Born in Istria, Italy, an area that was taken over by communist Yugoslavia and became Pula, world-renowned chef, Lidia Bastianich, found solace in working with her grandmother in and out of the kitchen.
“We couldn’t go to church or speak Italian where we lived, but where my grandmother lived, it was safer. She would take me and my brother to church, and we kept the Italian traditions alive.”
She spent much of her time growing up with her grandmother who farmed and raised her own food. Bastianich was incredibly involved in growing, harvesting, and cooking the food, and it helped her escape the reality of what was going on with the regime. She recalls cooking alongside her as her little assistant.
From the smell of fresh herbs in her grandmother’s garden, to the warmth of the potatoes plucked from the soft soil, Bastianich remembers everything like it was just yesterday. She always pictures the fields of wheat and beautiful olive trees when she reminisces about her time with her grandmother.
When Bastianich, her mother and her brother had the opportunity to flee to Trieste, Italy, they seized it. Her father stayed behind as a hostage, but eventually, he escaped in the night to meet his family. Although she missed her grandmother, she held on to that connection with her through food.
“The things you experience during your formative years, those parts stick with you and mold you. I knew it all. I continued collecting ideas, flavors and more over time, and food became my connective link to my grandmother because I was an immigrant and couldn’t see her as often.”
In 1958, President Eisenhower opened America to those fleeing communism. Catholic Relief Services helped the family make their way to the states.
“We didn’t know anyone in America, but we made the decision to come to New York. We were introduced to an Italian community, and those people helped my mother, a schoolteacher, and my father, a mechanic, find jobs here.”
With her parents at work, Bastianich prepared dinner to be ready for when her mother arrived home each day. At 16 years old, she started working at a local bakery, and as she continued through her adolescent years, she waitressed in restaurants and helped in the kitchen when the chef wasn’t there.
“To me food was fun, and I was successful at it. People would complement me when I would help with orders.”
Cooking Up Something Big
In 1971, Bastianich’s husband at the time opened Buonavia, serving Italian American fare. Bastianich started working as a sous chef there. Ten years later, as business expanded, they opened another restaurant, Villa Secondo. She travelled to Italy as often as possible, visiting family and refining her skills cooking regional cuisine. “We’d drive up and down Italy in this little car with no air conditioning on hot days, but it was worth it. I’d visit different areas to learn about territories and products, which I continue to do every year.”
Eventually, once her father passed away in 1981, the couple sold their two restaurants to open Felidia in Manhattan. The late Julia Child, French chef and household name, visited the restaurant one day with the illustrious food critic, James Beard. They had one bite of Bastianich’s risotto were more than impressed. Bastianich didn’t know it yet, but this would be the moment that catapulted her career.
Bastianich was a guest on Child’s Public Television show, Julia Child: Cooking with Master Chefs, showing audience members how to cook her famous risotto. “I was told I’d be good with my own show. Julia was a friend, and she encouraged me to pursue my own dreams.”
Reaching New Heights
With the support from her mother, Erminia, helping Lidia and her husband raise their two children, Joseph and Tanya, Bastianich was able to start building a business for herself and her family. She has a show on Public Television, Lidia’s Kitchen, which has been broadcast around the world for 25 years. Her mother even appeared in episodes with Bastianich, beloved by the audience.
After Bastianich’s show launched, more shows and several specials followed. She became a Public Television star, household name, and Emmy-award winner.
“I always think, ‘what can I pass on and teach that’s relevant and educational,’ not simply, ‘what can I do,’” she says of her shows. She’s written 14 cookbooks, and they all match up with the recipes from her episodes. Bastianich has also written three children’s books and a memoir.
Bastianich has spent 50 years in the industry, working together with her children. “My children got into food because they know food is a connector. If you offer someone food, you want to nurture them, and you care about them.”
Bastianich’s business ventures continue to expand over time. The family has a winery in Italy, Azienda Agricola Bastianich, a line of pasta sauce in supermarkets, are founders and partners of Eataly in the Americas, and more.
A Generous Heart
When she visits her grandkids, which is often, Bastianich always cooks for them and their friends. “I know their friends, and they always ask when I am coming to visit. I gave my grandkids the basics, and they can see that cooking is a gift. It enriches your life.”
Through all her success, Bastianich is most proud of keeping her family together.
Lidia’s Kitchen continues to air on Public Television and echos her cookbook, A Pot, a Pan, and a Bowl. “The pandemic had just happened, and people needed help with everyday meals,” she said of her cookbook, seeing a need for simple recipes that would allow anyone to find their groove in the kitchen.
Bastianich expresses her gratitude for the people and organizations that helped her family when they needed it most, which is why she spreads that same generous spirit whenever she can. When she heard about the Lehigh Valley Food & Wine Gala to support the students at NCC, she jumped at the opportunity to help.
The NCC Food & Wine Gala will be an unforgettable dining experience that celebrates the power of delicious food and wine inspired by Bastianich’s classic recipes. At the event, she looks forward to sharing her story, especially with the students. “I want to instill in young people to take every opportunity and pursue what makes them happy. It’s the opportunity to have a good life and enjoy what you do, which is so important.”
To support student scholarships, purchase tickets or become a sponsor, please visit https://www.lehighvalleyfoodandwine.com/.