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Meet & Eat: Lidia Bastianich

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Bastianich making pasta at Eataly. [Photograph: Arion Doerr]

PBS has been producing a stellar lineup of cooking shows for years and chef-restaurateur-cookbook-author Lidia Bastianich has been at the helm of the network's food programming. The host of the Emmy-nominated television series Lidia's Italy, Lidia's Family Table, Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, Lidia's Italian Table, and La Cucina di Lidia (phew!), Bastianich has been teaching Americans how to cook authentic, regional Italian cuisine for 12 years, and doesn't have plans to stop.

Bastianich's story epitomizes the American Dream. As a child, her family fled the communist government of Pola, Istria (now Pula, Croatia) for a refugee camp in Trieste, Italy, where her parents worked as the hired help of a wealthy family for two years before they were able to emigrate to the U.S. when Bastianich was 12.

Now at age 64, Bastianich and her family (including son Joe Bastianich) have a culinary empire, with four acclaimed New York City restaurants including Felidia, Becco, Esca, and Del Posto, as well as the Italian market hall Eataly, which she opened with her son Joe, Mario Batali, and Oscar Farinetti. There's also Lidia's in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

While doing press for this short film she's working on, Bastianich spoke to us about her career, how Italian food in America has changed over the years, and what she'd do if PBS lost funding.

When your family opened their first restaurant in Queens in 1971, did you ever dream you'd get this far? Never in a million years. If you would have told me then, I would have laughed at you. Sometimes even now when I read something about myself or see myself on television I think, "who is this person they're talking about!?" As immigrants, we've been very blessed and lucky. We saw opportunities along the way and took them, then continued working hard until we ended up where we are today.

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You've really been able to pass on your passion for food to your children and grandchildren. What's the key to raising children who love and respect food?
You have to lead by example. If you're like me, food is a medium for communication. It's an expression of love and affection. By cooking with your kids, you can help them understand that food is a powerful tool in connecting human beings.

How has Italian cooking in America changed over the course of your career? When I first came here, Italian food wasn't anything I recognized. I didn't know what Italian American food was; we never ate it at home. It was the food of immigrants who came here and made use of the ingredients they had. Traditional ingredients were scarce. When our first restaurant opened we couldn't find Arborio rice. We couldn't even make a decent risotto. Now you can find anything.

With PBS' funding hanging in the balance, do you think you could keep your show's format and high standards on another network? That's difficult to say. My message is my message and it wouldn't be my show if it didn't feel genuine, so I'm not sure if it's so much the platform as it is the intention behind it. I obviously hope PBS doesn't lose funding. I would have difficulty not doing what I do the way that I've always done it.

When are you the happiest while working? When I'm connecting with people. I love receiving e-mails from children telling me that they're watching the show. When we're filming I sometimes look into the camera and wonder who's out there, who will be watching.

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