Chef Lidia Bastianich reveals why she cooks: “Food is comfort. Food is memory. It communicates.”

Chef Lidia Bastianich is a living symbol of the American dream. A refugee from Isitria, this self-taught chef made a name of herself by introducing the country to the regional flavors of her homeland of Italy.

Before Chef Lidia opened her first Manhattan in 1981 — and it’s still going strong — risotto was not on the map. Julia Child and James Beard came to try the dish, which spawned lifelong friendships and her first invitation to appear on PBS. Bastianich hasn’t been off the air in two decades.

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Ahead of the 40th anniversary of Felidia, Chef Lidia decided to look back on her extraordinary journey. The result is her latest cookbook, which shares her flagship restaurant’s name. Inside the pages are the storied history of the Italian eatery, as well as its most timeless recipes adapted for the home chef. 

When Chef Lidia recently stopped by the Salon TV studios in New York, she revealed the reason why she cooks. To find the answer, she recalled her earliest childhood memories with her grandmother in Italy.

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Salon: You have been writing cookbooks for 30 years, but this is the very first time that you shared recipes from your flagship restaurant. Why was it time now?
Chef Lidia: We opened Felidia in 1981, and that’s where I became a young chef. I started there. Even though we had restaurants before, I was not the chef. So I’m the chef, it’s Felidia, it’s 1981. And we’re still going very strong. And that’s usual for a restaurant to last that long, so I thought it was maybe about time that we pulled it all together. Why are we still there? What are the recipes that we cannot take off the menu? And in a way, you say, ‘thank you’ to the team that made Felidia what it is because it’s all about team.

You’re the owner of multiple restaurants in New York. There’s Becco and Del Posto, plus Felidia and the whole Eataly chain. Felidia has been open for 38 years, which is a very long time. Most restaurants in New York close after about five years. What’s the secret to your success?
It’s been a long time. I guess maybe it’s passion. I love what I do. I think the welcoming that we have from our guests, our customers. Feeling relevant maybe out there with the food. I’m conscious about good food. I’m conscious about enough food. I’m conscious about people that don’t have food. And so, for me, all of that is very essential and important, and I think I bring it to the restaurant. Even though a restaurant is a business, it’s a store where you sell food, and hopefully you make a little bit of a profit and you move on. But I think for me, Joseph, it was much more, and it still is and I think people feel that.

So as you mentioned, you were the sous-chef at your first two restaurants, and then you took the reins at Felidia, which was your biggest venture yet, but at the time there weren’t many women doing that job. So how did you break down the walls?
Well, you’re absolutely right. The first restaurant in ’71 was in Queens, and we hired a chef, and I became the sous-chef for 10 years. I said, “OK.” Because I loved cooking, I cooked with grandma. I cooked during school and in restaurants. But I said, “I’ve got to learn this — how to run a restaurant kitchen.” And for 10 years, I worked as a sous-chef in our restaurants that we had in Queens.

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And then, when we opened Felidia in ’81, I felt that I was ready. And being a woman —  I was a young woman, a young mother, a chef cooking Italian food. But you know, Joseph, I began cooking the regional food of Italy. The food in America — the Italian food — it’s mostly Italian American food. And it’s delicious, but that’s different. That’s the food of the immigrants — how they settled and what they found and how they cooked with the ingredients that they found.

And in ’81 I said, “You know what? I can get a lot of the ingredients. I’m going to cook the regional foods of Italy.” Italy has 20 regions, so there’s plenty of diversity. And if you’ve traveled to Italy, you know that the food there is somewhat different. And I think that sort of caught everybody’s attention. I was doing polenta, risotto, jota, things that were not known all that much. And I think that brought the attention of the press, and you know, your journalists are curious.

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And I believe you did tell me though, the risotto was a favorite of Julia Child, right?
Yes. One of the highlights was when Julia Child walked in with James Beard. Now, we’re talking about grandiose people — they physically were also two big people. And she came in, and she wanted my mushroom risotto. She was curious. She wanted a good Italian risotto. And ultimately when she ate it, they came back again and she wanted to learn how to cook it. And so she came over to the house. We became friends, and we were friends until her very end.

And that helped spawn your career at PBS, correct?
It certainly did. She had the Master Chef series going, and she had The French Chef. She says, “Lidia, I would like you to be on my show.” And we did two episodes, and of course, one of them was the risotto. And I loved being with her; cooking with her, of course; being on camera; and kind of talking to the camera. It was exciting. And ultimately, the producer says, “Lidia, you’re pretty good. How about a show of your own?” And Joseph, that’s how it started. And PBS — I love being on PBS, and I still am on PBS 20 years later.

How amazing. Do you have any great stories about James Beard to share?
James Beard. Well, he was a wonderful man. He was a man that when he talked about food — and he was a big guy — you kind of felt warmed. You kind of felt like you’re being hugged by the words of food. How he spoke about food. How he wrote about food. And now he was curious too, because he knew some French food, and he was all about American food. So Italian food or him was also new, but he was leading the stage for Julia.

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It sounds so strange to think about it now, but Italian food was still a new thing then, essentially. Well, the type of Italian food that we were bringing to the states.
Regional Italian food was a new thing, It was  — really. The risottos, the osso bucos. Something that’s very common, the cacio e pepe. It’s very common now.

So speaking of your celebrity friends, your career working in kitchens goes far back. You worked at 15 at a Walken’s Bakery, and it was owned by the father of Christopher Walken, right?
We came as immigrants to Astoria, Queens. And right across — catty-corner across from where I live was Walken’s Bakery. And I came here as a young 12-year-old — so junior high school. And I needed a little pocket money, so there was the German bakery, and they had delicious products.

And so, I lied. I told them I was 16, because I was a big girl. And I asked if I could get a weekend job  — like Friday night, or Saturday and Sunday when I was off from school. And they gave me a job, and I began as a sales girl and then got into the back baking. They were three brothers: Ken, Glenn and Christopher. And they would come on the weekend, and they would help. Christopher, especially. He was in charge of the delivery of the wedding cakes.

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And are you still friends today?
We are. We’re still friends. He’s a good cook.

Is he?
Yes.

That’s great to know. So you gave up the reins as head chef at Felidia, because you developed a problem with your knees, correct?
Yes.

What is that like? Do you miss being in that position?
Well, I think after 18 years — I was 18 years behind the range, Joseph, as we say it. And it was getting a little difficult physically. And so I said, “OK, maybe I should find somebody.” And it wasn’t easy, Joseph. It wasn’t easy to give my baby to somebody. But ultimately, I called a friend in Piemonte, and I told him that I’m looking for somebody that could replace me — to collaborate with. I don’t want somebody to do my cooking, and I give him the recipe, I wanted to collaborate with someone.

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And he said, “Lidia, I have the right young man for you.” Fortunato Nicotra, who is born in Sicily but was raised in Torino, because even in Italy there’s a lot of immigration up to North. Torino was the Fiat factory, and his parents found work there.

So he had the tradition — regional tradition of Sicily, of Southern Italy — which I love. And he was educated and worked in restaurants up in the North. He even went to Germany. He worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But he was young and very talented. We communicated, and he was ready to kind of look at me as maybe a mentor or maybe as a mother. And we said, ‘Let’s do this together.’ And I couldn’t be happier, because he had all the energy that’s sort of was slowly going out of me, if you will. And he’s still there 20 somewhat years after.

And he’s the coauthor of your book, correct?
That’s the idea of the book, because this is my thirteenth book. So why now, Felidia? And this is maybe because it’s coming closer to 39-40 years — to give credit to the people that helped make Felidia what it is. Because as you said, for a restaurant to continue to be busy, somebody had to work very hard at it. And it’s about the team, and especially Fortunato has been carrying it on for more than 20 years now.

And he was very excited about being part of a cookbook — getting involved in the recipes — because you know, Joseph in a restaurant, even though these are all traditional, simple, straightforward recipes, when you put them in the restaurant, you kind of kick them up a notch, so they say.

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These are recipes that we are not able to take off the Felidia menu. But taking the recipes and making them a little retro and making them home cook accessible — that was the project. So the people that could come to Felidia and find these recipe — the luxury and the deliciousness of them — can go home and actually cook them at home.

You’ve been in the industry for a long time. With that comes both highs and lows. I read that you said you were quite “devastated” when the news about Mario Batali came out. Was that a tough time for you?
It was a very tough time. It was an extraordinarily tough time. I was not all that close with him. I certainly didn’t socialize with him. It was hard. It really hurt me and not only as a professional — as a woman chef. But it hurts my emotions, my sentiments. It was against all I stood for.

I want to talk about your family, because they’re front and center in the book. And when you’re talking about your restaurant and how it’s really a collaborative project, your family played a big role.
You write that your passion for the kitchen comes from your grandmother and your childhood in Italy. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did she inspire you to cook?

Well, Joseph, I was born in Istria, so Istria is a little peninsula on the east of Venice. It’s no longer Italy. It is now Croatia. But after World War II — Italy lost the war — the Paris Treaty designated the borders. And Istria was given to the newly-formed communist Yugoslavia. Now we were ethnic Italian, and we got caught. I was just born around the time we got caught behind the Iron Curtain, and life was difficult.

My mother was a school teacher, my father a mechanic, and they were in the city — in the little city — but she put my brother and myself with grandma in the countryside. And food was scarce, so grandma provided the food for the whole family — not just us.

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This courtyard — we had chickens, we had ducks, we had goats. I would milk the goats in the morning with grandma. That was my cappuccino in the morning — coffee. We had two pigs. Every November there was the slaughter. We made sausages, we made prosciutto, we made the blood sausage. I remember mixing all the blood after the animal was slaughtered right away. The blood was cooked immediately. And I would mix in that, put a little of polenta, cornmeal in there, some raisins, some chocolates if she had them.

And she would send me, of course, to the garden. “Go get the potatoes, go get the beans, go get the sage.” Then the seasonality of it. She would take me also to forage, I loved that. Springtime forage for, well, the asparagus, for nettles. Fall time for mushrooms, and ultimately, then we cook. She cooked, and I was there whether I brought up the warm water or whether I just helped her shape the gnocchi. I was alongside.

And Joseph, when my parents decided in 1956, “OK, it’s time to move on,” we went to Trieste because that was right on the other side of the borders, where we have family left. But they didn’t allow the whole family — just my mother, my brother and I — because they knew that the whole family would not return. So they left my father as a hostage. And about a week after my father escaped, he was shot at, they sent dogs, everything. But we ultimately made it.

And there we are in Trieste. Ee were with some family in Trieste, but I realized that I’m not going back and I haven’t said goodbye to grandma, to my goats, to my friends. So I think that food for me kind of remained that connector. I started cooking, because bringing the smells, the aromas, the taste brought me back to that courtyard with grandma and I missed her so. And I kept on cooking and remembering all that she taught me and then the passion for communicating with food, and sharing food and so on. So I think that my passion for food began there, and then of course ,the training that went thereafter.

You took the words out of my mouth. I think when I cook, for example, it directly correlates to my mom and my grandmother. My mom’s deceased now, but some of my fondest memories of my childhood are cooking in the kitchen. My grandmother taught me how to cook. She’s an immigrant from Mexico, so it connects me not only to my culture but to my childhood. And I think I’m still feeding that inside me. 
You’ll always feed it. And it’s going to be your comfort zone ,and it’s going to be your zone when you’re longing for something. Food is comfort. Food is memory. It communicates. So if you think you’re going to change, no. You’re going to keep on doing that and do it because it feels good sometimes. Doesn’t it?

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

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