Mario Batali Inc.

Los Angeles is a city awash in buzz. but even the glitterati need to eat. And among the foodies, for whom where you get the next meal had better be as exciting as the next big-screen hit, the chatter's about a restaurant that won't open for five months. Del Latte is currently little more than a shell on Melrose Avenue, but by April its owners will have spent $10 million to turn it into a lavish setting for rustic Italian meals. Overseeing it all is a rotund 45-year-old man with his trademark chef's jacket over shorts, sporting a long red ponytail and orange clogs: Mario Batali. A fixture on TV and in bookstores, Batali is already renowned in Manhattan, where he has seven restaurants and a wine shop. But Del Latte--along with a pair of eateries he'll open later next year in Las Vegas's Venetian casino complex--will be his first foray outside New York. His boosters say it's about time. Mario's "on the precipice of being a big name nationally," says L.A. restaurateur Nancy Silverton, his partner in Del Latte. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that he has his biggest Manhattan place opening next month--Del Posto, in the heart of the West Side's meatpacking district.

Celebrity chefs aren't new. The phenomenon may date to a pastry sculptor named Antonin Careme, who cooked for Napoleon. In the late 1970s, Wolfgang Puck pioneered the modern formula--now more of a cliche--in which a chef opens a hit restaurant, then "diversifies" and "becomes a brand." Batali has been a star for only several years, yet he's already performed most steps in the recipe. He has five cookbooks, stars in three Food Network shows and sells Mario-emblazoned pepper mills and sausages. Expanding his portfolio of restaurants nationally, however, requires a more serious investment of capital. "Creating an empire, you don't have home runs every time," says Barbara Lazaroff, who's credited with transforming Puck, her ex-husband, into a brand. "You have problems--sometimes with your partners, sometimes with expectations, sometimes with the marketplace."

So far, Batali's career has seemed charmed. Born in Seattle and raised in Spain, he didn't have his first kitchen experience till college. While a student at Rutgers in New Jersey, he worked in the kitchen at a restaurant called Stuff Yer Face. Liking that more than studying business management, he traded Rutgers for cooking school. Hating that, he embarked on an apprenticeship that took him from London to San Francisco to Italy. By 1993 he'd opened his first New York restaurant, Po, with a friend, using their own money and funds borrowed from other acquaintances. Instead of the standard spaghetti-house menu, he offered authentic Italian dishes, including exotica like tripe. Foodies loved it.

In 1998 he opened Babbo in Greenwich Village, quickly earning three stars from The New York Times. Under a white vaulted ceiling, the wait staff seems to outnumber the diners as it delivers plates of white goat-cheese truffles, New England scallops and a fantastic pumpkin cheesecake. Since 1999, he and his business partner, Joe Bastianich, have used restaurant profits to open Lupa, a more casual trattoria; Esca, a seafood restaurant; Casa Mono, a Spanish taverna; Bar Jamon, a tapas bar; Bistro du Vent, which serves southern French comfort food, and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, a fancy pizza joint. On an average night in Gotham, Batali's feeding 2,500. The privately held restaurants, he says, gross $65 million a year.

Even as his empire grows, the restaurants remain the profit engine. Unlike many chefs, Batali and Bastianich are sole owners of most of their restaurants. With margins averaging 15 percent, according to Bastianich, the restaurants produce nearly $10 million in annual profits. Contrast that to the TV work. "I don't make any money at all from TV--maybe 150 grand a year," Batali says. But since he has no restaurants outside Manhattan yet, TV exposure has been crucial to sales of both his cookbooks (an advance for which can hit $1 million) and his merchandise. "The product line has the potential to be a $30 [million] to $40 million business all by itself," says Batali, who collects up to --10 percent of those sales. All told, according to Forbes, Batali earned $4 million last year--less than rivals like Emeril Lagasse ($9 million), Alain Ducasse ($6.5 million) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten ($5 million). But industry watchers say Batali's gaining ground.

Batali still considers himself more chef than businessman. But clearly he's doing more managing than sauteing, hopping on his Vespa scooter to visit his restaurants over the course of a New York night. His biggest headache? Supervising his 1,200 employees. Bastianich praises Batali's bottom-line focus: "He gets that it's not all about putting food on a plate, but about sustaining profitability."

Batali's also a character, dispatching bons mots that sound a bit as if he could be lecturing M.B.A.s one day. How, say, does he size up kitchen leadership? "I can tell in five minutes," he says. "There's something in people's eyes. I can teach a chimp to make spaghetti with clams, but I can't teach a chimp to love it, and that's the difference. You need to love it with a passion like I have." He's nothing if not astute--for example, recognizing that fine-tuning a restaurant is easier than overseeing his retail products. If the first 10 restaurant patrons tell him a dish is too spicy, he can easily fix it. In retail, "you need to make decisions even before you've had a customer response." In his dining rooms, Batali is gracious, schmoozing with an endless stream of customers; in his kitchens, though, he spews profanity. Mention the aroma of expanding profits and he replies with a smile and an acronym: "KFC: ker-f---ing-ching."

That expected payday assumes Batali won't become overextended, a fate that other celebrity chefs before him have suffered. The industry's most recent significant cautionary tale has been about Todd English, a telegenic Boston-based chef. Between 1997 and 2001, English expanded from five restaurants to 16 eateries around the country (including on a cruise ship). He had cookbooks and a radio show and was a Food Network regular. But he then encountered a range of problems--bad press, the loss of a business partner, health-code violations that led to temporary restaurant closures. English has hired new managers and denies he expanded too aggressively. "I'm here and back bigger and stronger than ever," he says.

For the new New York and L.A. restaurants, Batali is reducing risk by taking on outside investors, who will be paid back in full before he earns a dime. The investors are hopeful. "With a TV show, too many things can go wrong: the star, the writing, the direction," says Phil Rosenthal, a Del Latte investor and creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond." "With a restaurant, you just bet on the chef--in this case, Mario--and you can't go wrong."

If Del Latte succeeds, what's next? Some observers--like Julie Rossant, author of "Super Chef: The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires"--have suggested a series of less pricey restaurants, like sandwich joints or cafes. On his future, Batali only muses about retirement: coaching his boys' basketball teams and raising organic poultry. Indeed, one of the reasons chefs build empires is that beyond the age of 40, it gets hard to spend eight hours a night on your feet in the kitchen. If Batali sounds a bit less ambitious than rivals who hope to make their brands ubiquitous, that may be because he already is. Says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf: "Wolfgang [Puck] would like to be Starbucks, but Mario doesn't want that so much--he just wants to keep on building places with good food." It's an ambition that suits his devoted diners just fine.

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