We rarely have true celebrities, admired and well known both in Italy and the US, in this column. We have met more than a hundred wonderful persons during this trip, from all of whom I learned a lot about so many interesting topics: people successful, dedicated, but today a true celebrity is with us. Still, she has welcomed us with the simplicity and the kindness of a true Italian woman: but make no mistake, she's the number one Italian chef in the US.
Lidia Bastianich is a story of success, talent, hard work: in a word, a story of Italianità. We are so glad to have the opportunity to meet her and ask her a few questions: we admire her, we love her cuisine, we are her number one fan. Go Lidia! And thank you very much for being as you are
Lidia, is it true that you owe your passion for cooking to your grandma? Millions of Italian American women will probably recognize themselves in this story ...
It is true; my grandmother was a huge influence on me. I was raised in a post war situation and, while we felt 100% ethnically Italian, we couldn't speak Italian and we couldn't go to church. My mother, who was a teacher, placed me and my brother with my grandmother in a town outside the big city. There I could speak Italian and my grandmother would take me to church regularly. She grew and raised everything we ate, so we had chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. We made olive oil and wine; we dried peas and beans for the winter. I kept very much involved in food, growing it, tasting it, and always helping. When my parents decided we needed to leave, hopefully for a better life, they didn't tell me or my brother that we were going to the other side of the world. So I was abruptly removed from that heaven, it was... unexpected, and I think that my passion for food remained – and still is – my connection with my roots and to my grandmother.
When I want to remember my grandmother, I cook the dishes she did. I have always had this link back to my roots, and those roots are simplistic, from the ground. You can't get any better than that.
In July 2015 you've been to the US pavillion of Expo 2015 in Milan, which core theme was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life". What do you think about that experience?
I did two events at the Expo. I think that the intended message is really valiant. As a world today we need to really get united to discuss and address the issues and the problems, so we are able to feed the planet, able to give food to all.
I was also part of "WE-Women for Expo" and I was on one of the panels that discussed such important topics like women of the third world cooking over fire. These women ask their daughters to collect the wood for fire rather than send them to school. It diminishes the role of women. Plus, there is the additional problem of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. This seems like such a small thing, but it really is a cultural switch, and it is difficult. Did we find a solution? No, but we talked about it and there were proposals, for me it was interesting.
Your new book is a compendium of Italian cuisine, "Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine": more than 400 pages of tips, recipes and everything you need to know to be a great Italian chef. Please tell us something more about it
This book is about how Italians really cook. Cooking is about products, not about people. If you have the right products, and for me those are the Italian products, cooking is much better and easy. In this book I explain many techniques. For instance, if you know the technique of risotto you can make the risotto with mushrooms, or with lobster, or in several other ways. I also focus on handling the raw products, how to clean them, how to store them.
My daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, is my coauthor. She does quite a bit of the research and writing. We both loved the idea of a glossary. It is important to understand Italian words and use the right references to Italian products. The glossary is intertwined with my philosophy: in the end, food connects people. We all have this single common denominator. Cooking for someone, for me, means to enter into their life, into their soul. Food is social; it is communication, much more than the technology that today is given such a high priority. And you don't have to have a big complicated meal for that, even with the simplest things you put on the table - you connect with people.
Before opening your first restaurant, you worked in different pastry shops. Now, when we talk about Italian food in the US, of course restaurants are the first to be mentioned. But there are also thousands of Italian bakeries and pastry shops, all over the US. They too are true Ambassadors of the Italian excellence for cooking and food, am I right?
When I started working I was only fourteen and I started in a pastry shop in Astoria. It was a German pastry shop, Christopher Walken's family pastry shop. I started there and when I went to the university I began working in restaurants and from then on I was always cooking or baking something. It was always all about food.
Pastry shops are particularly significant for the remembering of traditions, because you cook everyday, but sweets and desserts are for special occasions. In Italy, every saint has a special dessert, then there's Christmas, Easter, it's all about the pastry. The Italian typical pastry shop was extremely important in the Italian American community, because it was where they could really celebrate the special occasions, the special festivities.
You've been the first to say loud and clear that Italian American cuisine and Italian cuisine are two different things. You had the intelligence of doing it with great respect for the Italian American cuisine, and that's probably why it brought to a smooth acceptance of this fundamental diversification. Do you think it's possible to do the same with the Italian sounding products made in America?
I think it is. I think that Italian products made in America came out of almost a necessity, a response to a need that wasn't fulfilled by Italy. I specifically remember because I opened my first restaurant in 1971 and I could not find Grana Padano, Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico. If you don't have all the Italian ingredients is hard to say that you have a true Italian restaurant, because the Italian cuisine is based on its traditional Italian products. I think the way Italians should approach this is by being positive, not negative against the Italians sounding products because the Americans are open, waiting to taste all that is good and beautifully Italian. Italy needs to invest in promoting, in teaching, in tasting, in spreading the good Italian products. The Americans are intelligent enough to educate themselves: if you give them a good piece of Grana Padano or Parmigiano, they will know the difference between that which is authentic and that which is not. Maybe they won't know that immediately, but that's why we have to educate them. You have to invest in positive communication.
When you're cooking, what's your favorite dish? And what about when you're the one eating?
There is a difference, but basically I love eating and I love offering in the restaurants what's in season, the products that are the best. I love cooking vegetables, and pasta: spaghetti or linguine with vongole, you can't beat that, it's one of my favorites. If you don't have the vongole or the clams, I am also ok with spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino. Fantastico! So simple, straightforward, good oil, good pasta, and so focused on traditional ingredients.
You are part of the team that gave birth to the huge success of Eataly in New York. Now there's an Eataly in Chicago and Boston, too. Are you planning to open Eataly in other American cities?
We are. We are working on a second unit here in New York at the World Trade Center, we are planning to open in Los Angeles. I think there is an acceptance for this kind of business. We did open last year in Sao Paulo, Brazil, we are talking about Toronto. We are expanding ... we have a lot of plans. Because we feel like we are carrying a message, we open the door, so all those traditional products can come. I think that what works here is the fact that with Mario Batali, my son Joe, myself, we cover a big territory.
What would you suggest to a young Italian chef who has the dream to open a restaurant in the US?
First of all, know your heart, your passion. Then you have to learn the market here. You have to come here and work a bit before, understand the American mentality. Then we're talking about food, so there's the passion for this profession, but you're still talking about a business. You need some marketing, you need to know the actual financials of running a restaurant. If you go to a big city, there are big expenses. One month, two months, three months, and if you do not succeed it's the end of that. Some started by bringing the Italian flavor and collaborating with someone that already is in this business. In America there are always opportunities for someone that is good, dedicated and hard-working, and understands business.
What do you think will be the future of the Italian cuisine in the US?
I think it has a great future. You know, every Italian region has fantastic products, flavors, and recipes. I think that the Italian cuisine is really going to permeate in a big way the American way of cooking. I see young chefs as I go around in American restaurants, and the restaurants may be American or other ethnicity: but when I look in the menu, inevitably I see Italian products.
To do Italian cuisine, you have to be a specialist in the regional cuisine; but to use Italian products, you can be a good chef, whatever is your ethnicity or your cuisine. So there's a tremendous growing opportunity for the Italian products to pervade the actual American table.
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