Joe Bastianich and The Gospel of Restaurant Man

Mario Batali's service industry comrade-in-arms and the Son of Lidia published a memoir. Is it his 'Heart of Darkness' or The Good Word?

Mr. Kirschenbaum hasn’t read the new book, but when told of some of the opening passages, in which Mr. Bastianich explains the various ways in which employees can rip off their bosses, he quickly fired back. “I’m of the opposite mind,” he said. “Employees have to be incredibly suspicious of restaurateurs, because restaurateurs sort of believe that there are two groups of people. There’s the businessman and the employees, and you are the slave. So you should be happy with whatever I give you, and you should not be getting rich in my establishment.”

In the book, Mr. Bastianich plays both sides of the net, initially describing professional waiters as “generally overeducated, artistically deprived, bitter people who feel that every dollar they earn is blood money, and they resent being there” (page 95).

He then goes on to praise his own wait staff as “passionate” and “great,” explaining that “we create a positive work environment” (page 96) where he wants to “make them as much money as possible, and I want to educate them as much as I can” (Page 96). He also lays claim to “encouraging them to stay with us as long as they can” so they can become “part of the family.” This much is true: They have made partners out of former waiters, like Jason Denton, who started working for Batali at Po, and is now a restaurateur in his own right.

At the time of the waiters’ initial lawsuit, Bastianich explained: “We’re not going to let them shake us down for a quick settlement.” Only one of Bastianich’s pledge part proved true: The fight was by no means quick.

In March, almost two years after it was filed, the suit was settled for $5.25 million.

“Yeah, well,” Bastianich sighed, “I was wrong. I was wrong in that I didn’t have the resources or the time to fight this thing. I spent two years of my life fighting lawsuits when what I should really be doing is opening restaurants.”

Still, the concession had to hurt, no?

“Yeah, it hurts,” he said. “Five million is a lot of money.” At this, he put down his fork: “I can’t comment on this a lot because we signed those rights away,” he said. “But there is no justice in this, I can tell you that.”

Did he learn anything from the experience?

“I learned that I should shut the fuck up. And I learned to eat my words.”

When The Observer‘s conversation was wrapping up with Mr. Kirschbaum, we suggested that maybe he and Mr. Bastianich weren’t so different: They both come from immigrant parents. They both view the restaurant business as a fundamentally blue-collar profession, of servitude. And they are both sufficiently cynical to the point of misanthropy about the motivations of those they stand in opposition to.

“Look, my parents opened a restaurant, too,” he interjected. “It was a Kosher restaurant called Luvana. It was open for thirty-something years.” The restaurant, which was on 69th between Broadway and Columbus, wasn’t that far from Felidia. Did his parents ever have any problems with their waitstaff?

He pauses to think about this for a moment, and then, answers:

“Not that I know of.”

On the horizon for Mr. Bastianich is the third season of American MasterChef, and the second of the Italian MasterChef. Eataly is expanding to Los Angeles and Chicago. Two months ago, Babbo began lunch service. Lupa Osteria Romana recently received a one star review by The Times’ Eric Asimov, and they’ll want more. Del Posto’s challenge is to retain its four stars, while keeping the seats filled.

And there might be another New York restaurant on the way. In a heated moment during the labor dispute, Mr. Bastianich told The Post he was done opening restaurants here.

When asked if this was still the case, he turned to the publicist sitting with us: “Did I say that? Really?” he asked. She nodded.

“Fuck,” he said, admitting that a new local spot was “percolating,” after all.

He laughed. “I was just in a fit of rage,” he said. “Time heals, and life goes on.”

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek