By Betsy Feinberg
Lewy, Micromanaging Mario Batali
Pam Lewy works side-by-side with world-renowned chef
Mario Batali, but she doesn’t don a toque or
wield a chef’s knife. Instead, Pam’s position
requires a Rolodex, a planner, superb communication
skills and an eye for detail. As the assistant to
Chef Batali, Pam is in charge of the day-to-day business
of her in-demand boss. With three shows on the Food
Network, including “Molto Mario” and “Ciao
America,” five cookbooks, an expanding restaurant
empire on both coasts, and a slew of television appearances
and book signings, the business of being Mario Batali
is a hectic one, as Lewy can easily attest to.
After majoring in Communications at the University
of Maryland, College Park, Pam made her way to New
York, where she worked as an Assistant Agent at Access
Talent for two years. But she soon realized that her
calling was in the food and hospitality industry.
Pam landed an Editorial Internship with StarChefs
in January of 2004, where she learned the ins and
out of the restaurant business. Writing articles,
interviewing chefs, editing recipes, and issuing press
releases were all part of a regular day for Pam here
at StarChefs. She simultaneously enrolled in New York
University’s Steinhardt School of Education
to pursue a Master’s in Nutrition and Food Studies.
When Pam heard through the grapevine that Mario Batali
was looking for an assistant, she jumped at the opportunity,
and fate was on her side. StarChefs caught up with
our former intern to fill us in on the thrilling demands
of a chef assistant.
Interview with Pam Lewy, Assistant to Chef
Betsy Feinberg: How did you land
a job as the assistant to this internationally acclaimed
Pam Lewy: I was interning at StarChefs
when I heard about this job opening through a friend.
So I sent my resume along. When I didn't hear back
for a couple of months I figured the position had
already been filled. Then I got a phone call from
his former assistant asking me if I was still interested.
The rest is history.
BF: As an assistant to Mario
Batali, what does your job entail? What is a typical
day like for you?
PL: Every day is different, which
is one of the reasons why I love this job so much.
I generally begin the day by checking emails and phone
messages. At some point in the morning I usually meet
with Mario and catch up on mail, general correspondences,
etc. The rest of the day I'm busy with phone calls,
emails, scheduling, and public relations. It’s
about always being on your toes and ready for anything.
Some days I’ll be sitting doing work and all
of a sudden Mario says, “I need to you to go
to the market and pick something up for a charity
event I’m hosting tonight.” I’m
also dealing with a lot of personalities – there
are the “9 to 5” people like publicists,
journalists, marketing folks, and food network people,
and then there are the restaurant people who work
a whole different schedule. So I’m straddling
the 9 to 5 and restaurant world, but it’s mostly
9 to 5 for me.
BF: So what’s Mario really
PL: He’s a very fair boss.
And he’s one of the smartest people I’ve
ever met. That’s why he’s so successful
– not only can he cook well, but he’s
a great leader, and knows everything about the history
of the food and the ingredients he uses. He’s
always cracking me up - he doesn’t take things
so seriously. I have a tendency to stress about things
and he’s always reassuring, saying, “Yeah,
don’t worry about it. It’ll work out.”
Planes get delayed, cars don’t arrive, but he
understands that things always go wrong and he’s
able to roll with it.
BF: What are some of the highlights
of your job?
PL: He’s always inviting me
to events and having me meet different people, exposing
me to a lot of different personalities in the industry.
BF: What are some of
the biggest challenges of your position?
PL: My job is to strive for perfection,
to always make things work out. But some things are
beyond my control. Even when it comes to Mario’s
participation in food events, I can tell the event
coordinators ahead of time that he needs X, Y, and
Z, and I can check on it a zillion times. But when
we get there and there’s no Z, we have to deal
with it – just work with it and move on. Once,
Mario was cooking for a charity event at a private
house and when we arrived, the oven wasn’t working.
So we rolled with it and used the barbecue instead.
No matter what happens, it’s not the world’s
worst thing. We’re in the restaurant business.
People want to eat good food but have fun at the same
BF: What are some of the most
important things you’ve learned from working
PL: Learning that it’s so much
more than just food and wine from his perspective
has been really valuable. I’m seeing how to
run a business, how important it is to delegate different
responsibilities to different people. He gives you
a starting point and lets you launch from there. Mario
puts a lot of trust in his team - it’s one of
the reasons why he’s so successful. He’s
able to concentrate on other aspects of his career
because he knows when he’s not around his restaurants
are being taken care of.
BF: Does your job just
entail working with Mario or do you work with other
people in his organization?
PL: I’m working with the managers,
the sommeliers, and all of his protégés
as well. They are all wonderful because they’ve
been working under Mario. They all have that sense
of trust and that personality that’s going to
make them successful. It’s very easy to relate
BF: You’re receiving a
Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Food Studies
from NYU's Steinhardt School of Education. Do you
recommend the program to people seeking assistant
jobs with chefs? How did the program prepare you for
a job in the hospitality industry?
PL: The Food Studies program at NYU
is growing rapidly. I was initially attracted to it
because of its uniqueness – at the time there
was only one other program similar to it in the United
States. It’s great to spend time with people
who share a similar passion – classes definitely
stimulate interesting conversations about current
food issues. I definitely recommend the program. It’s
a huge learning experience, as well as a good opportunity
to network and learn about different aspects of the
industry. Plus, it’s fun to be a student again.
BF: Have you always been interested
in a career in the food and hospitality industry?
PL: After college I worked in the
entertainment industry for a few years. While considering
a career change, I tried to really look into what
I was passionate about. I have always loved cooking
and baking. I considered going to culinary school
but then found the Food Studies program at NYU which
was a better fit for me. I love the restaurant industry
- the people, the fast pace...it’s exciting
and constantly changing. This job with Mario is perfect
for me – it allows me to work in an industry
I love but I also utilize all the skills and knowledge
that I amassed from my communications studies in college.
BF: What do you think
your next step will be? Are you interested in becoming
PL: I would still love to go to culinary
school after I get my Master’s Degree. I think
having culinary training is important, but I don’t
see myself working as a chef in a professional kitchen.
BF: What suggestions would you
make to jobseekers interested in becoming a chef's
assistant? What kinds of jobs and/or internships are
useful in attaining a chef assistant position?
PL: My job entails a great deal of
organization, scheduling, public relations and communication
skills. It’s important to be able to talk to
people and always be professional (you are, after
all, representing not only the chef you work for,
but his/her entire business). As with any job, enthusiasm
for the industry is paramount. You should read books,
articles and try to always be “in the know”
– it’s important to know what you’re
talking about. As with most jobs, internships and
experience in the industry are always useful. Knowing
basic kitchen/cooking skills is beneficial but not
BF: Where do you see yourself
in 5 years? 10 years?
PL: People have been working with
Mario since he was at Po – so there’s
something to be said that people are willing to go
the long road with him. I’d love to continue
to work with him. The success of his business will
hopefully present opportunities for growth within