For Lidia Bastianich, food is an entryway to the past. “I was involved with food as a very young child, and when I went to gather eggs, so my grandmother could make pasta, they were still warm,” she shares. “I recall harvesting peas from our property and eating them from the small pods because they were like candy to me.”
The magic Bastianich finds in cuisine has made her one of the industry’s most entertaining and successful celebrity chefs. She helped kick off the contemporary cooking-show craze and even garnered a 2013 Emmy for her PBS series, Lidia’s Italian Table. The entrepreneurial chef has also released more than 14 cookbooks and a long-running line of pastas and sauces while serving as one of the heads of the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, which runs several dining establishments — including the popular Italian marketplace Eataly and Port Chester’s Tarry Lodge.
On December 2, Bastianich will be bringing these many accomplishments to bear during her freewheeling conversation at the Tarrytown Music Hall. “I don’t even prepare. I let the audience take me wherever they like, and I answer all their questions,” says Bastianich, who is surprisingly humble about her stature. “When you talk to a theater full of people, you can sense the attention, but sometimes I say to myself: My God, are they really interested in my story?”
It seems that from her earliest days, the answer to this question has always been a resounding yes. Bastianich’s childhood was turbulent yet suffused with a bucolic splendor. “I come from a part of Italy that was given to the newly formed Yugoslavia in World War II,” shares Bastianich. “My mother was a teacher, and she placed my brother and me with my grandma in a little town outside of Pola, which was the city where we’d lived. There, Grandma Rosa was in charge of producing food for all of us. We had chickens, ducks, goats, and two pigs. We made olive oil, prosciutto, wine — we even grew wheat!”
These experiences helped forge Bastianich’s unique culinary doctrine. “You learn to respect food and animals even more, and I think it all entered the philosophy of how I cook: not wasting any of the animal and the importance of seasonality,” she explains. “That stayed with me, and those initial, pristine flavors still serve as my reference library.”
Since opening her first Manhattan restaurant, Felidia, with her ex-husband in 1981, Bastianich has been receiving rave reviews for her food. But as much as she loves cooking for others, teaching others to cook has become an even more primary passion for the chef. “When you teach others, you really appreciate food. It is something special,” says Bastianich. “That is why I want to share this, so we can have great food and continue to respect it, to not abuse the earth, and to nurture ourselves well. I want people to experience what I have experienced.”
First hitting the airwaves in 1993, alongside Julia Child, and earning her own PBS program five years later, Bastianich has worked hard to spread this message. Her cookbooks, which she says influence the content of her shows, have provided a generation of home cooks with recipes founded upon such principles.
Indeed, Bastianich has become such a representative figure in Italian cuisine that she cooked for Popes Benedict and Francis when they visited New York City. “I do a lot of fundraising for women in the Third World, and I guess the [papal] nuncio, who is the representative of the Vatican to the United Nations, came to one or two of my events, and we became acquaintances. That is who asked me [to cook for the popes],” she explains.
“The first time, I was very nervous. But you cook in the nuncio’s house on 72nd street, and you actually live [in the same house as the pope],” she recalls. “So, once we got in there, I felt kind of comfortable. Pope Francis actually came into the kitchen and had coffee with us, which was extraordinary.”
For Bastianich, such accomplishments have always been grounded in family. Her son, Joe — cohost of FOX’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior — and daughter, Tanya, are both active within her empire. “I never would have expanded this much and done all the TV, books, sauces, pastas, and wines without my children,” says Bastianich. “I love working with them and helping them develop and evolve.“
It seems that over the years, Bastianich has evolved, as well. Eataly is expanding to Boston, Chicago, LA, and Toronto, and Bastianich is set to release an organic line of her pastas and sauces in addition to a new cookbook. Along with these projects, the famed foodie is also hotly anticipating her regional appearance. “Westchester is so connected to the city,” she says. “Going to this area gives me a very positive feeling, because these are my customers; they know so much about me that they are almost part of my extended family.”