Smooth jazz greeted guests who entered the dimly lit Del Posto Italian restaurant on Sunday evening (Oct. 16) in New York's Meatpacking District, co-created by renowned chef Mario Batali. A short trip down the main stairs led to an entirely different scene, though, as the likes of Jim James and Jack White blared through the speakers. The music, most likely selected by Batali himself -- who is a fan of White and told Billboard he has been playing White's new acoustic record on repeat -- set an energized and celebratory tone, as the fifth annual Honors Dinner to Benefit the Mario Batali Foundation was officially underway.
Batali (donning his uniform of a fleece vest and orange Crocs) said five years doesn't seem very long -- "it still feels like a baby" -- and that time passes so quickly it blows his mind. For reference, he pulled out his phone to show a photo of his children who are now in college. Though even after five years, the most enjoyable part remains that the event's intimate guest list filled with friends and family.
He said while the event aims to inspire those in attendance to leave with a desire to serve the common man, as the Mario Batali Foundation -- whose mission is to "feed, protect, educate and empower children" -- does in many ways from youth hunger relief to education, it is first and foremost a celebration. "Tonight we're going to have some good food made by the only four star restaurant in the Italian world, in the whole world, so sit back and relax." Easy enough.
The night's honoree was chef Jose Andres, who was being recognized particularly for his recent work in Haiti, some of which was chronicled on the PBS special Undiscovered Haiti.
"Jose Andres is one of the most generous and giving people that I've ever met in my life," Batali said. "His ability to inspire [the people of Haiti] and make them feel good, even in the face of incredible difficulty, is one of the reasons we're honoring him."
To help honor Andres, who is a close friend of Batali's -- as are all of the evening's special guests -- co-host Jim Gaffigan brought the laughs, while musicians Chris Stills and Mike Mills provided musical entertainment. Mills was not the only former R.E.M member in attendance; frontman Michael Stipe was also a guest. Stipe said he met Batali about 17 years ago, and when he was first approached to sit on the board of the foundation, he recalled telling Batali, "I don't even need to know what you're going to do with it, but I want to be a part of this."
He added, "It's quite obvious to anyone who is a fan of [Batali] from television, he's a really big-hearted man and he's one of the most generous people I've ever met. To find out that we're working to help improve the lives of children in all these different ways is really, for me, an extra bonus to be in on the foundation."
Another of Batali's closest friends and most kindred spirits, Action Bronson, was unable to attend. When asked if Batali could speak on behalf of himself and Bronson regarding what makes them such compatible friends, he took a moment to get in character, pretending to puff an imaginary joint -- "I gotta get stoned first."
He says they both are "enamored with the intricacies of cooking," and are both "students of humanity." He continued, "We have similar palates -- although he doesn't eat mackerel, which is weird to me -- and we love the idea of the story behind the food." Which is exactly what the fifth annual Honors Dinner does, it tells a big-picture story behind food from commendable chefs, such as Andres, who use their platform and skill for the benefit of others, to commendable causes that the Mario Batali Foundation works year after year to support. Five years may not seem like much to Batali, but it has certainly meant a lot to the thousands of lives positively impacted from his foundation's work thus far.