September 1st, 2007
I had an Italian grandmother. I’m not quite sure, but I imagine she used to fall asleep dreaming about what sort of meal she might concoct the following day for her family. She may have also risen from bed thinking that she needs to get up before everyone else in her family, so they would all awaken to the aroma of some wonderful thing she had picked up at the market the previous day. She is gone now, but the childhood memories that linger all seem to revolve around food, around the dinner table. Not because she was an inclusive cook – I don’t remember her teaching me anything about cooking - but her food was very real and consistent and it was prepared by her skilled hands, not because she had to but because she longed for the cheers of her audience; us. I’m not quite sure, but I would guess that most people have grandmothers like that. While they are not all lucky enough to be Italian, I imagine that this connection to their past is a common trait, but there are likely others. Grandmothers traditionally stay around the family unit where their tasks are generally child rearing, scolding the children when they swear, taking loud naps in the afternoon, and of course, retaining territorial rights on the half-circle of floor space that surrounds the kitchen stove.
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich was, coincidentally, one of the most beloved Italian grandmother chefs in America before she even became a grandmother. Once she became one, she didn’t hide from it, nor did she allow her television show’s producers to keep her little darlings away from the set – she welcomed her grandchildren and her son and daughter and others into her kitchen just like any other grandmother worth her salt would, as long as there was enough food to go around (which there always is). But she didn’t get to have her own show solely because she was a loving grandmother.
Last week, I watched several TIVO’d episodes of Top Chef, and I began to notice that, while there were not great disparities between the men and women contestants when it came to talent, creativity, or their palates, there was one area where the male chefs seemed to differ. Their confidence level seemed steroidal and at times seemed to border on cockiness, yet their female counterparts, while they told the camera that they were confident, did not necessarily act that way.
One of the most critical ingredients of confidence is preparation, and there are few chefs more skilled in the art of preparation than Ms. Bastianich. Watching her on one of her television shows, the viewer is touched not only by her impressive knowledge that combines chemistry and science with old-world common-sense, but also by her gentle presentation; she never talks either up or down to her audience. She is not afraid to slurp a long healthy piece of pasta. Yet in spite of her down-home charm, she is bursting with a modest confidence, and recognizes that her education, combined with her continuous willingness to learn, is one of her greatest strengths. “I know my profession, it comes through my pores and they tell me it’s evident,” she says. “But I think when one feels so confident, you’re open to learning that which you don’t know, and I think that my audience senses that.”
Her audience is quite large. Her latest show, Lidia’s Italy, is shown on 98% of public television stations across the United States, and averages three to five million viewers. She enjoys a very loyal audience, who know her story and her deep connection to the food she is preparing.
The source of her confidence can be traced back to her early schooling, where she did well enough to receive a scholarship to Hunter College, with a major in biology. She had originally come to America at 12 years old, so by the time she began college she had become Americanized to the food and culture here. When Lidia married Felice Bastianich in 1966 at the age of nineteen, she was immediately expected to leave college. But her education continued in a different way; she spent her honeymoon in Italy, an entire month where she rediscovered the culture she had nearly forgotten. The time she spent with her grandparents, who ran a trattoria in Istria, allowed her to re-experience the smells of the cured meats and the grappa, and the quiet days at the local mill grinding wheat to make pasta. It was like a giant lightbulb that had flickered and then dimmed, but was now once again at full illumination.
“Everything came back, all those flavors; the memories, the childhood, the places, the gardens, the markets. It just all came back like a colorful fast rewind, and I said ‘I connect to that, I can express myself, I understand.’ Then when I came back here, I slowly realized that other people were interested in that too. So from then on every year we went back, and I just couldn’t get enough.”
Although she began working at restaurants in Manhattan along with Felice, her family soon became her main focus, especially after having her first child, Joseph, at age 21. But just a few years later, they pooled their family resources and opened their first restaurant, Buonavia (meaning “on the good road”) on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, New York in 1971. She was only 24 at the time. A third partner dropped out at the last minute, prompting Lidia to step away from her station at the restaurant’s bar and cash register and help out in the kitchen. At that point in her career, she was a home cook, but she began learning professional chef skills from their hired chef, and soon she became the restaurant’s sous chef. Italian restaurants at that time were preparing Italian-American food – meatballs, lasagna, manicotti, veal parmigiana – dishes that she herself did not prepare at home. But she learned and mastered them because it was what her customers seemed to want. After a while, cooking became addictive to her, and she decided to continue her education at Queens College where she took culinary courses such as food science and food anthropology. “You know when something talks back to you, when it responds, when you feel that you have a connection,” she said, “and that’s what happened. The more I felt it and the more response I got, the more I wanted to do it. It’s just like an actor, it’s a crescendo; you’re out there, you get the applause, and you want to do more.”
The connection that Lidia had to Italy was to a place called Istria, which became part of Yugoslavia after World War Two. “There was a period of time that you could migrate as an ethnic Italian and come back to Italy,” Lidia explains, “and then the borders went down.” Her family had to literally escape from the newly formed communist state there, and lived in a refugee camp in Trieste for two years, waiting for their chance for a new life. The chance came when visas became available to emigrate to either Melbourne Australia or New York. Lidia’s parents chose America because it was closer to Italy, closer to home. President Eisenhower had made a specific provision for political refugees fleeing communism to come to America, and Lidia’s family was part of that. Who said politicians can’t make a difference?
Many women who make a lifelong career working in a professional kitchen have difficulties when they begin to start a family, which often occurs at the time when their career begins to peak. It’s also been said that many banks and financial lenders are hesitant to work with women chef/owners for this reason, so in Lidia’s case her family’s support was instrumental in allowing her to continue working after she gave birth to her two children.
“My mother was very instrumental. We didn’t know anybody here other than the immediate family; we had nobody here. So, there was that need of family strength and it continued. She supported me when I was working in my kitchen, she lived with us, and she still lives with me.” Lidia also received some important, supportive advice when she nearly gave it all up to take care of her family full time. “When I had opened my first restaurant and then I got pregnant with my daughter and I already had my son, I had these pangs of guilt. I went to the pediatrician and I said, ‘this is how I feel, should I be feeling this way?’ He was a very wise man. He said that children want happy parents, parents that are contented with their lives. So, you have your network of support, you need to do a job and you go ahead. As a mother you’ll find the time, because if you care, you will nurture them and feed them, and the time that you spend with them will be quality time. I think that is extremely important for a parent, woman or man, to verify themselves as an individual too, to do passionately what they do and then they will be happy and then their children will sense that.”
Buonavia eventually became very successful, and Lidia began to introduce some of her own homemade dishes into the menu. Dishes such as Gnocchi, polenta, and mushroom risotto were offered as specials or regular menu items, and soon her customers, and the press, began to come in and ask specifically for these dishes. The Bastianich’s opened a second restaurant, Villa Secondo in Fresh Meadows in 1977, which soon became as popular as the first. “In 1981, at the end of ten years, I realized that I had developed my skills as a professional. I had gone to school, cooked with chefs in Italy, and I was ready. We knew by then that Manhattan needed to be the platform for what I had to say.”
Felice and Lidia sold both Queens restaurants and Purchased a brownstone on 58th Street, and a year later, opened Felidia in 1981. Lidia was now the chef, cooking the food that she ate at home – the traditional food of Italy. Her philosophy to cooking had solidified and her skills had matured, but at the same time she was a visionary, and was able to see beyond the opportunities that a single successful restaurant in New York City provided.
“Food is so much more than just nourishment. As chefs and restaurateurs, there is this wonderful world that we can expand into, almost like sociologists. We are part of the social movement, we are part of the nourishing movement, and we are part of the environmental movement. As chefs, we have a lot to say, and we make a big difference. And I think that every chef out there that is serious about their profession should expand their curiosity and associate themselves with one of those movements that they feel strongly about. They can really make a big difference beyond that great evening that they can give to a customer. They can make other statements.”
It would take Lidia until 1992 before she opened her second restaurant, Becco, in the Theatre District. Her son Joseph had graduated from Boston College and took a job trading bonds at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street. But after three years he came to his now-famous mother looking to help. “He said to me, ‘Mom, I’m not happy with what I’m doing.’ I had read somewhere that young men or women out of college change positions three times before they find what they like, so I sided with that. I said ‘Listen, what you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to come here, I want to do this.’”
Lidia agreed, but not before Joe was sent to Italy for an entire year to work at wineries and restaurants with the large network of friends she had there. “We got him a little Volkswagen, and a budget, I think it was $2,000 for a year, something like that. That wasn’t much but he said he slept in the Volkswagen at times.” Although it sounds like a grueling road test, a year in Italy was not enough to sway him from the family business – just the opposite. So when he came home, Lidia gave him another task. “I said okay, go out there and find real estate deals. I figured maybe we would begin this way, and I can give him my opinion on deals. Within three months he found this deal where Becco is, it was just a great deal, I mean I couldn’t refuse it! I think I gave him a budget of $250,000 and he built it. He was in there rolling, digging, during construction. He loves construction, he loves opening new restaurants. So, the concept of the food was mine, but the wine was his idea.”
The wine idea was to develop an entire list of wines at a price of $15 (today it is still inexpensive, at $25), to encourage people to drink wine with their meals. It was a great idea and Becco became in instant destination, and Lidia’s son Joe became the next successful Bastianich restaurateur.
It was at the 1996 James Beard Awards press dinner, where Lidia was invited to prepare an Italian dinner for the event, that Mario Batali was introduced to her son Joe. “I thought I would pick up all the young Italian up and coming chefs, so I called Mario Batali. I appreciated his work, and this is where they met. Two years after that, Babbo was born.” Joe and Mario became very successful partners, and Lidia is also a partner in their latest New York Restaurant Del Posto.
In the mid 1990’s Lidia began to come out on her own and pursue other opportunities. After a divorce ended her 31-year old marriage, she opened Esperienze Italiane with her daughter Tanya, a travel company that conducted food, wine, and cultural tours of Italy. In 1999, with Joe again, she opened Lidia’s in Kansas City. But it was her first cooking show in 1998 - several years before cooking shows became all the rage – where she seemed to find her true love; sharing her passion for Italian food with others. Lidia’s Italian Table was a successful 39-part public television series that provided her with an audience outside of New York City for the first time. It soon became clear that people from around the country also shared her deep connection to food. “I think it is because I touch the viewer; what do I mean by touch? I know a lot of information and I deliver it sort of concentrated, but simple. I can siphon a lot of things that they might want to know about food, about the technique of food - with a focus on Italian, but it applies to other things. I might tell them why they shouldn’t fry in olive oil, why raising this high temperature in olives forms the bonds much stronger and it becomes much harder for you to digest, for instance.”
While the 1990’s was a “coming-out” decade for Lidia, The new Millennium would soon become the beginning of a mini empire that today is still growing. James Beard awarded her Best Chef New York City in 1999, and Esca opened in 2000 with Joseph, Mario, and a rising starseafood chef named David Pasternack. But the most interesting opening was a second Lidia’s, not in a large city like Chicago or L.A., but in a smaller market, much like Kansas City. “We felt that the under-serviced cities were the future, so, we opened in Kansas City and Pittsburg and actually we are working on expanding into Denver and possibly Austin.” What is one major decision in seeking out new locations for future Lidia’s? She follows her local ratings closely in different markets. “In Austin and in Denver we have prime ratings, we get equal to primetime shows,” she said proudly.
It’s not difficult to foretell what to expect from Lidia Bastianich in the future, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. More Lidia’s restaurants, perhaps another collaboration with her son or another celebrated Italian chef, and more books, which are perhaps her most profitable venture. After becoming frustrated with the loss of freedom to travel and do things the way she wanted to with her show, she formed her own television production studio with her daughter Tanya (“she has a PhD from Oxford in Renaissance history,” Lidia says proudly) and Lidia’s Italy is the first series to result from that effort; the first of many, one would presume. She is also enjoying some of the rewards; she will be the grand marshal of New York’s famous Columbus Day parade on October 8th. She has also supported many organizations that help train young people to become chefs, such as C-Cap, and is a founding member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (www.womenchefs.com). As always, she has a few words of advice for both men and women who dream of following in her footsteps.
“If you can produce something that is wonderful, the customer will recognize that and everything else will come around. If you can create a following for yourself as a woman, or as any chef, and that’s what a chef should be doing; of doing what you do passionately and wonderfully and really sending a message, a profile of taste and flavor. Then you will have a following. They need to take the time, the energy and not accept anything. Maybe as a woman you need to do a little bit extra, but you should do it if this is what you want.”
Lidia Bastianich, like many an Italian grandmother, has shown us all what is possible when you do a little bit extra.