Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Lidia Bastianich

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Ten questions for the chef–restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality.

Bastianich is the matriarch of a culinary empire.

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. "I think that Italian restaurants in America today are excellent, many on the level of Italian restaurants in Italy."

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.

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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.