In 1988, after five years as an editor on a restaurant trade magazine in Chicago, I was ready to move to New York. So I put the word out to everyone I knew in food publishing: I needed a job. And word came back that Michael and Ariane Batterberry were starting a new magazine for chefs and restaurateurs.
I flew out to meet with them in their gorgeous, objet-filled Madison Avenue apartment. It was aristocratic, refined, a bit over the top—just like them. "The Bats" told me tales of the old days at Food & Wine, the magazine they had conceived and launched, dropped names like Jim Beard and Julia, served cookies, fruit, and tea. I was sure I'd break or mispronounce something, tipping off this erudite couple that I was the hayseed I clearly was. I felt totally out of my element: baffled, awkward, intrigued. Is that a Tiffany lampshade? Isn't that tablecloth really a rug? Is that an ascot he's wearing? Who on earth are these people?
The Bats were unlike anyone I'd ever come across. They called each other "darling," shared a fabulous sense of humor, and quickly convinced me of the need for a new magazine celebrating the chef-led American food revolution. They asked all about me, of course, and how soon I might be available. I flew home, wrote a thank-you note, and went back to sending out resumes.
And then one day a few weeks later Michael called me to see how the New York apartment hunt was going. "Um, are you offering me a job?" I asked, startled and excited. "Oh goodness, I thought I already had!" he replied. "Terribly sorry!" And then he laughed, that deep, amazing ha-ha-ha laugh of his. I called the restaurant designer Adam Tihany for advice. "The Batterberrys? Do it," he said unequivocally.
There were six of us at the beginning, working in the Bats' living room. There were always pitchers of homemade lemonade and Champagne grapes in a footed silver bowl—"the most beautiful grapes I'd ever seen," Rob Arango, one of those original staffers and now the director of client development at the Plaza Hotel, told me. "The walls were chocolate brown tinged with purple, which at the time I thought was so crazy. I've since painted three of my apartments that very same color."
Within a month or two we moved to a sweltering dump of a space above Fiorucci, across from Bloomingdale's. It was a wonderfully exciting "let's put on a show!" sort of time—right up until our backer, a British book publisher, backed out six months into the game. I wasn't in on that actual meeting but I quickly picked up the gist: You're all barking mad and you'll never last a year and you'll certainly never turn a profit.
As the Bat would have said: "Ha, ha, ha!" Marvin Shanken came along like a white knight and pulled Food Arts into his fold in 1989. "From the very beginning of our getting together, Michael and Ariane were in sync," Shanken told me. "I pretty much left them alone to do their thing and it worked for everyone. Thanks to the Batterberrys, Food Arts is a noble success in a crowded field."
"Normally I ask for a fee much larger than that," was how it usually went, back in the early days when we had virtually no budget to pay our writers. "But since it's the Bats, of course I'll do it."
Wherever Michael worked, the vibe was salon as much as office. Rarely a day would go by at Food Arts without a visit from someone: a food writer looking for work, a young chef seeking a stage, a reporter sniffing for trends, an author plugging a book. The mountain of stuff on the Bat's couch would be shoved aside, the visitor warmly welcomed. Anyone who found their way to Michael was guaranteed an ear, a helping hand, a leg up.
"Michael was one of the first people anywhere to treat me like a writer," Anthony Bourdain says on his blog, "back when I was an anonymous, line-cooking journeyman chef, long before Kitchen Confidential."
Indeed, not only did Michael and Ariane share a passion for rare and beautiful objects, they hunted and gathered remarkable people. Michael was a connector, a networker in the very best sense. (He thought Facebook was brilliant, I hear.) No matter where you announced you were going—to Brighton Beach, St. Barts, Bordeaux—Michael knew someone there who'd help you, and he'd reach for the phone to make it happen.
And people were loyal in return. One of the many perks at Food Arts was meeting and working with some of the top names in our field: Craig Claiborne, Jacques Pepin, Gael Greene, Bryan Miller, Elizabeth Schneider and so many others. They all wrote for Food Arts because no one ever said no to the Bats. "Normally I ask for a fee much larger than that," was how it usually went, back in the early days when we had virtually no budget to pay our writers. "But since it's the Bats, of course I'll do it. Don't forget to give them my love."