Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Lidia Bastianich
The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, and advising us on matters of importance to us all.
Lidia Bastianich was born on the Istrian Peninsula, then part of Italy but today belonging to Croatia. As a child, she visited her grandparents’ farm in Busoler, near Pula, Istria's main city. Her grandparents grew, raised, produced, vinified, and milled everything they needed to survive, and bartered any excess for items that they did not have. Her grandmother's simple country cooking was a major influence on her later career. Bastianich immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, and got her first food-related job at a bakery near her family’s apartment in Astoria, Queens. Years later, in 1971, she opened a restaurant in Forest Hills with her husband, Felice Bastianich. A decade after that, the Bastianichs launched Felidia in Manhattan. With her children, Joe and Tanya, Bastianich currently co-owns Felidia, Becco, Esca, and Del Posto, all in New York City, Lidia’s Kansas City, Lidia’s Pittsburgh, and Eataly in New York and Chicago. Together with Tanya, she also runs a food product line and a television production company, and has starred in the three-time Emmy-nominated television series Lidia’s Kitchen, Lidia’s Italy in America, and Lidia’s Italy. Her cookbooks, co-authored with Tanya, include Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, Lidia’s Favorite Recipes, Lidia’s Italy in America, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia’s Italy, and two children's books, Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia’s Christmas Kitchen and Lidia’s Family Kitchen: Nonna’s Birthday Surprise.
What's your earliest food memory?
My earliest food and sensory memory is helping my grandmother in the garden. As a little girl, I’d walk behind her as she hoed up the potatoes; she would pick the large ones, and I would collect the smaller potatoes in my basket. I still recall the warmth of those potatoes in my hands. In addition, when it was time to plant potatoes, I recall cutting up the stored potatoes that had grown sprouts. Each piece of cut potato with a sprout which, when planted, grew into a new potato bush and yielded a new crop of potatoes. I vividly recall the seasons and the fruits and vegetables they gifted us, and my grandmother harvesting them and making great food with them. I recall picking those vegetables alongside my grandma, and I would help to clean and wash them in the courtyard, where the beans were shelled, the garlic was braided, and the seeds were flailed out on mats to get them ready for the next planting season. We dried, pickled, and jarred vegetables, too, for use during the leaner, cold months of the year. In the fall, the whole courtyard would be festooned with drying beans, onions, garlic. We made our own olive oil, fermented the wine, and even grew wheat, and we would go regularly throughout the year to the mill to turn it into flour for the making of pasta and bread. We had courtyard animals as well: chickens, geese, ducks, rabbits, goats, and pigs. All were an essential part of our food chain, part of our daily table. For me the experience of growing and raising of food is an integral part of being a chef, as is understanding and appreciating where food comes from; the cooking part, that is the secondary phase.
When did you decide that you wanted to be in the restaurant business, and why?
I always had a love and respect for food, thanks to those special memories with my grandmother. Once we moved to the United States, I found myself naturally gravitating towards the kitchen. With both parents working full time, I was often in charge of dinner and found complete comfort and happiness when grocery shopping and following directions that my mother left me in the morning before she left for work. My first food related job was at the Walken Family bakery not far from our apartment in Astoria, and although I began as a sales girl at the counter, I found myself always wanting to be back in the kitchen preparing and decorating the desserts. Years later, I married Felice Bastianich, who also shared an intense interest in food, and as a professional in the restaurant industry, eventually wanted to open a restaurant. In 1971, we opened a 30-seat establishment in the Forest Hills section of Queens. I worked as the sous chef and honed my kitchen skills. In 1977, we opened a second restaurant in Queens, and by 1981 we had sold both of those establishments and leveraged all the proceeds and made our big move to Manhattan and opened my flagship restaurant in Manhattan, Felidia, where I became the chef.