An Italian meal out at a restaurant in Queens circa the seventies would likely have featured something parmigiana—fried veal or eggplant with red sauce and white cheese. It might have been delicious, it might not have, but it wouldn’t have been authentic in that “homesick for the old country” sense. It would have been “Italian-American cuisine,” says Lidia Bastianich, the 69-year-old chef and cookbook author turned culinary celebrity of her role in introducing to the North American palate regional, northern Italian, and Istrian fare. “I was an immigrant,” says Bastianich, who headed up her first kitchen upon opening Felidia in New York in 1981, “and I remembered the food—regional Italian food: polenta, risottos—and I started cooking all these foods, and interest came from the press.”
Young Bastianich soon drew attention from within the culinary community as well. Julia Child, upon tasting Bastianich’s mushroom risotto, requested a private cooking lesson, sparking a friendship between the two that led to Bastianich being a guest on Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs program in 1993 and subsequently allotted a cooking show of her own. (“You do for Italian cuisine what I did for French,” Bastianich remembers Child encouraging her.) It was an auspicious start to a career that’s seen 10 cookbooks, five television shows, an array of supermarket sauces and dry pastas, three children’s books, two social media feeds she updates herself (Instagram and Twitter), a partnership role with every North and South American Eataly location (including an anticipated Toronto outpost), and one dinner cooked for Pope John Paul II, before which he blessed each member of her kitchen staff individually.
“You do for Italian cuisine what I did for French,” Bastianich remembers Julia Child encouraging her.
Bastianich’s distinctive personality, palate, and narrative sensibility elevate all her endeavours—she is the no-nonsense nonna keen for you to not just enjoy yourself, but to learn something useful. So it’s fitting that these days she identifies most as a mentor, particularly in her role as a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international, invite-only philanthropic society focused on women in the culinary industry. “I’ve been with the Dames at least 20 years,” says Bastianich, who will be honoured by the society’s only Canadian chapter, located in B.C., this autumn. “Women from all walks of food life form Les Dames, from chefs to writers and food scientists and anthropologists,” she continues. “Supporting young women in the industry and giving them opportunity to develop is crucial—to be a food professional, you need to surround yourself with mentors.”
Less frequently in the kitchen herself these days, Bastianich is focusing on transferring the knowledge she’s accrued throughout her career to her team, including her children, Tanya and Joe, with whom she works. (Bastianich also teaches cooking classes at Eataly’s La Scuola cooking school in New York and Chicago). “Educating people—and giving them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Italian products, culture, and techniques—is a role I really like,” she says, “and I like sharing the stories of recipes: how they came to be, based on history and region. It’s what we call una vita vissuta in Italian—a life lived.”
The B.C. chapter of Les Dames D’Escoffier’s gala honouring Bastianich will be held on September 23, 2016; tickets are available here.