Lidia Bastianich is the Emmy Award winning host of her own PBS cooking show, Lidia’s Kitchen.
She’s also a producer, a bestselling author, a successful restauranteur, and a co-founder of Eataly Marketplaces worldwide. In other words, Lidia is a culinary icon.
She’s also won more awards than I can list! Lidia doesn’t just recite a recipe and make it for you, she includes the story behind it, whether it be humorous, educational, and/or heartwarming. However, It wasn’t until after I read her memoir, My American Dream, that I began to understand the breadth and enormity of her journey. I think I read the entire book in a day and a half, it was such a page turner.
Lidia is also passionate about giving back, especially in regard to empowering women in the restaurant and hospitality industries. She is a founding member of Women Chef & Restauranteurs, and later she joined Les Dames d’Escoffier, promoting the education and advancement of women in careers related to the food industry, and providing scholarships for women in the field. In fact, in 2017 Lidia was chosen for the Grand Dame Award, which recognizes an “exceptional woman” who has made extraordinary contributions in the industry. A very high and impressive honor.
In addition to all this, she finds time to volunteer work for UNICEF, and cook for Popes! (Pope Benedict when he came to New York in the spring of 2008, as well as Pope Francis in 2015.)
What I enjoy most about Lidia’s cooking is that she makes her recipes approachable. They aren’t intimidating. I recently jumped onto the bread baking bandwagon, and while trying to perfect my focaccia making skills, I turned to Lidia’s recipe, which is now my go to. It’s the simplest and the tastiest! She’s made me into a more confident cook.
Lidia, The Taste Awards have just announced that you’re the recipient of The Andrew Zimmern Discovery Award. Please tell us more about this prestigious honor?
Well, it’s an honor to be recognized by your peers and Andrew is certainly one of them. It felt great being moved up a notch. I really appreciate it and it makes you feel good, it makes you feel accomplished.
In 1998 your first PBS cooking show aired and it was called Lidia’s Italian Table. Now, 25 years later, it’s Lidia’s Kitchen. Can you share with us, how Julia Child initially influenced this outcome?
Julia came to my restaurant Felidia twice with James Beard. She ordered the mushroom risotto and loved it so much, she wanted to learn how to make it. So, I had her come over to my house and I gave her a few lessons. Eventually, she invited me to be on her show, the master chef series, and we did two episodes. They were quite successful and the producer said to me, “Lidia, you’re pretty good. How about a show of your own?”
And it was Julia who encouraged me to do it saying, “Do for Italian cuisine what I did for French.” I really appreciated Julia’s sincerity, her straightforwardness, and her method of teaching. She was a teacher, not a show-off. Julia wanted the viewer to cook. And this is what I want. I want to share regional Italian cuisine. It’s a simple and straightforward cuisine and that was the beginning of my television show.
A few years back, when I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I would meet up with my buddies on Friday nights for end of the week cocktails at The Townhouse bar which is almost directly across the street from your flagship restaurant, Felidia.
Ah, yes, yes!
We’d always go out to dinner after drinks and my favorite choice was Felidia. I loved those dinners; good friends, great food, beautiful ambiance. I’m really going to miss Felidia, now that she is closed.
Well, during Covid, all of our restaurants closed and not all of them reopened. After Covid was over, my children reminded me, “If you reopen Felidia, you have to be there, 10 to 12 hours a day, and after 40 years at Felidia, and 50 years in the business, I thought maybe it’s better that we let it go.
What inspired you to write your latest cookbook, Lidia’s From Our Family Table to Yours, which launches this September, and will this book be the blueprint for the next season of Lidia’s Kitchen?
The book comes first. After testing recipes and taking all the photographs, the show then follows the recipes. The audience gets to see how the dishes are made. We shoot in my real kitchen and the kids are coming and going and my mother was here. You know, my followers write to me all the time and over the years they say they feel like they are part of the family. So, I thought that sharing what we love, what we love to cook, would be a nostalgic book that they, the viewers, could really relate to.
You immigrated to America with your mother and father and brother Franco when you were just 11 years old. You had no friends or relatives here and didn’t speak English. When reading your very compelling memoir, My American Dream, I was struck by the cinematic quality of not only your writing but of the actual course of events. Has there been talk of adapting your life story to film or possibly a mini television series?
Well, you hear things, yeah, there’s some talk, but nothing really major.
What motivated you to write your memoir?
I wrote the book because on the TV show I would spill a little information here and a little there about my life but I had never told the whole story. It’s one thing to write a cookbook, it’s another to write about your personal life. And people would write in, wanting to know more, so I just told my story going way back to where I was born.
In all the years of taping your cooking shows do you have any funny “bloopers” you can share with us that didn’t make it on air?
Putting in sugar instead of salt. Sometimes things get burnt. Or like making a strudel dough, I tore it and kept it in the show as my mistake, and how to repair it.
What is your favorite go-to recipe when you’re hungry and tired from a long day?
Soups are good, but my favorite is pasta; spaghetti, garlic and olive oil with some veggies, some grated cheese and a glass of wine.
Jumping to showtunes. You are, or should I say, your spirit and energy, are an integral part of the musical Marry Harry by Dan Martin and Michael Biello. They created a big musical number about you. Did you know about it in advance?
They sent the song to me first, and then I went to the show. I’m honored and really appreciate it.
Both of your children, Tanya and Joe, followed in your footsteps into the world of food, wine, restaurants, and entertainment. Are any of your grandchildren showing interest in doing the same?
Some more than others, I’m not sure yet. They all love being in the kitchen with me. Some have graduated and some are still in college. We’ll see.
Lidia Celebrates America! The shows are beautifully produced, informative, and quite emotional. I especially enjoyed the episode Salute to First Responders. And it’s lovely how you then invite all the people in the show to a sit-down dinner you’ve prepared for them. Will there be more of these productions in the future?
Yes, this next one is called Flavors That Define Us. With so much discussion on immigration today, I wanted to ask, what does it mean to be an immigrant? For me, it’s my way of telling America how much I love and appreciate them. Food is a connector, food is healing, food is nurturing.
Food is a universal language.
Yes! So, during these times in America, I ask, what really unites us? America is a patchwork of different cultures and communities and that’s the strength of this country. No other country has grown in this fashion. I wanted to show how we each have different cultures, foods, songs, religions. We are a part of a bigger whole, which is America. And what are the immigrant’s responsibilities to America? I try to give back as much as I can, but it’s always communicating with food. Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us.
At the end of each episode of your TV show you invite your audience to enjoy the finished recipes by declaring, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” (Everyone at the table to eat!), has anyone, other than friends or family, shown up and knocked on your door? I’m so tempted!
Lidia: (laughing) Don’t encourage them! Sometimes my neighbors will shout when I’m out in my garden, “Hey Lidia, what’s cooking today?”