September 1, 2003 | Vintage Insatiable

On The Town with the Batterberrys


        6:15 p.m. The Bats, as their pals call them, are out on the town again. Tonight begins at the American Ballet Theater gala. Michael and Ariana Batterberry, publisher (he) and editor (she) of Food Arts, the influential monthly for culinary professionals, are unstylishly early. A twist of jet and chunky rhinestones from Ariane's huge costume jewelry collection glitters against the velvet striped black chiffon of her Gianfranco Ferre tunic.  A member of the benefit committee, she looks around for someone to greet.  In classic black tie and velvet slippers with his father's evening wallet in a back pocket, Michael takes in the fauvist bravura of the benefit tabletops. (tabletop being a Food Arts obsession). "Isn't that color brilliant?" he says.  "Intense cobalt, deepest sapphire blue, the hydrageas against that deep fuchsia silk, the shocking pink orchids."   Is it a trend?

        An impassioned cook (himself), an impassioned eater (herself), impassioned trend-setters (both of them) -- it was witnessing America's food revolution at the start that prompted the Batterberrys to conceive Food & Wine with partners Robert and Caroline Kenyon and Peter Jones a quarter century ago. Champions of American chefs when, as Michael puts it, "That very term was regarded as an oxymoron," the two continue to devote their considerable charm, intelligence and cultural savvy to that mission.       

        "We saw something happening in the late Seventies ," says Michael. "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." He sounds a bit British too (he grew up there) and when he makes up a word --like precosisity for the excesses of the nouvelle cuisine -- it is always better than anything the dictionary offers. "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 -- It's their 35 wedding aniversary the next day -- they can finish each other's sentences and often do.  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."

        Performance ended, the auditorium empties in a surge toward the bar for champagne and hors d'euvre on the galley above as the Bats are led backstage.  "Look at those hunky donkeys," says Ariane, admiring two dancers from the evening's premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals. Michael breaks through the gush surrounding ballet master/choreographer Peter Martins to deliver a trenchant compliment. Then it's Ariane's turn: "The animals reminded me…you probably don't know that I danced as a frog for Balanchine." "I wanted to be a dragonfly, says Ariane.  "The dragonflies had such beautiful costumes."

        Martins looks properly amazed, but then he is distracted: "We shall have to go into this more," he says, leaving them surrounded by a chicken, a mermaid and the donkeys.

        "Not many people know about Ariane's dancing career."  says Michael, clearly proud of Ariane's astonishing resume.

        "Did you know she was a classics scholar at Cambridge? says Michael, 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.  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 manilla 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 it.  She nods.

        "They simply complement each other," close friends observe. "They give each other space." Michael is the flamboyant one -- compelling raconteur, amazing mimic, tall and dapper.  Ariane basks in his aura -- quieter, intellectual, sharply opinionated, often prompting him to tell that wonderful story about…whatever.

        "I don't want to sound preachy," says Michael. "It's about honoring your word.  Every marriage goes through bad patches.  But if you truly trust…Never for one nanosecond have I ever questioned if Ariane is there."

        Born in England where his American father ran Proctor & Gamble, Michael discovered America at prep school, studied art --- he needed permission at 12 to attend life drawing classes. Graduated 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.

        "Oh dear," says Ariane, surveying the limo crush outside Lincoln Center.  "We've lost our driver."   They are headed to the Village for dessert at Blue Hill, a favorite canteen in the Village, especially now that Michael, a famously gifted cook and dazzling host, has no time for the kitchen. Most nights they eat out -- keeping up, with time out for theater, ballet and dinner parties, though rarely their own (which are justly famous).  "As free lancers (and authors of sixteen books) we were freer," observes Ariane when the errant driver materializes. "Now we're a two breadwinner family and we eat out like so many American families."  Except that few American families consist of two such, well-bred and cultured scenesters.

        "We were spoiled," says Ariane, who grew up an only child in a town house 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's nearing 11, but late night dessert fans are welcome at Blue Hill. Chef-owner Dan Barbour has slipped into clean whites to greet them, eager to discuss the agenda for his breakfast board meeting of David Rockefeller's ambitious Stone Barns Food and Education Project, just two days hence. The chef and Michael are both on the board. "David Rockefeller turns out to be a major foodie," Michael reports.  "As a boy he cooked chicken for his grandfather. Dan will run the restaurant and the farm will grow vegetables in winter.  He turns to Dan: “I just want that avocado-lime dessert with the salty caramel.  Ariane will want something chocolate."

        "I'll taste everything the pastry chef sends," says Ariane. "Everything. 

        "Dan represents the best of the new generation of chefs," says Michael. "He's educated, has high standards and believes in community efforts. He has his own farm already, producing for Blue Hill.” Batterberry has put Food Arts clout behind Stone Barns as well as the New American Farmer Project that links organic and immigrant farmers with restaurants and chefs eager to buy and even subsidize exotic and fresher produce.

        "How does the chef get this taste in the rhubarb?" Michael goes out to the kitchen to find out.

        "Money was tight in l978. None of the usual people wanted to finance Food & Wine," says Ariane.  "But we got invited to the Playboy Mansion to make our pitch, Hugh Hefner showed up at lunch in his dressing gown.  And he got it right away."

        "There was a real turning point in American cooking," says Michael returning with the secret of the rhubarb.  "It happened at Food & Wine's first anniversary celebration at Tavern on the Green.  It was the first time American chefs cooked on the same footing with European chefs…At a time when the term American chef was still an oxymoron in most people's minds. And all the products were American. The French came expecting to knock people dead with their nouvelle cuisine and there was Alice Waters, doing very similar things. It got such press, all emphasizing the Americans, showing that F&W was the visionary magazine in what was becoming a visonary age of food."

        He eyes the small platter of cookies and chocolates.  "I just can't."

        "I'll taste every one," Ariane promises, ordering a decaf.  "So much was just starting then.  Our timing was perfect."

        Michael elucidates: "The rise of the American chef.  The territorializing of regional cuisine by chefs, of what had been in the past Mom's cooking. Jasper White in New England. Larry Forgione at the River Café. Jean Louis Palladin in Washington D.C. was a huge inspiration --- creating his own network of suppliers, Amish farmers, small veal breeders, demanding regional ingredients, retooling them with French technique. Even when he was a baby Jimmy Schmidt was using lake fish and Traverse City cherries at Detroit's London Chophouse. The greening of America. Down to today's market-driven menus. People responding to knowing where the product comes from.  And the upgrading of ethnic cooking in America.  Think of all that we've seen: The reinterpetation of Latin food. More respect for the pasty chef. The celebration of desserts. The chefs as entrepreneurs and super stars." He frowns. "That has its down side too."

        "Think how the world has changed," says Ariane.  "We went to the food fair in Madrid where everyone is talking about the brilliance of the young Spanish chefs. Ten years ago what could you eat in Madrid? And in Chicago for the restaurant show, everywhere we went there were terrific cheese selections and a lot of the cheeses American. And we discovered this annoyingly green chef who seems to think he invented local produce but he did the best asparagus with the best single poached egg mollet and a long crouton wrapped in proscuitto."

        "Of course I'm certainly glad to see the last of raspberry vinegar," says Michael. "The ridiculously small portions of nouvelle cuisine, the glumly undercooked vegetables. And the vacant long-legged models at the maitre d' stand in those short-lived grand cafes of the 80's.   Someone I think is a real hero is Piero Selvaggio at Valentino's. He got Californians to eat beautiful unadorned artisanal Italian food like prosciuotto with nothing else on the plate."

        When Food & Wine's backers wanted out, American Express Publications took over and the Batterberrys went on to conceive Food Arts, "a  magazine that could talk about anything of interest to professionals," as Michael puts it. 

        "Good timing again," Ariane adds, "That was 15 years ago with so many chefs becoming stars and owners, with so much money going into design and tabletop.  I'm eating your marshmallow, Michael," she warns.

        Late as it is, there are people huddled at every corner looking for cabs.  David Barbour pops his head out the door.  "I'm sending someone to get our catering truck to take you home," he says.

        Ariane pulls herself up onto the high front seat. "Now I know what it feels like to be catered."

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