There are bouquets of rosemary, terra cotta cazuelas filled with chopped onions and minced parsley, and an entire octopus from Spain that will turn deep purple when tossed into a pan of olive oil. But every chef at La Sirena, Mario Batali’s new Maritime Hotel restaurant, is grinning at the weed.
“Give me a big, cloudy puff of smoke right here,” demands Batali, 55, lifting the raw sea creature in front of a blunt that bobs from the mouth of rapper and star of Viceland’s F–, That’s Delicious Action Bronson. “That’s f–ing beautiful,” exclaims Bronson, 32. “Oh my f–, are you kidding me right now with all those tentacles?”
Born Ariyan Arslani to an Albanian-Muslim father and Jewish New Yorker mother in Flushing, Queens, it was Wu-Tang Clan and episodes of Molto Mario that shaped Bronson’s prodigious appetite for hip-hop and food. Despite a stint in culinary school and years spent working at restaurants (including his father’s), music stardom changed his course.
In La Sirena’s kitchen, which opened in February, he is the wildly curious Dionysus to Batali’s Apollonian persona. For every question (“Does the head taste the same as the tentacles?” “Octopus don’t have blood. What substance do they have instead?”), the Seattle-reared Batali offers a pragmatic yet poetic response. “We share a missionary zeal for finding things that are pleasurable — things that are delicious or thoughtful, provocative or even intellectual on the odd occasion,” says the James Beard Award-winning chef, whose 26 restaurants include Babbo, Otto and marketplace Eataly.
At a table in the sun-drenched, 220-seat dining room, gastronomy is merely the launching point for a conversation that spans lake monsters and steroid injections. Perhaps the only things that flow more freely than the wine are the F-bombs. “As we say in my world,” declares Batali, clinking their glasses, “Cin cin, motherf–ers.”
The minute hand is barely past noon.
What inspired La Sirena?
Mario Batali: We wanted to reference the Maritime Hotel, but didn’t want to be perceived as a seafood restaurant. Our name comes from the myth of the sirens, who hypnotized sailors as they sang from the rocks off the coast of Sorento. It’s a beautiful conception of something from the south of Italy as seen through Homer’s eyes.
How did you both meet?
Action Bronson: JDate. (Laughs.)
Batali: We both swiped right. (Laughs.) I met Brons through my children first, who were fascinated by his hip-hop; he was part of our dinner conversations before I personally knew him. Eventually, we met through the guys who shoot his F–, That’s Delicious show on Viceland.
Bronson: He invited me to dinner, charmed the pants off me and my mother.
Batali: His mom has become one of the heroes of my Babbo restaurant group.
Bronson: We had the roasted beet starter, pasta with a shitload of truffle, octopus.
Batali: He’s a hooker for octopus.
Bronson: I am. And it was just a magnificent scene — being there with my hero, someone I looked up to throughout my life.
Did your love of food precede music?
Bronson: Professionally, I was a cook first.
Batali: A cook in Queens making shawarma.
Bronson: I earned my bones over there. It made me the man I am today. If I would have become famous at that time, it wouldn’t have worked — I would have Bieber’d it up.
Batali: Everyone has a natural gift, and when humans can find it and sing it — they are their best. You carved your own path.
Has either of you earned any battle scars from cooking?
Batali: When you’re a line cook, you’re under pressure to make it happen quicker than it should, so you burn yourself. Now that I’m a fat, old, executive chef, I don’t reach into the oven in a hurry. Bronson, what about your umbilical hernia in Alaska?
Bronson: Nah, that was self-induced from weight lifting. I used to be a power lifter. I was dead-lifting 500 pounds and used to inject a little something.
Batali: Hold on, hold on — saline solution?
Bronson: Testosterone. I was f–ing jacked.
Batali: You thought that was a good idea?
Bronson: I was 23. I had been fat my whole life and thought it was going to reverse it.
Batali: And now look at you — you’re a cheesecake of heaven. (Laughs.)
Bronson: I’m a cheesecake away from f–ing up a refrigerator.
What kind of music do you guys cook to?
Bronson: Salsa. It kind of puts you in that rhythm. If there’s too many vocals, I’ll end up singing the whole song and forget to take the salmon out of the oven.
What’s your idea of decadent cuisine?
Batali: Often enough, the most luxurious stuff depends on where you happen to be and not on the price — a tortellini in Bologna, charcuterie in Alsace.
Bronson: I traveled to Australia, and there, luxury is the food you have to dive dangerously for. Gold Coast abalone and opihi from Hawaii … blew my f–ing mind.
Batali: Did you dive for them?
Bronson: The guy with me did. I dove for some razor clams in the Indian Ocean though. Bull sharks all over the place.
Batali: Wow, I’m f–ing paralyzed in fear of sharks. That’s why I have my house in Michigan: unsalted and shark-free.
Bronson: Are you kidding? I’d love to die by being eaten by a shark; that’s how I want to go. You don’t think there’s some crazy shit in that lake? River monsters.
Is there anything you won’t eat?
Bronson: I’m not in love with Spanish mackerel. The rankness of the fat — something about it turns me the f– off.
Batali: I’ll try just about anything, but there’s a fruit called durian, the flavor of which I can only describe as a baby’s diaper that sat in a gas station bathroom.
Bronson: I haven’t had it in fruit form, but I’ve had it as a sorbet.
Batali: You have come a long way from f–ing Queens.
Bronson: You know what? We should try it together sometime.
Bucatini La Sirena: Re-create the $24 dish at home (sans weed)
1 (3-6 pound) octopus*
2 cups dry red wine
2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
1 bunch rosemary
1 large carrot, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, whole
1 pound bucatini
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
Fill a large stock pot with octopus, red wine, pepper, rosemary, carrot, onion, and two cloves of garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for two hours or until the octopus is tender. Remove the octopus from the liquid and allow to rest for a few minutes. When the octopus is still warm but cool enough to handle, separate the tentacles from the head. Remove the beak from the head and slice in two. Then, using a towel, remove the suckers from the tentacles. When the octopus has fully cooled, slice thinly on the bias.
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook bucatini until al dente, 1-2 minutes less than indicated on the package instructions.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan over medium high heat. Add two tablespoons olive oil and heat until almost smoking, then add the red onion and one garlic clove. Cook until the onion begins to dance in the pan. Remove the garlic clove and add tomato paste, red pepper flakes, and a splash of the pasta cooking liquid. Cook until the tomato paste is a bit lighter in color, then add the cooked octopus.
When the pasta is cooked, drain and add it to the sauté pan. Toss until all of the noodles are coated, about one minute. Add parsley, remaining olive oil, and a sprinkle of red pepper flake, to taste. Divide and enjoy.
*Substitute a pre-cooked canned Spanish octopus. Before building the sauce, thoroughly drain the octopus of its oil.
Fill a large stock pot with octopus, red wine, black pepper, rosemary, carrot, yellow onion and two garlic cloves, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until octopus is tender. Remove from the liquid and allow to rest for a few minutes.
When the octopus is still warm but cool enough to handle, separate the tentacles from the head. Remove the beak. Then, using a towel, remove the suckers from the tentacles. When the octopus has cooled, slice thinly on the bias.
Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add kosher salt. Cook bucatini until al dente.
Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat until almost smoking, then add red onion and remaining garlic clove. Cook until the onion begins to dance in the pan. Remove the garlic clove and add tomato paste, red pepper flakes and a splash of the pasta cooking liquid. Cook until tomato paste is lighter in color, then add the cooked octopus.
When the pasta is cooked, drain and add it to the saute pan. Toss until all of the noodles are coated (about one minute). Add parsley, remaining olive oil and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes to taste. Divide and enjoy. Serves four.
This article originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.