Though she lives in New York, where she owns three Italian restaurants, chef Lidia Bastianich is more Jersey than people realize. “When my family and I came to America as immigrants, we were given a little house in North Bergen by the Catholic Relief Services,” she said in a recent conversation at Ironbound Hard Cider’s New Ark Farm and cidery in Asbury, Hunterdon County. “This was 1958, and I was 12. The house was right on the cliffs, and the kitchen had a dirt floor. But we were supported by the locals, and we did alright there. So I have a connection to Jersey going way back.”
Bastianich—Emmy-winning TV host, best-selling cookbook author, founding partner of the Eataly chain and winner of seven James Beard Awards—had come to Ironbound to tape the final scene of this year’s edition of Lidia Celebrates America, her annual PBS December holiday special.
In previous specials, Bastianich has explored topics ranging from small-town home cooking to military veterans taking up farming. This year’s theme is “The Return of the Artisans.”
“I grew up in a culture where artisanry was a big part,” she explained. “It comes from within, but it needs mentoring and years of experience. I’ve been in the food industry for 50 years, and I was given a lot of opportunities by a lot of people who shared their knowledge with me. When you have all this, you want to give it back.”
Winnowing leads developed by her research team, Bastianich settled on five different artisans or small companies around the country and taped a segment with each. Two will be familiar to foodies: American Spoon preserves in Petoskey, Michigan, and Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee.
She also chose a master barrelmaker in the Napa Valley; a historical novelist in Wisconsin who taught herself to make fine copper pots the way they were made in the world of her novels; and a Denver nonprofit that trains immigrants and refugees in culinary arts.
All were brought to Ironbound’s farm for a celebratory dinner she cooked over a wood fire with Ironbound’s chef, Gunnar Bentley.
Why Ironbound? Bastianich said she was taken with founder and CEO Charles Rosen’s dual mission to create an artisanal cider from heritage apples and “make a difference in today’s society.” Rosen does that in part through what he calls “our workforce development program, hiring and training chronically underemployed members of our community, ranging from immigrants to refugees to veterans to the formerly incarcerated and people with special needs.”
After the dinner, Rosen said he was “blown away by Lidia’s generosity of spirit. I know a lot of famous chefs who only care about the food and their role in it. Lidia tapped into every single element of what community means. She invited our farmers and foragers to join in the dinner with her renowned guests.”
Said Bastianich, waving her arms and laughing: “I’m like pollen. I’m all over. I love to be able to make a difference, insert a little bit of myself into the future.”
(The special airs on WNET PBS-NY December 15 at 7 pm, and on WHYY Philadelphia December 20, 22 and 29. You can stream it at PBS.org beginning December 20.)
You can watch a video clip of the dinner here.Click here to leave a comment