with Lidia Bastianich

Lidia Bastianich is a woman on the go, traveling across the country to make guest appearances at food festivals, taping her television series, and checking in on her restaurants in Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Recently I caught up with her for an afternoon interview in New York City, at her flagship restaurant, Felidia.

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?

Lidia Bastianich:
I don’t remember life without cooking. My grandmother had a little inn in Italy, and she cooked for all the laborers coming into town. I helped with the little tasks, like shelling beans. But my grandparents did it all – they farmed, and they also processed their own olive oil, distilled grapa. It was a seasonal existence with food. And so that’s my philosophy today, to use simple, seasonal ingredients.

When we moved to the States (I was 12), my father wanted a traditional meal every night, and my mother worked. So I’d prepare dinner. When I was 16, I went to work in a restaurant to make supplemental income. Inevitably I’d end up in the back of the house. If it was somebody’s birthday, I’d go into the kitchen and bake them a cake. I got married at 21, and my husband and I opened our first restaurant in Queens at 24. I wasn’t a chef then, but I learned like a sous chef. I was the only woman in the kitchen.

AB: Did you encounter other women in the industry back then?
LB: It was different. There were women in salad and prep positions. They did their work and listened, and if they really excelled they’d get recognized. Women had difficulties not so much in the neighborhood restaurants but in New York City and the hotel restaurants.

AB: Were you always doing this kind of food?
LB: The kitchen back then was Italian-American. But then I started cooking more Italian homemade dishes, and people loved it. I realized that there was honesty in that food. I feel committed to the Italian culture; I’m a carrier of that culture. For me, adding cilantro to a dish is like sacrilege. I get so mad and confused at people who mish-mash things together. For me, cooking is about a few ingredients, and you make them shine. You understand each ingredient. Simplicity reigns. It’s a problem when the chef overrides all the logic of food.

AB: I understand that you grew up in Istria (a peninsula now part of Croatia, 90 miles north of Venice). What is typical of the cuisine from that region?
LB: It’s a border cuisine. It has Austrian and Hungarian influences. We cook with a lot of potatoes. I also do spaetzle and cook with sauerkraut. We have a plate of sauerkraut at every winter holiday.

AB: You are the owner of Felidia and Becco in New York, as well as Lidia’s in Kansas City and in Pittsburgh, not to mention your TV series, cookbooks, sauce lines, and monthly column, plus tons of guest appearances. How do you manage to do so many things? What’s the key to your success?
LB: It’s a family effort. I surround myself with good people who have the same energy and passion as me. It’s like physics. If you give me a bundle of energy, I can direct it. If you give me inertia, it’s going to be hard to work with.

Here at Felidia and Becco, we let chefs be flexible and creative. But out in Kansas City and Pittsburgh we have to be a little more restrictive. But we train, and give them education, so these chefs can grow and then we can give them more leeway. It’s hard to be consistent and not to deviate. I go out there every 6 or 8 weeks. But I wouldn’t want to clone another Felidia in Pittsburgh or Kansas City. We manage expectations with price, but it’s much more family style. We try to push the envelope even there. We have sweet breads and tripe on the menu.

If you have a chef whose palate you know and trust and you do a lot of training, you have to trust him. As you get older you have to let go. For me, if my chef’s flavor is a little different than how I would do it, but I can still see the philosophy behind it, then it’s ok. The philosophy is very important. I let go of the kitchen at Felidia nine years ago when Fortunato (Nicotra) came in.

AB: Do you cook these days?
LB: I cook at home all the time and in the restaurants. And when we do new menus I cook a lot. But do I cook on the line? No.

AB: How often do you go back to Italy?
LB: I go quite often to refresh myself and to do research for my books. I’m going there tomorrow actually.

AB: Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?
LB: Markets mostly. The products stimulate me, even when I’m just cooking at home. I find the best way is to go to the market, see the products and respond to them. Maybe I plan one ingredient, like baby lamb, for example.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
LB: I love the Chinese spider. I don’t drain pasta, I like to fish it out instead – it’s like an extension of my hand.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new chef?
LB: What do you aspire to achieve at the height of your career? If someone says I want to be on TV like you, I know it’s not the right person. It’s important to see passion and endurance. Also it’s important to see their education, and their knowledge of life on which they base their passion. They need to respect food.

AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started? Would you recommend culinary school?
LB: They owe it to themselves to get a good liberal arts education first. Then build their culinary arts degree and then travel. Identify people you admire and make every effort to come close to or assimilate that person. Then feel free to move on our change as part of your education.

AB: I understand that you established a foundation in your name. How do you raise money for the foundation; who are the major beneficiaries?
LB: I’m involved in war torn areas, exchange doctor programs in Croatia, and other Eastern European countries. The foundation also supports arts and culinary education for young Americans. When I do events, if you’re generous to my foundation, I will come. Donations from companies go to the foundation. I’m organizing an event for UNIFEM, and the funds will go through my foundation.

AB: What are your future plans?
LB: I’ve got my fourth cookbook out, Lidia’s Family Table.
And I’m working on the next cookbook with my daughter on special food moments in Italy. Plus more TV filming. We’re also working on opening up Il Posto with Mario Batali. There are also talks of opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, but we have to see if we can do it right.


Related Links:
  • Chef Mario Batali
  • White Asparagus
  •    Published: January 2005