How Lidia Bastianich Went From Refugee to Celebrity Chef
Before she was a television host, restaurateur, or a best-selling cookbook author, Bastianich was a child refugee escaping from a communist Yugoslavia. She spoke with Debbie Koenig about how that uncertainty and disconnection led her to a life in food.
DEBBIE KOENIG: Your cookbooks have all felt personal, but My American Dream is your first book without recipes. What was it like to write a memoir?
LYDIA BASTIANICH: I always thought my refugee story was one my daughter would tell when I was no longer around. But I feel so good having the real human part of my life, the travels of my life to come to this great country that is America, and the opportunities that I was given to become who I am all down on paper.
Why write it now?
I have a story that's becoming ever more relevant to what's happening today in the world. It happened to me 60 years ago, and I thought initially that people were only interested in my food and the way I cook. But now I find that people are interested in people and what makes me who I am.
I watch the news, all the stories about the refugees now, and it's hard for me as a comfortable American to put myself in that place. What did it feel like to be a child refugee?
When my parents decided to escape back into Italy, [the Yugoslavian government] wouldn't let the whole family go—they held one person as a hostage. So my mother, brother, and I went, supposedly to visit my sick great-aunt. My father literally escaped during the night over the border, was shot at, and made it.
Once our father joined us, my brother and I realized that we were not going back. It left me with unfinished business. I didn't say goodbye to my friends. [At night at the refugee camp] I remember looking up at the ceiling, and hearing all this noise because we were all together in this big room of camp families, and thinking about my goats, and wondering, "How is Grandma doing? Is the garden growing? Who's helping Grandma now?"
I think that's why food became so important to me. It was that kind of longing and nostalgia for what was and then the excitement and the hope of a great future.
Think of this as a lighter, fresher take on chicken Parmesan:
Why do we feel like we're home when we have familiar food?
Food is the basis of who we are. We need it to survive. Food transcends, and it becomes emotional, and it's a way of us communicating. It's a highway for us to relate our sentiments. It has a profile of who you are, your flavor, what your culture is. Do you use cilantro or parsley? Do you use cinnamon or peperoncino? All of these things tell the story because what I cook today are the flavors of my grandmother. That's why I started to cook and I love cooking—because I wanted my grandmother and those flavors with me.
I realize it probably doesn't happen all that often, but if you're on your own at home for a night, what do you cook for yourself?
I would either do a plate of pasta with garlic, oil, anchovies or clams, or just have a plate of some good traditional Italian products—a quality piece of grana cheese, a few slices of prosciutto, and a crusty semolina bread with a nice glass of white wine. If it's summertime I would love to have fresh figs or a ripe melon at room temperature—I don't like refrigerated fruit—with a few slices of prosciutto, that crunchy bread, a good glass of wine, and I'm OK.
The way you describe prosciutto and the bread and the figs, it's all very sensual.
Exactly. People sometimes don't listen to that. I always tell them when they're cooking: Listen to yourself. Your mouth is an apparatus that has collected your memories of food since you were [born]. If I tell you to use sage but you really are yearning for basil, then darn it, use basil. Listen to yourself. Cook with abandon with those memories and the flavors coming to you.
In December, you and Nancy Silverton stepped into leadership roles at Batali & Bastianich Hospitality (B&B), the restaurant group formerly led by your son, Joe Bastianich, and chef Mario Batali. Batali stepped down after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. What does this change in leadership mean for the company and the women who work there?
Historically I've worked with only a handful of restaurants. I'm not using my experience to help inform the culture, policies, and practices of all the group's restaurants around the globe. This is a watershed moment in our industry; it's also a unique opportunity for us to evaluate every aspect of our businesses and make sure that we are an industry leader in company culture.
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How do you define healthy?
Healthy to me means balance: how much you eat, how many times you eat in a day, when you eat, and ultimately the balance of what you eat. In America, the protein is often two-thirds of the plate, and the contorno [vegetable side] is one-third. In Italy, the protein is one-third, and the rest is vegetables or legumes. In Italian techniques, proteins can be cooked to extend their flavor without actually eating them. You put a secondary-cut of muscle meat from veal or beef in a long-cooking guazzetto [brothy stew]. You make that into a sauce with pasta and vegetables. The pasta is 30 or 40%, with the rest vegetables and protein. The balance of how you combine your food is very important.
Lidia Bastianich is an Emmy award-winning TV host, author, and restaurant chef-owner.