August 2, 2010 | Short Order
Michael Batterberry: Between Cary Grant and Fred Astaire with smarts
Michael and Ariane at Gastronomie sur La Seine 2008. Photo: Steven Richter
Michael Batterberry, the charming and debonair founder with his wife Ariane of Food & Wine and Food Arts magazines, died Wednesday at 78. It was a number he declined to reveal “because age entries should be reserved for wine lists,” as he told the Times. He was both an historian and a shaper of late 20th century food culture, with a passion that preceded the American food revolution. This past May the couple was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation for their contributions to America’s culinary scene.
Michael had enriched many lives as an advocate of chefs and restaurateurs, a charming raconteur, a repository of five decades of food world memories, and a culinary matchmaker. But we were shocked at the indignity of what seemed a premature death. His passion and inventiveness were so young. He never gave in to old fogyness like some of us. He was always open to new tastes, young talent, molecular daring and seemed to know what the next big thing would be…perhaps because he gave it a name in Food Arts. It was just a few months ago we shared dinner at the Four Seasons where he told stories from the days of Joe Baum, the Kovi-Margittai years, and the Seppi Rengli kitchen. Graceful, ironic, biting, fun. Impossible to think he could go so quickly.
Wherever you were heading – Delhi, Barcelona, Tunisia, Cancun – he knew someone you should meet before you left and once you arrived, and an angle you might not have thought of for the story that would suit Food Arts’ professional readers. Horizons and friendships expanded through the connections he made for me and so many.
He made strong passionate recommendations for people he believed in, as Dave Arnold wrote last week in crediting his job at the French Culinary Institute to Batterberry’s intervention. He had his own custom tailored image, somewhere between Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. “He could show up at a pig-pickin’ in a three piece suit and look perfectly at home,” Arnold adds. “Despite always being the best dressed man in the room, he was never, ever snobbish or stuffy.”
They could finish each others sentences. She didn't mind.
“A stylish couple, the Batterberrys. And perfect complements,” I wrote in a New York article about four cocktail parties called “The Sensuous Hors d‘Ouevre” in September 1976. “Michael, the artist,” the copy read. “Ariane, the cheerleader. Michael cooks. Ariane handles social communications, cleanups, endless last-minute errands. Their accents are cultivated. The décor is brilliant clutter. Vaguely Middle Eastern and other ethnic tidbits are crowded on a table draped to the floor with a Victorian velvet-and-satin patchwork quilt."
“People are responding to the unusual, “ Michael observed. “We love a meal of many tastes. And it’s all self-service tonight. Passing hors d‘oeuvres interrupts good talk.”
The Bats, as their friends came to call them, stand at a big round table in black tie and brocade in Dan Wynn's glittering photograph. At the time they seemed so Scott and Zelda to me. I wanted to go home and copy everything. Tapestry walls. The vintage French mirror. Eighteen inch tapers in the Venetian candelabra. That patchwork quilt.
“Those who stay on will sit down for a peaceful pasta and a salad with fruit,” said Michael. It would be heaped on a Thai altar-offering plate. “We collect dishes from everywhere,” said Ariane. “Especially footed dishes,” as she pointed to an antique Indian plate, “possibly a leper’s,” she said. “Sterilized, of course.”
I recall a formal evening with them in 2003, just the three of us. He wore classic black tie and velvet slippers with his father's evening wallet in a back pocket. Did he seem a little British? Well he was born in England where his American father ran Proctor & Gamble. Indeed Michael discovered America at prep school, studied art -- he needed permission at 12 to attend life drawing classes. Graduating at 21 he went from Harvard to selling art and painting murals in Caracas (his father's new P&G bailiwick) and started a design agency "to make money." By the time he moved to Italy "because that's where everything in design was happening," he'd done an Alpha Romeo showroom, a boutique hotel, and a concert hall for the American Club. In Italy, he did a portrait of Baroness Blixen for the Paris Review, dubbed movies, wrote screen treatments, sang in a nightclub and sold paintings.
"We were spoiled," says Ariane, who grew up an only child in a townhouse on East 67th Street (now the Didier Aaron Gallery). For birthdays her parents took her to The Colony (where Onassis, Sinatra and the Paleys often contended for the same royal banquette). "Remember the crepe-wrapped seafood? And the poire belle Helene." She sighs.
"You were spoiled," says Michael. "I wasn't spoiled."
''We both had parents who took us to restaurants," she explains, ever unruffled. "We went on ocean liners."
"My father would drive 15 miles for the best celery," says Michael. "His platonic ideal was a box of freshly smoked kippers. My first tutelege in eating from a professional came in Normandy when the room service waiter taught me how to hollow out the petit pain and fill it with butter and raspberry jam. I was six."
It was witnessing America's food revolution from the start that had prompted the Batterberrys to conceive Food & Wine with partners Robert and Caroline Kenyon and Peter Jones a quarter century earlier, they told me that night. “We were champions of American chefs when," Michael puts it, "that very term was regarded as an oxymoron. We saw something happening in the late 70s. Organic was becoming an issue."
"Kids were going to college with woks," interjects Ariane, in her high-pitched upper class voice.
"The sun had risen in California," Michael goes on. “Couples were laying away wines, building wine cellars." His voice was unusual, authoritative, but never pompous and when he made up a word -- like precosisity -- for the excesses of the nouvelle cuisine -- it was always better than anything the dictionary offered.
"There was no cooking magazine that talked to men as well as women."
“Our timing was perfect,” Ariane concludes.
"I think I just said that," says Michael.
She smiles. After so many years in his and her adjoining offices, they could finish each other's sentences and often did. She minds less than he does. "I'm a feminist but I don't need to be violent about it. And after all, Michael is a feminist too."
"Did you know she was a classics scholar at Cambridge?” Michael offers, clearly proud. "And she danced with the Marquis de la Cordova's troop in a courtyard at the Louvre."
"In the chorus." Ariane points out. "I wish I could say I gave up the ballet so I could eat," says Ariane. "But it was because I was just not good enough." She did well at Columbia Law School, "but I hated the law so I left." She'd recently published A History of Art for Young People when she met Michael at a dance on the roof of the St. Regis in l968. He'd just produced an Off-Broadway review. "I was the entertainment that night," says Michael.
Soon they were together at the New York Historical Society sorting through crumbling memorabilia stuffed into manila envelopes for their first partnership, On the Town in New York: A History of Eating and Drinking from the American Revolution. The wedding actually preceded pub day. "We figured if our relationship could survive writing a book together, it could survive anything." Michael says. She nods.
Like many couples who work together, they seemed almost to be one. Within days after his death, Ariane came into her office and, now sole publisher, said she would continue where they left off.
Click here to return to the Short Order Archive