Celebrating Michael Batterberry
James Barron / December 2010
Joyful voices recount encounters of the extraordinary kind with an extraordinary man.
Through all of his very interesting life, Michael C. Batterberry loved a little lyric his father had made up when Michael was a child. Sometimes Michael sang it—he had performed with bands in his teens and 20s, and he never lost his talent for conveying the coloring of a phrase or a song, even a little party song like this one, the kind of thing that was perfect at the beginning of a meal or perhaps as a toast, with a glass of carefully chosen wine in hand:
There's no time like the present, and there is no place like here.
And of all friends, the very best friends are the ones who now are near.
Sure, there will be good times in the future and friends we all hold dear.
But there is no time like the present, and no place like here.
Some of Michael's friends imagined hearing him say that as they gathered to remember him on a rainy afternoon in September, nine weeks after he passed away. If only he had been there—how sad it is to write those six words—someone would have marveled that Michael always said the perfect thing at the perfect moment. And with that little lyric, quoted by his longtime friend Garrick Utley, he did so again, setting the tone as more than 200 people filled the Cotillion Room at The Pierre hotel in New York City: chefs, restaurateurs, friends, and family.
Like his life, Michael's memorial was a feast, one that began with a Champagne reception and included 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from St. Supéry in Napa Valley—itself an attention-getter with flavors of lemon, lime, guava, and a touch of clover. But the memories flowed, too. One was about an improbable costume-party outfit he once wore. Others recalled brainstorms that sent 20th century food culture in new directions. Still others had to do with the encouragement he gave up-and-coming chefs, colleagues, writers, and friends.
Michael was a legend in the industry he loved, and much about the memorial spoke to Michael's four prolific decades of covering wine and food. The lineup of friends who spoke reflected that. Among them were Dan Barber, the executive chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurants; Daniel Boulud, who arrived in New York City from France four years after the Batterberrys started Food & Wine; Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns some of the most enduring restaurants in New York City; Sirio Maccioni, who schooled many of the city's ambitious chefs and knowing maîtres d'hôtel at Le Cirque; Tony May, whose daughter Marisa read his talk (he was recuperating from an eye operation); and Gus Schumacher, former Undersecretary of Agriculture and a founding member of Wholesome Wave, which promotes access to affordable locally grown food for underserved communities.
Michael kept his sharp eye on many worlds—gastronomic, artistic, and journalistic--as other friends recalled, among them James C. Marlas, a venture capitalist who founded the firm Union Capital in 1968; and Utley, well-known television journalist who is president of the Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce of The State University of New York. He mentioned the book that Michael and Ariane wrote, On the Town in New York: The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution. The first edition was published in 1973, five years before the first issue of their first magazine, Food & Wine; a revised and expanded edition of On the Town in New York came out in 1998.
"And you know what?" Utley asked. "Go to Amazon.com. It's still there. For $40.15, you can purchase it. For $44, you can get it delivered tomorrow."
Music was high on the long list of Michael's interests, and the memorial included music he would have liked. The flutist Paula Robison played one of his favorite pieces, Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie, and the tenor Robert White sang songs by Eric Coates and Ernesto de Curtis. Two pianists played: Caroline Stoessinger, who also accompanied Robison, and Philip Edward Fisher, who also accompanied White.
Together they all painted a portrait of a man who was refined but not snobbish; erudite without being patronizing; stylish but also substantive and sincere; charismatic but also whimsical. "He was a friend and ally," Marisa May said, noting that her father had met Michael in the late 1960s, when Tony May was managing The Rainbow Room. "A friend and ally our industry is going to miss."
Boulud said his memories of Michael reached to the 1980s—"I go back to the years with Sirio," when Boulud was executive chef at Le Cirque and the restaurant revolution was accelerating. And he remembered a photo shoot that Michael oversaw.
"It was art," he said. "Most editors ask you to simplify," he said. "Michael embraced complexity."
"There was only one Michael," said Memorial host Marvin R. Shanken, but there were many ways to describe him. "Refreshingly brilliant, quietly passionate about life, thoughtful with clarity of vision, a soul mate, always willing to give to others," Shanken said, noting that he did not meet Michael and Ariane until after they had begun publishing Food Arts. "From day one, it was a magazine ahead of its time," he said. "Michael shared his vision of Food Arts with me, and the rest, as they say, is history. For the past 22 years, I basically stayed out of the Bats' way and let them run with Food Arts." It was very much a joint operation, he said, but Michael's "creative magic and sensitivity" were unmistakable.
Meyer credited Michael with a kind of camaraderie that proved inspirational. "Michael made me feel good about what I did for a living," he said. "I remember in the very, very early years of the Union Square Cafe, back in the mid-1980s, it was not necessarily a profession that people felt incredibly proud to admit they were a part of. Michael was one of the first people who told me you need to get over your misgivings about joining the greatest profession that there is."
That had an effect, meal after meal, night after night. And the back-of-the-house jitters melted when the Batterberrys showed up. "When Michael Batterberry and Ariane Batterberry make a reservation in your restaurant, it is a good feeling." he said. "Everyone on the staff gets the buzz immediately. It goes from reservationist to the maître d' to the manager to the chef, and then all the waiters in the restaurant know the Batterberrys are coming in. It makes everybody up their game, and it makes everybody feel like today is going to be the best service we had ever had in our lives."
Nor, he said, was nastiness part of Michael's repertoire. "I tested him," he said. "I would ask him occasionally what he thought about this particular chef about being a good or a not-good fit for some restaurant that I had in the back of my head. He managed to say the good things about the good chefs." If Michael had misgivings, "he would never say, ‘You don't want to hire him, you don't want to hire her,' he would simply say, ‘Have you thought about this one?' That was his way."
Barber said Michael had been a mentor who promoted the once-implausible idea of chefs as artists. "Michael didn't discriminate between the types of chefs he celebrated: hotel chef, bistro chef, food truck vendor chef, titan of empire chef," he said. "Michael was an equal-opportunity supporter."
But while Michael could talk about cooking techniques or textural elements or flavor combinations, Barber said he never heard him describe a specific plate of food. "Odd, as he was an expert chef and later food editor," he said. "My theory is that Michael didn't see cooking in particular terms. He saw cooking as part of an experience." And like the chefs he covered for Food Arts, "Michael didn't recognize signature dishes because he didn't want them to steal the show. He knew that if only one moment stands out, you've lost the greatness of the experience and the meal is less because of it. In that sense he truly allowed us chefs to be storytellers."
Like Barber, Schumacher described Michael as a mentor—and an inspiration. In the late 1990s Michael began discussing ways to increase farmers' participation in a local sustainable food supply.
Michael wanted to find a way to save family farms by providing chefs with local ingredients grown by new immigrant farmers. The idea appealed to Schumacher, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been farmers--his great-grandfather at Broadway and West 72nd Street in the 1880s. In 1999 Michael introduced Schumacher to chef Michel Nischan. "Michael said, ‘Why don't the three of us get together and figure out a way to support these new refugee farmers?'" Schumacher recalled, "and thus the New American Farmer Initative was born." The idea was to provide a market for Cambodian, Liberian, and Laotian growers by giving chefs a list of all the produce available from cooperatives the farmers supplied. The chefs could then place their individual orders.
"But Michael, the mentor, never rested," Schumacher said. He recalled another brainstorm: how to provide local fruits and vegetables to people in urban and rural areas where such produce was not available. "And so another Michael Batterberry nonprofit was born"—Wholesome Wave, which now has operations in 20 states, with 160 farmers' markets as partners.
James Marlas had two words for those who pictured Michael as dapper, elegant, and well-dressed: Swan Lake.
"Michael, coming to one of our costume parties, arrived as Swan Lake," he said—"not as a dancer, mind you, since that was managed most gracefully by Ariane, in flared tutu, on perfect point and regally crowned with elegant white feathers. No, Michael appeared in full regalia as the swan lake, surrounded by a vast blue sea to which had been attached an enormous quantity of swans' down that was shedding wherever he went, as well as seaweed that kept shedding. Fortunately, Michael could swim."
Fittingly for someone who appreciated literature, Michael was also the subject of a poem. It was written by Adina L. Ruskin, a playwright and teacher who is the second youngest of Michael and Ariane's nieces and nephews. She read it at the memorial:
What we have learned from Uncle Michael:
To pursue our passions with boldness.
To savor the garlic, the lime.
To soak up the juices with exquisite bread.
Wear an apron.
Enjoy each adventure and then share the stories.
Yes, above all, share adventures big or small over a fine glass or a café crème.
And make it look as good as it tastes.