Celebrity Chef Overcomes the Odds
By Christine Casatelli
For Lidia Bastianich, food has always been a way to connect with others. In Lidia Celebrates America: Overcoming the Odds, the celebrity chef travels across the country to share the stories of five Americans who have overcome extraordinary odds. In New York City, Bastianich visits Yannick Benjamin, a sommelier who turned a tragic accident into inspiration for a unique restaurant that is accessible to all. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Bastianich prepares a salad with a young woman whose experience with homelessness has motivated her to care for foster children. And in Houston, Texas, Bastianich joins family members who are finally able to eat in their own kitchen rebuilt by volunteers after their house was devastated by a hurricane.
When we spoke with her, she suggested that the best recipe for resilience is a bit of hope, some extra help and generous portions of home cooking.
What inspired you to make Lidia Celebrates America: Overcoming the Odds?
I’m an immigrant, and America has opened its arms to me. I feel a sense of gratitude, and I want to know more about this country that invited me in. And, especially with the pandemic, I want to meet people who have lived through difficult situations. I want to learn about their resilience—where does it come from? And, of course, I do it through food. Food opens all kinds of doors. It connects us all.
You share your own story of visiting the refugee camp in Trieste, Italy, where you lived as a child. What was that like?
Every time I go there, it’s emotional because it brings those moments back to me—with my family, sleeping with 200 other people in the same loft—just separated by cloths, pieces of wood or cardboard. You don’t know whether you’ll ever have a home again. You don’t know whether you’ll ever see your relatives again. I get very emotional, especially when I bring my children and grandchildren. Then I get a sense of gratitude. I look where we came from and where we are today. Sometimes that just overcomes me.
Why is the message of resilience so important?
This pandemic has really whipped us as a society. People are alone. They’re not with their families. I think they need encouragement right now. What we’ve gone through has made a major change in who we are, how we look at things, how we approach each other. So I thought, let’s show how some people have made it through. Not just though the pandemic—we’re all still living through that—but in different aspects of life. Let’s show how people get over the hurdles and make life happen.
There is a wonderful moment with you and your mother making a meal together. Why did you include that segment?
My mother just passed away in February, so for me, it was important that she be part of this message because she was the basis for it. She transported her strength, her knowledge to me—the importance of families, sticking together, cooking together and eating together.
What do you want viewers to take away from the program?
If people give me an hour of their time, I need to give them something back—whether it’s a message or an emotion or a recipe. For those who are in difficult situations, they may relate to these stories. They may get the energy and ideas to move on. For others who are in a better situation, maybe they will see how they can help others get out of a rut. For me, food has always been a way to connect with others. When you sit down and share food with somebody, you mean them well. You want to nourish them. You’re embracing them with this nurturing element that is food. Food is kind. Food is generous. Food is positive. I approach everything through food. So, let’s have a bite and a drink, and let’s talk.
Watch Lidia Celebrates America: Overcoming the Odds on December 14 at 8pm on GBH 2.