Compliments to the Chef: Lidia Bastianich
By Nan Lyons
In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I am simply besotted by the culinary achievements of Lidia Bastianich, the north star of the ever growing Bastianich empire. The word ICON has been used to describe everyone from Donald Duck to Donald Trump but in Lidia’s case it doesn’t even come close.
Just to set the stage for what appears to be an endless litany of accomplishments, Lidia started her remarkable career as a young girl, figuratively tied to her mother’s apron string’s while she helped cook for the rest of the children . Eventually, that “hands on” education in the family kitchen instilled in Lidia a lifelong passion for presenting the food of Italy not as a gastronomic super event but as it would be served on a farmhouse table in Calbria or in a local trattoria in Tuscany.
And that was just the beginning. Before long Lidia began spreading her olive oil in umpteen new directions and managed to add a formidable amount of notches to her roasting pan. Aside from Felidia, the restaurant in New York City that she started over 30 years ago, Lidia, along with the rest of the Bastianich clan has gone on to open Becco, Esca, Del Posto and most recently the wildly popular Eataly, a mega trendy food hall in New York’s Flat Iron District. At the moment Eataly is jammed with seekers of The Holy Canoli, 24/7.
Just to make sure that she can’t be accused of malingering, in her spare time Lidia has a regular PBS television show, “Lidia’s Italy”, which has been nominated for an Emmy. She has won the James Beard Award twice, thus far, (of course the century is just beginning), and has written enough cook books to rival Danielle Steel for sheer volume, if not subject matter.
We sat in a booth at Felida (combo of Felix, Lidia’s husband and Lidia) whose table was laden with a sea of exquisite Italian cookies, each one ready for its close-up. It’s implicit that even a brief conversation with Lidia means chewing on something scrumptious from her kitchen.
Since there is simply no way to keep up with her ballooning resume, I thought she and I might explore the Lidia that learned to cook while babysitting her brothers and sisters. She told me the very first job she had, away from home, was behind the counter of the Walken bakery in Astoria, Queens. She spent her days elbow deep in prune Danish and strudel. There was another teenager behind the counter, helping her, who turned out to be the owner’s son, Christopher Walken ( stop the presses- in those days he was known as Ronald) If only the customers who waited in line to purchase their sliced rye breads and pound cakes knew they were being served by two superstars, they might have added a jelly doughnut or two, just to prolong the thrill.
Lidia said that she and Walken have remained good friends through the years and that he was never the least bit ominous as he wrapped up a cheese cake. Who knew!
At the end of a really exhausting day, after the restaurant has closed, I asked Lidia which home made pasta, enrobed in which elegant sauce did she like to flex a fork in. Her face lit up. She said “my very favorite snack is a can of Sardines In olive oil”. Apparently nothing relaxed her more than dipping the last of the evening’s crusty Italian bread into the can and fishing out it’s crowded inhabitants. Definitely a “che sara sara” moment.
Lidia , who appears to be booked round the clock with events, awards and appearances, occasionally puts her stove on automatic, tucks her toque away and takes a brake. she loves to travel and has been around the world, but her choice for a really sybaritic vacation experience is sailing the Adriatic. Not a bad way to feed one’s inner mariner.
Since she started working in the restaurant business at such a young age I asked Lidia if she had ever thought about some other career? She answered without even a moment’s hesitation “when I was young I really wanted to be a Pediatrician”. As I squirreled away a few of the endless supply of cookies, left on the table, I couldn’t help thinking that medicine’s apparent loss was, without a doubt, the “Cucina Italiana’s” delectable gain.
Visit Lidia’s Italy
Nan Lyons is the co-author of “Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe” and the author of “Gluttony” and “Around the World in 80 Meals.” She lives in Manhattan.