Author, celebrity chef, restaurateur, and TV host Bastianich reflects on her life and the rise of her business empire in her memoir, My American Dream (Knopf, Apr.).
You grew up in Yugoslavia under Tito’s Communist regime, then in 1956, when you were 11, your family moved to Trieste, Italy, and lived in a refugee camp. What do you most remember about that time?
I loved helping Grandma, going into the garden, collecting and shelling the peas, the figs, the fruit, all of that. I think that’s the basis of who I am. When I left [Yugoslavia], I didn’t know we weren’t coming back. I think that I felt like I was ripped away from something. And for the rest of my life, I wanted to reconnect. I also learned the importance of respecting food and not wasting it.
What shaped you, culinarily, from both your childhood in Yugoslavia and Italy, and later in the U.S.?
Now, everyone’s talking about local farmers, seasonality—but that was a reality I grew up with. We only ate in season; we foraged when we needed something. That rooted me as a chef. In the U.S., even though I was an immigrant, food became the great equalizer.
When did you decide to pursue your own cooking show and your cookbooks?
When we opened Felidia [in 1981], Americans didn’t yet really know the regionality of Italian food. Then Jay Jacobs, who was the reviewer for Gourmet magazine at that time, wrote a beautiful review. He kept telling me, “Lidia, you should write a book.” I said that I was not a writer. So he said, “Let’s write it together.” That was my first book, La Cucina di Lidia. A few months into our opening at Felidia, Julia Child and James Beard walked in. I did a risotto with mushrooms; Julia loved it, and she wanted me to teach her to make it. After a few months, she said, “Lidia, I would really love to have you on my show.” That led me into television. The producer said, “You know, Lidia, you’re pretty good on TV. How about your own show?”
You once cooked for Pope Francis. What items did you know you absolutely had to serve him, and why?
I cooked for both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. I communicate with food. With Benedict, he’s German, so I did sauerkraut for him, I did goulash, I did apple strudel. I cooked home for him. For Pope Francis, I thought that since he is Argentinian, we would have big pieces of meat, like a nice ribeye roast, but he wanted something lighter, so I did risotto and lighter things. One day, after he had lunch, he took a little rest. Afterwards, he came into the kitchen and said, “May I have coffee with you?” There were about six of us; he talked to us individually and blessed us. Before he left, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blessed rosary for each one of us.