Lidia Bastianich has been described as the reigning queen of Italian cuisine in America. She is the host of cooking shows on PBS, including Lidia's Italy, a new 26-episode series which features American and Italian chefs preparing regional Italian dishes.
Bastianichs family fled Communist Istria in 1956 and became political refugees in Italy, before moving to the United States. Bastianich trained in kitchens in New York City and opened her first restaurant with her husband at the age of 24. Since then, she has opened several restaurants, including Felidia and Becco. She has also authored several cookbooks including Lidia's Family Table and Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen.
Question: What is the joy in what you do?
Lidia Bastianich: There’s a tremendous joy in what I do because it is a gift of giving. And it’s a gift of giving almost of yourself or your talent. But I think that any talented individual – be it a composer, be it a painter – they are giving of themselves to touch other people. And when the other people are touched, this is the most tremendous reward that you can get; that you’ve made a difference, even a small difference; that you’ve contributed to somebody’s existence – the well existence. That gives you the great reward that I sense in cooking.
Question: What is the struggle in what you do?
Lidia Bastianich: The challenge is, I think, really dealing in today’s world with the products that have been manipulated. And products that are taken in its pure form from nature and belabored into something that is invented . . . that is by marketing deemed necessary that really is not. So as a chef, when I get these products I am very upset. It confuses me. I need straight products from nature.
Question: How do you cultivate the joy of cooking in someone else?
Lidia Bastianich: The joy of cooking certainly can be acquired at any age, I think. Because your palate does not steer you wrong. It does not lie to you. Something looks good, it really is good. And it’s sort of . . . It’s beyond almost . . . You can’t block it personally. It just goes directly. So therefore I think that exposure to that is absolutely necessary. As parents, in cultivating that, it begins at the . . . as early as you can at an early age. And that is having the aromas around children as they grow up. Cooking around them so that in the house, that happens, and the children get used to the smell. They become friendly with the smell of broccoli. They become friendly with the smell of cabbage. And when they begin to . . . or the mother puts it in front of them at the age of four, five, six, it’s not a complete stranger. So this familiarization with food needs to happen immediately as one is born, not . . . There is a lot of alienation. Everything is packaged. Everything is sealed. You don’t smell anything. You buy pre-cooked food. It’s tough. It’s tough out there.
Question: How do you teach someone to cook?
Lidia Bastianich: I think just to relax and have confidence in themselves. I think that everybody can cook on a certain level. You don’t have to be a master chef; but I think it’s part of our survival mode, the nourishment mode. So I will just say relax, be mentored. Certainly try to learn things from . . . whether it’s your mother, your grandmother, whatever; from books, from television. And just attempt it.
Recorded on: 10/4/07