Mario Batali: Hello, Hong Kong! China, here we come

Mario Batali: Hello, Hong Kong! China, here we come

The world's leading shorts-and-ponytail chef opens his first Hong Kong restaurant. But he's already got bigger plans in the region

Mario Batali Lupa Hong KongMario Batali: "Century eggs are so beautiful."Mario Batali was really bothered about the bread at Lupa, his new restaurant in Hong Kong.

He took a slice of the bread they were serving that day and made me smell it, looking at me expectantly. I detected a nice anise scent and wanted to eat it.

"Caraway seeds! That has no business here!" says Batali, snatching it back. It just doesn't go with his sauces and meats.

I get it. It's like having char kway teow made with egg noodles. It's practically an insult to a food lover.

Batali came to Hong Kong and discovered a city of kindred spirits. "People talk about food like religion here," he says. It's his kind of place.

The Italian food fanatic, restaurateur and TV personality was overseeing the Hong Kong launch of his popular New York-based restaurant, Lupa. It's the first of three restaurants he plans to open here.

Like all shrewd empire-builders, however, Batali ultimately wants to take his restaurants to mainland China. 

"I love the idea of doing business in China, but I don't think I'm ready without finding some kind of a hybrid first [between New York and China]," says Batali. "And Hong Kong is the hybrid."

As a testing ground for Chinese diner reaction to signature Batali-style Italian fare, the chef is saturating the city with his cooking.

After the smart-casual Lupa, with its wood-fired pizza oven and outdoor terrace, Batali will open Carnevino a couple floors above it on Queen's Road Central. The upscale steakhouse will feature an aging room to create those "pungent steaks that Americans love and the Chinese will dig."

The third restaurant will be in the "windhole" of the brand new Hysan Place in Causeway Bay. Batali and his team will create a greenhouse-like structure and serve Neapolitan-style pizza, pasta and meats. 

In between the frenzy of birthing restaurants, Batali talked to us about his new food obessions, how Italian food is just like Chinese food and his insights on durian. 

CNNGo: Where have you been eating in Hong Kong?

Batali: We went to some place that the kitchen guys call "Buckets." It's on a little alley, it's like five blocks away [from Lupa]. I don't think that it opens till midnight.

I don't think it's actually called Buckets, I think they call it that because they wash the dishes in a bucket.

It's four tables and a sassy manager-owner guy who pretends he doesn't speak English but does.

I'm learning. 

CNNGo: Has setting up Lupa here been different than opening a restaurant in New York?

Batali: The beauty of operating a restaurant in America is that even if half of your staff speaks Spanish or Chinese, they all speak English.

Here, there's not one unifying language in the kitchen. But they are all smart in their thinking. 

I can teach a chimp to make linguini with clams, but I can't teach a chimp to love it and to dig it. Once the staff learn to make linguini with clams right, they will enrichen the dish with their passion and creativity, which is what I like.

I just need them to be able to talk to each other first.

CNNGo: So how are you accommodating Hong Kong tastes?  

Mario Batali Lupa Hong KongHappy hour on Lupa's terrace.

Batali: In an industry where we are perceived as always saying "yes," we spend a whole lotta time curating the experience to what it is.

So although you can take something out of a dish, you can't put anything back in. We don't do that sort of short order cooking because we want them to try it the way we have been preparing it all day.

CNNGo: Have any diners given you a hard time?

Batali: It's not a problem for a local to walk right up to the pasta chef in the middle of dinner and say something about their food. Which Americans would never do. Americans might wait till the end or write a little note.

CNNGo: What's the one kink you need to iron out?

Batali: In America, extra performance is rewarded by extra tips. Here that's not so, so it's hard to improve staff performance directly. We're trying to figure out how to do that. 

CNNGo: So that leads us to the next question -- what was up with your employees filing a lawsuit against you for allegedly taking their tips?

Batali: We have never taken a single tip and not given it to the staff. But we have a gag order on the details of this case. Sorry.

CNNGo: How about that other scandal in which you compared bankers to Hitler?

Batali: The banker comment was taken out of context. It was about deciding who was going to be the man of the year for Time Magazine and in utter stupidity I mentioned the word "Hitler" in the same paragraph as I mentioned bankers.

It was never meant to compare the behavior of a couple of silly bankers with a murdering dictator. It got stuck in the wrong way.

CNNGo: You basically went from being a media darling to being vilified. 

Batali: Tough year. And that's how America deals with its stars. We are the good guys, we worry about our staff and about compensating them better.

CNNGo: Have you figured out the best compensation system now?

Batali: All of America's trying to figure out how to deal with the whole concept of tips.

All the restaurants that are trying to evaluate compensating their staff directly related to their performance are all going to go through this struggle this year.

It's a disincentive to opening restaurants in New York really.  

Also keep in mind that 10 years ago the hospitality industry wasn't "hip." Now it is, so a lot of people are looking at it.

CNNGo: Are you going to be an adventurous eater in China?

Batali: Until I get hurt. As Tony Bourdain says, "There's almost no reason to eat anything unless there's almost a 50 percent chance that you might get diarrhea."

CNNGo: What's a common misunderstanding about Italian food?

Mario Batali Lupa Hong KongLinguine with clams. Any monkey can make it, but they can't be passionate about it.

Batali: Most people think it is spaghetti, lasagna and pizza. Most people think of Italy as one place.

But it is 21 regions with incredible variations. The complexity of it and the infinite source of marvel that it is, is what is commonly misunderstood for spaghetti, lasagna and pizza.

There is a simplicity in technique and a lack of sauce. When you eat a bowl of pasta Italian style, it's the same way a salad is dressed. There shouldn't be that much sauce in the bowl.

When you eat it like that, it's the holy s**t moment. You have spaghetti with zucchini and shrimp and you're like, "What did they put in this that makes it so good?" Well, zucchini and shrimp.

They maximize the flavor by using something that is local, seasonal, cooked in olive oil and served very simply and lightly. When you understand that, all of a sudden Chinese food makes sense, because they are doing the same thing. 

The food is so clean and pure and almost empty. It's like listening to Erik Satie as opposed to Chick Corea in his Mexican phase. There is beauty in that lack of noise and that's why italian food can be really great.

CNNGo: So, did Gwyneth Paltrow (who co-hosted the TV show "Spain ... on the road Again" with Batali) ever try to give you a makeover?

Batali: No, Gwyneth loves me exactly as I am. She is very healthy, but you know what? When we go out to dinner she eats twice as much as I do. Swear to god.

CNNGo: Any current food obsessions?

Batali: Thousand year egg. I had one at Yung Kee with thick-cut sweet ginger. It's now my obsession. It was (expletive) great.  

CNNGo: Anything you won't eat?

Batali: I will always eat anything at least once. I have gone as far as trying durian.

It is not my thing. Have you ever had to change a very hot heavy diaper? Had you done that you will know that the smell is very similar and you just can't get over it.

Find out more about Mario Batali at Hong Kong's Lupa is at 3/f, LHT Tower, 31 Queen's Road Central, +852 2796 6500

After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

Read more about Zoe Li