Batali was there from the very beginning, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship," Anthony Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel's "No Reservations," told ABC NEWS.com.
"This is a completely natural progression for the Food Network model. A look at the lineup shows they're looking for new personalities and have contempt for professional chefs," he said.
Ed Levine, a food writer and founder of Serious Eats, agreed that the network was moving away more toward home-style cooks.
"Food Network has made a sharp turn away from celebrity chefs," he said. "They're not featuring great chefs; instead, they're creating their own stars out of good home cooks like Giatta De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray."
Though some observers have wondered why the network and Batali would part ways after such a successful partnership, industry insiders said the split came as no surprise.
"There was an acknowledgement by both Food Network and Batali that they didn't really need each other any more," said Ben Leventhal, editor of the food blog "Eater." "Batali is more than just a TV chef. He's a personality who has written cookbooks, owns restaurants and has a deal with NASCAR. Food Network helped him get as big as he is, and he helped them get big too. … It is the right time for him to part ways with the Food Network. It is expensive to keep a guy like Batali, and while I can't imagine he has poor ratings, it comes down to how much they can afford."
Food Network is currently one of the top-rated channels on cable and is distributed to more than 90 million American homes.
The network averages about 260,000 viewers a day.
"Counting only traditional ad revenue and license fees, Food [Network] is projected to take in $757.9 million annually by 2011, up from $488.1 million this year," reported the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable.
Batali has done equally well in his endeavors beyond Food Network. In 2002, he was named the best chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation, and in 2005 he took home that same organization's Outstanding Chef of the Year award.
Two of his New York-based restaurants, Babbo and Del Posto, have received three-star reviews in The New York Times.
"Mario has been very smart in using Food Network as a means to an end," said Levine. "But he is a chef and restaurateur first and foremost. Celebrity chef status just enables him to create more restaurants and gives him a bigger canvas to work on."