Photo by Andre Baranowski
All of us with imperfect bodies have crosses to bear, but let’s take a moment to consider those of Joe Bastianich. Here’s a man who owns 20 restaurants (with two on the way), two high-end Italian markets, three Italian vineyards, and two wine stores. At any given moment in any great eating city, Joe Bastianich, 42, can walk into the best restaurant and order the most indulgent meal on the menu. In fact, he could order the whole menu and pair it with the most exquisite wines. In fact, not only could he do it, but he’s supposed to do it. It’s his job.
The tales of Joe Bastianich in his heyday conducting research trips through Italy with his business partner, Chef Mario Batali, are epic. They include Paul Bunyan-esque feats of consumption, all-day and all-night feasts that concluded with Bastianich, according to a New York Times article, at least once “tucking into a 42-ounce steaks for two at three a.m.” The pair is rumored to have drunk a case of wine in a single sitting. Even Joe’s mother, Lidia Bastianich—restaurant owner, author, and television personality—said publicly of her son, “He fell into the pressures of decadence.” Fine (and fun) for two young men embarking on the partnership that would yield all those restaurants and multiple James Beard awards, until you consider what a life of eating does to the human body.
Before he turned 40, Bastianich’s blood pressure and cholesterol were redlining, while his doctors warned Bastianich that he was already on the road to Type 2 diabetes. Worse, Bastianich developed obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder commonly associated with obesity, in which excess flesh around the throat collapses the air passageways of its sufferers during sleep. In its mildest form, sleep apnea causes snoring; in its more severe chronic form, it affects blood chemistry and can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Sleep apnea also is linked to an increase in stress hormones that cause further weight gain—in turn, causing spiraling increases in the incidence of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.
Says Bastianich of this development, “It was gonna kill me. It was bad.” Bastianich was ordered to strap on a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask to blow air into his nose as he slept unless he was going to lose at least 25 pounds. Facing days of old-man medicines and nights of the gasmask-like CPAP machine that he found difficult to use, Bastianich considered his options.
In the restaurant world, Joe Bastianich is known as a thinker. In 1991, it was a 23-year-old Bastianich who debuted a prix-fixe wine bottle list at Becco, the Theater District restaurant that he opened with his mother. The list, which offered 130 wines of Joe’s selection at the low price of $15 per bottle, upped Becco’s revenues and earned Bastianich the reputation of restaurant wunderkind. Bastianich also is often credited with introducing the now-ubiquitous raw fish crudo and glass-plus-cruet wine quartino to American diners. The first competed with the popularity of sushi; the second was a marketing tactic to increase sales.
Shunning the bariatric surgeons, the liposuctionists, the trainers, and the diet gurus who offered their services to men in his situation, Bastianich devised his own plan, which allowed him to eat the foods that built the Batali/Bastianich brand. “It’s all about more moderate consumption. I know a lot about food. So I consume very little processed food, stay away from saturated fats. Stick to
vegetables, grains, rice, pasta, lean proteins—the common-sense stuff.” Ever tempted to go low-carb? “Naah,” he waves away the notion of depriving himself of his fuel. “In fact, I eat high-carb: a lot of pasta, a lot of rice, a lot of wine, and a lot of bread.”
The other key was Bastianich’s endurance training, “starting with walking and then running, and then a five-K and then a ten-K, and then half a marathon and the marathon, and I kind of went from there.” Four years and five marathons later, Bastianich is training for the Ironman triathlon to be held this October in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. The punishing, one-day race involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, followed by a full, 26.2-mile marathon.
Bastianich is 60 pounds slimmer these days and given to narrowly tailored suits that emphasize his lean runner’s frame. And where once, on his mother’s PBS television program Bastianich was the sly-witted, but lugubrious sidekick, now he co-stars in FOX network’s MasterChef, a reality show with food TV Olympian Gordon Ramsay. In MasterChef, Bastianich cuts a stylish figure in limited-edition sneakers and vividly colored pocket squares (worn with those impeccable suits). He has become a celebrity in his own right and the subject of features in Food & Wine, Runner’s World, Guitar Afficianado, and GQ.
Joe Basianich before he lost 60 pounds.
Was embracing moderation difficult? “My real ‘aha moment’ was when food became fuel for my sports. Thinking about food as energy—and not as eating or rewards or meals or celebrations—was a big breakthrough for me.” It took time to enjoy exercising. “I always tell people it takes a good six months to a year to get to that threshold of pain in running, where you’re actually getting the ‘runner’s high’—the endorphins—and most people crap out before they get to the joy of running.”
It’s almost inconceivable that a man with so many high-profile projects can manage to accommodate what Bastianich calls his “part-time job” of training for endurance sports. “I just make time for it. It’s two hours a day, every day, no matter what. You know—go to bed earlier, don’t stay out as late, skip the late dinners, get up early in the morning, and make it happen.”
Famously (even infamously) driven, Bastianich uses ever-tougher goals to keep on track. “I’m doing two marathons a year, now a half Ironman and then a full Ironman, so I always have something coming up. Do I skip a week here and there when I’m traveling? Of course. But the pressure is always on. And that’s the way I like it.”
Does he miss the wine? “I always have a glass of wine with dinner, but I’ve scaled back on those evenings when one glass becomes three or four glasses. If I drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, my apnea will kick in.” How can he do his wine writing, oversee his vineyards? What about the wine stores and all the wine lists? Bastianich is characteristically dismissive. “When you’re tasting wine professionally, you always spit. You don’t have to consume a lot of wine to be a wine professional.“
There is an iconoclastic sort of frankness about Bastianich that runs counter to the prevailing romance in the world of restaurants, where even muckraker like Anthony Bourdain spins hero myths of cooking “on the line.” For a man whose family business is selling the beauty and history of Italian cuisine, he’s quick to dismiss food as so many units of energy. He’s also perfectly willing to poke a pin in the illusions constructed in restaurants (even his own). To paraphrase Mario Batali, Bastianich is comfortable in his mission to “buy food cheap, fix it up, and sell it at a profit.”
Bastianich’s upcoming memoir, Restaurant Man, promises to do for restaurant owners what Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential did for cooks. Namely, it’ll reveal the financial nitty gritty of running a successful restaurant. Readers may have gotten a glimpse into Bastianich’s world from Bill Buford’s bestselling nonfiction book, Heat. It recounts a scene in which Chef Batali, to teach the ethos of kitchen economy, rescued vegetable trimmings from the trash and served them that night at Babbo (after a lot of screaming). Does Bastianich ever worry that he’s lifting the curtain too high in the media?
“No, because the experience in our restaurants is excellent, and we maintain excellence by maintaining our margins. Commerce without profit is a hobby, and people need to understand that. We have margins because we’re making money to invest in the customers’ experience.” What about the diners who want to think they’re eating the most expensive ingredients money can buy? “And in certain restaurants, they are. I want to have educated customers. The delusional customers can go and eat somewhere else.” He lets that sit for a moment, then adds, “I think the kind of people who eat in our restaurants know the quality that we create.”
On MasterChef, Bastianich is one of a triumvirate of judges, along with host Gordon Ramsay and Chicago Chef Graham Elliot. The show’s production style—of computer-generated graphics, turgid music, and rapid-fire cutting—falls somewhere between that of Monday Night Football and the 1975 film, Rollerball. Television, as a medium, does not flatter deliberate people. It prefers the impetuous, emotive, uncensored expressivity of a Mario Batali or a Gordon Ramsay. Did Bastianich have to invent the icy stare of his MasterChef persona for the camera? “It’s about a competition. We’re judges, and we have a job to do and get through these people. So, yeah—there’s some persona creation in the edit, but it’s the nuts and bolts of what we have to do in a competitive reality show on FOX Television.” Are you different on TV? “You can judge that for yourself.” And Ramsay? “No, he’s exactly the same. He’s out of his mind.”
MasterChef, which is co-produced by Ramsay, is a global brand with shows currently underway in the UK, India, New Zealand, and Australia. While continuing his gig as judge with Ramsay and Elliot, Bastianich will be hosting MasterChef Italy (soon, he’ll be in Italy, overseeing his three vineyards shooting the show) when it tapes later this year. MasterChef shoots in LA, where Bastianich spent most of this past winter (and where he owns two restaurants, Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, with Nancy Silverton and Batali). Yet Bastianich still spends time at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and oversees the operations of Tarry Lodge, Tarry Market, and Tarry Wine Merchants. In fact, this summer, Batali and Bastianich will debut a Tarry Lodge spinoff in Westport, Connecticut. Bastianich describes Tarry Lodge Pizzeria e Enoteca as a “smaller, scaled-down version” of the Port Chester original.
Meanwhile, Port Chester’s Tarry Market, which debuted in November 2010, is still evolving. According to Bastianich, “Tarry Market is not like a gourmet market. We are a producer of food that we happen to sell. We make bread, we make gelato, we make pasta, we make sausage, and we sell that food there.” In addition to the Tarry Market products made onsite, you’ll often find Bastianich’s “La Mozza” wines tapped in Tarry Market’s Enomatic vending machine. You’ll find Bastianich’s La Mozza olive oil, Lidia Bastianich’s jarred pasta sauces, and—coming soon—the honey gathered from beehives on Bastianich’s back-country Greenwich property.
Bastianich is unfazed by the competition for local buyers, whose choices—Fairway, Whole Foods Market, Stew Leonard’s, all with extensive food production facilities—are ever-expanding. “We offer the best of Italy and, certainly, the best of Europe. I mean, you can’t buy our house-made sausage, home-cured salamis, our pasta, our bread, our gelato—I mean, you can’t buy that anywhere else.”
“We have a huge and exciting fresh sausage program that we’re rolling out, artisanally made gelatos, super-local produce—we’ll be celebrating the rites of spring with local ramps.” Who is the local forager? Bastianich answers, “Well, me. We collect hundreds of pounds of ramps from my property in and around Greenwich, so ramps are big. And fiddlehead ferns—I’m the forager. We don’t need professional foragers.”
And what about those mythic nights of eating with Mario Batali—the crates of wine, the massive steaks, the endless platters of pasta? He laughs, and a little wistfulness seeps into his voice. “Fond memories.”
Julia Sexton, a Westchester-based food writer, is a restaurant critic, feature writer, and blogger. Check out her blog at westchestermagazine.com/Blogs/Eat-Drink-Post.