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Chef Lidia Bastianich looks back on her family's chaotic life in Europe after WWII

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Our guest, Lidia Bastianich, is a celebrity chef famous for her Italian recipes. She has a long-running PBS series, "Lidia's Kitchen." She's written over 15 cookbooks, has owned several restaurants and has won multiple James Beard Awards.

Her family lived on the Italian peninsula, Istria. As a child, she learned a lot about cooking from her grandmother, who was poor and cooked over a wood fire. All of the ingredients were from her grandmother's garden or from the livestock they raised, including two pigs a year. But after World War II, the peninsula changed hands from Italy to communist Yugoslavia. Bastianich's parents were followed by secret police, and her father was arrested. Her family managed to flee after the border was closed. And for a couple of years, they lived in a refugee camp in Italy that was a former Nazi concentration camp.

Her new special, "Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us," premieres on PBS May 30. Her show "Lidia's Kitchen" returns for its 11th season in October. Bastianich spoke with Terry Gross last week at a WHYY event at which Bastianich was presented with WHYY's Lifelong Learning Award.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

So you grew up in Istria, which is a peninsula kind of parallel to Italy. The northwestern tip is attached to Italy, and the northeastern tip is attached to Croatia. The year you were born, in 1947 - that was the year that the peninsula that you lived on switched hands from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was communist. So your mother was pregnant with you at the time. A lot of their friends fled Istria because they didn't want to live in a communist country. But because your mother was pregnant, your father said, you're not going to give birth in a refugee camp. So we're staying.

When you look back at that time and think about what a consequential decision your parents had to make while your mother was pregnant with you, what do you think about when you reflect on that?

LIDIA BASTIANICH: You know, Terry, when I reflect on my life, I'm grateful. I had a wonderful life. I had a wonderful family. So I cannot regret anything that happened. If anything in that period, maybe of having a hard time and difficulties and not being able to speak your native language, not being able to respect your religion and go to church and all of that, at the time, it would seem very oppressive. And it is. It is. But in retrospect, you know, we came here, we were given that chance. And I guess that's...

GROSS: Oh, things worked out, that's for sure.

BASTIANICH: Yeah.

GROSS: But I just imagine what it must have been like for your parents to decide whether to flee or stay while you were in utero, you know.

BASTIANICH: Right. Well, maybe I'll just describe a little bit the actual situation. So Istria is a little peninsula that is across from Venice. And it is on the other side, you have Dalmatia now. And that area is certainly was under Italy, Romans, the Venetians and so on and so forth. But that area was also under the Austro-Hungarians. So it was a border area that would go back and forth.

World War II, of course, I think ended in '44, but there was - the Allied Forces were there to - and the British - to hold peace. So that was in '47, as you said. I was born February 21, 1947. The peace treaty was the treaty that actually delineated the border. It was 1947. It was February 27 of 1947. So a few days after me.

That whole area, in those years, from '44 to '47 - it was the big exodus. I think about 300,000 people just left. They left with the belongings they had, moved on, went back to Italy and moved on into the world. Once the Iron Curtain went down, you were locked.

GROSS: Right.

BASTIANICH: They began to change the names. You couldn't speak the language.

GROSS: Did the food change?

BASTIANICH: The food changed because there wasn't enough of it.

GROSS: There wasn't any (laughter).

BASTIANICH: There wasn't enough. And that's where...

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: ...My grandmother and all the animals and - she supplied - she lived in a little town outside of Pola - Pola is the big town that's now called Pula - where we lived. So my parents put my brother and myself with grandma so we would be freer there, not in the city, where actually you had, you know, the - what was called the Udba, the police, minding and watching everybody.

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: And there she also - because food was scarce, was rationed. You can only buy certain things. Only certain things at certain times were available. Her husband, my grandmother and her, of course, started to - the farm was always there. But they really - the family needed food. And that's where the chickens and all of that came.

The chickens - we had chickens. We had goats. We had rabbits. We had goose. We had two pigs every year, had enough olives to make olive oil, enough grapes to make wine for the family, a little wheat field to make flour for the whole family. Not just my immediate family - my aunts and my cousins or whatever.

And I was raised in that setting. And I think that my passion and understanding of food really was set in me at that period when it's your period of learning as a child.

GROSS: Your father was arrested when you were a child, when you were still living on the peninsula. And you went to visit him with your mother when you were, I think, 8 years old. That must have been terrifying, to be in a prison and see your father in it. Can you describe what you witnessed and the impact that it had on you?

BASTIANICH: I remember that vividly, the - my - the fright that I felt. So my father was - he was a mechanic, but he had two trucks. So he was a little businessman. And he was considered by the communists coming in as a capitalist. They took away the trucks, and they incarcerated him because he was a capitalist. And of course, we went to see it. And, you know, as children, we wanted to see him.

And to - I remember just being so insecure, so frightened, so - you know, everything seems so big when you're a child. You know, the - you enter into these big offices, everybody in uniform speaking this harsh language that somewhat I understood, but it wasn't my language. And so it was very, very moving. It sort of - I remember the sentiments very well still now, still today.

GROSS: You eventually left. You were 10, I think...

BASTIANICH: Yes.

GROSS: ...When you left the peninsula under false premises. Your mother and her sister, your aunt, and your sister was living in Italy, in Trieste. They concocted this plan where they would say that your aunt was terminally ill and that your mother and your aunt wanted to see each other and say their goodbyes with your mother's children, with you and your brother, one last time. And so you got across, and the plan was your father would walk across and sneak across later, which he managed to do after nearly getting killed. So when he finally crossed the border with, like, secret police shooting at him and living in the woods and climbing over barbed wire fences and so on, what kind of shape was he in?

BASTIANICH: I remember he - it was 1 o' clock at night, and the door banging and my mother crying, my aunt crying, everybody. So us kids jumped up because we weren't aware that we are not going back home. They don't - you don't tell a kid that. You know, we spill the beans. And so when we jumped up and over that, my father, actually, was collapsed in front of the door, and he was all muddy, covered in mud. And, you know, then was this big emotional - and reunion and crying and wondering, what - is my father alive? - I remember, you know, what is he doing here? What happened? Who - you know, what condition? What - is he going to be alive or whatever? That was the reunion sort of.

GROSS: And then you ended up moving to a refugee camp, which was - actually, it was called San Sabba.

BASTIANICH: San Sabba, yes.

GROSS: San Sabba. And it was, basically, a former concentration camp during World War II. There's a picture of it in your memoir - doesn't look good.

BASTIANICH: No, it's...

GROSS: No. Describe what the atmosphere was like there. I think you didn't know at the time that it had been a concentration camp. But, you know, there was a crematorium there, too. There were the ovens. So, like, what was the feeling? Did it feel haunted, even though you didn't know what had gone on there?

BASTIANICH: Yes. There was a feeling of darkness. There was a smell. There was, you know...

GROSS: What was the smell?

BASTIANICH: It was musty, mud because, also, the courtyard - you know, it was enclosed. Everything was enclosed. They had this big gate, and you couldn't pass. Now, just to explain how we got there, when we came and my father met us, we didn't have the papers. We didn't have complete papers. So had we remained in Italy, we could have asked for Italian refuge. But my parents decided even Italy was in conditions after the war. Let's try and go on to America or Canada, whatever. So we were there without papers, and had the police - because the Yugoslavs had secret police in Trieste.

GROSS: Oh.

BASTIANICH: So - and they kind of would spot people that escaped, you know, because they're kind of - look lost, and they would repatriate them. They would bring them to the guards and say, listen to the police. They don't have any papers. These need to go back. So we - my parents immediately decided to go to the police and ask for asylum. And, at that point, if you ask for asylum, you are an immigrant without papers. And they put us in the camp, and then there it's controlled. You can't leave. You can't go out. You have to stay within those boundaries. And it was closed. It was closed. It had one main entrance, and it was like a big courtyard, and there was dirt on it. So when it rained and all, that was really, really muddy. And the rooms - we had little cubbyholes, and they were separated by no wall but cardboard, paper, boards, even some with cloth. That was the separation. So you heard everybody. We had two beds - what do you call them on top of each other?

GROSS: Bunk beds.

BASTIANICH: Two bunk beds. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: One for the kids and the other side my parents, and we stayed there until we began the process of vetting and beginning to file our papers.

GROSS: When you waited on line for the food, what were you given? What were you - what did you eat?

BASTIANICH: Mostly, I remember was always spaghetti with tomato sauce, and we did get an apple at the end - usually a fruit, an apple or something like that. Yeah. And on Sundays, we were allowed to go out with permission when you can - you had relatives. We would go out to the - my aunt's, and we would have the meal in family and then brought back with us, mom brought back with us. We had a little burner up in the room, so she could heat milk for us and whatever she could.

GROSS: You had a lot of trauma as a child, whether you recognized it as trauma or not, and I'm wondering what the relationship in your life has been between food and trauma 'cause one way of trying to soothe yourself when you're suffering through a trauma or reliving the trauma is to eat or to eat comfort foods, foods that you love. Of course, at the time, food wasn't plentiful for you. It was scarce. So what do you think, in the long term, like, your relationship between food and trauma has been?

BASTIANICH: My relationship - a definite realization what food meant to me was when we were in Trieste, in Italy, in the camp, and I did not know that we were not going to go back to grandma. And so that feeling of unfinished work - I hadn't said goodbye to my grandmother, to my friends, but when I realized that I wasn't going back, food became my connector. When my aunt would cook the food, the smells, it brought me back to my grandmother, to that place, and I realized that I could do that to satisfy myself. And then I realized that, you know, I was pretty good at it. And then I realized that I could nurture and feed other people. And I love that, just like my grandmother did, and so on my life became exactly that, a life of cooking and nurturing from family to people and, ultimately, the opportunity of turning it all into a business.

DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry recorded last week at a WHYY event honoring Lidia Bastianich, a chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author and host of the PBS series "Lidia's Kitchen." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE ME FA SOL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry recorded with Lidia Bastianich, host of the Italian cooking show "Lidia's Kitchen." She's also a chef, restaurant owner and bestselling cookbook author. Her family lived on the Italian peninsula Istria until it changed hands from Italy to communist Yugoslavia after World War II. They fled, and for two years they lived in a refugee camp in Italy that was formerly a Nazi concentration camp. Lidia Bastianich spoke with Terry Gross at a WHYY event last week.

GROSS: So when you were in the former concentration camp, at some point you were allowed out to go to a convent school. You had come from the peninsula where basically religion had been banned. So you started to learn about Catholicism, and you also worked in the kitchen there, and that - you've described that as your introduction to commercial cooking. What's one or two of the things that you learned that you later were able to apply to restaurants?

BASTIANICH: Well, how did I get to go to that school? There was a family, actually - Senora Leonori (ph). She was a wonderful woman. She had three sons, and one of them was autistic. And she was looking for somebody to help her son. And she went to the camp. And my mother was an elementary school teacher. And of course, the Italian - we spoke Italian. So she asked her if she would come on a regular basis and that she would pay a little bit to her, but also that she would pay our schooling.

So they gave her the permit to go. And she would go every day, bring me to the convent - the convent was right next door to Mrs. Leonori's house. And I guess I don't know how much she contributed to my education, but the nuns also, I guess, felt that maybe I should help out a little bit to make up for my - so I was in the kitchen. In the morning when I came early with my mother, they would put me there - peel the apples, peel the potatoes, whatever. And then the first time that I saw those big pots and - you know, really sort of institutional cooking because they had a - the school was there, and they would cook a meal for the children every day. And I enjoyed it.

But also, you know, the religion was there. Grandma tried her best to take me. So I was a little bit - but I - it all was revived when I went to that convent, my commitment and understanding who I am and my culture, you know.

GROSS: Well, you said you found a spirituality there.

BASTIANICH: I did. I did, and...

GROSS: What did that feel like? How would you describe what you found?

BASTIANICH: Well, I think, you know, what does religion bring to anybody? And I don't think it matters which religion it is. It brings a sense of hope that, you know, that not all is lost, that it's not the end, that there's somebody there that will ultimately listen, hear you and help you out, if you will. And I think, you know, I'm still very spiritual.

It's a sense for me - yes, I believe in the whole dogma history of Catholicism because that's who I am. But, you know, I think that God is the same God for everybody. You know, we see - we go to him in a different way. And I find still spiritualism very close to me and that I also find peace in religion. And, you know, I think that in our life we all need to take ourselves to a place that we can recollect ourselves, be it nature - I love the water, I love the sea - be it art, be it music, all of these things. And religion is one of those strong things that really gives you a place, a refuge, to...

GROSS: Does your sense of spirituality connect with food, particularly the kind of food and cooking you grew up with, with, you know, slaughtering animals for your food and growing the food, you know, and your grandmother's food in the garden where everything was - it was all of the earth. It was all natural. It wasn't like going to the supermarket and buying, like, frozen chicken.

BASTIANICH: Absolutely. You know, and not only did we grow things, but it was a whole culture of foraging. Spring would come. We would go and forage for wild dandelions, for wild asparagus, mushrooms in fall. So it's, you know...

GROSS: A life cycle.

BASTIANICH: Nature - yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: Nature were giving you gifts that you didn't have to pay for. So there is, you know, a sort of a - kind of a higher work place in in the works here that we have this food that - you know, that dirt there - till this day, it amazes me. You know, you put a seed, it grows a plant, grows beautiful tomatoes. It amazes me that that dirt gives you that product.

GROSS: Your favorite nun at the convent, when you were leaving to come to America, I gave you two things - a small Bible and the cross that she had worn that another nun had given to her. She gave that cross to you. Do you still have it?

BASTIANICH: Yes, I have both. Her name was - happened to be Lidia also. I think she was very instrumental in bringing me into a spiritual place. And as you said before, you know, Lidia, you must have had a lot of...

GROSS: Trauma.

BASTIANICH: ...Trauma. And I think she sort of healed that trauma of a young 10-, 11-, 12-year-old girl that was - because being in the camp and being away from Yugoslavia and communism still didn't guarantee that we would be someplace free and together as a family. We were still in limbo. So she was very instrumental in kind of placating me in a sense and make me understand that life could be partly in the spirituality. Yes.

DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded with Lidia Bastianich last week at a WHYY event. She's the host of the PBS series "Lidia's Kitchen." Her new special, "Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us," is about diverse food traditions in America. It premieres on PBS May 30. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN'S "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to our interview with Lidia Bastianich, a celebrated chef, bestselling cookbook author, restaurant owner and winner of multiple James Beard Awards. She hosts the long-running PBS series "Lidia's Kitchen" and has a new special that premieres on PBS May 30 called "Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us." Bastianich spoke with Terry Gross last week at a WHYY event.

GROSS: So you came to America when you were 12. And you were desperate to try TV dinners after you moved here.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why TV dinners?

BASTIANICH: Well...

GROSS: Did you even have a TV?

BASTIANICH: So, no, I didn't. But it was very American.

GROSS: Yes, it was.

BASTIANICH: And I'd never had it.

GROSS: Right.

BASTIANICH: And it was - at the time, it was delicious.

(LAUGHTER)

BASTIANICH: So I - you know, you come - and we were brought here by the Catholic charities, so we had nobody in America either. And they put us first in a hotel. And ultimately they did settle us in New Jersey. They found a little home. And that's where we began our life. Luckily, and I guess intentionally, they put us in North Bergen - it was an Italian community. So there we began to connect and to feel maybe life is going to be good. Because the neighbors - they came, they knocked on the door, they brought sugar, they brought bread, they brought chairs, they brought - I mean, you know, they...

GROSS: Did they bring TV dinners?

BASTIANICH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BASTIANICH: But...

GROSS: Yes?

BASTIANICH: But, you know, going to the store, shopping with the cart, was a guarded sort of effort because Mom had exactly calculated how much we're going to spend (inaudible) - so a lot of chicken necks, you know, soups and all of that. But there laid the packaged TV dinners and all the packaged sweets and all of that. And I said, I'm going to treat myself to one. But I had also - this is 14 - but I also had worked a little bit watching some - babysitting.

And so I took my own money. I bought the TV dinner. I warmed up my TV dinner in the container in the oven, just like you're supposed to. I didn't pull it out. And I put myself in front of the television, and I had my American dinner. So I...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What was it?

BASTIANICH: I think breast...

GROSS: Turkey?

BASTIANICH: You know, they had breast of - it was peas. It was mashed potatoes. It was the breast of chicken or turkey - I don't remember - with the gravy.

GROSS: With the gravy, of course (laughter). How was it?

BASTIANICH: It's good.

GROSS: Oh, good.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you worked for a while at a bakery called Walken's Bakery, which is Christopher Walken's parents' bakery. Did you meet Christopher Walken?

BASTIANICH: We worked together.

GROSS: You worked together?

BASTIANICH: We're still friends.

GROSS: Oh, no. Really? What was he like as a kid?

BASTIANICH: There were three brothers. There was Glenn, Christopher and Ken.

GROSS: How old were you and how old was he? You were 14. How old was he?

BASTIANICH: I was 14. Yeah. I think he's about four...

GROSS: Same age?

BASTIANICH: No, no, he was three or four years older than I am. And, you know, the father was a German immigrant. The mother was Scottish, but I think she was born here. And the kids worked. He put them to work. They were going to school. I know he was going because it was strange to me, you know, that he was going to dancing school. And to me, you know...

GROSS: Oh, he's a good dancer.

BASTIANICH: He is.

GROSS: He is.

BASTIANICH: Yeah. He was going to that, and, you know, this - the mother was into putting them in the film industry and the performing industry. And ultimately, you know, on weekends they would come, they would help. They would deliver the wedding cakes to the different halls, you know. So they did their job. And we were friends.

And then they had also a summer home out in Long Island. And when they closed for vacation, I would go there to be kind of a house helper. But then I would also play a little bit with the boys. They had a boat and so on. So we developed a very nice relationship. As a matter of fact, we are still friends.

GROSS: You met your future husband at your own sweet 16.

BASTIANICH: Yes.

GROSS: And he was also - he was from the same peninsula, right?

BASTIANICH: He was. He was from the other side of the peninsula, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And you got married, like, midway through college.

BASTIANICH: Yes.

GROSS: And you left college because you also got pregnant soon after...

BASTIANICH: Yes.

GROSS: ...You were married. And, of course, your mother was very upset. She wanted you to finish college.

BASTIANICH: She was very upset.

GROSS: Yeah. So - and your son, after being - when he was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with a kind of blood bone disease.

BASTIANICH: No, with Perthes'. Perthes' disease is a bone disease. And it is in developing infants in the hip joint, the round part - it doesn't get enough nourishment. And if they walk, they consume it and ultimately clubfoot sets in.

GROSS: So he had to stop walking for a year. So just when children are really, like, learning to walk, he couldn't walk. He was in a - not a cast...

BASTIANICH: A brace.

GROSS: ...A brace for...

BASTIANICH: He had a brace. He had to...

GROSS: ...Eighteen months.

BASTIANICH: Yeah, had to keep his legs so that...

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: ...The bone would get the nourishment.

GROSS: And this is about the same time that you and your husband are starting your first restaurant, right?

BASTIANICH: Yeah, just after - we were planning. But just after that, yes, we opened our first restaurant.

GROSS: What was it like for you as a mother of a son who needed a lot of attention - I'm sure you were very worried about him - to also be having this new undertaking with your husband? And you were needed at the restaurant, and you were needed at home.

BASTIANICH: Well, it's hard for a mother to hear that a child - no matter, you know, what the illness is. So the fact of assessing that and understanding and understanding that it eventually could be cured, that sort of alleviates you because you're part of the solution. So keeping him in a brace with metal bars in front of it - and it had this this - what is this thing that sticks so that you can stick it? They use it on everything.

GROSS: Velcro?

BASTIANICH: Velcro. So they were with Velcro. So of course, this young kid - he was - what was he? He was 2, 2 1/2. Zoom, zoom - he would pull out, and he would start running. And I would run after him...

(LAUGHTER)

BASTIANICH: ...Put him back into the braces. So it was a tough time. But again, I consider myself blessed in the sense that I had my mother and my father. We always kind of - by now we had nobody else - we lived together in a sense. My first few years, few - a year or something of marriage, of course you need your independence. But as soon as Joe came and all that, they moved in, and they were downstairs and - you know, the typical setting of a mother and daughter.

GROSS: So they helped raise your son?

BASTIANICH: Yes. Yeah. They were there - I couldn't have done what I did without the support, certainly, of my family, of my mother, of everybody around. But when I first had my daughter, of course, I took two or three months off. And then it was time that really I needed to go back. I needed to - and I was kind of questioning myself. So I went to the pediatrician. You know, we had no psychiatrist at that time. At least, we didn't go to psychiatrists. So we went to the - I went to the doctor, and I said - I told him that I feel - you know, I don't know what to do. I have this child. I'm the mother. I'm responsible. I want to be with her. And yet, you know, the business - unless I help my husband with the business and all that, we might not be able to do a lot of things.

And he was very wise. He said, Lidia, children are happy within the family. They understand. Children come into a family. You don't change the family because children come into it, which happens a lot of times. So I said, OK, our priorities were we had to work to feed and whatever. He said, children want happy parents, you know? I said, OK, I can live with that.

And so it happened. I managed with my mother. I gave my kids the best time. I included them as much as I could in what I was doing. I was bringing them to the restaurant as much - they had the dinner. They had their time. We - the weekends - Mondays was the day off because we would always do special things with them, and they were happy. And I think that's why my children are back running the business, even though I told them that this is not what they should do when they grow up.

(LAUGHTER)

BASTIANICH: You should get an education and go on. They're back into it.

GROSS: What was on your first menu in your first restaurant?

BASTIANICH: Oh, it was all Italian American because, you know, in '71 all the famous restaurants were Italian American. And certainly the chef that we hired was Italian American. And then once I went into the kitchen, then I began to kind of modify and add, add polenta, add risotto. And that's where sort of I made my space.

GROSS: But you started off with the large meatballs.

BASTIANICH: Absolutely. The larger the better.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry recorded last week at a WHYY event honoring Lidia Bastianich, a chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author and host of the PBS series "Lidia's Kitchen." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry recorded with Lidia Bastianich, host of the Italian cooking show "Lidia's Kitchen." She's also a chef, restaurant owner and bestselling cookbook author. They spoke at a WHYY event last week.

GROSS: It's hard - not that I've ever been a chef, but it must be very hard to coordinate serving, like, a whole table at the same time, even though they're all ordering different things, while serving all the other tables, you know, who are also ordering different things. It must be, like, incredibly stressful. And we've all read stories about chefs who are or who become, like, drug-addicted or alcoholic or something, in part because of all the stress. How have you dealt with the stress of, you know, running restaurants or being the chef or being both at the same time?

BASTIANICH: I think, you know, just as a person, you have to look at different things. And I think, going back, all the experience that I had...

GROSS: Right.

BASTIANICH: ...Maybe attributed to my strength. Spirituality certainly...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BASTIANICH: ...Did. You know, unity, family - all of this certainly did. But, you know, sometimes you do become overstressed. And in defense of all these people that work and that sort of go to drinking or whatever is that you have to understand that tension that you were talking about is real - you know, timing this, the pasta al dente, the ravioli have to come and then the tuna. And then you send the main course. They all have to come at the same time, the same temperature of cooking, you know, one's at rare; one's - the vegetables must be hot, all delivered at the same time - this tension. So there's a lot of adrenaline going in. And so when you finish, you know, your work at 11, 12 o'clock, what do you do? You know, where do you sort of let go? You know, you - do you go swimming, whatever? You go to a bar. You go to meet some friends, and that's when things happen, trying to, I guess, appease themselves and relax a little bit after all that...

GROSS: Yes.

BASTIANICH: ...Turmoil and adrenaline running through you. So it's a position, a job that is kind of conducive to that. You have to have strength to stay strong.

GROSS: What would you do to relax...

BASTIANICH: For me, as....

GROSS: ...After a day at the restaurant?

BASTIANICH: For me, as a woman...

GROSS: Yeah.

BASTIANICH: ...I would go home and do the wash, do the ironing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's so relaxing. I know. Yeah.

BASTIANICH: But what I do - because, you know, I get asked a lot of times, so, Lidia, where do you get your creative juices and whatever? And I do revert to nature. I love the water, sea. I love sailing, swimming, all that. I love classical music. So that always does - whether I go to a performance, whether I listen at home, all of these things kind of stimulate me. And, you know, I mean, you hear evermore all of that, how music really sets a rhythm to your own mind and whatever. And I guess I'm not, you know, a big meditation in the sense of a religious meditation like Buddhism or whatever, but that self-control, self - coming into yourself and kind of telling yourself, hey, let's do this, or let's do that - I work with that.

GROSS: Your mother died in 2021 during COVID. Was it COVID-related?

BASTIANICH: No. No. She died of a heart condition. She was 100 in January and died in February.

GROSS: Wow.

BASTIANICH: So, you know, as much as - still to this day, because she always lived with me, I'm grateful I had - you know, I didn't have her for all 100 years, but I had her until her 100th year.

GROSS: Your father died - was it in 1970 or something?

BASTIANICH: '71.

GROSS: Yeah. And so he didn't live...

BASTIANICH: '81.

GROSS: He didn't live to see how successful you became as a chef, as a restaurant owner, as a TV personality. You have your own cookware line and your own, like, home shopping network. He didn't live to see that, but your mother did. You must be so grateful that she lived to see that and to know that the choices that they made worked out so well in the long run.

BASTIANICH: Well, you know, going back to the moment of being an immigrant and coming, there were a few times that, you know, I caught my mother and my father - you kind of - you know, parents whisper. They think the kids don't hear, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BASTIANICH: Did we do the right thing? Or maybe we shouldn't. Is this going to be OK for the kids? And I always felt - and my brother as well, you know - that we had to - we wanted to show them that the decision was absolutely right. They couldn't have done a better thing. And I kept on telling her. But also, she was very much part of this success. And again, if you see my shows, she's - she was in the house. My kids were in the house. So this was real. I - you know, I didn't have a scripted show. I don't have script. I adlib. I speak. You know, we create a menu. We create talking points. And then I'm there.

So the whole thing, my shows are quite open and real, and with some preparation. And my mother was always part. Now, for those of you that still watch the shows, my mother, even after she passed, I just couldn't leave her off the shows. And at the end, she - we end the show with her singing some songs, and we're going to do the same. It's in honor - to honor her because she was such a big part.

GROSS: Yeah. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening.

BASTIANICH: Thank you.

GROSS: I want to thank you for your recipes, for your TV show and also just for your strength.

BASTIANICH: Thank you, Terry. Thank you, thank you.

GROSS: So I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

BASTIANICH: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: Lidia Bastianich spoke with Terry Gross last week at a WHYY event, at which Bastianich was honored with the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award. Her new PBS special, "Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us," premieres May 30. She also hosts the long-running PBS series "Lidia's Kitchen." It returns for its 11th season in October. Her new cookbook will be published in September. Here's Lidia with her late mother, Erminia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BASTIANICH: OK, you're going to sing for us?

ERMINIA MOTIKA: Do you want me to sing?

BASTIANICH: Whatever you'd like.

MOTIKA: (Speaking Italian).

BASTIANICH: (Speaking Italian).

MOTIKA: Take a glass. (Speaking Italian).

BASTIANICH: (Speaking Italian).

ERMINIA MOTIKA AND LIDIA BASTIANICH: (Singing in Italian).

BASTIANICH: (Speaking Italian).

MOTIKA: (Speaking Italian).

DAVIES: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new recording of soprano Renee Fleming in live performances at the Metropolitan Opera. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 23, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous web summary of this interview incorrectly described Lidia Celebrates America as a Netflix show. It is a PBS show.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.