When we first caught up with Lidia Bastianich, the doyenne of Italian cooking was telling us about her upcoming cookbook on the history of Italian American cuisine and the 3,000 loaves of bread that Eataly, her latest investment, bakes through most days. Those two topics, one staunchly marked by tradition, the other an experimental new venture, very much summarize Bastianich's career choices.
In this edition, Bastianich, tells us how she manages to juggle so many business ventures at once (having children who actually want to follow in their parents' footsteps helps) and offers up her thoughts on her family's range of social networking, including Facebook, Twitter, and Sunday night family suppers. Turn the page for more.
Squid Ink: As you are in L.A. quite literally as we speak, actually, in a taxi, it begs the question. Why have you taken a back seat in the restaurant scene here to your son, Joe Bastianich?
SI: Are you worried about your brand becoming watered down?
LB: The key is really more how do we reach all of these people who follow me, who are fans? That is always the question. The restaurants are one way, books are another, products even another. I am blessed that the food business is good for me. Good to me. I get to work with my daughter, who does the TV with me, the cookbooks, the products. My son does the restaurants and wine. That sort of energizes the entire thing, connects us.
SI: That's great. Still, surely it must be difficult, or at least annoying some days, always being “on” for your fans.
LB: You know, my fans have developed a relationship with me, I could not stand there and not recognize them. Yes, you're opening up to a complete stranger, but I enjoy it. Some people do not, and I can understand that, but I have no problem with it. And if I don't want to be a part of that at some time, I make sure I'm in a place where no one will recognize me. But I believe that if I am “out there,” like I am, then I belong to the public. That is part of my role.
SI: What happens when that fan interaction changes to a new medium, like via Facebook and Twitter rather than in person?
LB: I am very much a part of all of that, of Facebook and Twitter. It's essential today, and it is such a great way to communicate. Younger generations, they ask more questions, like on a recipe. But they ask them online. If my staff doesn't know how to answer it, I will answer. But you also can't respond to everyone.
But what I really like is how people today interact online, how they really talk to each other, not so much me. I'm like a mother at home watching the kids play outside seeing how [my fans] have changed, how they are so very interactive today. They also get personal [with me] now in ways they never would before. Do things like comment on whether they like a change to my hairdo. They tell me what color they like, what hair color they don't like so much.
SI: Hilarious. Online fashion stylists. But doesn't managing so many online forums also create a huge amount of work you didn't have two years ago?
LB: It does, so you have to a team that works well together. My daughter and the office team, they handle much of that. You also need a general format of feeding information to people, deciding how to do it. And [fans] are usually happy with that, so it works.
SI: And yet while you have embraced new media outlets, you haven't changed your television show format. You're still with PBS, doing classic food programming. You haven't been wooed by the glam style of the Food Network.
LB: I've stayed with PBS a long time, yes. I need to be given a forum where I can feel responsible and committed to my viewers. And they gave me the opportunity to do that. I see how people connect with me on different level through my show, how they want to transport what I cook into their home kitchens for their own families. It's my responsibility to always make sure that is quality.
SI: A responsibility to the viewer, as you say of the Responsibility in the Arts video you recently completed.
LB: Yes, quality is my responsibility. It's also the consumer's responsibility. A television viewer and an even a buyer's responsibility. Don't accept what a grocery store has for you. Tell the store to get you want you want. If you want honey from a local farmer, organic honey, you tell them. We are in control. It's up to us as the consumer to get what we want.
SI: Shouldering the responsibility for quality publicly, as you do, also takes a lot more time than going with the current state of the food union. Does that leave you any time with your family?
LB: It's always busy with us, but you'd be surprised. On Sundays, now we try to have at least that night with the whole family, the grandkids. To cook and sit around the table as much as we can, Sunday is around the table. We're able to do it most of the time because we make an effort to.
Check back for a versatile Sunday supper stuffed vegetable recipe from Bastianich.