Full Exclusive interview with Lidia Bastianich

We first spoke to PBS chef Lidia Bastianich, whose show “Lidia’s Kitchen” is a staple on the KLCS Saturday afternoon cooking block, a couple years ago. Her show “Lidia’s Kitchen. Since 2020 she moved her show back home, to the delight of viewers who missed the vintage Lidia episodes. We thought it was a good time to reconnect with Lidia as she talks about losing her beloved mother at age 100, how she likes being back home filming, how she is such a positive person, and how she still keeps going after 50 years in the industry.

Lidia, after we last spoke a couple years ago, some people I spoke to about interviewing you, including when I interviewed another chef, all felt the old shows with you cooking in your kitchen was vintage Lidia. We missed those more personal episodes from your own house. And then as life would have it, you did have to suddenly cook from your backyard in 2020. How was that?
I like being in my house and around the house. It’s a matter of the times and what’s happening. Why the switch was, I had a 100-year-old mother, she’s no longer with me, and she lived with me. The whole crew [came] into the house and wires all over the place. So we went out to the studio, it was a kitchen showroom. Things have changed; Covid came, and my mother passed away a year ago in the middle of Covid. But doing it outside was an option and it still felt like at home. There are limitations to doing it outside because you don’t have all the equipment that you would in the house. This year we plan to do it outside again, we bought an oven that we’re going to roll out, so I feel pretty comfortable that I can share all the techniques of cooking out in my backyard and still be conscious about Covid and everything else that is going on.

I just love having you in your house and even in your backyard, I’m assuming it made you want to do more episodes going forward Covid-19 or not?
Yeah, I’m going to continue doing it outside and the editing is a little different, the light is a little different. There has to be modification in the filming outside, the sun is traveling and once I saw that, “Oh, OK, the crew can handle it to some extent.” I think people understand – the wind is blowing; my hair is blowing. It’s OK, it is what it is. So I feel comfortable and I like the results. Actually, I thought they were quite natural, so we’re doing next year outside in my backyard again.

What’s been the viewer feedback about the new shows from your backyard and the feedback since your 2020 shows in general?
They love being in my home, because I respond; I respond to the wine trestle, and my grandfather had one like this in front of his house, the flowers, the geraniums, so I bring it in whenever appropriate or if something happens, I bring my surroundings in. And they love that, because they really feel they’re part of my family. So bringing them in my yard, they are part of my family.

It makes sense to be back in your home, it was really different when you were in a studio kitchen. I really missed you being in your home environment like your older shows.
Mine is a realistic situation, with my family, and now the kids are in college and I think that I want to reach out to that age group too. I want them to see how my kids in college prepare food for themselves and they cook and they ask me questions back and forth. And I hope that with those little Zooms with my grandkids, it awakens kids that are away from home, kids that are in college; kids that can do this, like my kids. My kids are nothing special, yes they grew up with a grandma that cooked, but so did other kids.
It was grandma, grandma is no longer, she was everybody’s grandma, everybody loved her, but we still have her in the show and we bring her in and we have a lot of archived footage also that we’re going to continue to feed in so that the viewers feel like the family continuum keeps on going. Life happens. People do disappear and go away, but the feeling and the sentiment is still there.

You mentioned that when we spoke a couple years ago, you couldn’t do episodes in your old kitchen because of all the cables in your kitchen and your mom was 98 at the time. I notice at the end of each episode now you play us out with a song your mom sang in memory of her and that’s when I knew she passed on.
Yes, that’s what we did and this is in honor of her because she was always part of us, we’re going to continue to put little snippets [of her]. The family memories continue.

At the end of each episode, I always wonder how you recorded so many songs with her since it always seems like a new song!
She loved that, so we continued. A lot of times because we were in the same house, I recorded her and me. A lot things are on my iPhone, the iPhones are so great. I knew that I wanted to have these things and I have a big library for me. I go back to it now and then and I want to share with my viewers, because they have such a close affection for her.

Your lucky she got to live to 100, your mom was so much a part of your show and your life since you would talk about making soup for her in containers for when you traveled. How has her passing changed you and the show?
I think what’s important also because my show, I think, goes beyond just cooking, is the acceptance of life and going on. And what do we do? What do we do now? I think it’s one of the saddest sentiments and parts of my life, but I was lucky she was 100 and life goes on. And I’m there now for my children, my grandchildren and I can help other people. The older people that she used to know, her friends, I bring them food. So, I think that it’s important to share what I feel with my viewers and it’s not only a recipe. It’s family, sentiments, connections, meanings, memories, food; it’s all connected.

As someone who loves what you do, what has life been like for you in 2020 and 2021? It seems like the show hasn’t missed a beat. You just moved to your backyard.
We have asked our viewers for questions to send in. Some of them send questions, some of them send videos, some send photos and I respond to them. So it’s a connection and I’m feeling that I am connected and I want to know what they’re doing. So, it’s a world where maybe people need this kind of connection, need this reaching out. It’s just not presenting them with something and then they’re on their own. I think that with all of this, I’m bringing them closer and I enter into their lives and what they’re feeding me and I include it.

I often try to recall what each grandchild used to look like given they’ve cooked on the show since they were little. It’s nice seeing them grow up with you. I can never figure out which one was which.
I think it’s thrilling to hear how into the show and the family and the growth and my grandchildren my viewers are. They’ve really followed me all these years. “Oh my God, Julia got so big!” “Oh my God, Lorenzo, he’s so sweet!” I also post on my Instagram a continuum of what they’re doing. Whether they’re in school or if we’re going on vacation. I posted a picture of them and me, we were on vacation and I think I got close to 100,000 likes, so that’s a lot. And people are making comments on these children, which they’ve followed as they grew up, they evolved and like you say, “Gee, is that Miles or Ethan?”

What’s a day like for you now? I assume there is always some show, or food, or business, or book work you do each day?
It is exactly that. I sort of retreated a little bit from the restaurants. That was also a big disappointment for me when all the restaurants had to close and then my mother died, it was a really downward period, but what’s good about it is that there’s a new light. Tanya and my son Joe took over and they’re getting new ideas and opening new restaurants. For me, 50 years in the business, so it’s about time. So, being at home that doesn’t mean doing nothing. We just did some testing for another new book that’s coming out. I’m still promoting the book that just came out in October. I do a lot of Zooms for the show, whether it’s the “Today Show,” Canada, Italy, all over. I’m going to Italy in two weeks to film an Italian cooking show. So, there’s a lot going-on in my life and I love it. It’s a continuum, I’m going, also, to enrich myself to the Oxford Food Symposium, it’s a wonderful symposium.

You always have a new book or something, do you ever worry about running out of ideas for a book or recipes for the show?
Food is like our needs, it’s always evolving. It’s evolving at a slow pace. Food is not as quick as some would like it. Food is changing as our environment changes. So for me, going back to Italy regularly, sometimes I used to go two or three times and seeing how they change and what they do and bringing it back because that is what my message is, I bring my native culture to my adoptive culture through food. And communicating that and seeing what’s new in Italy and bringing it [back]. And even myself, some of the old traditional recipes, I might change it, “Gee, I’m going to put in some ginger.” I never used ginger. So, no I’m not. But you know publishers, they want a concept. “What is the concept?” So you have to package it somehow. But I’m not afraid and I think the next one is somewhat in honor of my mother: Family favorites. So I’m going to recall a lot of the stories of the family and the kids growing up and away now. They’re gone, my mother’s gone, what do I do now? I do what I love and I do a lot of traveling. Where will we go next with the grandkids? Like my grandson is now in San Francisco and I’m going to go to L.A. to do some work at Eataly, promotion, and then I’ll go to Las Vegas at Eataly there, and I’m going to spend some time with him.

What keeps you going and doing what you do? You could easily retire if you wanted to.
Oh, who wants to retire! I want to travel. And your life, if you love what you do and if you really work at it, you accumulate a lot of experience, thoughts, and you want to share this. It’s not mine to keep, so I have to find ways of doing just that. As you go on and have 50 years like I do, you’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge through passion, a lot of experiences and I always feel this is not mine to keep. This is not my gift to take away. I have to share it. So through books, through trips, I work with the chefs, so you pass on, through my kids, and so on. When you’re passionate about what you do, you go through life collecting, what else can I learn? Then you come to the pinnacle, but you give a lot back.

I love how on your show you are always so upbeat and it feels like you see the positive side of life too. What’s the key to being so positive?
Well, it is a state of mind, I think. My mother was like that and we certainly had a lot of adversities. I had [some adversity] in my young life, being an immigrant. But we’re going to get there and life is going to happen. And it did. So you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to work at it. And you can make it happen! You’ve got to be positive; you can’t be negative. Are you in the dumps sometimes? Sometimes of course you are, but that’s where you surround yourself with your family, your faith. You can learn things. It all plays a part of energizing you.

When you don’t really feel like cooking, what is an easy healthy dish that you make?
For us, I love salads. So a quick salad is always good and you can put some proteins in there, whether it’s canned tuna, mackerel, some beans. I think about the reality of people out there, at work and these are all valuable resources that sometimes chefs minimize. Sardines are extra healthy, they’re good, they’re inexpensive. So is tuna. So are ceci beans, all the legumes. So encouraging that in your fast cooking; and for us Italians it’s all about pasta. Give me some garlic, some oil, some broccoli, some pasta and some pepperoncino and some cheese, ok, and I have a great dish. Very satisfying dish. Then, there used to be a soup that my grandmother would do in a pinch. It was taking some flour and browning the flour in oil, like a roux and she would add water, season it with salt and then she would whisk and egg and spinach and put it in this soupy roux. And I loved the taste, but you have to toast the flour well so it doesn’t taste raw.

Don’t they call that Italian Wedding Soup?
No, the Wedding Soup has meatballs. That’s a prolonged process.

I find the challenge with cooking is cleaning. How often do you clean your stove top and vent? Since, like you, I sauté a lot and it gets grease even on the cabinets around the stove. Any tips?
I clean as I go and they have covers. If you’re frying or searing something, they have those mesh covers, so I use those and they catch the splatter. Then of course you have to wash that. I have the oven sprays and you clean it. But I think clean as you go, sometimes as it splatters, I have a tissue and I go around and I clean it.

Your daughter Tanya, who I miss seeing on your show in the vintage Lidia episodes, said you were doing an in-person appearance at Eataly in L.A. When did you start doing in-persons again and what does that entail? Is it a demo or book signing?
I started doing them maybe in October or November of last year, towards the holidays, when people wanted some energy. And I thought if I could bring some energy to a book show, they could not hover over me and so there are certain controls that you put in place. As far as with Eataly, it’s a setting where I’m given a demo over a meal. Three recipes and they are seated at the table and they will eat this meal and I prepare the wine and talk about the wine and questions and we have books pre-signed, so they’ll be in the same room as I am but they’ll be at a distance. There will be at a dining room distance. And that’s what I’ve been doing a lot. As far as the television, the “Today Show” and all of that, Zoom has been how they’ve been reaching out to me.

Is there anything you’d like to add for our viewers?
To continue. That’s been a nice; I’m very content of the fact of how many people ended up in the kitchen. The one good result of Coronavirus. And just to continue that. I think that they have discovered the pleasure of cooking and the easiness of cooking. I find, it’s like they’re surprised that they started or that they cooked, or that they had the nerve to go behind the stove. So I just want to encourage all of that. Take care, mistakes do happen, clean up, feel comfortable with the recipe. And I think, also, what I would tell them is to go into the resources of their sentiments and of their feelings and of their heart. Food from their family and all that, go back and prepare that food, try it, it’s going to give them a lot of pleasure and they’re going to feel that they’re connected to their ancestors or whomever made that for them.

Tune in to Lidia’s Kitchen on KLCS, Wednesday’s at 5 PM and 9:30 PM as well as on KLCS’ CreateTV, Tuesdays at 9:30 AM. Or check the website for a complete schedule: klcs.org/schedule/. Keep-up with everything-Lidia, including recipes, her blog and newsletter, on her website: lidiasitaly.com

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