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  Micromanaging Mario Batali

By Betsy Feinberg

Pam 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 Mario Batali
Betsy Feinberg: How did you land a job as the assistant to this internationally acclaimed chef?
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 like?
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 time!

BF: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from working with Mario?
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 to them.

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 a chef?
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 a prerequisite.

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 the company.

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