Lidia Bastianich: "Fifty percent of the chef's job is done if you have the right products" | Bleader

Lidia Bastianich: "Fifty percent of the chef's job is done if you have the right products"

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Lidia Bastianich at Eatalys La Carne restaurant.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Lidia Bastianich in the space of Eataly's La Carne restaurant

In the second installment of my interviews with the three main partners of Chicago's Eataly, I talk to Lidia Bastianich, who with her son, Joe, and Mario Batali oversees the mega-food emporium which opened in Chicago yesterday.

Lidia, like Martha Stewart, built a business empire and celebrity status out of selling an old-fashioned vision of the good life. The difference, though, might be that a relaxed vision of good Italian food at home is a lot closer to being attainable for families today than Stewart's vision of artfully designed order—at least, that's what Eataly's entire success hinges on. In her four TV series and nearly a dozen books, as well as the restaurants she's involved with, she's worked to make Italian food accessible and aspirational at the same time, and a connection to family traditions (her 92-year-old mother often appears in her programs). I spoke with her last week about how Eataly fits into that life's work; tomorrow, I speak with Mario Batali, the third main partner in Eataly.

Michael Gebert: What you've done so much on television is essentially educate people about Italian food. Is that how you think of Eataly?

Lidia Bastianich: I do, I do. Eataly is essentially a 360-degree experience of food, and it happens to be Italian food, with all of us as partners. And I think it's really important to give people an opportunity to experience Italian food at all different price levels. And Eataly does just that.

Specifically, there is also an educational school, which we will open in February. I'm dean of education, because that's what I like to do. And there, I get a lot of questions like—I can't do that, that's too complicated. And that's not so. Everybody can cook something, and I do that on my television show—I communicate how straightforward and simple it is.

The one must element in real Italian food is to have the good products. So you know, we begin with that. Fifty percent of the job of the chef is done if you have the right products. Chefs might want to take credit for 100 percent, but that's not the case. I am subject to the product as a chef. And if I have beautiful product and it excites me, I don't have to do that much to it. And people need to begin to understand that. Cooking starts with shopping, and understanding food.

So that's the opportunity for educating people—we even have a vegetable monger, if you will, in the store. Somebody who can clean artichokes for you when it’s springtime and they’re beautiful, and you can take them home. And that's the case with a lot of our products—our fish people are very good at explaining things.

And then, ultimately, you can taste the finished products in our restaurants, or take a class and augment your knowledge. Even the school is fun, it's not that kind of tedious—it's about guest demonstrations and answering questions. And you get to eat everything that gets cooked. And we pair it with wine, and an explanation of the wine.

Now, you said "real Italian." So you must have a sense of what that means for you.

You know, I've written several books, and real Italian is all about the regionality of the food. You travel through Italy—Italy is smaller than California, but it has 20 regions, and each one has different specialties, different recipes. The cuisine reflects the topography, the climate, and all the products that grow there. It's so ingrained in the regionality. So that's what Eataly represents, and we even have, each month, we focus on a different region and that permeates the store, in the products, in the lessons, in the menus in the restaurants. We do that on a regular basis so we better understand the regions, and also the seasonality.

Now, you're talking about the "real Italian," and then there's Italian-American cuisine. Which is a wonderful cuisine, but it's not the Italian food that one eats in Italy. It is a cuisine of adaptation, of immigrants who came here and made do with what they found. With the ingredients they found they made the recipes that they could recall. It's a valiant cuisine, and it's a delicious cuisine, but it's different.

And that's how much a cuisine is based on the products, and the topography and the climate. I mean, how are you going to make an Italian meal now? You can go to our salumi counter and get some prosciutto, some Grana Padano, some olives. You put it on a plate and you've got yourself an Italian antipasto. Done. But when those immigrants came, none of that existed here. So they developed a whole new cuisine based on the memories that they had of Italian food.

Why did you think Chicago was the place that Eataly needed to go next?

Because I think Chicago's a great city. Like New York, it's full of energy. To make 60,000 square feet work, you need a densely populated area to fill it, and for this concept to be effective, you need the space. You need to make people feel comfortable, almost like a piazza—what's important is the social element of a store like this, where people eat, shop, socialize, learn.

We are so excited. We so want to be part of the city and the energy. I come here often, and I am just grateful to be here. Chicago is very much into its food culture, great chefs, great restaurants—we thought we'd join the movement here of great food.

When I went to Eataly in New York, I ate at the vegetable counter because it was the only one that didn't have a big line, and I was really struck by how simple and delicious things were. Which I guess is what you're trying to get across, right, that food can be very simple and good at the same time?

I think the whole Eataly concept is very contemporary in that way. That is what our cuisine should be, it should look at the evolution of what people are eating. Vegetables are such a big part of Italian cooking, I love cooking with vegetables. Big proteins are minimal, I don't ever remember having big steaks. So vegetables for me can be a protagonist.

So if someone comes in and they haven't really been exposed to Italian Italian food, as opposed to Italian-American food, what would you send them to that's really going to wow them?

Oh my God, I think they need to—I think I would have them hop around. You could go to the piazza and have an aperitivo, some crudo, or some frittati with a nice glass of prosecco.

Then, I would go to the pasta and pizza. You could share a pizza, depends on how many you are, or you could share one or two pastas. That would be the next course. Then I would jump to the pesce, the fish course, or you could go to the vegetable counter and make a main course there.

Now, the Baffo. The tablecloth restaurant, the only one that will have reservations, that will open in a month—that's elegant. So I would have first an aperitivo, and then go there for dinner.

And as you can see, we really source out our meats, locally, we use the Piedmontese beef which is raised for us in Nebraska. If it's a special occasion, I would have that in Baffo. So, does that entice you?

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