Lidia Bastianich, known as the First Lady of Italian cooking, was in Memphis last week for the Brooks' Art of Good Taste. She also signed copies of her most recent cookbook, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, and celebrated the distribution of her line of Bastianich wines at Buster’s Wine and Liquor. After a wine tasting at Café Society on Saturday, she was gracious enough to grant me an interview (and a sampling of some of her wines.)
In Lidia Cooks, you once again explore a variety of lesser-known areas in Italy. How do you develop distinct recipes for these regions when there seems to be so much overlap?
In Italy, there are 20 regions, and the beauty of Italy — why there’s so much diversity— is the regionality. As small as Italy is, there are a lot of microclimates and a lot of effects from the water. It’s just different — you go from one region to another and the same dish changes. It never ceases to amaze me, each region and their repertoire of recipes.
You do so much involving traditional cuisine, entrenched in years and years of practice. How do you let your personal style come through?
It comes through every time. When you are comfortable, it’s like an artist and his style of painting, a musician and his style of composition. It’s a dance that I do with food and I’m part of it. I never thought of removing myself.
Even as a seasoned chef, are you still surprised by discoveries in the kitchen?
Oh yes. As a chef there’s nothing better than to go into a market, like the one [Memphis Farmers Market] I went into this morning, and I found some great radishes and I saw some bok choy with flowers. I have never used the flowers on bok choy, so now I need to look into that, the rapini and the flowers.
It’s the surprises where you start to feel good about your cuisine. This morning I was at The Cupboard for breakfast, and I loved it. I was looking at the chicken fried steak and I thought, you know, you can do the same with Italian sausages. You take them out of their casings and you bread them and fry them. That could be a good dish. I’m forever thinking and borrowing. You don’t necessarily copy these things, but they stimulate, sort of intrigue you.
What advice do you have for young chefs?
I just can’t stress enough how important food contact is. The greatest rewards come from cooking food and sharing it with someone. Because food is a social communicator. You sit and the table and you give of yourself. People are going out to bars to connect or to find people, but try giving a pasta party at home. Invite friends who invite other friends and you put food on the table and the table fills up.
And it’s the future. We need to be attentive and cognizant of what we eat and how we prepare it. We need to because young people are going to drive legislation, which will affect food and will affect the whole world and the well-being of the earth.
You’re a chef and restaurateur and radio host. Do you think next you’ll break out and do something completely different?
I have a children’s book coming out in September. It’s actually my family stories because my grandchildren love them so. It’s about approaching children and young minds — about how when I was little I made this Christmas tree and all the decorations were edible and homemade: apples and nuts and candies and hazelnuts and a wreath out of dried figs and we’d bake cookies and nougat. On January 6th, it was Epiphany and we’d eat it all and that was our gift. Never mind the packaged gifts. Maybe we should look at that. It’s not “what am I going to get,” and everything you buy is plastic, but just the fun of being together in the kitchen as a family to construct that.
My next step is tracing the Italian story in America. How has the Italian culture adapted? How is it still continuing from generation to generation and how is it permeating the mainstream of American life? The Italian flavors have become part of your profile even though you’re not Italian. You will automatically go out there and select something, whether it’s the right olive oil or parmigiano-reggiano or grana. I’m going to look into that, into the force of a great culture and how it’s become the basis of a lot of big businesses: the wine business in California, the canning industry in San Diego. In New Orleans, one of the first ports of entry for Italians, particularly Sicilians, is where the Progresso company began. When I went to the Cupboard, where the owner is Italian, I looked at the menu and there was Italian spinach.
What’s your favorite cookbook that’s not your own?
Of the Americans, I like Recipes from Paradise by Fred Plotkin. It’s about Liguria, a strip of land in the left armpit of Italy, and the birthplace of pesto and so on. They do so much with herbs that hasn’t been captured any place, and [Plotkin] does a great job.