Emmy award-winning TV host, best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur, Lidia Bastianich is no stranger to the food business. From working at a bakery in Queens, New York when she was just 14, to flipping pizzas on the Upper West Side after high school, to opening her first restaurant, Buonavia, in 1971, this hardworking entrepreneur has the kind of sweeping hands-on hospitality experience (and success) that makes her an uncontested expert in the field.
Today, the chef/owner of four New York City restaurants — Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia’s Kansas City — also has a popular line of pastas and sauces. If that wasn’t enough, along with her son, Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti, she owns Eataly, the largest artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace in NYC, with other locations in Chicago and Sao Paolo, Brazil. We recently chatted with her about how to deliver top-notch service, the rise of food aversions and her idea of perfect happiness.
What was the best advice you ever got when you were starting out?
I think the most important things are: know what you’re passionate about, know what you want to cook, and make sure you’re prepared. Make sure that you have worked with people who you admire and that you have developed a nice reference library of techniques and recipes. If you have a certain cuisine in mind, what are the dishes that you admire from that cuisine? And make sure that you’re well-versed in them.
How do you recruit and keep a great staff?
It’s all about the staff. Singlehandedly you can really not do much except produce those 10, 20 dishes in an evening or whatever. So it is selecting — first building a setting, in a sense, that people will like to be part of. To select people, the first thing is you look at is the resume, and does it have the criteria that you can work with? Within that context, what I look at is the education that they have, the experiences they had and how long did they last at each experience. Were they appreciated or admired (accolades, reference letters or articles are fine, if they have those). But what’s important is the interview — the personal. Is there an enthusiasm or a willingness to grow, to learn to collaborate. Could I mold this person? Can we, together, direct his or her energy into whatever position that he’s going to fill, to the advantage of both me as an employer and him as an individual?
How important is the design and ambience of a restaurant?
Those are elements that are becoming evermore important. It used to be the food. I mean, I started in 1971. And yes, a comfortable setting and service was always primary, but food was more so at the time. Now I think today’s client wants much more than just perfect food. They want the food to be nutritionally correct or beneficial. They want the food and the chef to be environmentally conscious. They want to sit in a beautiful setting. The setting will communicate the chef’s ideas, the rhythm of the restaurant — is it a fast-paced restaurant or an elegant restaurant? The menu — the way it’s designed — will communicate, “Is this a simple, straightforward restaurant or is it an elaborate restaurants or does it reflect a certain ethnicity?” So it’s all different ways for the chef or restaurateur to connect with and attract his diners.
How much should restaurant operators pay attention to reviews?
If you depend on an individual reviewer who passes judgement (and it is a reviewer who is respected in the industry for really knowing the subject and having knowledge of many different cuisines), and they’re very objective about the food, the service, the price, the setting, then a positive review could be very good to have. Having said that, you’re dealing with one person’s experience, and it is a little slanted to their perspective. But it’s still valid.
If it’s on social media, I always read the review and see how correct in my world this person is, and I try to correct things that are brought to my attention — it’s an opportunity to correct things. If you’re dealing with online, cumulative reviews, then that has it’s value, too. You can add up all of those, and it gives you a good sense of many people’s experience. Again, the fact is, these are diners that maybe do not have professional knowledge and for whom that might have been their first experience. So you have to take it with a grain of salt. But you do have a number of people having the same thing and you can take away an underlying average of that.
Is there a secret to delivering great service?
There are some rules — rules about the way certain things are executed. The fork goes on the left, the knife goes on the right, the proper setting, all of that. And so you must have those rules down pat with your service personnel. Then there are certain intangibles, rules that float. The timing — and it depends on the kind of restaurant you are — it’s very important to do the proper timing for your clients. How fast or how slow you approach them, you bring the drinks, you come to take the order, all of that is important. You know, how long does a great meal take? Service could be efficient, cut and dry — they’ll get their sandwich at this time, they’ll get their soda at that time, they’ll get the check just when they need it. On the other hand, there can be that sensibility of really making the customer feel very comfortable and sharing with them information about the menu, the sommelier sharing about the wine and so on down the line. The attention that is paid to that customer is extremely important. But it’s all relative to the kind of establishment you are, the style of that restaurant.
What are your thoughts on no-tipping or “hospitality included” policies?
I’m still thinking about it. I was just talking to a prominent colleague, and we’re all waiting for his results to see. Putting it on the bill certainly would make it easier for us to make sure every server gets his fair share, and it’s all done clean. But it leaves a little of that element of personality, of willingness to give, of that server giving the best they have. It takes that kind of opportunity or enthusiasm out of it. So I’m really torn with all of the new wage-raising and front-of-house versus back-of-house and “how do you balance that” discussion. Ultimately, we really want servers to do their best to get the endearment of the customer.
Do you have any top marketing tips?
Well, you know, I think that online and social media certainly has become a great way for everybody to be able to go out there. The other one is to hire a PR person. But they’re only good if you’re really doing an interesting thing. So having interesting menus or events, having an opportunity for customers to come in and welcome them, to teach them, to have them taste. Generate these new ideas that are really customer-friendly and that invite the customer in to see special people, wine producers and so on. And secondly, get your menus out there.
How has the rise of food allergies and aversions affected your restaurants?
They are becoming more and more common, and it’s not for us to judge. If there is actually a gluten or nut intolerance,we really make sure that the customer gets, healthwise, what he or she needs. So we have gluten-free pastas, vegetarian meals, we can control the amount of salt. What is difficult to accept is when a customer comes in and says, “I’m going to have this veal dish, but instead of asparagus I’m going to have Swiss chard, and instead of the potatoes I’m going to have carrots, and instead of that sauce…” Then it becomes changing the dish, when you should just choose a dish that is already to your liking. Those are two absolute opposites.
What is your typical breakfast?
Certainly coffee. I make cafe latte — warm milk with a shot of espresso or two. I like fruit, so it depends on what fruit I have. I like cottage cheese, yogurt. Toast with some jam will be just fine some days. So it kind of varies. It depends also on what I had for dinner, too. If I ate late the night before, then I’ll have something lighter. If I haven’t eaten dinner or I had an early dinner the night before, then I have a more substantial breakfast. I like oatmeal, I like eggs. I like it all.
Which living person do you most admire?
My mother. She’s 96. Her and my father came here as immigrants. I was 12 years old. I was brought here by the Catholic charities. We had nobody here as a family, so I just continue to think about the courage that this woman had to bring us as immigrants to this new country so we could have a shot at a new life. A good new life.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Being a grandma. It’s an indirect accomplishment, but I’ll take it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think it’s being in a simple place in life. When I see a table full of my family and friends and there’s enough food for everybody and there’s a chatter going on and interaction and laughing. Especially if it’s around a celebration of some sort, it kind of brings it all together — it’s what life is all about.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
I’ve had quite a few. [Laughs] I think that at this point, what I feel for my grandchildren — the unconditional love. My whole heart swells up when I think of my grandchildren, when I have an opportunity to interact with them and share my life and see them taking it in.
If you could change one thing about yourself or your past, what would it be?
I guess there’s many things along the way that one would change. What would I change? Many things. I think the one thing that I always kind of deal with — I’m a chubby individual. And I always say that I’m going to watch the next piece of bread or whatever, and I never do. (And I enjoy every moment of it!) But I always kind of reprimand myself, “Get back into that super duper shape.” I feel very good healthwise and all of that, but I was never a model kind of size. So I do think about it, continuously.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
I think success and succeeding and this drive that is being on the top, being the first, on the pinnacle of everything. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of people, and you can get there in many different ways without that. So being the first, the top.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandchildren. As my mother would say, “They are my jewels.”
Words to live by?
I get told a lot of time that I come from very humble beginnings and I’ve been given tremendous opportunities. And the thing that gives me the best compliment is to hear, “You know Lidia, you haven’t changed.” I really love being in that place.
Top 6 must-eats and drinks in NYC:
- Roasted Chicken from Rotisserie Georgette
- Crudo and Cacio Pere from Felidia
- 100 Layer Lasagna from Del Posto
- Burger from Shake Shack in the Flatiron District
- House-made gelato from Eataly
- Anything cooked in the special oven at Peasant (like spit-roasted suckling pig or wood grilled squab)
Fill in the blank:
- My favorite thing to cook is pasta.
- My favorite thing to eat is pasta with some vegetables.
- My least favorite food is cilantro (I hate it).
- My favorite words are love, amore, understanding, humility.
- My least favorite words are greed, controlling, power.
- If I could’ve been anything other than a chef, I would have been a pediatrician.
- One word that describes me is huggable. (When people meet me sometimes they say, “Lidia, can I hug you?” And I say, “Sure.” [laughs])
- My favorite TV show right now is CNN News (for the political updates, because I just can’t get over what’s going on.)