Farewell to a Renaissance Mensch
Julie Mautner / December 2010
With much sadness and great love, Julie Mautner, Food Arts' former executive editor, remembers Michael Batterberry, her mentor, role model, and very dear friend, who left this world a far more delicious place than he found it.
After five years as an editor with a restaurant trade magazine in Chicago, I was ready to move to New York. So I put the word out to everyone I knew in food publishing: I needed a job. And word came back that Michael and Ariane Batterberry were starting a new magazine for chefs and restaurateurs.
I flew out to meet with them in their gorgeous, objet-filled Madison Avenue apartment. It was aristocratic, refined, a bit over the top—just like them. "The Bats" told me tales of the old days at Food & Wine magazine, dropped names like Jim Beard and Julia, served cookies, fruit, and tea. I was sure that I'd break or mispronounce something, tipping this erudite couple off to what a hayseed I really was. I felt totally out of my element: baffled, awkward, intrigued. Is that a Tiffany lampshade? Isn't that tablecloth really a rug? Is that an ascot he's wearing?
Who on earth are these people?
The Bats were unlike anyone I'd ever come across. They called each other "DAH-ling," shared a fabulous sense of humor, and convinced me quickly of the need for a new magazine celebrating the chef-led American food revolution. They asked all about me, of course, and when I might be available. We said a warm good-bye at their door, and I flew home to Chicago. I popped a thank you note into the mail and went back to sending out résumés.
And then one day, a few weeks later, Michael called me to see how the New York apartment hunt was going.
"Um, are you offering me a job?" I asked, startled and excited.
"Oh goodness, I thought I already had!" he replied. "Terribly sorry!" And then he laughed, that deep, amazing ha-ha-ha laugh of his.
So now I had the Big Decision: Do I swap the reliable job with full health and dental (and a 401(k)!) for a risky start-up in an orchid-filled Upper East Side apartment?
I called restaurant designer Adam Tihany for advice. "The Batterberrys? Do it," he said unequivocally.
There were six of us at the beginning, working in the Bats' living room; there were pitchers of homemade lemonade and Champagne grapes in a footed silver bowl.
"Those were the most beautiful grapes I'd ever seen!" remembers Rob Arango, one of the four original staffers, now the director of client development at The Plaza Hotel. "The walls were chocolate brown, tinged with purple, which at the time I thought was so crazy. I've since painted three of my apartments that same color."
Within a month or two we moved to a sweltering dump of a space above Fiorucci, across from Bloomingdale's. It was a wonderfully exciting "let's put on a show!" sort of time, right up until our backers (a British book publisher) backed out six months into the game. I wasn't in on that actual meeting, but I quickly picked up the gist: You're all barking mad and you'll never last a year and you'll certainly never turn a profit.
As the Bat would have said: "Ha, ha, ha!"
Marvin Shanken came along, white knight like, and pulled Food Arts into his fold in 1989. I stayed on for 10 years, as executive editor, and ultimately quit to freelance. But the Bats and I remained close all these years, and they've always left the light on. For me and countless others, there's always a seat at the Batterberrys' table.
"From the very beginning of our getting together, Michael and Ariane were in sync," Shanken remembers. "I pretty much left them alone to do their thing, and it worked for everyone. Thanks to the Batterberrys, Food Arts is a noble success in a crowded field."
"The Bats were always joined at hip and head," says Food Arts senior editor Jim Poris. "They were lovers of all things wonderful and excellent—and all things worth wondering about. Which, for them, was just about everything."
One of the many perks at Food Arts was meeting and working with some of the top names in our field: Craig Claiborne, Jacques Pépin, Gael Greene, Bryan Miller, Elizabeth Schneider, and so many others. They all wrote for Food Arts because no one ever said no to the Bats. "Normally I ask for a fee much larger than that," was how it usually went, back in the early days when we had virtually no budget to pay our writers, and I was asking them anyway. "But since it's the Bats, of course I'll do it. Don't forget to give them my love."
Thanks to Michael, the vibe at Food Arts was often more salon than office. Rarely a day would go by without a visit from someone: a food writer looking for work, a young chef seeking a stage, a reporter sniffing for trends, an author plugging a book. The mountain of stuff on the Bat's couch would be shoved aside, the visitor warmly welcomed. Anyone who found their way to Michael was guaranteed an ear, a helping hand, a leg up.
"Michael was one of the first people anywhere to treat me like a writer," Anthony Bourdain blogged just a few days after Michael's death. "Back when I was an anonymous, line-cooking journeyman chef, long before Kitchen Confidential."
Indeed, not only did Michael and Ariane share a passion for rare and beautiful objects, they hunted and gathered remarkable people. Michael was a catalyst, a connector, a networker in the very best sense. (He thought Facebook was brilliant, by the way.) No matter where you announced you were going—to Brighton Beach, St. Barts, or Bordeaux—Michael knew someone there who'd help you, and he'd reach for the phone to make it happen.
Today there's a huge, far-flung, disparate band of us believers out there, orbiting around the wonderful world created by the Bats.
Israeli food artist Nir Adar had been in the country just two weeks when Alex von Bidder at The Four Seasons suggested he come up and see us at Food Arts.
"I had two photos in my hand, showing food as art," he remembers. "Michael looked at them and proclaimed: ‘I've been dreaming of something like this for years! I want you to work on two double spreads and a cover.' I had no clue what he meant, but it sounded like a good beginning. Twenty years and dozens of covers and pages later, there's not a day I don't thank him for changing the course of my life. If not for him I'd still be peeling carrots at The Four Seasons."
"Not only could Michael identify food trends," Adar continues, "but his background in art led him to put the two fields together on center stage."
Photographer Courtney Grant Winston also thrived in the environment the Bats created. "Michael was always willing to let me try the quirky and unusual, things no other magazine would," he says. "Visually, magazines tend to follow each other, like schools of fish. But the Bat was always swimming off in a different new direction. He had the courage to follow his instincts, visually but also with words. He was very unself-conscious that way. I loved him."
"He was a courtly, dignified, refined, worldly, colorful, curious, old-world gentleman and raconteur," chimes in Ken Frydman, who wrote for Food Arts in the early days. "He was an active conversationalist and, more importantly, an active listener. Every time I saw Michael he was genuinely interested in what I was thinking."
When they conceived Food Arts, the Bats believed that chefs needed information no one else was providing. And knew that chefs were interested in things far beyond the stove. They saw chefs as artistic, educated, intelligent businesspeople—and felt they'd embrace a magazine that recognized it.
"Food Arts was way ahead of its time in that it focused on chefs at a time when everybody else was looking at Bundt cakes or refrigerators," wrote Bourdain on his blog. "Clearly somebody was reading about chefs. Somebody cared about them."
"Michael definitely brought the work of the chef to a higher level," Pépin told me, "but not in a faddish way. It had deeper meaning with him. He made us more academic, in some ways, and made us more respectable. We are all indebted."
"The Bats saw the whole celebrity chef scene coming long before anyone else did," says Beverly Stephen, Food Arts' executive editor. "And to a great extent they helped create it. Yes, he gave chefs the chance to be bold face names. But for Michael it was always more about giving them the respect that they deserved."
And then, of course, there was Michael's encyclopedic knowledge of culinary history: Why we eat what we eat and how we got that way. The New York Times obit nailed it perfectly, saying his interest lay "not merely in food per se, but in food as a mirror of the collective national psyche." The Times went on to call him "both a chronicler and a shaper of late 20th century food culture."
Many were the times I called Michael from this restaurant or that, to ask some ridiculous question such as "Why do sauce spoons have notches?" He always knew the answer and had an anecdote to share. But the Bat's expertise extended way way beyond food. Up until shortly before he died, he was my go-to guy on a multitude of topics. Poetry, music, literature, art, dance, architecture, fashion…Michael seemed to know it all.
And yes, we teased him about his scary ability to remember meals enjoyed years and even decades before. (Then again, who would know if he were wrong?) But many people didn't know he was an exceptional cook as well: James Beard once called Michael the most talented home cook in America. Whenever there was a staff party, we'd beg for him to cook. And sometimes we'd get lucky: He'd cook and do impressions.
Listen to people remember Michael and certain ideas repeat. Ultimate gentleman. Last of a breed. Wildly passionate. A people person. (Food writer Meryle Evans calls him "a Renaissance mensch.") And those clothes! "Despite always being the best dressed man in the room, he was never, ever snobbish or stuffy," blogged Dave Arnold from The French Culinary Institute. "He could show up to a pig-pickin' in a three-piece suit and look perfectly at home."
Being out and about as he was all the time, sponging up info and ideas, the Bat was tuned into a different frequency than most of us--and called the trends long before anyone else. He was among the most curious and open-minded people I've ever met, drawn to anything new, creative, artistic, well-done. He might not embrace it (like typing for instance; he wrote everything longhand on yellow legal pads), but he definitely wanted to know about it.
Up in the Bats' apartment in May, I showed him my new iPhone and a few of its gee-whiz apps. Where others of his generation might have said, "What do I need that for?" the Bat's response was predictably exuberant: "This is just terrific. Ariane, let's look into this!"
A few days later at the Beard Awards, the Bats accepted their Lifetime Achievement Award, to a standing ovation from 2,000 people. The Bat, for his part, said it was his best honor ever. A few days later, he fell ill again, and this time he didn't recover.
"I didn't know the Bats very well," says former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. "But I always thought that Michael seemed like the coolest kid in school. He was smart and funny, good-looking, erudite, and no matter who you were, he seemed to be living a better life than yours."
Maybe the greatest tribute of all is the fact that all the senior staff at Food Arts today has been there from 10 to 20-plus years. "Loyalty and love: We're a tight group," confirms Jim Poris. "The Bat allowed us to bring out the best in ourselves and in each other."
Beverly Stephen sums up 20 years of working for Michael this way: "It was like being seated next to the most interesting guest—at the kind of fabulous dinner parties most of us never get invited to."
For my part, I'd give anything to answer a ringing phone just once more and hear that beautiful baritone of his. "Jules!" Michael would say excitedly. "Just wait until you hear this!"
Reprinted with permission from The Atlantic.com.