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.  

Who was your most important culinary influence?
My passion and love for food and the preparation of food was rooted in me by those formative years spent with my grandmother on the farm and in her kitchen. She grew, raised, produced, vinified, and milled everything that was needed to survive and bartered any excess for items that they did not have. I was not aware then that those pristine flavors, the unadulterated aromas of nature, and the simple country cooking of my grandmother would set the tone for my future career, and it would remain the most profound influence on my philosophy of food. When I cook today, I always try to recapture those flavors.

What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?
The paramount lessons I learned from my grandmother were twofold: respect for food — "waste not, want not" — as well as to eat and cook seasonally and locally as much as possible. Be informed and understand where your food comes from, how it is grown, and how it is raised, never waste a morsel of food — make leftover bread into breadcrumbs or bread pudding, use bruised vegetables for stocks or older fruit in desserts. The understanding of food production and animal husbandry gives you a better sensibility and understanding of how to prepare and cook food. It also results in a respect for nature and the gifts it bestows upon us and for the universe we live in.

What are the challenges of working in partnership with an opinionated celebrity chef — and with your son and daughter — and how have you met them?
My business has always been a family business. Although I encouraged both of my children to go to college and gravitate towards another industry, they both ended up coming back to the world of food. My son came from the finance world of Wall Street and now runs multiple restaurants, some with me and some without me, and is involved in winemaking and most recently in television and books. My daughter, who holds a doctorate in Renaissance art history, began her involvement in the family business with the cookbooks followed by television production and now the restaurants as well. We spend a lot of time together, and many of our best memories and heated discussions happened around the table. For me it is a great honor to have both of my children follow in my business and surround me with their youthful energy and ideas. It is how I continue to learn and feel inspired. So although we have challenges, I always remember that the best and most creative ideas often are born out of some of those disagreements!

What advice would you give to a young would-be restaurateur just starting out?
You must be prepared and have passion to enter this industry. It's often a 24/7 job and without the passion and lots of hard work, your chances of succeeding are small. You must have a well-researched plan, and you must not go into opening a restaurant under-financed; you must have enough capital to survive the difficulties of an opening. [pullquote:left]

How would you judge the quality of Italian restaurants in America today compared with 20 years ago, and what has changed most about them?
I think that Italian restaurants in America today are excellent, many on the level of Italian restaurants in Italy. Italian chefs in America today have access to Italian products that were not so readily available 20 years ago, and to transport the Italian cuisine you need the traditional and artisanal Italian products. Italian dishes are based on the quality of the products. Today, chefs have access to great produce, delicious cheeses, high-quality meat and fish. 

What, if anything, do Americans still not understand about real Italian food?
I think that Americans are understanding and appreciating ever more the simplicity of Italian cooking, the need for freshness of ingredients, the diversity of an Italian meal, the lower ration of proteins versus vegetables on a plate. I also think that Americans, more than ever, appreciate the importance Italians give to a family meal eaten together with family and friends, a meal as a social venue and the table as the unifying place.

Do restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
A restaurant has become an extension of one's home table; people dine out now more than ever, for business, family, special occasions, romance. The restaurant has to be able to accommodate, facilitate, and enhance all of those settings. A restaurant also has a duty to be nutritionally informed of the customers' needs and should be ready to give alternatives. A restaurant should as well be environmentally responsible by recycling and being as efficient as possible.  

It's also our job to be part of the community and give back to that community.

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most? 
We have a number of new projects happening at the moment. I continue to produce 26 episodes of cooking shows for public television each year, which is always an intense yet fun time. We are also working on another 13 Italy-based travel shows for public television as well. I am working on master cookbook to be released in the fall of 2015, and my third children's book is coming out a few months prior to that. We are also working on our food line and in addition to the eight different cuts of dry pasta and six different flavors of sauces, we are working on developing delicious soups to add to the line. And I always get excited when a new Eataly project is about to open. Next stop is Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2015, and Los Angeles will soon follow.