Big Think Interview With Mark Bittman

A conversation with the author and New York Times cooking columnist.
  • Transcript


Question: What are your first memories of enjoying food?

Mark Bittman:  They're all jumbled.  They're all jumbled together, but they really are associated with both my grandmothers.  My father's mother, who died when I was pretty young, I do remember going to her house and she lived in a walk up tenement in the Bronx where my father grew up.  She lived in the same apartment in which my father grew up.  And I do remember he making blitzes or pirogi or something like that from scratch, making the dough, rolling it out, filling it with cheese or potatoes and cooking them, and that was pretty incredible because I don’t have – my mother didn’t do that stuff, so I don’t have a lot of that but I have that little bit of that.  Then my other grandmother she was the one who really did the big family functions and would cook for 15 and 20 people at once and would scream at everybody I the kitchen and da, da, da and she made very, very classic eastern European Jewish food and was good at it.  I don’t remember anything particular.  I mean, I remember eating many different things.  I don’t have a single memory though.

Question: How did you first get interested in cooking?

Mark Bittman:  It was kind of self-defense.  I grew up in New York and the food was interesting, varied, not particularly great at home but out on the streets it was good and in some of my friends parents' houses it was good and then I went away to school in Massachusetts where the food was abysmal and I started cooking out of self-defense.  I mean it was just the only I could imagine to get half way decent food was to learn how to make it myself and it really began there and then continued through a series of roommates, some of whom cooked and some didn’t, but all of whom were interested in what I was cooking.  Because I was just following recipes, there was no training, but there were good recipes so it worked.

And then I had a child and started cooking for her and then I started writing about food.  I mean at that point I knew -- it had been eight or ten years and I knew enough about food to write a little about it and then, no pun intended, they fed off of each other.

So I was writing about food and I was cooking and I had to cook in order to write better about food, so there's incentive to cook more which gave me more to write about.  There you have it.  I still have not ever had any formal training.

Question: What are some basic techniques that novice chefs can use?

Mark Bittman: Well, let's just distinguish between chefs and cooks because I think this is important.  A chef is a person -- I know the word is thrown around a lot but a chef is a person who runs the restaurant.  So, people who cook at home are cooks.  There's nothing wrong with that.  People who like to cook are cooks and I think that's a word that's been sadly denigrated and I think it’s a lovely word.  It's an important word.  So what are the most experienced -- what are the most important techniques for shall we say novice cooks?

Well, reading I think is probably very important technique because probably the best way to learn how to cook remains getting a couple of decent cook books and working your way through them and paying attention to what they're asking and learning a few of the terms and it's such an easy – it's so much easier than playing tennis, for example, that it's just a matter of starting to do it and then doing it over and over again until you kind of get it. 

So it has more – it's presented as a highly skilled occupation and indeed for real chefs or people running restaurants or people doing demonstrations on Food Television it's not that easy.  But for most of us it's not any harder than driving a car, it just needs a little practice.

Question:  What ten ingredients should everyone have in their kitchen?

Mark Bittman: Well, off the top of my head without looking at my pantry, garlic, olive oil, that's two.  It's sort of a hard question because do you want to count rice and pasta?  Do you want to count vinegar and lemons?  Do you want to count onions and eggs?  Maybe that gets you close to ten.  The thing is that there are – I'd there are probably 30, somewhere between 25 and 50, but say 30, ingredients that should be in pretty much every kitchen all the time.  Ten is not going to do it.  You can't do much with ten but if you have 30 you can start doing serious cooking and if you have those 30 and you stop at the store and pick up the piece of meat and fish and some vegetables, something fresh, you're completely in business.  You can cook half of what there is to cook in all of the world.

Question: What are common bad habits of at-home cooks?

Mark Bittman:  That's an interesting question.  People don’t use high enough heat and people don’t preheat their pans and their ovens and things like that enough.  If you really want to put a crust on something, the pan needs to be hot, the butter or oil needs to be hot.  I mean, these are things that trained people learn.  Home cooks are a little afraid -- tend to be a little afraid -- or beginning home cooks tend to be a little afraid of high heat.  So that's a mistake people make.

Having lousy knives is a mistake people make and it's not that they don’t have expensive knives, it's that they don’t have sharp knives.  On the other hand, spending too much money on cooking equipment is a mistake a lot of people make because you don’t need to spend a lot of money on cooking equipment.  What else can I think of?

Well, attitude.  Attitude is interesting because people tend to be intimidated by cooking and there's nothing to be intimidated about it.  As I said at the beginning, it's really pretty simple.  So the right attitude is the attitude of I'm going to get something done and it's going to be good.  It's not, "Oh, I'm afraid of this," but nor is it, "Oh, I'm going to be Bobby Flay and do something breathtaking."  It's just going to be I'm going to try – just like my grandma cooked for my mom I'm going to try to cook for my friends or my kids or whatever, which is normal food, the food you like.

Question: What ingredients and spices are unappreciated?

Mark Bittman:  Well, spices in general go under appreciated by American cooks.  I mean, the spices that most Americans used in cooking tend to be the sort of you might call them warm spices or sweet spices like the kind of stuff you put in Apple Pie: cinnamon, all spice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger a little bit.  Chilies are certainly becoming more and more popular and that's great. 

Mild chili powder is a wonderful ingredient that's still not fully appreciated. Pimenton, which is mild smoked paprika, which is a form of chili, so mild smoked chili powder is Spanish ingredient, really fabulous.  All the Indian spices or Asian spices, however you want to call them, tend to be under-appreciated and these are really simple things to use.  I think part of the problem is when you add four or five spices to a recipe, it makes the recipe look long.  It makes the ingredient list look long and no one wants to see a long ingredient list.

So, when writing recipes one has to be careful but, you know, spices are really -- if you replace them every now and then so that they're fairly fresh, they're there, they're easy to use, it's not a big deal and they make a huge difference.

Question: What do you do when friends are coming over and you haven't got anything prepared?

Mark Bittman: I often don’t figure out what I am cooking until an hour before people come over but I make sure there's food in the house and I think that's important.  It seems so obvious when you say it but so many people don’t do it.  

If you have a lot of food in the house cooking is much easier because now you have so many options plus there's pressure on you to cook because you don’t a want the stuff to go bad.  So what I cook for people pretty much depends on what I have.  I try to always have, you know, something.  

Question: Tell us about one of your dinner parties.

Mark Bittman: I had made a deal with a friend who was an architect and he designed an office for me and the deal was that I was going to cook dinner for him and his wife and two of his friends and my wife. 

So there was going to be six of us.  And we set a date, I guess; he says we set a date.  And that morning -- that afternoon actually, about two o'clock he called and said what time do you want us to go over?  I had completely forgotten about it.  So I went shopping and I made -- I ran out to the store, I came back, I made – this is a long time ago -- but I made roast chicken with vinegar, was sort of classic French recipe, some kind of potatoes, a salad, and I don’t know if I made or bought a bread and I made chocolate mousse for dessert and I did that in about two hours, which, for me, is a lot of time in the kitchen for me; I don’t spend two hours in the kitchen that often.

The great thing was the food was not that great. The food was fine.  The great thing was, a.) I got away with it and, b.) they thought it was fantastic and it was then that I realized that if you cook for people in your home they, a.) they're looking forward to it, b.) they're going to cut you so much slack.  They're going to give you every benefit of the doubt.  They're going to be grateful and, therefore, the food is going to taste better than it would if you were in a restaurant where the server was annoying you and you knew you were going to spend a lot of money and, you know, you had to travel to get there and blah, blah, blah. 

So I think it was really – and that was probably 12 or 15 years ago.  So it was about halfway into my -- I've been cooking for 40 years, so it was two-thirds of the way into my life as a cook when I realized that you can do pretty much anything in your home if you take it seriously and do it as well as you could do it and your friends and family are really going to appreciate it.

Question: What defines a Mark Bittman meal?

Mark Bittman:  My presence.  I guess there's other kinds of Mark Bittman meals.  Well really its simplicity, its honesty, it's not overdoing it.  Generally speaking, it's very few ingredients and very little technique and not that much time and its home cooking.  There's nothing fancy about it.  There's no pretense, I like to think there's no pretense.  I mean this all -- it sounds too good to be true.  It sounds like better than I am but it really is what I do.  So I guess I'll take some credit for it.

Question: Can you be a food lover and a healthy eater?

Mark Bittman:  I think if you are a true food lover, you are a healthy eater.  Well, first of all, the term foodie is completely ridiculous because for someone to -- when you meet somebody and they say, "I really love to eat," I think the appropriate answer is who doesn’t?  So, I mean look around.  Who do you know who is not a food lover?  Everybody's a food lover.

The question is do you eat responsibly?  Do you eat for your own benefit?  Do you eat for your planets benefit and do you eat the best food possible?  If the answer to all of those things is yes then you're eating well.  If you're eating, if your style of eating is bad for your body, if your style of eating is bad for the planet then you are not really eating good food.  You're eating lousy food and there's plenty -- as we know, there's plenty of lousy food around.

Question: What is the most environmentally responsible way to eat?

Mark Bittman:  The principled way to eat, if you were going to say, "I want to eat entirely for my own benefit, I want to eat entirely for the benefit of the planet, I want to eat in the most responsible way possible to minimize my carbon footprint, to minimize my impact overall, to minimize my effect on animals," you would be a vegan.  That's the bottom line.

Veganism is the most principled way to eat that there is.  From the perspective of your own body, from the perspective of the planet, from the perspective of animals, very few people are going to be vegans.  Let's be real.

So what's next?  I mean, if on the one hand you have vegans and on the other hand you have people who eat whatever they feel like eating, there's a middle ground.  The problem with the way most Americans eat right now is that we are about as far from veganism as we could be.  So a vegan would get 100 percent of his or her calories from plants. 

Most Americans get 90 percent of their calories from processed food, junk food, and animal products.  So, the goal, I think, is to move in the direction of eating more unprocessed plant food than we do now and everybody's got a different starting place.  If you eat 20 cheeseburgers a week, or the equivalent, you might look at eating 15 cheeseburgers a week or the equivalent.  If you're eating 15, you might look at eating 10 and so on, and I think if people think about what's best for their body, what's best for the planet, the answer is eating unprocessed plant food and then think about how can I eat more of that stuff at the expense of meat, which was the question, but also at the expense of processed food and junk food.

Question: What are some of the main things you can do to eat healthily?

Mark Bittman: The idea is to eat as many unprocessed plants as you can. What are plants?  Plants are vegetables, fruits, legumes, which means beans, nuts and seeds; what am I leaving out?  I think that's about it.  So the idea is to eat as many unprocessed plants as you possibly can and to eat those instead of eating processed foods, junk foods, and animal products. 

Well, it works for me -- what's worked for me for just about three years now, what works for me is to eat a very, very strict diet of plants only and unprocessed plants only from the time I wake up in the morning until dinner time.  So from the time I wake up until roughly dark I eat a lot of fruit, I eat a lot of vegetables, I eat some whole grains and sometimes I have some beans and that's pretty much it.  And then at night I eat whatever I want and that’s, which includes meat, which includes wine and which includes pasta and bread and stuff like that. 

That's a huge change for me.  I think that if you think of your diet as a seesaw with the animal products, the processed or the junk food on the heavy side as it is for most people and the unprocessed plants on the light side as it is for most people, I think for me my seesaw went from looking something like this to looking something like this.  I think to the extent other people can eat that way they will have a lesser impact on the planet, improve their health, probably lose weight, feel better.

Question: Why did you decide to change the way you ate?

Mark Bittman:  Well I think I decided to change the way I ate because of some of the things we've been talking about here.  One is that I recognize that one of the highest contributors to greenhouse gases and global warming is the industrial production of livestock.  So I decided okay that was one goo d reason to eat less meat.  The other good reason to eat less meat is that I was in my mid-50s and my health wasn't what it used to be.  So I was overweight, I had bad knees, I had sleep apnea, had high cholesterol, I had high blood sugar or borderline high blood sugar, I think that's enough.

So I decided to change my diet and it's so obvious to everyone who pays any attention to nutrition at all that if you want to be healthier the way to do that is as I've already said is to eat fewer animal products and eat less processed and junk food.  So I started to do that and it worked.  I lost 35 pounds; gained five of them back but hey.  Sleep apnea went away, I slept better, my knees bothered me much less, in fact, they ran the New York marathon last year.  My cholesterol is back to normal and my blood sugar is back to normal.

So it all worked and it's not a coincidence.  I mean no one would say it was a coincidence.

Question: Are there any foods you avoid because of health reasons?

Mark Bittman:  Actually not.  There's some things I don’t like.  But I think that it's important to recognize that there is no sort of single, I mean, arsenic and cyanide aside, there's not really a single ingredient that's going to outright kill you.  There's actually some evidence that a single can of soda can trigger diabetes, but there's not a lot of evidence about that.  In general, one ingredient, one little kind of food, one meal, one day, even one week.  That's not what's determinant of your overall health or of your impact on the planet.  What determines is your overall diet and if it's moving in the right direction, which for most Americans is towards plants and away from animal products and processed foods, than I think hip, hip, hooray.  That's the way to go.

Question: Is it possible to be a great chef and a vegan chef?

Mark Bittman: Yes, there is a great vegan chef.  I mean, there are a few at this point and yes, I think that it's -- actually, this is an interesting story, I met a vegan chef from Japan a couple of years ago.  Tiny, tiny woman, really interesting, and not a vegan in her personal life.  But she was a vegan chef.  She ran a small, maybe 12- or 20-seat, restaurant in Tokyo and everything was strictly vegan.  And when I found out that she wasn't a vegan, I said I don't get this.  I mean why would you choose to -- it's not a matter of principle for you because you eat meat, you eat fish, why would you choose to narrow what you serve your customer when you yourself eat from the broadest spectrum possible and she said it's like pen and ink.  There are people who choose to be artists in only pen and ink because they want to narrow the world in which they're looking at so as to more fully explore it and I want to narrow the world in which I'm cooking so I can understand it better and she was an amazing, amazing chef.  She made great, great stuff.

Question: What do you think is behind the cult popularity of food and cooking over the past decade?

Mark Bittman:  I'd be guessing to answer that question and it’s a confluence of a bunch of things.  I mean, first off, I guess, is that we like fads, I mean we like trends.  So here's one that hadn't been fully exploited.  Secondly, Food Television really has had a huge impact.  I mean, cooking and eating as a spectator sport, never before in history.  So that's had a huge impact. Third, I think, is the kind of internationalization of food people -- not only people traveling and seeing food from the rest of the world, but ingredients and types of cuisines and restaurants arriving here in unprecedented numbers.

So I think I guess the short answer is exposure but it still doesn’t explain walking into a party and having someone come up to you and say, "I'm a foodie," and there's something about this sort of trendiness, it's like saying, I'm a clothes person. 

Well, yes, we all wear clothes; I'm a clothes person, too. What does that -- **** designer or are you – is there a special kind of thing?

The thing that makes me most upset about this big fad is that more people are not cooking and that -- I think it's fine to watch other people cook but then people say, "Well, I'm too busy to cook," and they're too busy to cook because they are watching people cook on television.  It doesn’t track for me.  I think it's really, really bad.

Question: How important are organic foods, and how truthful is the labeling?

Mark Bittman: One has to hope that things that are certified organic are organic.  But what does organic mean?  It's a term that’s defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.  It doesn’t mean anything or it doesn’t mean much about how the animals are treated.  It doesn’t really mean much about what kind or what breed of the animals there are.  It doesn't mean anything in terms of how the workers who are raising these animals or farming these crops are treated.  Doesn’t mean anything about where the food is from. 

So does organic have some meaning?  Yes, I think the term organic has some meaning.  But I think that it's not the most important thing.  I won't go so far as to say it’s a red herring because I think there are some important things about it but I will say this.  The most important division in our style of eating right now is not organic versus non-organic and it's not local versus non-local.  It's plants versus anything else and I don’t mean to be repetitive but the message is very, very clear. 

The way that people can eat best is to eat less crap to put it bluntly.  And crap is processed food and junk food and you can have organic processed food and you have organic junk food and that food is maybe a little better than non-organic processed and junk food but it's not good food and that's the most important lesson we could learn, I think.

Question: Is it important to eat locally grown, seasonal foods?

Mark Bittman:  Well, again, I think the clear answer is that, as far as your body is concerned, a grape from Chile is better than a cheeseburger from around the corner. If you're willing to eat turnips, carrots, bread you bake yourself, frozen meat, a very limited diet, you can eat locally almost anywhere, at least in this country, all year round and that's great but it's expensive, it's inconvenient, and it takes dedication.

I think it's a swell idea and I think that ultimately for food to make sense in this country I think we're going to see more regionalism and less food coming out of California.  But I don’t think we'll ever be at a place where we see no food coming out of California, unless it falls into the sea, of course.  And I think that if you want to be truly a local eater, you're not going to be drinking it.  If you live in the northeast, as I do, you're not going to be drinking any coffee.  You're not going to be drinking any caffeinated tea.  You're not going to be using any olive oil.  There are a lot of things you're just going to be missing out on.  That's fine if you think that that's the highest priority.  There are other priorities, I think. 

I'm a fan of local food.  I really like local food, but to go back to the discussion of trendiness in food.  Everything need not be taken to an extreme and this is another thing that has been taken to an extreme.

Question: What foods are your guilty pleasures?

Mark Bittman: If I'm driving say six hours and I decided to stop at Wendy's or whatever I guess there's a twinge of guilt.  But there's also an excuse because you're away and, you know, you're busy and blah, blah, blah and I don’t exercise that excuse very often.  So I don’t really feel guilty about it.  I think what would make me feel guiltiest, and I don’t do it, is going to a supermarket and buying a huge bag of potato chips and coming home and eating it but I don’t do it, so.

Question: What would you choose as a last meal?

Mark Bittman:  Why do they choose -- because they want something comfortable, they want something they're familiar with.  They all want bacon and eggs, right?  I mean I don’t -- that's my guess.  Everybody wants four fried eggs in butter with unlimited supply of bacon and really, really great toast.  I would – am I being executed?  I have to get the scenario.  So assuming I'm being executed and I have the – its not a last meal, like I don’t want to think about cancer last meals, I want to think about execution last meals.  I would call – I'm privileged I can do this -- I would call my friend Jean-Georges Vongerichten and tell him I want to cook for me until I tell him to stop.  That would be my last meal.  But I do like the four or six eggs cooked in a lot of butter with bacon and really good toast.  I like that, too.

Question:  What do you think of New York's proposal to ban salt in restaurants?

Mark Bittman:  I think it's moronic.  I think that the problem with salt, to the extent that there is a problem with salt, and this is not really, really clear, but to the extent there is a problem with salt, it's the salt in processed foods.  People who don’t eat a lot of processed foods don’t have problems with salt.  People who add their own salt to food have no problems with salt.  Chefs who make their own – chefs in restaurants who cook from scratch and add salt to their taste or to the perceive tastes of their diners are not adding criminal amounts of salt.  If you want to limit the amount of salt that McDonalds puts in its processed foods, that's great.  I'd like to limit the amount of food they can sell period.  It's not really a salt problem, it's an overall food problem.

Question: Why are proposals to tax sugary sodas important?

Mark Bittman:  Well, I think it is happening, which is really amazing.  The mayor of Philadelphia just proposed a very – the proponents of a soda tax or generally proposing a penny per ounce as an excise tax, which means 12 ounce can of soda might cost a $1.12 instead of $1.00 and a 24-pack case of soda might cost -- might double in price from a sale price of $2.99 or $3.99.  That's really incredible.  The guy in Philadelphia, I think his name is Nutter, but hey it's his name.  The guy in Philadelphia is proposing two cents per ounce, which is really quite amazing because it means a $1.00 can of soda would cost a $1.25.  A 32 ounce bottle of soda that was a $1.00 would cost a $1.64 and so on.

So I think it is happening.  Why is it important?  Soda is the leading source of calories for Americans.  Americans get seven percent of their calories from soda, which is more than they get from any other single food.  And let's think about this, it's non-nutritive.  That is to say no benefit whatsoever.  None.  Like it's not harmless, it's negative.  Secondly, it's a leading cause of obesity in the United States.  I mean, if obesity is a problem, you have to look at where the calories are coming from.  If soda is the number one source of calories in the United States and it's not a beneficial source of calories, it's something people can do without. 

So if you're obese and you're looking for ways to help people figure out what they can do without, soda is a very good start.  So I think the tax is a very smart thing.  There is some research that shows that taxing junk food, which soda is a junk food, taxing junk food is more likely to help people eat well than subsidizing healthy food.  The irony is that if you subsidize healthy food people will take the money they're saving and buy junk food, which is sad but true.

I think the soda tax makes sense.  I think it's happening.  I think it's going to happen this year and next year.  I think it is going to be a swell of soda taxes and I think once the greedy state legislatures realize they can make money on this thing it's going to have even more momentum.

Question: Describe your kitchen.

Mark Bittman:  I moved this year and I moved from a kitchen that was six by seven to a kitchen that was about eight by eight.  So its an eight by eight?  Maybe it's seven by seven; it's 50-something square feet.  It has counters on two sides.  It has a refrigerator on a third side.  It has drawers on a fourth side and it has two doors.  It has a sink and a dishwasher and a stove and it has maybe six feet of counter space and nothing is fancy but it's, for me, nearly perfect.  I mean I wish I could fit more – like I wish I could fit a table in it and I wish I could fit more people in it to hang out with while I was cooking but it's pretty great.  It's really nice but there's nothing unusual or remarkable about it.

Question: What inspires you to create a new recipe?

Mark Bittman: The way that recipes happen for me is shopping.  It all starts with shopping.  So I will go -- I got to Chinatown a lot.  I go to decent supermarkets.  I go to green markets, and I try to buy everything that looks good that I think I can cook in the next X days.  I mean am I cooking at home for the next four days?  Because to be home for four days in a row is a lot. 

I'll buy four days of food but I'll buy a lot and then I will go home and I will cook what I bought and almost always, a.) because I have like no patients with cooking from recipes, b.) because I'm not that methodical, c.) because I have a bad memory and always think I'm making things up.  I can't even duplicate my own recipes.  What happens is there's this house full of food and I start cooking and usually interesting things happen.  I don’t – brilliant things don’t happen, but interesting things happen, interestingly enough to write about evidently, since people read this stuff.

Question: You often suggest substituting one ingredient for another. Doesn't that change the recipe?

Mark Bittman: Well, I don’t really care.  If you substitute one -- if you were making pasta with broccoli and you don’t have broccoli, you want to make pasta with cauliflower, everything about that is the same: the cooking time, the technique, just about everything about it is the same, assuming you know how to trim broccoli and trim cauliflower.  Is it a different recipe?  You might say it's a different recipe, but almost everything about it is the same and so what if it's a different recipe, it's still good.  I mean, I like to say you can vary things as much as you want to but you have to remember that you can't make a roast chicken without chicken.

Question: Whom do you most enjoy cooking for?

Mark Bittman:  It’s a toss up.  My wife is the greatest dining companion and a total joy to cook for and she's a good eater and we really have fun together, but I have to say that my kids, who grew up eating my food and can call and say I'm coming over, could you make something Asian or I'm coming over I need this pasta dish or I'm coming over and could you just – could we have one of those – it's really nice and if there are people who don’t like to eat I don’t want to cook for them. 

I don’t want to have to convince anybody that what I'm making is good.  I know it's good.  I usually enjoy it.  If someone enjoys eating, they'll enjoy eating the stuff I cook.  If they don’t, something is wrong somewhere.  There's not – Julia Child used to say, "The great thing about cooking is you get to eat your mistakes."

The thing is that if you take care in cooking and if you know what you're doing, even a little bit, unless you burn something there are very few things that wind up so bad that you can't enjoy them.  Very few.  So I mean I'm lucky enough to have been doing this long enough and writing about it and learning from other people and thinking about it so that generally speaking the stuff I do is pretty good and the people I cook for tend to enjoy it.  But I said before it's not brilliant, it's not earth shattering it's just good food.

Question: What was it like hanging out with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali in Spain?

Mark Bittman:  Well, Mario and I have known each other probably ten years and we've gotten increasingly busy, so we don’t see each other that much.  So it was really a treat to hang out so much and I know from my – the people who – I was going to say my fans, which I guess is right, but anyway.  I know from people who've watched "Spain on the Road Again" and my other TV shows that everybody thinks that TV is the most fun thing in the world and everybody's completely jealous of, "Oh, well you got to hang out with Mario and Gwyneth and this who's that beautiful woman and the food in Spain must be so amazing."

The fact is television is a tremendous amount of work.  And for every minute on screen there is an hour of work.  So for every 60 minutes on screen, there's a week of work and it really is like that.  So we did a huge amount of driving and there's a lot of setup time and not exactly rehearsal but figuring out what we're going to do.  So none of that was my favorite part.

My favorite part was nighttime when everything was done and we all got drunk together.  So that was really great and Mario, of course, can drink anyone under the table.  I think he'll admit to this, maybe it's not an admission, I think he'll be proud of this.  Whereas I can't drink anyone under the table plus I go to bed earlier than anybody else.  I go to bed earlier than anybody.

So we'd finish the shoot, we'd have a bite to eat, we'd have a fair amount of wine.  It would be 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, I'd go to bed.  Mario would be up until four in the morning.  Everyone else was waking up with black eyes and broken shoulders, he was always in great shape.  So that was sort of what it was like.

Question: If you could cook for anyone, living or not, whom would you serve?

Mark Bittman:  So I could say I would cook for Adolph Hitler and serve him poison.  I could say that.  I could say quite sincerely -- see I don’t think you could influence people really, I mean I – the obvious answer, an obvious answer is well, I would cook for President Obama and set him straight on a number of issues but he's already got a lot of people setting him straight. 

I think the people I'd most like to cook for would be my maternal grandparents, who I loved very much and have been dead a long time and who I think, in some ways, were responsible a lot for my personality and a lot for the way I handle myself and also for my love of food and saying that makes me think I should go cook for my parents more often than I do.  They're alive, fortunately, so I'm going to go and [do that]...