Goodbye to a Nonpareil


Food Arts

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."

When they conceived Food Arts, the Bats believed that chefs needed information no one else was providing. And knew that chefs were interested in things far beyond the stove. They saw chefs as artistic, educated, intelligent businesspeople—and felt they'd embrace a magazine that recognized it.

"Michael definitely brought the work of the chef to a higher level," Jacques Pepin told me. "But not in a faddish way. It had deeper meaning with him. He made us more academic, in some ways, and made us more respectable."

"The Bats saw the whole celebrity chef scene coming long before anyone else did," says Beverly Stephen, Food Arts executive editor. "And to a great extent they helped create it. Yes, he gave chefs the chance to be boldface names. But for Michael it was always more about giving them the respect that they deserve."

And there was their sense of art—the interest that originally drew Michael and Ariane together. The Israeli food stylist Nir Adar had been in the country just two weeks when Alex von Bidder, co-owner of the Four Seasons restaurant, suggested he call on Food Arts. "I had two photos in my hand, showing food as art," Adar told me. "Michael looked at them and proclaimed: 'I've been dreaming of something like this for years! I want you to work on two double spreads and a cover.' I had no clue what he meant but it sounded like a good beginning. Twenty years and dozens of covers and pages later, there's not a day I don't thank him for changing the course of my life. If not for him I'd still be peeling carrots at the Four Seasons."

And then of course there was Michael's encyclopedic knowledge of culinary history: why we eat what we eat and how we got that way. The New York Times obit nailed it perfectly, saying his interest lay "not merely in food per se, but in food as a mirror of the collective national psyche." He had a scary ability to recall meals enjoyed years and even decades before ... and many people didn't know he was an exceptional cook as well. James Beard once called him the most talented home cook in America. He was drawn to anything new, creative, well-done. He might not embrace it—like typing: he wrote everything longhand on yellow legal pads—but he definitely wanted to know about it, and that meant that he usually called the trends long before anyone else.

Listen to people talk about Michael and certain ideas come up again and again. Ultimate gentleman. Last of a breed. Wildly passionate about people and food. (Food writer Meryle Evans calls him "a Renaissance mensch.") And those clothes! "Despite always being the best dressed man in the room he was never, ever snobbish or stuffy," Dave Arnold, of the French Culinary Institute, wrote in his blog. "He could show up to a pig-pickin in a three-piece suit and look perfectly at home."

I stayed at Food Arts for 10 years as executive editor, and ultimately quit to freelance. But the Bats and I remained close all these years. For me and countless others, there's always been room at the Batterberry table. Up in the Bats' apartment in May, I showed him my new iPhone and a few of its gee-whiz apps. Where others of his generation might have said "What do I need that for?" the Bat's response was predictably exuberant: "This is just terrific. Ariane, let's look into this!"

A few days later at the James Beard Awards, the Bats accepted their Lifetime Achievement Award to a standing ovation from 2,000. The Bat, for his part, said it was his best honor ever. A few days later, he fell ill again and this time he didn't recover.

"I didn't know the Bats very well," former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl says. "But I always thought that Michael seemed like the coolest kid in school. He was smart and funny, good-looking, erudite, and no matter who you were, he seemed to be living a better life than yours."

Of the four full-time editors at Food Arts today, none has been there fewer than 15 years. "Loyalty and love: we're a tight group," Jim Poris says. "The Bat allowed us to bring out the best in ourselves and in each other."

Beverly Stephen sums up 20 years of working for Michael this way: "It was like being seated next to the most interesting guest—at the kind of fabulous dinner parties most of us never get invited to."